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For Single Parents at Christmas Time

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With Christmas just a few days away, some weary people are ready for the Polar Express to pull into the station. There’s too little energy left. Too little time in the day. And maybe the biggest of the factors, there’s too little money to do all the things they feel like they should be doing.

Boy, do I get this. I am being there. I am doing this. Well, actually I’ve got more time than I’ve had in a long time. Less energy and less money this time around, though. So if you’re hoping the Polar Express will please chug into the station, I get it.

And if you’re a single parent, you’re stretched thinner now than at any other time of year. I know from close observation for 45 years that it feels like most of your life is summed up in two words: not enough. Not enough money. Not enough time. Not enough energy. Just not enough of you for nearly everything you’ve got tugging at you. Add the emotion of Christmas in, and the whole not-enough thing gets magnified to the 10th power. It probably feels like the Polar Express is running you over.

Reality often stinks. I wish I had better news. I try not to be pessimistic, but when I look at the world and life realistically, it’s hard for me to be very optimistic. I’m just not a glass-half-full kind of guy. This may make me a legitimate voice to speak into a single parent’s life. Your life, single parent, isn’t full of unicorns and rainbows. Skittles aren’t raining down from cotton candy clouds. You life is H A R D!

I want to just offer a few words of encouragement to you, if you’re a single parent. My guess is that you may feel like you’re stranded on a desert island, that you’re on your own. And some of you are. I hate this, but I know the truth is that many, maybe even most, single parents are on their own. If your life is this way, you’ve got to be tired of people giving you advice. Especially people who have a nice support system that’s spreading a net for them. So I want to be careful not to be another voice from the safe zone telling you to keep your chin up.

OK, so Single Parent, I want to tell you that if you feel like you’ve been flattened by the Polar Express, there’s a reason for it. You have the hardest job in the world. You’re ahead of people who defuse bombs, people who transport radio-active materials, MMA fighters, Dallas Cowboys coaches. All of these people are behind you in terms of degree of difficulty. Being a single parent is harder than any of these. Even the bomb squad gets a day off. You don’t. Doing what you do, and doing it well, is the hardest job on the planet. If you feel worn smooth out, there’s a good reason for it. You’re not being dramatic (please don’t be…) when you get to the end of the day and feel like you can hardly drag your bones into bed. Your job is a 10.0 on the degree of difficult scale. That’s the first thing I want to tell you.

Second thing is that when you feel isolated and on an island, that’s the best time to reach out for community with safe people who can love you and encourage you. This is supposed to be the church. God’s family is supposed to be a safe, supportive place. It should be a place where you can find encouragement and help as you face the challenges of your most important job. Unfortunately, it isn’t always. Some churches are judgmental and condescending. They don’t represent the heart of Christ, even if they wear His name on their sign out front. These are the groups I want to you avoid. Like the plague. If you smell judgmentalism, don’t pass Go and don’t collect $200. Just move on to another church to see if Jesus lives there. Don’t feel guilt about moving on. Just go. Ask God to guide you to a place that will be His safe embrace, and then go looking.

You can’t just snap your finger and have this kind of church appear. It will take effort to find one that is grounded in the Bible, that loves as Jesus does, that will help you grow more completely into the daughter or son of the King you actually are. These churches do exist. They seem hard to find, sometimes. But it’s so worth the effort to find them.

Last thing I want to say to you: you are cherished by God. He doesn’t think of you as damaged goods. He isn’t holding your divorce or widowhood against you. He’s not waiting for you to get it together so you’ll be ready and worthy to be included in His circle of love. At the risk of sounding sacrilegious, I think God is nuts about you, just the way you are. Sure He knows your potential and wants you to grow into it. Sure He loves you too much to leave you the way you are. But He loves you right now, in the mess of your life. He loves you today, when you’re maxed out on every credit card you’ve got and still have a mountain of presents you want to get. He loves you right here, when your kids are acting out and struggling, and you don’t feel like there’s anything you can do to make a difference for them. When you ex- won’t pull their weight, or they keep throwing monkey wrenches into your attempts to build a safe and stable home for your kids.

If I could give you a Christmas gift today, the one I’d most want to give you would be that you would somehow know in your mind and feel in your heart how deeply cherished you are by God. I’d want to somehow free you up to believe about yourself what God says He believes about you. I’d want you to know that you are never (NEVER) out of His thoughts. Your are on His mind constantly. And not because you’re such a screw-up, but because he’s crazy about you and can’t get you off His mind.

There’s no formula for making your life fun and happy as you hear the Polar Express chugging toward you. If there is, I sure don’t know what it is. And if there is, I’m suspicious of it before I even hear it. So I’m not pitching out some slick and simple way to transform your Christmas.

But I’m convinced of this: you’re not alone, even when you feel most alone. God has promised, “I will never leave you. I will never forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5) And He means it. He’s not out there somewhere, waiting for you to use the right words in just the right prayer to come to you. He’s right here. And He’s not going anywhere. Ever.

God, if a Single Parent ever gets to read this, please make Your Presence and Love vivid and unmistakable for them. Draw them into Your tightest embrace as we move closer to the day we celebrate Your Son’s birth. Remind them that You’re not disappointed with them. Remind them that they are Yours because You want them to be Yours, not because You have to keep some eternal, cosmic contract. Remind them that on their worst day, You’re embracing them with your strong, unwearying love. Especially when they’re feeling weak and weary. Somehow, God, make this Christmas a season for them to experience the wonder of Your unspeakable love, and to know that the little baby in the manger would have gladly left heaven if they were the only person on earth that needed a Savior.

Go ahead. Say it.

On my way out of Walmart the other day, the greeter said, “Happy Holidays.” I said, “Merry Christmas,” back to her. Her response: “Thank You!”

I made a commitment to myself, back around Halloween, when the Christmas stuff started going up on the shelves, that I would say “Merry Christmas” as often as I can this year. Especially when I’m wished “Happy Holidays.” (I also made a commitment that I wouldn’t play Christmas music until Thanksgiving… But that’s a whole other thing.)

Now, I know I live in the Heartland, very near the Buckle of the Bible Belt, but hearing an enthusiastic and positive response to “Merry Christmas” reminded me that there are very few people in my world who are actually offended by this greeting I’ve been saying for most of my 66 years. I’m not saying it in hopes of offending anyone. If “Merry Christmas” is offensive to someone, I’ll probably ask them what they will be celebrating this December. I’ll apologize and wish them a lovely season, whatever they celebrate. I say “probably” because I’ve never actually offended anybody with “Merry Christmas” (that I know of). Honestly, I’m not trying to pick a fight with anybody. I’m not sure there’s anybody to fight with.

If “Merry Christmas” bothers you, don’t say it. And I apologize for exposing you to it. But if it expresses your sentiment, go ahead. Say it. If you’re in an Islamic country, don’t say it it. But if you’re pretty much anywhere else, give it a try.

If you want to, you can make it a teaching moment with your kids. Saying “Merry Christmas” is a great moment to bring up the idea of what Christmas is really all about with your kids. You don’t have to give a deep theological exposition of the origin and meaning of Christmas. That probably wouldn’t help them, anyway. (By the way, if you want to know about the origins of our Christmas celebration, there’s about a gazillion places on the Internet that have more than you really want to know, unless you’re writing a term paper on the subject. And probably more than you need even for that.)

This teaching moment I have in mind is all about getting back to the heart of Christmas. Jesus, God’s Son. What’s been called “Advent.”

Kids, even well trained and spiritually sensitive ones, have trouble keeping the heart of Christmas in mind when they’re bombarded with all the commercials and wish lists in the air this time of year. Getting and giving gifts is a good and happy thing. So don’t push so hard against the commercialization of it that you make it an anti-generosity thing. But account for the fact that kids need help contextualizing their generosity and the generosity of others toward them, or else Christmas will be just a day to get stuff they wouldn’t be able to ask for any other time of year.

An Advent Calendar is a good way to do this. You can get them for a few bucks at bookstores, or you can order them online for about the same amount. They come with instructions, and they’ll help you walk your family through the Christmas story a day at a time.

An Advent Wreath is also a good way to keep coming back to the heart of Christmas. You may have to go on line to find a set to purchase. You could also make you own set, if you’re a crafty person. If this is something you would like to do, here’s a simple YouTube video that will give you pretty much everything you need for it:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_cunOkJlLe4

Here’s a good site for the meaning of each of the five Advent Candles:

https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-the-advent-wreath-700451

There are other ways to bring your family back to center on the real heart of Christmas. Great Christmas music. Great Christmas movies. Talking about great Christmas memories. Or one other (and bigger) suggestion: making Christmas wonderful for a family who otherwise won’t have a wonderful Christmas.

Years ago, a friend of mine asked his family, when his kids were in grade school, if they wanted to take this on as a family project. He suggested that instead of asking for stuff for Christmas for themselves, they would all decide on how much money would normally have been spent on presents for them, and they would spend that much money on the family they had chosen to bless. It was their favorite and most meaningful Christmas. If you try this, I’d love to hear how it goes.

Whatever you choose to do about focusing on the real heart and meaning of Christmas, take initiative. Be intentional.

Have a Merry Christmas. And go ahead. Say it.

Conspire

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My favorite blog comes from James Emery White. It’s titled, Church and Culture. If you like reading good blogs, I recommend it. In the one I got most recently, he sited a statistic about Black Friday that I thought I’d pass along:

According to a survey by SlickDeals, more than half of us hit the stores on Black Friday. And on average, those of us who did planned to spend more than $500 that day alone.

More than half of us?! With plans to spend that much?! It makes me glad I hunkered down and had another piece of pumpkin pie on Friday morning. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a Black Friday guy, but I have nothing against those who are.

I heard of some people getting up and in line for store openings before 5:00 a.m. on Friday. There’s no other way to insure you’ll get the amazing Black Friday deals. You’ve got to be there early to make sure you get in at the front of the stampede. Big TVs. Laptops. Tablets. Toys. If you snagged a bargain, way to go! Somebody will be pretty happy when they unwrap your bargain on Christmas morning.

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For people like me, who missed Black Friday, there’s Cyber Monday. Hot-diggity! More fabulous deals and bargains! Though I don’t have solid statistics on it, my guess is that far less than half of us will have been up early for Cyber Monday. Most of us who do Cyber Monday will be doing it in our pajamas on our laptop or tablets. Or pretending we’re working at our desk…

I’m given to understand that these are the two biggest days of the year for retailers. With the economy back on track and on the upswing, I’d guess this year could be a banner year. I don’t begrudge this to the retailers. In fact, I hope they do exceedingly well this year. I’ll benefit from their good fortune.

I have to admit, though, that there’s a part of me that resists what I think is reflected in the craziness of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Motive gets reflected. The cleanest motive for a consumer on these two days is to purchase items for gifting that will make life better for their loved ones, while saving the gifter many dollars. This is good stewardship.

I wonder if this motive sometimes gets shoved aside for less noble ones, though. It’s easy to get caught up in the mob mentality that fuels the desire to spend and acquire, and then spend some more. When I’m saving that much money, why would I not spend some more? And while I’m at it, I think I may just gift myself with a few of these fantastic bargains. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I’d say there was some kind of conspiracy to drag us into this. Unfortunately, no conspiracy is needed.

In the blog I mentioned up top, James White offers a challenge to join what he calls the Advent Conspiracy. What if we conspired to pull ourselves and our families away from the consumerism that’s so easy to get caught up in, and point ourselves and our families to the real heart of Christmas?

It’s pretty hard for a baby in a manger to compete with a smokin’ hot laptop with a 10th generation i7 processor. I get that. Boy, do I get that. I’d love to have that smokin’ hot laptop. There’s really nothing morally wrong with giving or getting smokin’ hot laptops, or wanting to. It’s just that bigger, better, faster, sleeker stuff isn’t what Christmas is about.

Right. You know that. Christmas is about God leaving the perfection of heaven and coming to earth in a most unexpected way to become human. It’s about a teen mom, a baby in a manger, and shepherds and angels. And then two years later, wise men from the East. It’s about the greatest gift ever given.

It’s a sentimental holiday. I think it should be. Is there anything quite as sentiment-evoking than the mental picture of a newborn baby, wrapped in strips of cloth and laid in a feed trough?

When I zoom out and look at the actual meaning of Christmas, the stuff that it so often gets made about fades far into the background. What has been called hyper consumerism seems so wrong against the backdrop of the greatest gift ever given. The drive to consume, to acquire, to buy always leaves us empty. The new wears off of even the finest gifts we give or get. That smokin’ hot laptop will soon not be smokin’.

When we get caught in the vortex of a consumerism that spins faster and faster with every pass day until Christmas, we worship less, spend more, give less, struggle more.  And that’s really not what any of us want. More than acquisition, more than charging our credit cards to their limits to give fabulous, even epoch gifts, we want meaning. We want to somehow recapture – or for some, capture for the first time – the wonder of Christmas. Even if we don’t exactly know the nature of that wonder, we want something more.

In his blog, James White asks, “What would it look like if we took this Christmas and worshipped fully, spent less, gave more and loved all? And did it in the name of Jesus, for Jesus, to Jesus, and in honor and celebration of the birthday of Jesus?”

That’s the conspiracy I want to challenge you and your family to join. The Advent Conspiracy. No previous experience necessary. No background required. Just the sincere desire to make this Christmas different in the best possible ways. And the willingness to retool some longstanding habits and ways of thinking.

To join the Advent Conspiracy means to conspire against the flow of culture, and set new, more meaningful objectives for ourselves and our families. Objectives that have little to do with our own creature comforts and acquisition, and more to do with liberality and goodwill toward men. Even men we don’t know.

Float the idea to your family and invite them to join you. Brainstorm ways they think you could all conspire to come back to the real meaning and wonder of Christmas. And then fill you soul by doing this Christmas differently.

What Did You Expect?

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Really, what did you expect?

I mean from all the fun you had planned at Thanksgiving with your friends and family? It was going to be so awesome, wasn’t it?

And if it turned out awesome, more power to ya. Really.

But for a whole lot of people, the expected wonder and happiness of the Thanksgiving holiday didn’t work out so well. Some families had quarrels and fights (yes, among young cousins and siblings, but also among adults who should have known better and done better). Some people were facing an empty place at the table for the first time after the death of a loved one. Or an empty place setting in honor of a loved one’s military service and posting far away from the Thanksgiving table. Others spent the holiday at the side of a hospital bed. Hoping, praying. Just trying to take a breath under the strain of the crisis. Or sweating it out in a waiting room.

And that doesn’t even scratch the surface of what can go wrong on a holiday like Thanksgiving. As bad as these things were for those who experienced them, there are tons of other things that could be added to the list.

There’s a common denominator in all of them. Even the ones that involved circumstances beyond anybody’s control. For all the bad Thanksgivings, this one thing stands among them in common. Expectations. Specifically, unmet expectations. They will mess with your mind and throw a live grenade into your plans for happiness.

I used to think the way to deal with this was to just quit having expectations. If you have no expectations, you’ll never get disappointed, right? I suppose this is true, but I’ve never known anybody who’s been able to pull this off. The people I know who say they’ve done it, generally are no better off than those of us who can’t. We deal with our disappointment. They tend to deal with both denial and disappointment. And add this to the mix: resentment.

We’ve stepping across the calendar line into Christmas Time (actually, Walmart and Target did this the week before Halloween, but who’s counting? I am…). If people have high expectations for Thanksgiving (and they do), then the expectation level for Christmas is Mt. Everest-size. So what this basically means is that smart people will buckle their seat belts for the bumpy Christmas Time ride. Because, like it or not, it will probably get bumpy.

I’ve told you that I don’t think eliminating expectations is the answer. Even if you could assassinate them, they’d only go under ground and then pop up at a very inconvenient and awkward time. If eliminating expectation isn’t a good option, what is?

I’m going to give you an answer that is much easier for me to write than it is for me to do. This doesn’t make it un-useful, it just frames it in a little reality. My answer is to adjust your expectations. You can adjust them without assassinating them. It will take some work, but it’s possible, and it’s a whole lot better for your mental health, and for the mental health of the people you’ll be around.

You may be aware that Debbie (my wife) and I are in a season of adjustment right now. After 45 years of “located ministry experience” (read “I’ve been employed by churches all my adult life”), I’m starting a Pastoral Counseling practice. We moved from Northeast Iowa to Central Oklahoma for me to do this. I gave up the security of a steady income to do it, along with a few other personal comforts, like some wonderful friends. This is fine, because I think I’m ready to make this transition in my ministry career. Counseling is in my sweet-spot, and God has given me gifts for it. I think the future will be outstanding. But right now, I have a tiny fraction of the income we had four months ago, and I don’t see things getting fabulously different by Christmas.

What this means is that we have a dramatically adjusted Christmas gift budget this year. As a recovering materialist and grandfather, this is a really difficult adjustment of expectations. I love seeing my grandkids’ faces when they open a cool present I’ve given them. I love seeing a similar face on my grown daughters and their husbands, too. Not to mention how I love seeing it on Debbie’s face. “A power drill?! How did you know?!”

On the way to figuring out these adjusted expectations, I’ll have to (and you’ll have to do the same thing with yours) express my expectations. I’ll have to tell my family and friends about my adjusted expectations. This isn’t always easy. It’s not for me, anyway.

There are a a couple of ways to do this. Immature people get sad and victim-ish, and tell their friends and families how awful it is that life (or God, or their boss, or their ex, or whomever) has dealt them this cruel hand. Essentially, the message is less, “Here’s my adjusted expectations,” and more, “Don’t you feel sorry for me and my horrible life!?”

More mature people will share that they want to thank their family and friends for giving them grace through a time when resources are small and just aren’t meeting demands. These mature people will probably also share that they’re not really looking for or expecting gifts from others. Instead, they’ll look for ways to give gifts that either cost little or nothing, but convey a sentiment of love and blessing. You know, like in a Hallmark movie.

The idea is to scale it back to a realistic level for Christmas, not to destroy the holiday.

Here’s another big thing about adjusting expectations. Remember the last time you had reduced or adjusted expectations enforced on you? It was great, wasn’t it? It wasn’t for me. It isn’t for most of the people I know. Especially if they’re young. So do what you can to keep from enforcing your downward-adjusted expectations on others. Especially your kids.

There’s no perfect way to do this. Every family’s different, and every kid has their own temperament and personality. But here’s an idea that has some potential: talk about it before you drop the bomb. Bombs are bad enough when you talk about them before you drop them, but if you just drop them without any discussion or dialogue they’re even more potentially explosive.

Here’s how I suggest you do this talking thing. First of all, turn off the TV and put all the video games and other electronic devices on pause. Sit facing each other. The kitchen or dinning table is a good place, but you can do it in the living room, too. I wouldn’t do it in a restaurant. Too much noise and way too public, in case there are some emotional expressions. Just make sure you get to make eye contact easily in a safe environment.

Then gently tell your kids the story of why expectations have to be adjusted this year. Use vocabulary that they will understand. Don’t give them more than they need to know about the entire back-story, but they need to know the story. They’ve got to have something to contextualize the new and adjusted expectations. Apologize if you feel you should, but be careful not to catastrophize (which is to dwell on the horrible side of the situation).

Offer what you feel you want to do with this opportunity to approach Christmas in a different way. Lead the way with your own attitude. You don’t have to be Pollyanna, and pretend that this is no biggie. It might be a biggie. Don’t lie to your kids. Or to yourself, for that matter. Just remember that one mega-truth in life is that what you do about what happens to you is more important than what happens to you.

Ask God to give you wisdom to do this thing well before you call the meeting, and then step into it, trusting that He will do this for you. He’s promised that He wants to make you wise. Take a look at Jame 1:5

There’s a whole horizon of non-material, non-financial expectations that probably need to be adjusted. I know it sounds simplistic, but I believe this same basic plan works for them, too. Talk about them. Share what you’re thinking and feeling with your spouse and family. Take the risk to be open and non-judgmental. Pray that same prayer for wisdom, and them talk about it.

You don’t have to be the victim of unmet expectations. But you will be unless you take measures to address and adjust them down to a more reasonable level. I know. This sucks. Sorry. We’ll all get over it, though. And who knows? We might just get back to the deeper meaning of the season.

The Thanksgiving Thing

Any blogger (or preacher, or editorialist, or talk show host, or, well you get the picture) who doesn’t write or say something meaningful about Thanksgiving should lose their credentials. Or at least apologize. There’s just too much to say about Thanksgiving to not say anything. So here you go with mine.

In Colossians, 2:6-7, the Apostle Paul wrote, ” So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.” (NIV)

The last 3 words of this sentence are the ones I want to unpack a little. “Overflowing with thankfulness.”

A literal translation of this could be, “gushing with thanksgiving.” There’s an important requirement for anything overflowing or gushing. To do this, the vessel has to be more than full. There has to be so much of something it that there’s not room enough for it all. Simply full vessels don’t gush and overflow. They spill, but they don’t overflow.

King David wrote of this in his Psalm 23 masterpiece, “My cup overflows.” This was a picture of a cup being filled and filled, and then still being filled once the wine reached the top and began to flow out on the table. That’s what Paul was writing about in Colossians. Thanksgiving overflowing and getting out onto the table, and all over the place. To be full of thanksgiving is a beautiful thing, but it’s not the same thing as – and in my opinion, not as beautiful as – overflowing with thanksgiving. For thanksgiving to overflow in my life, I’ve got to be more than full of thanksgiving. I need to gush it.

OK. So how do I pull that off? Good question. I can tell you that not many people get to the overflow state in a snap. Nobody I know started there. Normal people start with just being full of thanksgiving. There are lots of ways to eventually get to overflowing with thanksgiving. They all start at the same point, though: learning to observe and reflect. I know, this is rocket science.

OBSERVE. The non-technical term for this is, “Pay attention.”

Most people think they pay attention more than they actually do. On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is absolutely attentive at 100%, most people would like to think they’re at about 8. We may say, “Oh, well, I know I miss a lot.” But down deep, we’re thinking, “I’d say 8 is my conservative estimate. On most days, it’s got to be around 8.6, unless I’m sick or over-fatigued. Then it’s gonna go down to 6 or 7.”

A counselor friend gave me this sentence and told me to count the number of F’s in it: FINISHED FILES ARE THE RESULT OF YEARS OF SCIENTIFIC STUDY COMBINED WITH THE EXPERIENCE OF YEARS.

How many F’s do you count in that sentence? Go ahead. Go back up and count them.

Most people get 3. What if I told you there’s actually 6? That’s right, SIX. Most people leave out the three times “OF” occurs in the sentence. The eyes see them, but the brain doesn’t. Still feel like you’re about an 8.6? I didn’t when my friend showed it to me. It took me three re-readings to see what I’d done.

Psychologists tell us that we only see what we’re looking for. Occasionally, we don’t even see what we’re looking for. In that little trick I just pulled on you, you might not have even seen what you had actually seen: 6 F’s. That’s just how our brains are designed by God. Generally, we’ll see what we’re looking for, though.

Many people – maybe even most people – aren’t as observant as they think they are. And one of the things most of us don’t observe are our blessings, because most of us are so busy trying to make ends meet and not disappoint the important people in our lives, we just don’t have time or energy to look for them. Which is why it’s a very good thing to have a day set aside every year to observe our blessings and give thanks for them. We all need an excuse to look for, to observe blessings.

So you start with observing, looking for blessings. Notice them. Identify them.

REFLECT. And then you reflect on them. That doesn’t mean to just nod in their direction and keep racing down the expressway at 75 MPH. Which is what lots of A-Type people are inclined to do. “Yep, that was great. Now keep moving!” It’s really hard to overflow with thanksgiving at 75 MPH. I won’t say impossible. I’ll just say I can’t do it.

I discovered this when I was in my 6-month recovery from my heart attack. For 6 months, I just didn’t go anywhere in a hurry. That wasn’t normal for me. Being a short person, I’d spent nearly my entire life walking faster to keep up with the tall guys. But when you’re not sure you can get through the parking lot from your car to the auditorium at church (about 100 feet) before they sing the last song, it makes you rethink your speed. My body made me take the speed back a few notches.

And during this recovery, the only demands or appointments I had on my formerly jammed calendar were for doctor’s visits. There was nothing to be in a hurry for. I went from working with no margin between appointments, to having nearly nothing but margin in my day. If I needed to be at the doctor’s at 10:00, it was no problem to leave at 9:20 for the 20-minute drive. I had nothing better to do with the time, and I was fine with taking it easy.

To make a long story short, I learned how not to hurry. And I liked it. It was far better for my heart, and far better for my soul. I still occasionally get jammed with too-short margins, but it’s nothing like it was. Not even close.

One of the things I learned from that recovery time is that when you’re in a hurry, it’s nearly impossible to be thankful. You have to slow down to be thankful. If I’m bustin it because I’m 5 minutes late to my next appointment, I guarantee I’m not thinking about my blessings. I’m thinking about the bozo doing 55 in a 65 speed zone, who’s making me late. Milk it or move it! But that’s just me.

To reflect takes time. It takes margin. Don’t try to do it in a hurry. Even if you’re pretty sure you can do it in a hurry. Slow down and see what happens in your less cluttered and hurried mind.

Thursday is a national holiday that was originally designed as a day to give thanks to our Creator for His blessings to us. George Washington set it as a national holiday in 1789, and Lincoln made it a federal holiday in 1863. Both men believed we, as a nation, owed God a debt of thanks for His goodness to us. Originally, American families slowed down from what we, today, would look at and think of as their grindingly slow lives to observe the day. Unfortunately, that sentiment and practice has begun to lose out to football, parades, extravagant feast prep and pre-Black Friday starting blocks. (Can you tell I could easily do a rant on this?… I won’t. Yer welcome.)

My challenge here is simple. Regardless of what the popular culture does with the 4th Thursday of November, why don’t you and your family use it as the entry-point for building a life of overflowing thanksgiving by observing God’s blessings and reflecting on them. Around the Thanksgiving dinner table would be one of the finest places I can think of to get started. Slow it down. Turn off the TV and tune into each other and God. Observe and reflect.

And if you do this, let me know what happens.

It’s Gonna Get Ugly

If you live in Oklahoma, you might think I’m talking about the last few games of the football season. And if that’s what you’re thinking, you’d be right that the saying applies, but wrong about what I have in mind.

I’m thinking of the “election cycle.” We’re a year away from the 2020 elections, and the ads have already begun to clutter the airways. There have been nationally broadcasted debates. Town hall meetings in Iowa, a key caucus state. Press releases and news conferences and personal appearances and fund-raisers. It’s going to get worse in the next 11 months. I’m just saying. And it’s gonna get ugly.

Before we go to the polls in November of 2020, the campaign trail will be thick with mud slung from all sides. There will be, as there always is, lies and half-truths. There will be attempted character assassinations. Endless tweets and retweets. Billions of dollars will be spent. In the end, there will be a winner and a loser. And at least four more years’ worth of ponderings by political pundits as to who the actual winner was. That’s just the way it works.

I’m broaching this in a blog for marriage and family months ahead of time because there’s one group of people who stand to lose a lot more than anybody else. Your kids. I’m not talking about how the outcome of the election might shape their destiny, though, frankly, there are some important ways this election could shape it. I’m talking about the angst they will feel from the acrimony of the process. If your kids are in grade school, I guarantee they will be exposed to the acrimony and divisiveness of the campaign. Probably as an attempt to involve them in the political process every citizen should be involved in, which is a good thing. Possibly (but not necessarily certainly, thank God) by teachers with a personal agenda. This, I feel, is not such a good thing. And possibly by their peers, as well.

Here’s what I advise you to do with this opportunity. Actually, what I advise you NOT to do. DO NOT BE PASSIVE! Don’t just let your young one(s) decide on their own, without your input. Give input! Don’t force them to take your political party and candidate, right or wrong, but give input. I believe it’s entirely right for parents to openly and rationally dialogue with their kids about the political parties and the various planks of their platform.

Bear this in mind as you do this, though. Though your kids are possibly far ahead of where you were, technologically, when you were their age, they’re still kids, immature and easily guided and misguided. They simply haven’t had enough life experience to have a very big and reliable grid to filter campaign promises and peer pressure through. So challenge their thinking without disrespecting them. Give input. Do your research and then give reasoned, logical, philosophically grounded and respectful input. This requires a large measure of maturity. If you’re not careful, you could end up in knock down, drag out fights over who to vote for. If this happens, even if your candidate wins, you lose.

And then this: DON’T PROJECT PANIC. Yes, there are some huge issues at risk in this election. Yes, there are some very frightening implications in whichever candidate is elected. (My personal opinion is that Christians have more to lose in this election they have in any election in the last 50 years.) There’s a lot at stake.

But even with this, there’s a reality that we must embrace so that we can pass it along to our kids. Forgive me for maybe sounding like a Facebook post, but the reality is regardless of who’s the President, Jesus is still King.

Whether your candidate wins or not, Jesus is still in control. God has made Him the Supreme Authority over everything, including the United States of America. I am fully convinced that nothing happens in this world without either the initiation or the permission of our sovereign God. This includes outcomes of elections. It is impossible to surprise Him, and impossible to thwart His eternal will, even though it has often seemed thwarted throughout history.

If we believe that God is in control and Jesus is still King, our behavior ought to show it. Our talk should show it, too. Our hope is only secondarily in imperfect candidates and an imperfect system (though still, in my opinion, the best on the planet). The foundation of our hope is Jesus Christ and His Lordship. If we lose sight of this, we’re toast. And if we don’t pass this along to our kids, they’ll be toast, too.

So talk with your kids. Listen to them. Ask them what they’re thinking and feeling about the election process when you’re eating supper, or when you’re running errands with them, or whenever you have non-threatening time with them. Seize teachable moments and leverage them for the sake of building into your kids’ developing character. Whichever side of the political isle you stand in, make sure you pass on to your kids that Jesus is still King, not matter who wins this election.

HALT!

I had the privilege of starting and then leading the Celebrate Recovery ministry at Canyon Ridge Christian Church, in Las Vegas, NV, for 7 years. I learned a ton from the amazing people there in Celebrate Recovery. One of the things I learned from them was the HALT principle. It’s one of the essential tools for everybody in recovery, no matter what they’re recovering from. It’s also an essential tool for everybody else, even if they don’t think they’re in recovery. My friend, Kevin Odor, says we’re all in recovery, whether we realize it or not. We’re all in recovery from sin and its effects in our lives. I think Kevin’s right.

If you’ve got kids, especially little kids, you probably feel like you spend half your waking hours saying (or shouting) some from of halt. “Stop pulling your sister’s hair!” “Stop trying to put that fork in the electric socket!” “Stop teasing your brother (or the dog, or the cat, or your dad)!” Yep. Been there; done that. Take heart. There will come a time when you won’t have to be in the constant Stop Mode. It’s probably a ways down the timeline, but it will happen. Keep taking deep breaths.

When you’re about at the end of your rope with kids being kids and life being just way harder than it should be, the HALT principle could be one of your best tools.

HALT is an acronym for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. When you’re hungry, angry, lonely and tired, you’re more vulnerable to making bad choices. Any one of these things getting out of whack will set you up to do and say things you’ll wish you hadn’t. When these four things come into harmonic convergence, they’ll wreck your ship.

Hungry – Not everybody needs the exact same nutrients at the exact same time to be healthy. There is a wide range of metabolism factors that play into it. But no matter how you metabolize, when you’re hungry, you’re not at your best. The Snickers TV commercials used to crack me up. The tag line was, “You’re not you when you’re hungry.” It’s true. You’re really not you when you’re hungry.

There are many physiological reasons for this, and I’m not qualified to talk intelligently about all of them. The one that’s at the top of the list, though, I can talk about. It’s your blood glucose, or blood sugar. It rises and falls with what, how much and when you eat. This amazing substance does so much to help you be you when it’s in balance, but when it’s either too high or too low, it’s an enemy like few others. When you’re hungry, it’s too low, and it will hijack your mental processes, especially your judgment.

I’m not talking hungry, as in, “I’m hungry for something salty and crunchy.” I’m talking about hungry because it’s been 5 or 6 hours since you’ve had any protein. I’m not talking about taste-bud hunger. I’m talking about actual metabolism-hunger.

Sometimes, when you’re edgy and cranky and easily set off, it could be that your blood glucose is low and your body needs appropriate fuel. Like a handful of almonds, or some fruit, or maybe even a meal. When you find yourself set off easily, that could very likely be your body signaling you that you’re hungry.

I’m not a dietitian, but I can tell you that what you need at these times isn’t a candy bar. You don’t need a bag of chips. Or ice cream. What you need is something with lots of protein. Even when your mouth wants something sweet or salty or crunchy, your body is begging for something with good protein. If you want to know more about what kind of snacks will actually promote healthy blood glucose, here’s one of thousands of websites that will give you more than you wanted to know about it: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/healthy-high-protein-snacks

Angry – Everybody gets angry. Even Jesus got angry. But not everybody knows what to do about their anger. I know about this, personally. I often struggle with anger.

I used to ask, “What’s making me angry?” and, “Why am I angry?” These are good questions. They’re worth asking. But I’ve discovered that a more useful question, the best first question is: What is my anger trying to tell me? Most of the time, my anger is telling me that a need (real or only felt) isn’t being met. My task in answering this question is to first establish what that need might be, and second, to discern if it’s a real need or only a felt one. Not all felt needs are evil, but the difference between a real need and a felt need can be huge.

Then after I figure out what the need is, and whether it’s real or not, I get to decide what I’m going to do about it. There are many options for this that work, but one that never works is stuffing it. Another one that never works is excusing yourself because that’s just how you are.

Long and complex books have been written about how to deal with anger. Some of them are even good. A couple that I’ve found helpful are The Anger Workbook, by Les Carter, and Anger, handling a powerful emotion in a healthy way, by Gary Chapman. You’ll find some very useful and biblical strategies for dealing with your anger (and other people’s anger) in these books.

Lonely – Being alone isn’t the same thing as being lonely. Alone-time is a precious commodity if you’re an introvert. But even if you’re an extrovert or an ambivert, having time to be alone is important and necessary,

If you’re the mom of preschoolers, you’re rolling your eyes and thinking, “Right. What’s your phone number? I’ll give you a call so you can come take care of these kids while I have some of this ‘alone-time’ you talk about. I can’t even be alone in the bathroom.”

You’re right. Sorry for bringing it up.

Finding ways to NOT be alone is important, too. And difficult for moms of preschoolers for many of the same reasons finding time to be alone is hard.

When you’re lonely you’re vulnerable. Isolation can be a killer. So you have to take deliberate steps to insure you have a reasonable path for connections. Phone calls, text messages, emails, FaceTime or Skype calls aren’t as good as face-to-face, fully present encounters, but they’re sure better than nothing! Connecting with people other than your little kids is (or is supposed to be) life-giving.

If you find yourself lonely, be thoughtful and careful. Don’t wait for somebody to just materialize and make your loneliness go away. Usually those people are almost the opposite of the people you need in that moment. When you’re lonely, you’re vulnerable.

Tired – You don’t need an advanced degree to know that when you’re tired you’re not at your best. When you’re tired, your body and your mind are working off of too-shallow reserves.

There are things to do when you’re tired. Not all of them work for everybody. For instance, napping is a great tool for lots of people. Not me. If I ever do fall asleep in a nap, I’ll be useless for about 4 hours after I wake up. I’m groggy and foggy and good-for-nothing. Right up until I get in bed for the night. Then I’ll roll around for another 2 or 3 hours, with my brain and body conspiring against sleep. My wife, Debbie, can do the power nap thing. Boy do I wish I could.

They say Winston Churchill took a nap in the middle of the day, every day. Of course, he’d also work until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. Most people can’t afford to take a nap every day, and then there are those, like me, who might be able to occasionally take a nap, but napping doesn’t work for them. So it’s not viable for everybody.

I read not long ago that we’re the most sleep-deprived generation ever. I don’t have any problem believing this. I have friends who tell me they only need 4 or 5 hours of sleep a night. May their tribe increase. I’m not in that tribe. I need 8 hours. I can manage on 7, but not for more than a night or two. I used to think this was because I was lazy, but I don’t think that any more. Reliable research says that our bodies and minds need 8 hours of restful sleep to be at our best.

I know what you’re thinking. I don’t know your life. There’s no way you can get 7 or 8 hours of sleep a night. There are seasons of life when the idea of that much sleep is pure fantasy. I get that. But for lots of people (maybe most people), there are ways to get more sleep than they’re getting right now. At the top of the list for this is going to bed earlier. Turn the TV off. Shut your computer down. Put your smart phone and your tablet in time out earlier. Go to bed. Don’t go read in bed. Don’t go watch more TV in bed. Go to bed. When your kids are young, they should be going to bed early. Why don’t you try going to bed when they do? DVR your must-see TV and watch it on the weekend. The point is, figure out how to go to bed earlier, and see what might happen with more sleep.

I didn’t plan on solving all your problems with Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired in a blog. That’s not possible. But if you start tugging at the edges of it, you’ll find that God has already joined you as you address these four things that can make life go sideways. Partner with Him and see what might happen.