December 10, 2014

Mary Treasured Up All These Things and Posted Them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram

I know. The title is ridiculous.

But honestly. I think it is time to admit that our culture has a problem.

Honestly. I think there is a reason Jesus was not born in 2014, or anytime in the last ten years.

Because can you even imagine? (Okay, I did imagine just a little bit. Along with my wisecrack sisters who contributed to this post as my Hashtag Brainstorming Committee. #boom #nailedit)

Can you even imagine: Mary, distracted from the angel’s message because her phone was “blowing up?” The Shepherds, posting photos of the Host of Angels all over Instagram? The Three Wise Men, using Google Maps to get to Bethlehem instead of a bright star?

It’s a ridiculous thought.

But something tells me that the original holiday was better off without all of our current technology and cultural distractions. Something tells me that the original holiday benefited from all of its main characters being present:

Not distracted by their phones, or social media, or followers, or “likes.” Not busy trying to capture and post pictures of the rice they ate earlier that day. Not preoccupied texting everyone who wasn’t at the stable with them.

So during this month of holidays I decided to give us all permission - at our various parties and celebrations and family gatherings – to put down our phones and cameras and to simply be present.

Because in this day and age, we are obsessed with capturing moments, instead of treasuring them. We are fixated on documenting memories, rather than pondering them in our hearts. We are obsessed with social media rather than being social with the people right in front of us.

It’s as if we think that if a single memory in our lives or in the lives of our children goes undocumented, then it must have never happened. (Like one of Uncle Bill’s crazy fishing stories.) Or that if we/our children become famous someday – the people from “60 Minutes” are going to be really disappointed when they don’t have pictures of the food we ate last week Tuesday for their biographical slideshow.

But let’s be real – The folders upon folders of thousands upon thousands of pictures on our cameras, phones, computers, and back-up hard drives will be plenty to fill our scrapbooks and create five different slideshows for “60 Minutes.”

I get it. Social media can be super duper fun and entertaining. And the creativity and ingenuity of technology is an absolutely wonderful thing in many ways.

And I know. It’s tempting to think: “Oh, I’ll just quick take a picture and post it.”

But we all know there is no such thing as just “quickly taking a picture and posting it.”

It’s writing a witty comment to go with the photo. It’s checking back to see how many “likes” it has and reading people’s comments. It’s returning the favor of the “likes” and comments by “liking” and commenting on the pictures and statuses they posted.

It’s creating a temptation to stare at our phones the entire party. Or staring at the party through a screen or lens the entire evening.

But let’s stop this, if only for a short time.

Let’s be present.

Here are four easy steps to do so:

1. Capture your basic pictures to fill your kid’s Christmas scrapbook page, and/or to post as a “latergram.” (We all know this is actually no more than 17 photos.)
2. Then, intentionally shut off or put down your phone/camera.
3. Leave it off or out of reach for a solid hour.
4. During that solid hour, soak up everything:

The familiar people, the charming conversation, the awkward hugs from Great Aunt Gertie, the delicious smells of everything chocolate, the feel of holding Grandma’s wrinkly hands, the sounds of gifts unwrapping and children giggling.

Delight in your big babies as all of the pre-Christmas anticipation builds to its peak right before they open that first gift. Enjoy your little babies by sniffing their hair, hugging them close, and touching their angel-soft skin.

Because those are things that can’t be “captured” on film. Those are things that can be treasured up and pondered as we soak in the holidays, rather than trying to only capture and “share” them.

Like Mary, let’s “treasure up all these things, and ponder them” in our hearts.

Let’s take precious time to think about what it means that God became a man in order to save us. In order to save the world. About what it means that the birth of a helpless baby boy was the start of our salvation. About what it means that the people in the room with us are also God’s children, in need of His love and mercy and grace and peace.

And let’s hold each other accountable.

Let’s not worry about capturing every moment with our cameras. Let’s stop texting and Snapchatting people who aren’t in the same room or at the same party with us. (Let’s stop texting and Snapchatting people who are in the same room or at the same party with us too!)

(Okay, minus those all-important phone calls and Skype dates with our dear loved ones who can’t be with us for some reason. Because that was us through many family gatherings while living in Guatemala for three years.)

Let’s kindly remind each other that our selfies all look exactly the same, minus the extra red and green tinsel in the background and the sickly winter tan we have all gotten over the past few months.

Let’s be present.

Because as we watch life through lenses and screens, there is a part of us that is absent. There is a part of our mind caught up in something else, missing what is right in front of us.

And just one disclaimer: I guarantee during the technology-free hour at each of your parties that when you put down your phone or camera, the absolutely cutest, America’s Funniest Home Videos-worthy thing will happen and you will be mortified that you didn’t catch it on film. And I apologize for that. Because that's the worst.

But just remember this:

A picture might be worth a thousand words, but it will never be able to capture what all of our senses, our emotions, and our memories can hold in the present – even though they may fade over time.

Our presence is the best present we can give to our children, our family, and our friends this Christmas.

Let’s be present.

Grace and Peace,

December 7, 2014

Christmas: It’s Not Our Birthday Party

It may be too late to start this conversation.

But Christmas gifts. Yikes.

A few disclaimers:

1. As stated in many other posts, I am not a Love Language “Gifts”person. I appreciate the thought, time, and money put into a gift, but I don’t feel more or less loved based on receiving them. But that’s not true for everyone. To each his own Love Language. 

2. I am the worst gift giver. (Just ask every person who has ever been my Secret Santa partner.) But that’s not true for everyone. For some people (cough, cough, Kaylee,) gift giving is an obvious talent. And some people really seem to have their act together regarding this topic. There is no need for me to get up in somebody's grill to fix something that ain't broke.

3. I have no control over grandparents who like to spoil the crap out of their grandchildren. Nobody does.

So...not sure whether to laugh or cry at the latest ugly Christmas sweater designs.


Here are my beefs about Christmas Gifts. They aren't all bad. But there are situations where they can cause more harm than good:

1. When they make us think that Christmas is about us and our children. As stated in the title, it is not our birthday party. And I bet that all the Birthday Boy would love to receive at His own birthday party is to watch His people caring for “the least of these.” (See Matthew 25.)

2. When they instill the attitude of “I deserve this.” When gift giving becomes a strong tradition for any holiday, we begin to instill the idea in ourselves and in our children that once these dates roll around, we should expect to receive gifts. That we deserve the gifts we are given. (Um. Nope.) Thinking that we deserve to receive gifts completely strips away the actual meaning of the word gift: “a thing willingly given to someone without payment.”

3. When they manipulate our mind to turn “wants” into “needs.” Here is what usually happens when we make Christmas lists: We can’t think of anything we need. We start thinking of stuff that we want. Then, the stuff that we want picks at our brain until we are absolutely convinced that we need it. Something tells me that many people, like us, don’t wait until Christmas and simply go out and buy the stuff that they actually, truly need. I think it would take a lot of convincing to look through our Christmas gifts and be able to honestly say, “I needed that.”

4. When a designer anything is given to a human being under the age of 16. Don’t even think about buying our one year old DKNY jeans that she will only wear for four months. This needs no explanation.

5. When an obnoxious amount of gifts are given to children with no long-term memory. Honestly. 0-1.5 year olds will never remember if they are given zero or fifteen gifts. Why aren’t we taking advantage of this "get-out-of-jail-free" card, people?! We all know they would rather have the boxes their gifts came in anyways.

6. When they cause way too much stress on our budget, our time, and our ability to enjoy the holidays. It's not that the act of giving doesn't require sacrifice. But. It’s hard and stressful to pick out gifts for people who already have everything, isn’t it? And if you are able to read this post from a warm house in the United States of America – something tells me you may be in the category of “you already have everything you need.” I know I am in that category.

7. When they change the “I’m thankful for what I have” attitude we just professed at Thanksgiving, to a discontented “I need more” attitude. (Black Friday, anyone?) Our attitude is contagious, especially to our children. What is our attitude towards giving and receiving gifts teaching our children?

I am all about simplicity. And celebrating the holidays doesn't have to be as complicated as we have made it. But I know that gift giving can’t always be avoided.

So here are a few ideas I have to simplify Christmas gift giving, or at least to bring more significance to our giving:

1. Intentionally match the gifts you give among your family to what you give to your community. What says "I love my neighbor as much as I love myself" by choosing to give as much as we receive? Maybe this means giving up gifts altogether, or doing Angel Tree, or having your neighbors over for dinner, or giving to Christian causes, or volunteering your time. The options are endless in how we can share outwardly instead of hoarding inwardly.

2. Choose a theme for your gifts. Instead of buying gifts for everyone in Husband’s family, we draw names and give a themed gift. Last year, we gave a game to our person. This year, we are giving books. The simplicity is beautiful.

3. Give gift cards. Whoever said giving gift cards is a thoughtless gift is totally right. However, who doesn’t love getting a gift card and choosing what to spend the money on? My family puts a new spin on this by playing Christmas Bingo with the gift cards we buy as prizes. It is a riot and adds interactive fun to our gift giving.

4. Limit the number of gifts you give your children. The Savior of the world only received three gifts around His second birthday. You can at least limit your gift giving to four with this cute poem: “Something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read.”

5. Give experiences. My nieces still talk about how my parents took them to Michigan’s Adventure Theme Park for the day last summer for their Christmas gift. Creating experiences and memories for our children may have a much longer and lasting impact than a toy they will only love until New Year’s Day (that they convinced you they absolutely “needed.”)

6. Give twofold. Check out this post called “10 Places You Should Do Christmas Shopping Before Going to WalMart.” There are places to shop for stuff that in turn supports some great causes.

And finally, for your next dinner conversation as a couple and as a family – here are a few questions to lovingly and intentionally debate:

1. How can we spend our time and our money the best way this Christmas?

2. Are there any Christmas traditions that are stressing us out and keeping us from enjoying the simple beauty of this holiday that was originally celebrated in a stable with just a few people, a couple of animals, and a manger filled with hay?

3. How can we focus not just inwardly on ourselves, but on sharing Christ’s love within our neighborhood, or those neighborhoods that Christians like to avoid for some odd reason, or those neighborhoods around the world that are literally starving?

4. What kinds of attitudes are we instilling in ourselves and our children about gifts? Is Christmas just an excuse to buy a bunch of stuff we don’t need? Does our attitude as parents demonstrate that it is actually better to give than receive?

Why? It’s simple: Our Christian lifestyle should not make sense to the rest of the world. And to the world, it only makes complete sense to make Christmas and gift giving all about ourselves (and our own children.)

Grace and Peace,

PS. What are your thoughts? What are your ideas for simplifying Christmas into the beautifully simple holiday in which it began?

December 3, 2014

On Compassion and Christmas and Those People on the Other Side of the Net

My internal thought when I first saw her? “She is probably a lesbian.”

She was dressed like a boy, wearing big baggy shorts over her knees and a huge-brimmed hat on backwards over her downed hair. She had piercings under her lips and tons of tattoos that added extra drama to her already “tough girl” look.

She was on the other side of the volleyball net at a rec league game. As we played and crossed each other in the front row, I was able to actually read one of the tattoos on her arm: “I am not what was done to me; I am who I choose to become.”

Upon returning home and jumping in the shower, I lost it.

As the hot water washed away my sweat, the steaming tears carried out my grief.

I cried for whatever pain she or someone she knew had gone through to want to get such a tattoo. I cried at the shame I felt for being so quick to judge and label, but so slow to recognize her humanity – her pain and her desperate need for Christ’s love.

I cried because I feel like that stupid volleyball net symbolizes my Christian life more than I would like to admit.

It’s “us” on this side of the net in our nice churches and nice friends and nice houses and nice lives – and it’s “them” on the other side. It’s them on the outside: Full of pain. Wandering like lost sheep. Ripe to experience Christ’s love if one of His Followers would just cut down the net and share it.

It was all so ironic as earlier that day my friend shared her beautiful article called “Just Hang On,” describing the tears she had shed for someone she didn’t know – someone who only God could have placed on her heart.

Fast forward three weeks and I’m close to downtown Chicago with a church group hosting a worship service for ex-cons and other “lost sheep” looking for new life.

We are given a brief orientation, the main points being this:

1. These men and women need a positive church body surrounding them as they strive to leave their old ways behind. However, most ex-cons and people trying to escape street life don’t usually feel like they will fit into our typical churches. #shocker #sarcasm

2. Your job is to show these men and women that they have value – something they haven’t heard in a long time, if ever in their lives. Show them that they would be welcome in church. Be conscious of your body language, smile a lot, and let them know that you are happy they came.

3. Small talk is completely appropriate conversation. Talk about the Chicago Bulls or da Bears. Just don’t insult Beyonce.

We play our part well: We give firm handshakes and big smiles. We say out loud, “We are so happy you came here!” We avoid crossing our arms and letting our “resting face” look scary. Even as my awkward and introverted self tries to play the part of welcoming and extroverted host, I genuinely feel happy to be there. I genuinely feel happy they came.

But as I look around the room, and as I am more careful this time with my quick judgments, I still can’t help but think: I have nothing in common with the people here.

I am a white woman. Most of them are black men.

I am from the South side. Most of them are West Siders.

I am from wealth and privilege and a Christian upbringing. Most of them – well – I have no idea where they came from. But I get the feeling their upbringing is different from my own.

I am wearing Bath and Body Works “Exotic Coconut” body spray. One man claims he hasn’t washed his clothes in three months, and his “body spray” makes that fact quite obvious.

I am nervous about coming across as an uppity racist white girl who thinks she can romantically barge into their lives and try to “fix” them. One man leans over to me, mouth drooling at the meal we are about to share together and says, “You know what they say about black people and fried chicken? Well, it’s true.”

How do I show compassion in places like this? How do I even begin to connect to people with whom I appear to have nothing in common?

In the book Geography of Grace: Doing Theology from Below, the authors highlight the literal meaning of compassion, “to suffer with.” Paraphrased from the book:

Understand compassion as far more than simply feeling sorry for {others}…or even helping them. Philippians 2 portrays Christ emptying and offering himself from a position of weakness. We should share our own fears, shame, doubts, versus coming in as “super-Christians” who have everything together: Jesus is the only super one, and he himself became weak and shamed for us. Can we have this attitude with each other?

I don’t know. What does that even look like?

Thankfully, we have a Shepherd – moreover a Savior – who did just that. He perfectly demonstrated compassion. He didn’t just feel sorry for us. He didn’t just take away our pain so that we wouldn’t have any hardships in life. Rather, He demonstrated true love by feeling our pain, our joy, our anger, our temptation with us.

And that, my friends, is Christmas.

Don’t buy into the complete bullcrap that the mountain of traditions we have come up with over the years to stress ourselves out are what define “Christmas.” (I’m talking to you, expensive trees and tacky tinsel and vogue-style Christmas cards and perfectly frosted cookies and competitive Pinterest crafting and huge feasts and outrageous gift spending and millions of parties and that obnoxious blow-up Santa Clause in our neighbor’s front yard.)

What defines Christmas, is the birth of our Savior. What defines Christmas, is the compassion of God becoming a man in its most fragile form. It is Christ giving up everything to embrace humanity and all of its pain, its servanthood, its humility, its obedience, and its death – even death on a cross!

During the service downtown I sat next to a man named Randy. Afterward, he stood up and said to me, “You know, just like the pastor read, my thoughts have been transformed. First, when I looked at you, I thought, ‘Dang, she is a really tall girl.’ Now, when I look at you, I think, ‘No, she is Kendra.’”

I laugh and reply, “Well, thank you. I am still really tall, but I’m glad you know my name now too.”

“Seriously,” Randy continues, “my thoughts are transformed. I came here feeling really down about everything going on in my life, but I know now that God is taking care of me. I know that I need to think with my mind, and not my feelings.”

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – His good, pleasing and perfect will.

How do I show compassion this Christmas season? Honestly, I have a lot more questions than answers. Because sometimes it doesn’t feel all that compassionate – like I’m suffering “with” – when I get to drive downtown to the hood from our cozy apartment in the suburbs, and then actually have the choice to leave again.

But maybe, with Randy, it starts with “transforming my thoughts.”

Maybe, at Christmas and every other time of year, it means listening to people who are different from me. Maybe it means praying my eyes and my heart will be opened to see the world and its many lost sheep through God’s eyes. Maybe it means cutting down the “stupid volleyball net” and letting God guide me into compassion, even if it means having to cry real tears for real people feeling real pain.

Maybe, with Randy and everyone else on “the other side of the net,” I need to recognize the few things we do have in common: Our humanity. And our need for a compassionate Savior.

Grace and Peace,

PS. Please don't get me wrong in all of this. While we have a lot of nonsense surrounding these holidays, I shamelessly enjoy the pretty lights, sipping hot cocoa, and singing songs about Santa Clause at the top of my lungs. But Christmas this year also has me wrestling. It has me thinking about compassion and people and pain and how to handle it all. It has me thinking that I am eternally grateful for a Savior who did not just save us from our pain, but suffered in our pain with us.