Thursday, November 29, 2012

Holiday Travels

Two days before Thanksgiving I began my holiday travels by boarding the Texas Eagle for a trip to the Midwest to visit my daughters for Thanksgiving. I have been longing to make this train trip for many years and was thankful for the opportunity to finally do it. Austin to Chicago takes about 28 hours each way; that is ample time for visiting, snoozing, reading, and thinking. At the end of this journey I  have lots of stories, ideas, reflections, and observations to share so beginning today, and continuing through New Year's Day I plan to share them with shorter, and more frequent posts.  All aboard - let's take a trip!

The first thing that struck me was the complete absence of responsibility I had on this trip. I wasn't in charge of the schedule, the meals, the stops along the way, fueling the engines, or making sure the staff got along. This was a very new experience for me, and seemed an exceptionally great way to start the holidays. All I had to do was board the train and the rest was up to them. I had some non-critical decisions to make: I could eat what I brought, go to the snack car, or splurge on a full meal in the dining car; I could read this book or that magazine or play games on my computer; I could talk to the person next to me, someone in the observation car, or no one at all. None of these decisions was worthy of worry.

This got me to thinking about all the things we fret about around the holidays: where to go, what to eat, whether to order it or make it, who to invite, to have a real or fake tree, to attend this or that or the other event or party. We can work ourselves into a frenzy over a lot of things that don't have watershed consequences during the holidays. We want to create Christmas memories for our kids, but much of what we remember most happily from Christmas past was not orchestrated by anyone. Maybe it was the ice storm that shut down travel in all directions and left us huddled around the fireplace with nothing but candlelight and cookies for our Christmas supper. Perhaps it was the gift we didn't even know we wanted until we received it, or the way the Christmas story flooded our hearts at the annual Christmas pageant.

I know it's counter-intuitive, but I want to suggest that you may make the best Christmas memories for your children by letting go of some control and making a few spontaneous decisions. It seems scary but the One whose birth we celebrate is the Engineer on this train. A scrap of scripture comes to mind. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. (I Peter 5:7) Let the Lord know your fears and anxieties as you go into the holiday season, and then let go and enjoy the ride!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Pain Relievers

This past Sunday we sang a hymn from Central America that always haunts me for days after singing it. The line that gets stuck in my brain is "The angels are not sent into our world of pain to do what we were meant to do in Jesus' name. That falls to you and me. . . ." The world around us is filled with people in pain; it usually takes effort to avoid seeing them. Often, however, that pain masquerades as anger, incompetence, impatience, superiority, or indifference. 

What would it be like, for a day, to be able to actually see people's pain? This one hurts from arthritis. That one hurts from loneliness. The guy in the car next to you at the light just lost his job. The high school kid making your pizza has an alcoholic parent. The young woman at the gym just suffered her fourth miscarriage. The person next to you in the pew is dreading Thanksgiving dinner for one. The man on the corner asking for change is a veteran who can’t sleep because he has debilitating nightmares. Every person we encounter carries some kind of pain. Would seeing all the pain around us change our expectations of how life should work? Would it change the choices we make?

If the angels are not sent to do what we were meant to do, then it is important to figure out what falls to us to do. In cartoons we see an angel on one shoulder prompting us to do good things, and on the other, a devil inciting us to be selfish. This may be truer than we realize. In the Bible angels are messengers. They announce impending conceptions and warn of coming disasters. Maybe the compassion  you feel is a message urging you to bring some relief to someone who is suffering. It seems that God has built and equipped us to help others in their pain.

What tugs at your heart? Children in pain or in need pull at my heart. Someone else may be moved by the elderly or the disabled; another person may be touched by the hungry in another land. Still others feel compassion toward homeless people or animals or those with terminal illnesses. You may feel compassion for veterans or widows or foster kids. Go with the thing that makes your heart hurt. Compassion with nowhere to go either sours into cynicism or paralyzes with guilt.

Our children also live in a world of pain. As you act on your desires to bring relief to someone’s pain, take the kids along. Explain why you help others and how it makes you feel. Don’t shelter them from the broken, hurting places in the world. Let them help you and give them the experience of making a difference somewhere. Then, when their own hearts feel compassion, they will have an idea of how to move from feeling to action.

Small acts of kindness send out ripples like a stone dropped into a pool.  When you offer a little bit of pain relief to someone, you open the door for them to do the same. What falls to you?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Winning and Losing

Winning and losing have been on everyone's mind this week. For instance, my brother-in-law, a football coach, had his 100th win as head coach in the final seconds of the game on Saturday. The Voice, Dancing with the Stars, and The X Factor all sent some losing contestants home.  Journalist Alex S. Jones has been talking about his new book Losing the News and how losing the news will affect a democratic society. And speaking of democratic societies, there was an election on Tuesday, and in most cases, for every winner there was a loser. Teaching your kids how to win and how to lose is one of the jobs you get to do as their parents.

Most of us do pretty well at teaching our kids to win. We encourage them to set goals. We help them improve on their own best times. We hire coaches or private lesson teachers. We buy them better equipment, or better clothing, depending on the contest. We cheer them on, work the concession stand, and generally support them any way we can. We also teach them how to be gracious when they win, to avoid bragging and gloating, and to give credit to those who helped them win.

When they lose, we are there for them. We analyze what they did well, coach them to improve their performance in future contests, and generally try to help them avoid feeling like a failure. We help them find the lesson in the loss. After all, losing is one of the places where we learn what really matters to us. We also try to teach them good sportsmanship - shaking the competitor's hand and not letting their disappointment show too much.

Into this internal conversation come Jesus' words from Luke: "What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?" I am always taken aback by this statement. I recently read Eugene Peterson's eloquent paraphrase of that question: "What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you?" Wow! What are we willing to do to win? For what would you sell your soul? Your child was created in the image of God. Your child has a true self, and that self reflects God. It is no small feat to preserve that true self in a world that tries to distort it.

None of us gets to adulthood without compromising some part of ourselves to win at something. It is unfortunate, and perhaps outside of God's plan, that competition has become such an integral part of our lives. Fortunately, that's where forgiveness comes in; it washes away the violations of true self we commit in order to win. As the psalmist says, "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me."  That right spirit returns us to our true selves.

You can do this parents. God has gifted you with this particular child. You have what it takes to help him win without losing his true self. You also have what it takes to help her when she loses. Sooner or later we all lose, and in that losing we find ourselves again. God is in the middle of that paradox. Keep trying!