Hopeless Romantic?

I’m not sure just what it is, but every single time my kids have a school program, I’m trying to hold back tears.

EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. 

Fall. Winter. Spring. It doesn’t even matter what time of year it is, I’m like a basket case in my seat as I watch my kids do things that surprise and amaze me, that make me smile and cry all at the same time 

It’s not like these programs are tear-inducing programs. No hint of Hallmark here, but somehow or another, they still find ways of hitting me right in the chest.

Maybe some of it has to do with the fact that during every single program, at least once, I am wishing that my mom and dad were there. But I think it goes way beyond that. I think it stems from the fact that there is pride (not the bad kind) that wells up within me as I see my kids doing things that make them stand out. How can a mom or dad NOT be proud of their kids when they’re doing what kids should be doing? 

I’ll be honest, it’s an emotional time of year for me anyway. All it takes is one song to throw me back about 30 years. I’m transported to my childhood home with smells and sights and sounds that have been eternally etched on my brain. I can picture everything. Christmas tree. Pajamas. Presents. Green rug. Hi-Fi circa 1975 or thereabouts. Evie singing “Come On, Ring Those Bells” from that Hi-Fi stereo, complete with the cracks and pops that only vinyl can offer.

But like I said, I well up any time of year. These kids always blow me away. I guess it’s yet one more picture of grace that I see in my everyday life. I realize just what I have that I don’t deserve. I realize how far short I fall from being who I really wish that I was, and yet my kids still manage to keep plugging along without the help of therapists…..at least for now.

As I sat there on the hard bench of the cafeteria bench watching my middle child perform in his holiday play, I was just blown away. The kid can act. The kid can memorize. The kid can work a room. The kid can make a joke. While my eyes welled up, so did my pride as I thought, “What have I done to deserve this?”

It’s a time of year when you really see the difference between the “haves” and the “have-nots”….at least if you really look around. As much as I keep wanting, it’s a time of year that I am reminded just how blessed that I am 

Here we are, two weeks from Christmas, and I’m blubbering at the sight of an inflatable Rudolph in the neighborhood…..it might just be a LOOOOONNNNNGGGGG 2 weeks!

Deep down inside, I’m a hopeless romantic, but I guess I hide it well. Maybe it’s self-preservation and self-defense, but regardless, there’s way more emotion down deep than most people who just get a casual glance at me would really expect or imagine. I’m fine with that.

There are a lot of things to hope for during this time of year, but my biggest hope is that I can be half the man that my children and wife deserve. I am a blessed man, blessed beyond measure.

Now, let me go find a good Christmas movie to continue with my blubbering!!!

The Eve of the Eve

It’s the Eve of Christmas Eve and I can feel the excitement starting to bubble up within me. There is anticipation of waking up on Christmas morning to see what’s under the tree. There is an excitement in me to take part in a Christmas Eve worship experience with my church. There is excitement in me to see how my kids drink in all that they will experience over the next few days.

Ever since I was a kid, I have loved Christmas. I would hardly sleep on Christmas Eve as my excitement was palpable and uncontainable. I would wake up while everyone else was sleeping and start organizing the presents into piles, making sure that everything was in order for when everyone was awake. I love the smells of Christmas, the sounds of Christmas, the memories of Christmas, and all that Christmas means to me and to you.

Every year that goes by, it gets a little harder to get into the mood. Life has a tendency of getting in the way. Whether it’s my own health issues or someone in the family’s health issues, whether it’s a tragic loss in my community or a loss within my family or church, somehow the challenges that we face in life can creep into our celebration and do everything they can to steal our joy.

I need constant reminders of what Christmas really means, and I’m a pastor. I can read the birth account in Luke, I can sing the songs, I can plan out the services, but I still need to constantly keep before me the fact that my celebrations are somewhat backwards. Why do I get gifts when it’s Jesus’ birthday? Why am I not focusing more on the fact that I received a gift for which I should be eternally grateful?

Today, there will be no running around doing last minute shopping. I’m hoping I won’t have to go to many stores at all. I’ve tried even to avoid some of the roads around the mall in fear of being impacted by those whose heads are mulling over their own “To Do” lists. I’ve taken care of most everything on my “To Do” lists, so I hope to just get ready.

While I certainly feel a sense of loss without my parents here, the holidays have a way of reminding me of all of the great times that we shared together. I can’t help but smile as I think about my mom playing her Christmas records on the record player while she was cooking or baking in the kitchen. I can’t help but think about my father’s booming voice as we sang Angels We Have Heard on High or O Little Town of Bethlehem or some other Christmas hymn. I remember all of the Christmas traditions that we had in our family and I want to do my best to make sure that my kids have traditions that they can carry on as well.

True, no one really celebrates the eve of Christmas Eve, but I can be the first. If it means that I remember a little bit better what I’m celebrating, then I’ll do whatever it takes!

And here we are…

wtc-introSeptember 11th comes every year. There’s no stopping it. For me, it’s a dual edged sword. Not only does it remind me of that fateful day 13 years ago when terrorists hijacked 4 planes and flew them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania, but it also reminds me of my mom. September 11th was my mom’s birthday.

I could feel my anxiety rising within me a few days ago. No matter how much I tell myself not to get uptight about it as it approaches on the calendar, it’s easier said than done. I could feel the pit in my stomach, the tightening of my neck and back, and the long sighs that would somehow find their way out of my mouth.

Today is a somber day, a day to remember. When the United States first experienced the tragedy that happened 13 years ago, the tagline, “We will never forget” could be seen all over; coupling the tragedy with my mom’s birthday has assured that I would not forget either.

If you go to New York City, you will see the memorial where the towers once stood. Although I’ve not been there yet, I imagine that there is little indication (other than the memorial) that those events took place there. Things have been cleaned up and fixed. The memorial has been erected where there was once a gaping scar in the earth. While the visible evidence of the tragedy is no longer there, the mental and emotional evidence will always remain.

I can remember so much about that day as the news spread of what had happened. Living 50 miles outside New York City, it felt even closer to home. I knew people in the City, fortunately, they had not been physically injured in the midst of it all, but how many more lives were lost, families impacted, lives shattered and changed.

13 years later, are we any closer to peace in the Middle East? ISIS runs rampant, making the atrocious events and behavior seen in the past look like child’s play in some respects. Evil has not died, it still lives on. Hatred still fuels wars and disagreements. 13 years later, what have we REALLY learned?

Dates are powerful, at least they are to me. Maybe it’s because I’m a “numbers” guy. Numbers stay with me and I can remember them randomly. I will always remember this day. Can we all? But beyond remembering, can we move closer to finding peace? Can we put an end to the strife, enmity, and bloodshed? I fear that we can make a lot of noise to say that we want to move towards peace, but we can never quite get there……..not if we do it on our own.

Take a minute today to remember.  How is your life different today than it was had the events of 9/11 never happened?  What are you doing to make a difference in the world where you are?  Where do you go to find peace?  Many places that offer peace are simply offering shallow substitutes that don’t last but promise the world.  May you find the peace that passes all understanding, the gift of life. and the living water that offers those who drink the chance to never thirst again.

Here’s to 2013

New Year's ResolutionsToday is the end of 2013.  Tonight, those of us who have friends and social lives will be ushering in 2014.  Will you be sad to see 2013 go or will you be rushing it out the door?

Typically, people make resolutions as they say goodbye to the old and usher in the new.  They commit to diets, exercise plans, work plans, and all sorts of things that will ensure that their lives will be different and better on this new path forward.  I haven’t done the research to find out just how effective those resolutions are, but I get the feeling that they’re not as effective as people wish that they were.

It seems that every year when I get to the end of it, I can always find a fair amount that I’d like to forget from that year.  At the same time, there are plenty of things that I can recount with joy and gratitude.  The last time I made a New Year’s resolution was probably 20 years ago, and I have no plans to make any for this year.

Sure, I’ve thought through the things that I want to do differently, the goals that I will set for myself, the things that I would like to achieve, but I try to take a good look at myself on a regular basis, not waiting until one day of the year that’s set aside for forgetting old acquaintances, at least according to the song.  I’ve found that if I take long looks along the way it feels a little less painful than taking one giant look at the end of one year and the beginning of the next.

The beauty of the New Year is that it forces us to look ahead, to leave the past behind us, not without considering it, but definitely without dwelling upon it.  It can help us to focus on grace, and in the case of those who believe in Jesus Christ, trust that that grace is sufficient and can help us to move ahead with boldness and confidence.  Grace helps us to understand that we are not defined by our mistakes but we can accept forgiveness and move forward.

Like I said, I experienced some milestones in 2013, but I can’t say that I’m sad to see it go.  I think the days of being sad to see years go got left behind with my 20’s.  You come to a point in your life when you begin to simply appreciate what’s right in front of you and do your best to savor moments.  Not that I’ve perfected it, but when life hands you experiences that help to gain perspective, it becomes a little bit easier to see things differently.

So, here’s to 2013, and here’s to 2014.  May I find grace in knowing that the mistakes that I made this year can be passed over and forgiven and may I embrace that grace enough to know that I can move past them in the year ahead.  As one of my friends says all the time, there will never be another 2014.  So, I’m looking forward to it…thankful for that grace.

Thanksgiving

thanksgiving - rockwellHolidays just aren’t what they used to be for me.  I can remember years gone by, what seems like a lifetime ago, when I was a kid and we would get aunts and uncles and cousins together for a get together.  Conversations would ensue.  There was lots of laughter.  The aunts usually played tricks on each other, then gathered on the couch to watch “Pollyanna,” a movie that I didn’t begin to appreciate until my twenties.

But time marches on.  Families spread out and move away.  Loved ones are lost.  It becomes harder to gather everyone in the same place.  Things just don’t look like they once did.  In some ways, it begins to feel like a Winter of sorts.

But just as the buds begin to emerge through the snow and the trees begin to show signs of life as Winter begins to fade, so our lives are seasonal as well.  As we look around, we begin to see new things, new life, new opportunities.  They don’t necessarily replace the old opportunities, after all, they’re different.  But they provide for us to find afresh what we thought we had lost.  They provide opportunities for us to live again.

If we aren’t careful, we can get bogged down in lamenting what once was, what used to be, and in the process, miss what’s right before us.  I’ve fallen into this trap too many times in the past few years.  Before me is my family, my wife and 3 children, behind me is a memory of what made me who I am.  By focusing on the family before me, I’m not discounting or forgetting the memory of what was.  In fact, I think that I can better honor what WAS by investing in what IS.

Thanksgiving is an opportunity.  Every day we have the opportunity to be thankful, but we’re given a day when we are almost forced to think through what it is that we are thankful for.  Do we have a choice in the matter?  Well, yes, we do.  Black Friday creeps into Thanksgiving Thursday and our attention is pulled away from where it should be.  That seems to be a trend in life, to be distracted from what really matters in exchange for offering a temporary salve to your empty soul.  And I’ve been there, at the place where I really think that the temporary salve can actually provide a long-lasting solution.  It never does, and I am always left wanting.  More.  More.  More.

Today, when I sit down at the dinner table, there are fewer faces there than there were last year.  But there are new faces as well.  If not new, than they are at least changed faces.  I am thankful for the opportunities that I have sitting right before my eyes.

Today, I am thankful for my family.  I am grateful that we are together.  Family that I have and family that I have lost, for all of them, I am thankful.  I am thankful for what God has given me.  My needs have never been in question, and that is a privilege beyond what I can fully understand.  For that, I am thankful.

I am thankful for freedom.  I can think.  I can talk.  I can speak my mind.  I can write my mind.  I can vote.  I can drive.  I can worship the God who made me.  I can choose.  For these things I am thankful.

I am thankful that I am still here.  There are so many things before me that I want to experience and pray that I can.  I am thankful that I have friends who have joined me in this journey.  I am blessed because people care for me and about me.  Not everyone can say that, so therein lies yet another privilege.

I am thankful that I am a child of God, created for His good pleasure, gifted with things that I can use for His glory.  I am thankful that my life is different because of what He has done for me.  I am thankful that I am not the man that I was a year ago and that next year, I won’t be who I am today.  I am getting more refined, transformed, not by my own will power and determination, but by the power of God within me.

Many people have sacrificed to allow me all of these things for which I am thankful.  Those sacrifices are not lost on me.  Freedom is not free and privileges are not to be treated as rights.  I am thankful for what I have and I need to remember what is right before me.  I hope that today you will do the same.

Inevitable Emotion

gibsons circa 1979I start listening to Christmas music fairly early.  I have many reasons why, the first of which is that there’s too much good music to try to listen to in the course of a month.  I also have to start planning for things well in advance in order to not be cramming during the Advent season.  Christmas music also makes me fairly nostalgic.  Not sure if there’s anyone for which that doesn’t happen, but I know what it does to me.  This morning was one of those nostalgic times.

My wife was out at the bus stop with our two boys and my little girl was with me.  I sat down at the piano to start tinkering out a song that was in my head and ran over to the computer to see if I could find a recording of it.  I did and my daughter and I sat at the piano as I plunked out the notes along to the recording.  It was a song called “Sing” by the Carpenters.

It didn’t take long for nostalgia to kick in.  My mom was a big Carpenters fan.  I remember her always talking about Karen Carpenter and the tragedy of losing her at such a young age.  I grew up listening to the Carpenters on vinyl and probably even 8 track (if you were born later than 1980, just go to Wikipedia).  The Carpenters were actually from New Haven, Connecticut, where I worked before I left Connecticut almost 10 years ago.  Among my favorite recordings by them was their Christmas album.  I could be anywhere and hear a song from that album and it immediately take me back to my childhood.

As the computer moved past the song that I was listening to, it moved into songs from the Christmas album.  As I sat there at the piano with my daughter, I pulled her a little bit closer and began to be taken away to a place far away and a time that seemed too long ago.  I thought about Mom and the smells of Christmas.  I thought about her smile.  I thought about how wonderful it would be for my mom to meet my daughter.  As I thought more and more, a smile began to emerge on my face.

The Christmas season holds so many memories for me.  Actually, this whole holiday season is so nostalgic, from Thanksgiving through New Year’s.  I have such great memories of so many family gatherings, eating, laughing, watching movies, shedding tears, singing.  It’s hard not to smile when the rush of memories floods into my brain.

This year will be another first for me.  This is the first Christmas without my dad.  Despite the inevitable emotion that’s on the horizon, I’m not dreading it, I’m welcoming it.  For each memory that comes back to me, I have the opportunity to make more with my own children.  Sure, I wish that my parents were here to make memories with my children as well, but I can share those memories with the kids, telling them of times gone by, years past.

I know it will be a hard season, but it will also be a full season.  I’m looking forward to experiencing joy with my family.  Every new season is full of new memories and it’s always good to remember why we celebrate this time of year.  From November until January, it’s really about thankfulness.  I am grateful for all that God has given me, past and present.  I am grateful for the gift that we received so many years ago in Jesus Christ.  I am grateful for that gift that gives new life.  There’s too much to be thankful for to wallow in misery or get caught up feeling sorry for myself.  I’ll just enter this season with expectation, that’s really what Advent is about.  So, here we go.

March of the Wooden Soldiers

march-of-the-wooden-soldiersSome of my greatest childhood memories are from holidays spent with the family.  My mom was one of 5, she had 2 brothers and 2 sisters.  They all lived within a few hours of each other, so it was fairly easy for us to all be together for Thanksgiving and Christmas.  I was one of 2 cousins who were the youngest of all the cousins.  Our oldest cousins were probably 15 or more years older than us.

There are so many memories from those holidays.  I remember the turkey, the Christmas trees and decorations, the chocolate cream pie, the pranks that my aunts would play on each other, and the movies that we would inevitably watch.  “Pollyanna” was a favorite movie for the aunts to watch and they would always end up crying by the end.  I didn’t really get into “Pollyanna” until many years later.  The movie that always captured me when I was a kid during those holidays was “March of the Wooden Soldiers.”  I guess it was also known as “Babes In Toyland.”

My parents loved black and white films and they indoctrinated my brother and me to them as well.  I became a fan of Shirley Temple, the Little Rascals, Abbott and Costello, and Laurel and Hardy.  It was Laurel and Hardy who were in “March of the Wooden Soldiers,” the story of Toyland and what happens in this land of make-believe when an evil man tries to take over.

Laurel and Hardy, in their own slapstick and physical comedy ways, worked for the toymaker and they bumbled their way through their job every day.  The movie was full of action, music, and comedy with lots of laughs provided by Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.  This was the movie that was played traditionally on holidays before the days of “24 hours of A Christmas Story” and other holiday movie marathons.

Just like certain songs have a way of ushering you back to a specific time and place, this movie has the same effect.  It’s almost as if I can smell the roast turkey, taste the pumpkin pie, and hear the laughter of my family as I watch the scenes from this movie.

I don’t think that any of my cousins appreciated the movie nearly as much as I did.  In fact, every time that we channel surfed and inevitably discovered it playing on one of the channels, I think I was the only one who wanted to keep it on that channel.  Unfortunately, I was always outnumbered and I would have to hope for another opportunity to watch the movie.

I’m not sure when the last time was that I watched the movie, I think it’s been a long time.  I think it got to the point where I recited the majority of the movie as I watched it, annoying pretty much everyone who was within earshot (a similar experience could be had when watching “The Princess Bride”…..inconceivable).

I guess if I ever want to find a way to relive those childhood memories of those family holidays, I can simply pop in the movie and let the laughs begin.  Someday, maybe I’ll show it to my own children.  Not sure how well it will be received, but what’s the worst that can happen?  My kids will think I’m corny and old-fashioned.  That’s inevitable, so why put it off longer than I need to?

How about you?  What kinds of movies made the holidays for you?  What movies can you not allow the holidays to pass without having watched?  What movies have become a mainstay and holiday tradition for you that parallels that of turkey and apple pie?