Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Advent Conspiracy

Listen to me: I know how to keep Christmas sacred! I have three nativity sets displayed in my house, a gold-plated "Jesus is the Reason for the Season" pin, and Christmas praise music by Maranatha playing in my minivan. Oh, yeah, I even show up to church service each Sunday in December AND on Christmas Eve. What more could Jesus want from me?

Well, he wants my heart. I may think I have that one covered since I gave my life to Him and became his follower long ago, but does the way I "do Christmas" reflect spiritual transformation, or are my celebrations awash in materialism and consumerism with a little "Jesus stuff" thrown in here and there for good measure?

I am teaching my daughters that Jesus is worthy of all their love and devotion and of supreme importance in their lives. But when Mika and Macy see me running like a little hamster in an elf hat on a red and green wheel, spinning furiously, trying to keep up with everyone else and then dragging myself off about midnight on Christmas Eve, frazzled, frantic, frustrated, and fried, what am I really teaching them?

After much thought and some soul searching, I found Advent Conspiracy (http://www.adventconspiracy.com/) and, in the words of Oprah, had an "ah-ha moment." They are about getting back to basics at Christmas, and their goals are simple:

Worship Fully
Spend Less
Give More
Love All

Obviously, implementation of these goals is going to look quite different in each person's/family's life. Let me give you just a few ideas that my family has:

We will be putting fewer gifts under the tree for the girls this year. They will each receive three gifts from us, plus a few things in their stockings. (This is in addition to gifts they will receive from other family members). We will focus on giving Mika and Macy our "presence" instead. "Relational giving" means we will spend time playing in the park, going to the movies, reading their favorite Christmas books, helping them bake and decorate sugar cookies, building forts in the front room, and watching them act out the story of the first Christmas. Money we save will be given to those who are less fortunate than we are.

After estimating that we spend approximately $150 on high-gloss photo cards, our Christmas letter, and postage, we decided to forgo paper greetings in favor of an e-card. Now, I am aware that everyone we know waits breathlessly at their mailbox to receive our Christmas card filled with a cherry-picked collage of pictures of our adorable kids and seemingly perfect family (not), and our witty, rhyming letter recapping the Jarrell's year. Yes, for our family and friends, receipt of our Christmas card/letter is the highlight of the season, and many will be crestfallen that we won't be sending them out. (yeah, right).

In any case, when we realized we could donate the $150 to Water is Basic (http://www.waterisbasic.org/) and help to provide clean drinking water for people in Sudan, we decided this was a better return on investment in the long run.

Jesus was a servant: he came to serve. So, what better way to honor him than to serve others with a heart full of gratitude for the his extravagant gift to us, over 2000 years ago? We are planning several volunteer projects that we can do as a family.

Amazingly, and I really can't explain it, but when our family takes the time to love and care for others who are less fortunate, it seems like this time is multiplied back to us! Also, the love we share greatly increases the joy and peace we feel in our hearts. It is a win-win proposition!

We don't have this all figured out; we are just trying to find some ways to tweak our Christmas celebrations and traditions to reflect the heart of our Savior. There are moments I think we go too far, moments I think we don't go far enough, and moments I feel that we're in the right spot for us.

Next year, we will probably re-evaluate again. We may decide to send out Christmas cards in 2011. We may decide three gifts for the children is too many. We may change the types of volunteering we are involved in, or what causes we donate money to.
Whatever we do, I hope that, in the words of Advent Conspiracy, we can remember that "Christmas can (still) change the world!"

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Hard Candy Christmas

Pretend you are in a Christmas time machine! We are headed to the year 1945! Destination: a one room house in the Smokey Mountains, where a little Dolly Parton and her 11 siblings are overwhelmed with excitement at the thought of having a store-bought gift under the tree. Let's listen in:

"Somehow Mama and Daddy always managed for each of us to get one store-bought gift. Regardless of what it was, it was a thing of wonder to be revered, looked at with slow eyes, felt with tender hands, and relished for its newness. Best of all was that "it's really mine" feeling that could carry you around on a cloud for days, or until it was replaced by that "it's really broken" feeling.

The boys' gifts usually included fireworks, and they'd be outside announcing that fact to the world as soon as a match was found. For today, tin cans would become space capsules, finger-formed dams would be blown, and many a German matchbox would no longer threaten Allied troops...

We girls usually got a little pink plastic doll with its own white cloth diaper held in place by a tiny gold safety pin. That may sound really cheap, and I'm sure it was. But for us, just the fact that it was plastic made it different from the ordinary things we saw in the holler. There was no way this could have been homemade. Unless you're home happened to be a sweatshop in Taiwan.

Those little plastic dolls instantly became the focus of whatever motherly instances the Parton girls had. Of course we all had one, and they basically all looked alike. If you looked closely enough, and of course we did, you could see little imperfections in the plastic that identified each doll. We "mothers" would get to know our dolls intimately. Inevitably, some body's would get lost or eaten by a cow or thrown down a well by an ill-tempered brother; sometimes there would be a "baby snatching."

A fight would usually follow, consisting more of accusations and name calling than anything else. "That's my doll," the rightful mother would cry. "See, it's got two little extra globs of plastic on it's left ear." On a good day, though, each mother would care for her own plastic treasure, and all would be well with the world.

We would scavenge to find things to serve as a crib and bedclothes. The more industrious ones would even fashion clothes for the doll. I always liked mine just the way it arrived on Christmas morning, in its special cloth diaper with the shiny gold pin."

Wow! Dolly's family may have been poor, but the children were rich in appreciation for even the smallest gifts, and they used so much creativity in their play.

Certainly, I am grateful that I can buy my girls more than one dollar store toy for Christmas, but I feel like by giving them so much, they have come to expect it as "their right," and often don't truly appreciate all the gifts we put in front of them. I would love for our house to have fewer toys. I'd like to find a balance between Mika and Macy having nothing and a having everything, like owning a few toys they really treasure and appreciate, instead of a house full of cheap, imported, lead-laced pieces of junk that probably cost pennies on the dollar to manufacture. Easier said than done, right? I may never figure out how to tame the "toy beast" in our lives, but I can smile when I think about little Dolly Parton, clutching her tiny store-bought doll with so much wonder and delight.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Priceless gifts--100% satisfaction guaranteed!

"It is more blessed to give than to receive." Acts 20:35
(also quoted frequently by my Mom when I was growing up)
If you and your family are looking for some ways to bless others this holiday season, here are some ideas. My family has done most, but not all of these. Certainly this is not an all-inclusive list; maybe it will be a springboard for you to brainstorm about other ways you can love and serve others during this holiday season.

Or, you may already have your own giving traditions--perhaps things passed down from your relatives, outreaches that your church sponsors, or other causes that are close to your heart. In that case, I would love to hear what you have done and how it has impacted you--I'm always looking for new ideas!

1) greet the troops at DFW airport--wish them a Merry Christmas and let them know you appreciate the gift of their service! Flights arrive daily: call 972-574-0392 for information about the following day's arrival times.

2)Bake Christmas cookies and deliver them to a neighbor or someone who needs to have their day brightened. (slice and bake is OK!)

3) Help your child select a new toy during the Christmas season and donate it to Toys for Tots. See http://www.toysfortots.com/ for drop-off locations.

4) During these down times, many families are struggling just to put food on the table. Buy some extra food staples and put them in a collection box at your grocery store, office, or church.

5) Have people on your list who are hard to buy for or who already seem to have everything? You can honor them by giving a gift in their name through World Vision. There are many so many things to choose from--sheep, pigs, cows, fishing kits, warm clothing, school supplies, and immunizations for people in the developing world, to name a few. You can view their Christmas catalog online at http://www.worldvision.org/; you can also request a hard copy.

6) Pick up a poinsettia at the store (optional) and visit a nursing home or retirement center. Ask the director to recommend a patient who rarely gets visitors and would enjoy a few minutes of company. This is a great spur-of-the-moment activity--it does not involve preplanning or require you to show up at any particular time.

7) It is too late to participate in this for Christmas 2010, but you might keep it in mind for next year. Fill a shoe-box with Christmas gifts to send to a child in an impoverished part of the world through http://www.samaritianspurse.org/. Shopping for and packing these gifts is one of my girls' favorite Christmas activities.

8) Take some inexpensive Christmas cards and write a personal note thanking a family for their wonderful Christmas light display. Keep them in the car with you (along with a roll of tape), and when you or your children are awed by some holiday decorations, leave a note on their door thanking them for their efforts.

9) Get a roll of quarters from the bank and keep it in your car. Anytime you or your children are about to enter a store with a Salvation Army kettle, you will have change handy to donate.

10) This year,you can adopt a child in need from the Salvation Army Angel Tree online! Simply select a recipient, buy the gifts, and then drop them off at the location you designate. It's that easy! http://www.dfwangeltree.org/

11) Donate used toys to Christian Community Action or a women's shelter--this is a great project to do before Christmas when lots of new toys will be received.

12) Write a note to someone who has lost a loved one this year--acknowledge that you know that it will be a difficult holiday season without their (brother, son, wife, mom, etc.) and let them know you are praying for them.

If you want a way to help your children really grasp the concept of giving their time/money/gifts/resources, here is an idea that a stole, er, I mean, I borrowed :) Take a shoe box and wrap the box and lid separately in wrapping paper. cut a slit in the top of the box. Make a little sign that says "gifts for Jesus" or write it directly on the box.

During the Christmas season, any time a member of your family does something nice for someone else, write it on a slip of paper and place it in the box. Then, some time on Christmas day, open the box and read all the slips of paper, reminding them that these are our gifts to Jesus for his birthday.

I'll close this post by quoting Buddha, which is something I am not typically in the habit of doing. However, he really sums up what I think all of us feel when we invest our time, money and resources in the lives of others:

"Before giving, the mind of the giver is happy, while giving, the mind of the giver is peaceful; and having given, the mind of the giver is uplifted."

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Christmas martyr--ME!

"I'm just trying to survive December."
"We are unbelievably busy." "
If I don't get all this done, Christmas won't happen at my house."

When someone asks me how I am doing during the holiday season, are statements like the above the best testimony I have to offer as a follower of Christ? Does anything about my mindset and frenetic pace resembles the peace, love, and joy that I claim Jesus came to give me?

Who will be drawn to a Savior who appears to induce his followers to stampede through the mall, dive into debt, drag themselves to party after party, wrap gifts in coordinated paper and bow sets, set out a lavish display of lights, moan and groan about how busy they are, and then wind up exhausted, all in honor of his birthday?

Don't get me wrong; I LOVE the Christmas season!!! I look forward to decorating our tree with ornaments made by my grandmother, I love to make sugar cookies and other treats with my girls, I love to listen to Christmas music and drive around looking at our neighbors' light displays, and I enjoy the looks on my daughter's faces as they exuberantly rip the paper off a brand new Barbie doll or razor scooter.

But, especially since I have had children, I have begun running myself ragged at an increasingly alarming rate. I feel I have lost all balance; often, I don't enjoy the things that I am doing. Instead, I am just doing them because I believe I'm obligated, or because "we've always done it that way." Sometimes my attitude stinks, and I snap at those I love, which my family can attest to. The expression on my face as I don my holiday sweater says it all: "I am a martyr for the cause of Christmas merriment, suffering to make everything appear perfect so my family can have the holiday season of their dreams."

I have decided it is time for a redo! So, our family is going to still celebrate Christmas and do the things that we really enjoy, but we are going to delete other things that drain our time and money and leave us frazzled and broke.

Here are a few things we are going to do differently:

1) I have cooked a bunch of soups and casseroles this fall and put them in the freezer. I have enough food stocked to feed us most nights when we don't have a party or other engagement. I don't have to worry about what my family is going to eat for dinner. That means when I am whipping up something in my kitchen, it will be a seasonal favorite (like Hello Dollies or chocolate bon-bons) that I relish making!

2) We are going to learn to say "no," even to some good things. Neither we nor our children have to go to every party, event, or celebration that we are invited to. Some nights, it would be more enjoyable and soothing for all of us to sit in front of the fire and the Christmas tree eating popcorn, drinking hot cocoa, and listening to Christmas music, so that is what we will do.

3) I am a huge fan online shopping! In a few hours, I can get the bulk of my shopping done, and have gifts delivered right to my door! This can be done while the girls are in school or after bedtime, and there is no hurry, rush, and stress of going to a zillion different stores, fighting crowds, and trying to find a parking place.

4) We are going to reach out to others this season who need love and assistance. Our goal is to not spend more time and money on ourselves than we spend on those who are poor, hungry, afflicted, sick, and lonely. I am sure we will fall far short in this area, but I believe it is a worthy goal. If we want to truly honor Jesus' birthday, there is no better way than to genuinely care for the people (all of us) that he came to save! (Some ideas for this will be coming in another post).

Ironically, I expect that doing and spending less this Christmas will not decrease the joy, peace, and love that we claim we desire, instead, I believe it will increase it. My hope is that on December 26, we will not be staring at piles and piles of wrapping paper, Christmas decorations which have to be taken down, gifts and toys that have already lost their shine, bloated credit card bills, and wonder why we went to so much trouble and stressed ourselves out in the first place.

Instead, I hope to look back on a month that, although harried at times, was calm, enjoyable, and had many memorable moments. I hope that we will feel blessed and like we have blessed others as well. I hope to have taken the time to slow down enough to really spend time with Jesus (it's his birthday, after all), and feel we have honored Him with our thoughts, our time, and our pocketbooks.

Perhaps, this year, for the first time, my response when asked how I am doing during the holidays can be:

"I can't believe how blessed I am."
"I am thoroughly enjoying myself."
"God is good!"

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Hustle and Bustle Sabbath

What is up with all the kids activities on Sunday? Has anyone else noticed a huge uptick in the volume of games, tournaments, performances, practices, and birthday parties scheduled for the day of the week that is meant to give us all a break?

Of the ten commandments, the command to "keep the Sabbath" is not a rule to be followed as much as it is a gift to us. We need one day a week to take it easy, break from work, relax with family and friends, and worship together if we so choose. The same God who created the universe chose to take a day of rest as an example to us, because he knows we need it--mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

In reading the Old Testament, I am struck by how much the Israelites had on their plates--growing their own food, caring for flocks of animals, cleaning, cooking, and doing laundry without any of our modern conveniences, raising very large families, building their own homes, often travelling a great distance on foot or horseback for food and supplies, and protecting themselves from marauding invaders. Yet on the Sabbath (which for them, was Saturday), everyone put everything down, took a deep breath, and rested so they would be rejuvenated for the coming weeks' work.

However, in the 21st century, most Americans have decided we're too busy to stop being busy. The break neck pace of modern life makes a regular time to slow down and rest more necessary than ever, yet some families' Sunday schedules are beginning to rival their ultra-packed Saturday schedules.

Children are suffering more from stress and anxiety than previous generations, and their has even been a term coined for over scheduled children that are pressured to do more and more: Hurried Child Syndrome. Could part of the problem be not just the amount of homework, activities, social engagements, etc., but the fact that there is not even one day they can count on to slow down and recharge their batteries?

I am not a legalist; I am not suggesting that it is wrong to participate in any activities on Sunday. I just wish that it were more of exception, and not the rule. For example, if Mika and Macy had a tournament, play-off game, or performance a few times a year on a Sunday, that would not be a problem. I'm not real keen on Sunday birthday parties, but I would gladly let my girls attend a Sunday party if one of their good friends was celebrating her birthday.

A number of people I have talked to said that they, too, wish that there weren't so many activities scheduled on Sunday, but then they say with resignation, "but if my child wants to [play baseball, be in this musical production, compete at this level in dance, etc.] we have no choice than to show up when we're told, and that includes Sundays."

Which brings me to the question: when did we, as a society, decide that it was okey-dokey to schedule so many activities, as a matter of course, on Sunday? I grew up next door to my best friend Donna, who had three older brothers. All four were athletes, playing many different sports in community leagues and in school. Donna was also into cheer leading, choir, and piano. Her parents were very busy Monday through Saturday shuttling kids to practices, games, rehearsals, etc. However, on Sunday, with rare exceptions, the activities for their children ceased, and kids, their parents, coaches, and teachers took a much needed break.

My kids are still young and I'm sure in a few short years I'll probably have to eat my words because they may both be involved in activities that require regular Sunday participation. However, we will think long and hard before committing to an Sunday activity that is going to change what we really like to do on Sunday--relax, spend time together as a family, invite people into our home for a leisurely lunch, and worship together at church.

Why should we have to make a choice between allowing our kids be involved in the things that they want to do and having a day of rest? Does anyone else have concerns about how busy Sundays have become? Any ideas on how to keep Sundays sane would be appreciated!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Run, Angels, Run!

Cancer. Radiation. IV lines. Insurance deductibles. Your child may die. Imagine being a parent who is instantly plunged into the nightmare of caring for a seriously ill child while navigating through a sea of medical procedures and insurance regulations. Such is the case for the parents of Carly Trejo, who attends Kindergarten at Spanish Schoolhouse and is a schoolmate of my daughter Macy. Carly was recently diagnosed with Stage 4 kidney cancer, also called Wilms tumor.

For Carly's family, this life-altering event has included a huge financial burden. The children and parents in her Kindergarten class, along with many other friends, have stepped up to the plate to help this family in a tangible way with their mounting medical bills. All of these supporters and helpers have been dubbed "Carly's Angels."

Her class holds a bake sale before school almost every week to raise funds for her care. One of her classmates, Jacob, is there every week with his mom Lisa, selling donuts, kolaches, muffins, and coffee for Carly's benefit. I have known Jacob since he was a baby; our kids have played often in one another's homes, and it is such a thrill to see him at the tender age of five years old volunteering his time to help a friend in need.

Another fundraiser will take place on Saturday, November 6 at 10:00 (registration is at 9:30). It is a one mile Fun Run (for me, a walk!). If you live in the D/FW area, this is a great opportunity to get your children involved in serving others, and have fun family time while doing so.

Mika and Macy have been told that Carly is very sick and that her parents need help paying for the hospitals and doctors, so our family is going to donate money and run/walk with all Carly's other friends and fans. The girls are most excited about the fact that after the run, pizza will be served, and face painting and balloon animals will be available. The park playground will be a great backdrop to join with the other participants to celebrate the money raised and support precious Carly in her battle with cancer.

Hope to see you there!

For more info on the Fun Run go to: http://www.carlysangels.myevent.com or contact Anne White at anne@fab-studio.com

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Technology in Biblical times?

This poem is for those of us, (myself included) who are so busy staying "connected" through technology that we overlook the simplicity and transformative power of "unplugging" and communing with God each day.

Did Jesus use the Internet at the sermon on the mount? Did he ever use a Facebook update to get his message out? Did the disciples carry Blackberries as they traveled all about? Did Jesus use the Internet at the sermon on the mount?

Did the apostle use a laptop with wi-fi to reach some? Did he use an e-mail alias such as Paul@Rome.com? Did the man from Macedonia send a text message to say come? Did the apostle use a laptop with wi-fi to reach some?

Did Moses use a Xbox controller at the parting of the sea? And a global positioning system to show him where to be? Did he write the law on tablets or burn them on CD? Did Moses use a a Xbox controller at the parting of the sea?

Did Jesus really die for us that Friday on the tree? Or was it just a hologram, perhaps some photoshop wizardry? Can you find a clip on You Tube to play on your PC? Did Jesus really die for us that Friday on the tree?

If in your life the voice of God is sometimes hard to hear, With other voices calling, He doesn't touch your ear. Then set aside your smart phone, iPod, and unplug your fancy gear, Open us that dusty Bible, and talk to Him in prayer.

---author unknown

Thursday, October 14, 2010

An archaelogical dig at my house

Shovel? Check! Pick? Check! Masonry trowel? Check! Let's go on an archaeological dig! Destination: my daughters' closets (really)!

Mika and Macy's closets are filled to the brim with toys. There is the strata of toys from Christmas 2007, then a layer from the birthday intake of 2008. Followed by Easter gifts from 2008, then some toys I couldn't say "no" to at a garage sale because they were so inexpensive, a layer of second-hand toys from a friend who cleaned out her closet...and on and on it continues building upward until the present. In between the larger toys, like sediment that fills the cracks between ancient artifacts, are tons of tiny toys (stickers, pencil erasers, balls and jacks, yo-yos, Polly Pockets, and fast-food prizes), acquired from Christmas stockings, stuffed Easter eggs, goody bags from birthday parties, and who knows where else.

So, it comes as no surprise to me that children in the United States represent 4% of the world's population, but have 40% of the world's toys. The question is: are my children really better off with all the stuff? Do they need these things to keep them entertained? Is this what a quality childhood is all about?

Dolly Parton, in her autobiography, paints a picture of an impoverished, but happy childhood, filled with family and fun, but almost no store-bought toys. Dolly's father had to scratch out a living as a farmer and feed his twelve children, all of who shared a one room house. The necessities of life took all the resources of the family, so the kids were on their own as far as entertaining themselves. Dolly explains that she and her siblings learned to be creative in their play. A few delightful antidotes:

"(Mom) once made me a doll out of a corncob. She made it a little dress out of corn shucks and used corn silk for her hair. Daddy got the poker hot in the fire and used the tip to burn two black eyes into the corncob. I thought she was beautiful, and I named her Tiny Tasseltop."

"Another thing we loved to do was to catch June bugs and tie them to a string. I'm sure it was more fun for us than the poor weighted-down June bugs, but we had a ball flying what we called our "lectric kites." You tried to get a real good fat June bug with a lot of lifting power. Sometimes you could just fantasize about him being able to lift you right off the ground to where you could soar up among the clouds and look down at the trees and the fields. That kind of blissful thought would sometimes come to a sudden halt when your June bug would sacrifice his leg in the name of freedom and buzz off across the pasture."

"The most fun for us kids were the poke berries that grew on the stem of the plant. They are dark purple, and when you mash them, the juice is like dye. We used to paint our skin with poke berries so that it looked like we were wearing bracelets or wristwatches. Sometimes we would paint what we called "Jesus sandals" onto our feet. We would dress us in gunnysacks for robes and carry tobacco stakes as our walking sticks and go gallivantin' all over the countryside pretending we were the disciples, or at least some kind of biblical types. We felt real holy, but somehow our kinship with Jesus was lost on Mama when we came home with those awful purple stains on us."

My own mother grew up grew up the daughter of a refinery worker in a little West Texas town. They had few games and toys, and Nintendo, Game Cube, and Wii had not been invented. So what did she and her brother do? They took the family bird dog and a lunch bag, and headed down to the creek for a day of fishing, hide-and-seek, skipping rocks, and daydreaming while they gazed at the billowy clouds in the sky.

I survey the literally hundreds of toys that entertain my children so they can be kept safely confined within the walls of our home to avoid the remotest possibility of being snatched by a stranger. Are they "richer" or "poorer" than their grandmother, who was free to enjoy nature and simple pleasures (without hovering parents) while she wiled away summer days at the little creek near their home?

What is the answer to the over-abundance of toys that seems to permeate most American households? I have no idea. Since the girls are back in school, I will excavate their closets and toy boxes. A lot of the things they have not played with in a while will "disappear" (they'll be placed on the front porch under cover of night and picked up by the Salvation Army before they are discovered by the girls). We cut down on the number of Christmas gifts Mika and Macy received from us last year and plan to cut back even more in 2010. However, these temporary fixes are just a drop in the bucket, and there seems to be a constant inflow of toys and such, no matter what we do.

Honestly, I'd like to get rid of ALL the toys and start from scratch, maybe even make some of our own, like Dolly and her siblings did. However, to banish the beloved junk (er, I mean toys) would definitely earn me the Worst Mother of the Year award from my children and perhaps even trigger a visit from Child Protective Services. So, until I find a better solution, I'll continue to trip over, pick up, sort, and beg my children to put their toys where they belong.

Thousands of years from now, when future archaeologists are actually digging up our home, what are they going to make of the many toys that occupied nearly every cranny of our living space? Will they wonder why we spent so much time and money on plastic junk instead of going outside to play with rocks, leaves, dirt, acorns, and sticks?

Oh, what I would give for my children to have a carefree day at a bubbling creek, being watched over by our dogs, enjoying fresh air, and playing with all the bountiful "toys" found in nature!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Another take on Sodom and Gomorrah

Homosexuality and Sodom and Gomorrah go together like peanut butter and jelly, like fall and football, like Facebook and status updates. You can't talk about one without talking about the other--right?

After all, Sodom and Gomorrah are inexorably intertwined with homosexual behavior. Sodom is, of course, the root of the word sodomy, which Wikipedia defines as "an act of 'unnatural sex.'"

Ask anyone in our culture why the Bible says Sodom and Gomorrah was destroyed, and practically everyone (whether they believe the Bible or not) will say it was destroyed because of homosexuality. The homosexual ties to Sodom and Gomorrah are part of our national conscience--regardless of one's spiritual beliefs or lack thereof. Late night comics, activists, politicians pushing various agendas, pastors, and even rock 'n roll bands, discuss, joke, ridicule, and invoke the homosexual sins of these two cities.

At forty-one years old, someone pointed out to me (in a book I was reading, not in church) that there is more to the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah than the simplistic storyline that "God rained down fire and sulphur to destroy the perverted and wicked homosexuals."

Note: I am NOT dismissing the realities of sexual sin or saying such sin does not matter to God. However, I believe most Christians have seized upon this aspect of the Sodom and Gomorrah story while ignoring a crucial element.

The prophet Ezekiel was tirelessly warning Israel about coming judgment and the fall of Jerusalem. He explains the evil and degradation of Sodom and Gomorrah in this way in Ezekiel 16:49: "Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy." What!!!! The residents of Sodom sound a lot like most people in 21st century America, and honestly, like most people sitting in our church pews, myself included.

If I am brutally honest (and this is painful to admit), I have to confess that I want the world to revolve around Me! I want to control my own life and the lives of everyone around Me, so that I can be happy, comfortable, and satisfied at all times. Everyone needs to be focused on my goals, my dreams, my desires, and my longings. I do NOT want to be upset, irritated, hurt, bothered, or offended by others. Instead I DO want others to esteem Me, praise Me, cater to Me, love Me, and support Me. I spend as much time each day as I can making sure that all of the above is firmly in place. I'm in love with Me!

When I stake out a position loving myself above anybody else, I am being arrogant.

I only have to step on the scale to see that I am literally overfed; it is easy for me to down half a pan (at least) of Ghirardelli double-chocolate brownies by myself. However, I believe the word "overfed" in this verse entails more than just calorie count. I think it is about over consumption in general--gorging myself on not just food for the stomach, but clothes at the mall (my closet is already full), dust-collecting knick knacks for my home, and the latest toys for my children, with an ever-increasing desire for more.

I am overfed, in more ways than one.

Whether I say it or not, most of the time my attitude is, "I expend a lot of effort making sure I'm happy and my family is happy, so I really don't have the time, brain cycles, energy, or interest to worry about what suffering might be going on elsewhere in the world. I don't really even want to know about brain damage due to malnutrition, the mass rape of women in the Congo, or children with rotting teeth in Appalachia, because that might put a damper on all the fun I'm having. Please don't disturb my peaceful cozy existence with other's problems, because 48 Hours mystery is getting ready to come on, and I need to get myself some Blue Bell ice cream and relax in my recliner."

This reflects a heart attitude of being unconcerned.

What about helping the poor and needy? As my awareness of the needs around me and throughout the world have grown, our family has made a slight uptick in our giving to charities and serving others. But is my heart where God wants it to be? Am I really sacrificing things that I would like to have so that others can live?

If not, then it is hard to say I care about the poor and needy.

As a married heterosexual woman, I thought the lessons of Sodom and Gomorrah were largely irrelevant to me. But then I realized, how can I, and other Christians, embrace the lessons on sexual purity found in the Bible, yet ignore the (many) lessons about caring for the poor and needy? Could it be, as David Platt suggests, that "The difference is that one involves a social taboo in the church and the other involves a social norm in the church."? Have we become so accustomed to consumerism, greed, materialism, and self-fulfillment (in our own lives and/or the lives of other Christians) that we no longer really consider them a sin?

The expression "there's nothing new under the sun" is true. The heart attitudes of the people living in the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah reflect many of my heart attitudes as well. I hope I can learn from Ezekiel's words by repenting of my constant focus on myself. Instead, I want to learn to see, care for, and love others the way God does.

Monday, August 23, 2010

In Bed with a Mosquito

The Bill Gates foundation has spent $456 million to empower African farmers, $355 million to eradicate polio, and $1.5 billion to vaccinate children worldwide.

Compared to this, what can I, an average American, do? Is there something I'm holding on to that I need to let go in order to transform the life of someone else--across town or across the globe? This is a question that was asked and answered by the Salwen family, who has chronicled their experience in the new book "The Power of Half--One Family's Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back."

I have not read the book, but I know enough about the premise and this family's journey to ask myself some interesting questions about my role in making the world a better place for everyone.

The Salwen family was living the super-duper American Dream in Atlanta, Georgia. The mom, dad, and teenage son and daughter had tons of dough and all the things money can buy--including a beautiful and enormous home.

One day Hannah, then 14 years old, looked around and noticed the disparity between the haves and the have-nots, and wanted her family to do something. They were already volunteering for Habitat for Humanity and working at the food bank, as well as writing checks to charities at Christmastime. But Hannah wanted them to do more. When her parent's asked her if she would be willing to give up her home, she called their bluff and answered, "Yes!"

Thus began a series of family conversations that culminated in them selling their home, moving into a home one-half the size, and donating the difference to charity. The family of four spent months educating themselves about the plight of the poor and what their money could do to make a difference. They didn't just talk about issues--they watched videos, participated in the 30-hour famine (a program run by World Vision), interviewed heads of charities, and volunteered at homeless shelters.

Finally, the Salwen's selected the Hunger Project, a non-profit that helps some of the most poverty stricken areas of the world . Their goal is not just to put a band-aid on current problems, but to help create permanent and sustainable solutions. The funds were used in two areas of eastern Ghana--both epicenters received a meeting place, a bank for micro loans, a food storage facility, and a health clinic. They even travelled as a family to Ghana to meet the people who were benefiting from the funds they donated, bringing their project full circle.

The Salwen family bonded over this project. They spent a lot of time together discussing options, asking questions, encouraging each other, challenging long-held opinions about poverty, and becoming more empathetic. Through their journey, they all grasped a vision of a world bigger than themselves.

The Salwen's will be the first to admit that they had more than enough house and moving into a smaller one really wasn't a huge sacrifice. So the moral of their story is not that everyone needs to sell their house and move into one half the size--that is not reasonable or practical for most people.

But their experiment encourages me to ask: could I give up half my TV viewing (sorry, Oprah, 48 Hours Mystery, Fox News, and American Idol) to volunteer to help others in need? Could I give away half the clothes in my closet? What about half the food in my pantry? Half my Starbucks money?

What small, intentional, reductions can my family make in order to improve the lives of others? In the scheme of things, do my small efforts even matter? Maybe the answer is best found in a quote by Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop: "if you think you're too small to make a difference, you've never been in bed with a mosquito!"

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Love and Hate in the Suburbs

I have a complicated, consuming, and often contradictory love-hate relationship with the suburbs.

On one hand, I love living in a city that is well planned, with lots of green space for parks, walking/running/biking trails, a top-notch Aquatic and Recreation Center complete with a spray ground, and zoning that allows family neighborhoods and family-oriented businesses to peacefully co-exist with one another. Coppell is clean, neat, and has some of the most well-manicured medians I've ever seen.

I like our roads--they are nice and smooth and easy to drive over, unlike the ones I grew up with with potholes the size of watermelons and a city that promised to repair them but never found the funds to do so.

The public schools are excellent--some of the best in the state--made so through high property taxes, endless fundraisers, teachers with a commitment to excellence and access to the best educational tools available, and an army of willing and enthusiastic parent volunteers.

There are a dazzling array of activities for children to be involved in--almost every sport imaginable, dance, gymnastics, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, a music conservatory, chess clubs, computer classes, crafting classes, and children's yoga, to name a few. My little city also features multiple preschool programs and even a drop-in child care center. Usually there is no need to leave the city limits to find ways to engage, entertain, and and exercise the bodies and minds of the large population of children who reside here.

The crime rate is very low. I feel very safe walking down the street with my children. Most crimes are property crimes like theft and burglary; violent crime is rare. There are no neighborhoods in Coppell I hesitate to enter because it is a "bad part of town."

So what is not to love about my suburb? Plenty.

If "Keeping up with the Joneses" was an Olympic sport, the collective residents of Coppell could win the gold medal. A missionary returning to America noticed that for many families, a home isn't just a safe and warm place to reside, but is a way for people to make statements to each other about their wealth. I think this sums up what I see as I look around at the majority of homes in the area (Note: I do not exclude my own).

This is a place where people install dazzling crystal chandeliers and flat-screen plasma TVs in their over sized laundry rooms to make the drudgery of washing their families' abundant wardrobes more bearable. Many people engage in "competitive upgrading." If their neighbors and friends get _____________ (marble flooring, artisan custom cabinets, outdoor kitchen with Viking appliances, etc.), there is an immediate feeling of dissatisfaction and calls to their contractors to have same installed in their homes and yards.

Even families with great incomes take out second mortgages and go into consumer debt for more stuff. Often people with homes 3000+ square feet cannot get either car in their garage because it is so stuffed with Christmas decorations, sports paraphernalia, off-season clothes, electronics equipment, or any number of miscellaneous items. Many people solve their "space problem" by going further into debt with a larger home, which is usually eventually filled to the brim once again with new stuff.

There is a lot of "competitive parenting" going on, as well. There is nothing wrong with taking pride in your children's achievements. If Mika and Macy get a good report card, score the lead in the school play, or assist their team in winning the basketball championship, I'm gonna be talking about it!

But it seems that things have gotten completely out of balance. There is an obsession with enrolling each child in multiple activities, excelling in them, talking about them constantly, and sizing up other children based on their skills/abilities relative to their own child. There is a rush to have children not only participating in, but performing masterfully in sports at younger and younger ages and even to "specialize" in a certain sport. I have been subtly warned that having my children less involved than their peers is depriving them of important benefits and experiences. Some say my girls (ages 4 and 6) may even resent me for not giving them the chance to try out every conceivable activity so they can find their "niche" by age eight (or ten at the latest).

Vacations are even competitive. There is so much talk about "where are you going? where are you staying? What activities are you going to do?" It seems as though if there is not a major vacation on the horizon to talk about, a person feels left out of many conversations. I even heard one mom remark that "even though we are deeply in debt and can't afford it, we are going to take a family vacation this summer. I can't stand the thought of my children going back to school in the Fall and being embarrassed and ashamed when asked where they went on vacation, and they have to say they stayed home."

My primary concern in making these observations about myself and some of my fellow suburbanites is to focus on where our hearts are. Let me be clear: I'm NOT saying there is anything wrong with a spacious, well-decorated home, a nice vacation, or children's involvement in extra-curricular activities. However, I have noticed that in our own family, when all our finances and all our time are completely absorbed with these things, we have fewer resources with which to bless and serve others and scant time for spiritual development.

I question whether I am giving my children every "worldly" advantage that comes from a generous salary, a lovely home filled with toys, electronics, and closets stuffed with clothes, top-rated schools, and multiple physical/academic/developmental/musical enrichment opportunities, while neglecting other things, such as a heart for others less fortunate, compassion, humility, respect, and a desire to love and serve God? I give the latter a lot of lip service, but my time, money, and best efforts naturally tend to gravitate towards the former.

It is HARD to live a balanced life in Coppell; it is a struggle for me every day! I hear conflicting voices in my head: "buy me!" "you need this to be happy!" "you and your family deserve the best!" And then there is the voice of Jesus, who gently whispers to my spirit, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you." (Matthew 6:33)

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Feed the hungry--one at a time

"Where de hungry people, mama?" My then three-year old daughter walked tirelessly through the retirement apartment complex looking for the elderly who I told her would not have lunch unless we brought them food.

Meals on Wheels has been a great avenue to teach my girls about feeding the hungry. For little ones, it packs more punch than writing a check to a hunger relief agency or donating canned food to a food pantry (although both are important, as well!) Having my daughters help me deliver meals puts "flesh" on the face of hunger.

I want my girls to know that they CAN do something about world hunger, even at their age. It is so easy to get discouraged about the massive, global scale of malnutrition, starvation, and other hunger related issues that we think our small efforts could not possibly make a difference. But Mother Teresa wisely said, "if you can't feed 100 hungry people, than feed one."

Mother Teresa also remarked that "the most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved." I remind my girls that for many of the people on our route, we are the only human contact they will have all day long. I tell them, "Give our Meals on Wheels friends a big smile and make them feel special, because they're valuable to God."

As Mika and Macy gingerly place a fresh-cooked meal in the hands of an elderly shut-in and match her wrinkled smile with one of their own, I say a silent prayer that their little hearts will be tenderized to serve others who are hungry--physically, relationally, and spiritually.

For information about volunteering with Meals on Wheels, contact: Dallas area: Betsy Cox coxbe@vnatexas.org 214-689-2639

Other areas: see http://www.mowaa.com/ and enter your city/state to find a local group

Friday, July 9, 2010

Whining in the land of plenty

"I DO NOT want to make another shopping trip! I hate this--it's not fair! Whaaaaaaaaa!!!" Whining is not attractive, especially when it is me (not my kids) who are whining. Allow me to explain. I do not like taking my girls (ages 4 and 6) grocery shopping with me, especially for big trips. From the looks I get, I suspect that the other customers in the store and our cashier aren't too fond of it, either.

During the school year, I can usually schedule my time so that I can go to the store by myself, but during the summer, my girls often go with me.

Before we are in the store, the girls are arguing about who gets to sit in which kid's seat in the cart. Soon, there is a chorus of "Gimmie this! Gimmie that!" ringing in my ears. I am always amazed at the "wingspan" of Mika and Macy as they stretch both arms out to grab items they want off the shelves with uncanny precision. Then one child touches the other without permission, and there is a shouting match and a call for me to referee. By the time we make our way to the car, I have told each of them to "be quiet!" "sit down!" "put that back!" "stop hitting your sister!" and "YOU'RE EMBARRASSING ME!" approximately 1000 times.

In the past, as a prelude to an upcoming shopping trip, I would begin to complain about taking a shopping trip with my daughters, who ought to know how to act better by now, but due to some defective parenting on my part, don't.

Then I read this quote in Ron Sider's "Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger:"

"Sometimes I think, 'If I die I won't have to see my children suffering as they are.' Sometimes I even think of killing myself. So often I see them crying, hungry, and there I am, without a cent to buy them some bread. I think, 'My God, I can't face it! I'll end my life. I don't want to look anymore!" --Iracema de Silva, resident of a slum in Brazil

I was shaken by the realization that there are literally hundreds of millions of mothers in the world who are watching their children starve who would joyfully walk many miles in their bare feet with all eight of their children in tow if they could find a store that had something, anything, for them to eat.

And I complain about the inconvenience of driving my two little ones to Wal-Mart and enduring a little sibling rivalry and condescending looks from other shoppers while I stuff my cart full of food?

So, I am done whining about taking my kids grocery shopping with me. I am also done complaining because the store is out of an ingredient for a recipe I want to prepare for that evening. So what, I have to cook something else or stop at another store with my kids?

I promise to no longer complain about the "high cost of food." Our basket is overflowing with all the food our bodies need plus many extras as well--Fritos, Tinkerbell fruit snacks, and Blue Bell Mocha Almond Fudge ice cream. And it is a privilege to have enough money to pay for ALL of it.

The point of reflecting on quotes like the one above from the anguished mother in Brazil is not to make me feel guilty, but to cause me to feel grateful.

So if you happen to see me and my girls in the grocery store and I look like I'm about to lose it, please remind me to have a heart of gratitude for the remarkable blessing of buying groceries for my family each week.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Bono's Bible Study

"The Bible says that if you care for the poor, God will have your back." This astounding statement was made by none other than Bono, who was being interviewed a couple of years ago by Oprah. I didn't believe Bono, so I opened my Bible to Isaiah 58, and this is what I read:

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?

Is it not to share your food with the hungry and provide the poor wanderer with shelter--when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.

Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I." Isaiah 58:6-9

Who knew an Irish rock star with funky glasses could have such wisdom? Indeed, God looks out for those who are generous and care for the poor and needy. His ears are receptive to the prayers of those who spend themselves on behalf of the less fortunate. This is not just an Old Testament promise to the nation of Israel; this principle is mentioned numerous times in the New Testament as well, by Jesus, his disciples, and the Apostle Paul, among others.

Since stumbling on Isaiah 58, I have discovered that there are over 2000 verses which pertain to money, possessions, poverty, oppression, widows, orphans, and social justice. Sure, because I've been in a Bible church all my life I've heard a number of these verses here and there in a sermon or Bible study, but I've been overwhelmed by the enormity of what God's word has to say on this subject--more than what the Bible says about faith, prayer, or heaven and hell combined.

Learning what the Bible teaches has been easy compared to trying to absorb these verses and figure out what it means for my affluent and privileged existence, comfortably separated from poverty (local, national, and international) in my suburb where the median household income is $106,873.

I really like what Randy Alcorn says, "We're not to feel guilty that God has entrusted an abundance to us. But we are to feel compassionately and wisely use that abundance to help the less fortunate."

The question for myself is, "How do I balance honoring God by appreciating and enjoying the material blessings he has given me with being generous with my time, money, and resources to those who are truly needy?"

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Reading about poverty at the nail salon

So there I sat: reading "Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger" while getting a spa pedicure. While the nail technician delicately rubbed expensive lotion between my toes, I learned that thousands of children starved to death during the time it took me to receive a pedicure. Next, I was off to get a Frappuccino from Starbucks. Seriously?

Now I understand what it means that "God comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable." My cushy suburban life with all the trappings was on a collision course with a whole host of verses I'd never really considered before that seemed to be leaping off the pages of my Bible.

I have been so immersed in the affluent lifestyle of square footage, a stylish wardrobe, expensive dinners, luxury vacations, and a plethora of activities designed to keep my children entertained, that I began to call into question my claim that I serve a Savior who identifies with the broken, the oppressed, the poor, the sick, and the marginalized.

As a Mom, I have become increasingly alarmed that I am teaching my young daughters to pursue the things the world says are important instead of the things God says are important.

I've begun this blog hoping to find others, especially Moms, who wonder if the comfortable suburban life is all there is, or is there something we are missing?