Be a Friend – With No Strings Attached

Let’s face it, most of our friends are friends because we have something in common. Jobs, kids the same age, sports connections, hobbies, social or religious groups, things like that. We may not know our next-door neighbors, though, because there’s no reason for us to know them. The fact that they live next to us is no longer a reason to become acquainted.

There is another kind of friend, though, the friend who pals around with you but who will trash you and your reputation all over social media if you make her mad. These “friends” come with lots of baggage and lots of attached strings. People like this are quick to give advice, eager to assign blame and declare their innocence.

Out here in Kansas, there are still pockets of humanity where we choose to interact just because we happen to meet someone. We don’t need to have anything in common. We choose to be friendly and helpful if the need arises, and we don’t ask questions. We aren’t necessarily “friends,” but we are friendly.

Deep down, many of us secretly feel lonely. We want a friend – someone who won’t judge us, someone who will be there for us but won’t give advice unless we ask for it, someone who will believe in us when we can’t do it ourselves. But do these people even exist anymore? I sure don’t see many of them!

So I’ve decided to do something about it. You know the old adage: If you want a friend, be one? I have decided that if I can’t find a friend like I’d like to have – that person who always has my back – I’m going to be that person for someone else. That way, at least that person will have a friend with no strings attached. Hopefully, this attitude will be contagious. It is a risky proposition, I know. But I do think it is what the world needs now, so I’m going to do my best to make it happen. I hope some of you will take the challenge, too!

Courage

It is hard to have real courage. Courage is like making sacrifices – if it costs you nothing, it isn’t real. But courage is hard to come by if you don’t believe in yourself, or have faith, or know that someone has your back. I know a lot of people who want courage but can’t find it, and sometimes I’m even one of them.

When we can’t find courage, what do we do? My answer, at least right now, is to find someone who believes in you. Not someone who thinks you are the greatest person in the world, or who admires you, or who is sure you can do whatever it is you need to do, but someone who believes in the you behind your need. Someone who is willing to stand with you and be a friend, who will be there to encourage you, to cry with you and, hopefully in the end, celebrate with you. Like I said, I know a lot of people who need courage right now, courage to do hard things, to take great leaps of faith, courage to change their lives.

 It is not my place to do the hard things for them; that would diminish their power and leave them with less hope than before. My job for these people is to be that friend, that cheerleader, that believer, the one who hopes against all hope and stays the course. I’m sure each of you knows at least one person who needs courage. I encourage you, (pun intended), to be that rock solid lifeline, standing with him through thick and thin. I ask you to commit yourself, and in so doing save humanity, one person at a time.

How Serious Is My Commitment?

If you’ve been following my blogs, you know that I wanted my Christmas dinner to be a bit out of the ordinary. Well, it was. We hosted two family members and four others we sort of knew, but not really. The non-family left shortly after dinner, but my husband did offer to one couple the use of our spare room if the place they call home became too cold, (the temperatures were forecast to fall into the single digits with wind). The following morning we got a call from them, and half an hour later they were our guests for the remainder of the day and overnight. Problems of an almost empty larder, a bottomed-out bank account, and both of us having to leave for work very early in the morning made me question my commitment to these (and all) people who struggle. We called a friend who agreed to come pick up our guests 15 minutes before we had to leave for work the next morning. He agreed to take them to a safe place where they could at least stay warm until they could go back to their home. I packed a breakfast they could take with them. For the remainder of the day, though, we shared the food we had, our television, heat, shower and time with this couple.

But I wondered, how committed do I want to be? People without a lot of personal commitment can become leeches, always needing things, always wanting your attention, always around. This couple definitely doesn’t have a lot of commitment to changing their life situation. They hope it will change for the better, but they aren’t doing much to make that happen. And they could – if they chose to. So, again, I asked myself, am I willing to commit myself to being a friend in need? Am I willing to open my home again when the need arises? It is a whole lot easier to write blogs, or give money, or sign petitions than it is to actually provide services, and free of charge at that.

I don’t know the answer, at least not at this moment. But I do know that this kind of situation is why so many people turn a blind eye and a deaf ear, why so many just give money in the hope that they won’t have to do anything, and why there is such a gap between the haves and the have nots.

I hope this makes you just a little uncomfortable, at least enough to think deeply about this. All our decisions have consequences, and we have to live with them, like it or not. Perhaps we all need to pause and consider just how committed we really are to the causes we say we support. Maybe it is time to consider the consequences of our commitment, and whether or not we are comfortable living with those end results.

Christmas Poverty

Christmas and poverty should be opposites. In the USA, Christmas is a time of getting, giving, partying, and celebrating. Poverty is defined by Ruby Payne as the lack of resources. Other than money to buy all the gifts we seem to think we need to give, what resources could we possibly lack during the Christmas season?

You’ve heard the slogan “Jesus Is the Reason For the Season.” I humbly beg to differ. I think we are the reason for the season. Emmanuel means God With Us, and that is what happened at Christmas. Our crazy God wasn’t taking no for an answer. He loved us so much that he himself came to live among us to show us how we are meant to live. (It always helps when things function the way they were intended. We expect no less from our cars, our phones, and our computers, so why do we seem hell-bent on living in ways we were not made to live?)

But Christmas and poverty? Yes! We have created our own poverty, our own lack of resources, and I’m not talking about money. Christmas is about a relationship, us with our God, and the extension is that Christmas is about relationships with people. But we’ve substituted things for those relationships. We give gifts because we think that’s what people expect. Advertisers get really creative during the Christmas holidays in their efforts to make us believe that giving and getting things is what the season is really about. We have become so burdened down with this need to give, get, and impress that we cannot find the resources to make, strengthen, and heal relationships among ourselves.

Traditionally, Christmas is a time for families. Even Walmart is closing on Christmas Day so that people can spend time with families! But families tend to exclude non-family, and often tip toe around each other at Christmas so that their real feelings toward one another stay hidden. When God came to be a human being among human beings, he didn’t come to the family. He came to the outcasts. He came to those who had no hope, no resources, and no social respect. He came to those people who were rich in relationships but poor in just about everything else. God came to the people who would accept him because they weren’t burdened down by their wealth, their social standing, their arrogance, and their self-images.

My family is no different from any other family. This year, however, instead of just family gathered around my table on Christmas day, there will be others that my family do not know. There will be people I have met by chance, people who have no family with whom to over-eat on Christmas Day. We may not talk much during the meal – it’s sometimes hard to know what to say to complete strangers. We will not exchange gifts after our meal. But those who gather, including the family, will leave knowing that they are important to me, not because of what they could give me, nor because of what I could give them, but simply because we shared ourselves with each other.

For people who struggle with financial poverty, relationships are #1 in their lives. Things come and go, but relationships are forever. I ask you to join me this Christmas in getting rid of relational poverty, letting go of things, and focus on building relationships that include, affirm, value, and accept people. (And then, celebrate Christmas all year long!)

My Plate Is Too Full

Have you ever put a plate full of food in front of a toddler? Every food on that plate might be his favorite, but the sheer amount of food is overwhelming and he will reject all of it, or at least spend a lot of energy whining. But put just a small portion of each kind of food on a plate, with lots of empty spaces in between, and he’ll ask for more in a hurry.

That’s how I feel about life right now – overwhelmed! I’ve got a book to finish, property taxes, car insurance, and Christmas to pay for this month, parents to care for, holiday doings, and the list goes on and on and on. I suddenly feel like a small child with a very full plate, and all I want to do is get down from the table and go play. I need somebody to take half the stuff off my plate and make empty spaces in between. Unfortunately, I am that somebody; I have to do this on my own.

Here’s how I’m coping: I’m learning to organize my tasks into smaller, manageable amounts, and make sure I take time each day to do something just for myself. That self-something might be as simple as taking a short nap, reading a chapter in a favorite book, taking a walk or a long shower, or playing the piano for half an hour, but it is just for me. Then I prioritize my tasks into those that absolutely have to be finished today, those that I need to partly finish today, and those that need attention before tomorrow. I check my work schedule and arrange my tasks for the day. Yes, my plans often get changed, but by working with smaller pieces of the whole, I can minimize the tension that builds inside me when I try to work on everything all at once. (I am a list-maker, and it helps to see things crossed off my daily list.)

When I can see life as smaller, organized, and prioritized tasks that lead to the completion of larger tasks, I feel I can cope, one job at a time.

It Seems Wrong This Year

Our church has been focusing for a few years on the least, the lost, and the last. Our focus this year is on children in foster care and families that have been torn apart. After the final worship service last Sunday, we decorated our church building for the Christmas season. Our church has been the most beautifully decorated in our city for at least the past 10 years, intentionally so. All the people who planned that are gone now, and to me, anyway, the Martha Stewart of church decoration schemes suddenly seems out of place, even wrong. A few years ago we did move the Christmas tree to the back of the sanctuary and the manger scene to the front, but even the manger scene is a lavish, hand-painted china set with gold paint everywhere. All these decorations were meant to show people how beautiful we are. Actually, I think the decorations have shown people how un-beautiful their decorations are in our eyes. Our decorations were for show. It was never intended that there should be a place for the least, the lost, and the last.

For years my family has decorated the house for Christmas the day after Thanksgiving. Not this year, though. I admit this is my fault. Thanksgiving was not a happy day for me. Two family members got into a big drawn-out argument and I finally yelled “Stop!” It was not my place to say that, but I did. I couldn’t take it anymore. The next day I was still very upset, and continue to be, to the point that I don’t want my house decorated for Christmas. Nobody is coming to visit us this year, anyway, so really, what’s the point?

But Christmas has always been my very favorite season. I have wonderful memories of being 7 years old, lying on the couch in the dark living room and enjoying the blobs of colored light from the large electric Christmas lights on the tree. (That was before I knew I needed glasses. I didn’t know the lights should have shape and not just be glowing blobs!) I have always told my husband that he could leave our Christmas tree up all year long and I’d be happy. I still love sitting in the dark living room just enjoying the lighted tree. But not this year, (at least not so far).

Since no one is coming home for Christmas this year, and our family celebrations are in January to accommodate those who have to work on Christmas day, what I’d like to do is invite people who will not be celebrating with any family into my home for a meal on Christmas Day. I’d like to cram as many people around our table as possible, even though I may be the only one who knows all of them, and just enjoy being included instead of feeling left out. I’d like to NOT have the house decked out in its Christmas finery, but instead, focus on the people gathered, more like the first Christmas, out in the stable, with dirty, smelly shepherds coming in the middle of the night. I’d like to celebrate that the least, the lost, and the last have a place in my home if they are willing.

Second Chances

Every once in a while some of us get a second chance in life. A & J are two of those lucky people. Here’s celebrating 5 wonderful years in which they’ve blessed our family with:

Willingness to share with and participate in family

Creativity in all things

Love of learning

Zest for life

Joy

Laughter and humor

Kindness and thoughtfulness

Love for people

Commitment to each other and family

Happy Anniversary

And best wishes for

Many more!

Correcting Cultural Concerns

I have to brag a bit; our youngest daughter has been named banquet chef at a large Missouri hotel/casino. Landing the job was very difficult, not because she isn’t capable, but because she’s a woman. The gender bias and discriminatory comments and innuendos she had to get past were remarkable for only one reason: most of the time, the people saying the offensive things had no idea they were uttering improper verbiage. True! Questions about her size, (petite), appearance, (she’s quite a beauty, but not an imposing presence when you first meet her), and strength, (she had been actually doing the job for quite some time and was physically capable of everything required by the job), regularly came up in conversation.

Sadly, this was not the first job in which she had encountered these problems, and the comments had always come from men. The whole process took months longer than it should have, and at one point she called me to say she was going to pull her name from consideration for the job and look elsewhere for employment. I understood her position, but I told her she absolutely had to see this thing through to the end, simply because she is a woman, and a very capable woman. If she bowed to the pressure of discrimination, where would that leave other women who were capable of becoming chefs in that company? She needed to be the example that overcame the obstacles, I told her.

Evidently my counsel took root, because our daughter’s wife got sick of hearing the daily tales of woe and told our daughter to just quit. To which our daughter replied that she couldn’t, because of the other women. She had to stick it out. (She probably apologized for complaining so much.)

After our daughter was finally named the banquet chef, I asked her if the discriminatory remarks subsided. “Well, for the most part,” she said. “But when someone does say something inappropriate, I just look them in the eye and say, ‘You really can’t say that to me,’ or ‘You can’t legally ask me that question.’ They always get funny looks on their faces, but they are beginning to understand what gender discrimination is.” We both agreed that most of the time, the men had no idea that there was a problem with what they said.

I think this is true with a lot of discrimination. We don’t realize we’re doing it, it’s a cultural thing we’ve grown up with. Look at the bullying issue. The whole world has seen a lot of it at the national level in my country. The world recognizes it because it seems so out of place in that office. But the rest of the USA sort of understands, because that’s the stuff our culture puts up with all the time. We try to make students understand that it is inappropriate at school, but if it is allowed at home and on the streets, what difference does school make? (none) TV sitcoms regularly address the issue, and have for years, but the reality of what’s being said goes right over most people’s heads, and they just think it is funny. They adopt the inflammatory language into their regular bullying style and the problems just get worse.

Our daughter had to wait until she was in a position as an equal to be able to address the problems. What if we didn’t wait, though? What if, whenever we witness or are confronted with inappropriate comments or questions, what if we name it as inappropriate right then? What if we stand up for ourselves and the other victims of abuse, (nicely, of course)? Dealing with an issue right when it happens is usually more powerful than waiting.

I’m obviously proud of our daughter, and I’m hoping that the example she has set will make a real difference in the place she works. I’m hoping that in that male-dominated business, people will come to respect each other as people, not depend upon the stereotype attitudes they’ve grown up with. What is your situation? Is there a place you can begin to make a difference?

We, Also, Are Guilty

We all do what we can to protect ourselves and those we love, right? Maybe WRONG!

I hope last Sunday’s mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, TX shocked you, but more for what didn’t happen than what actually occurred. News coverage has been rather thorough, as usual. Support is flowing in from across the country. The political right is suggesting that people begin openly carrying loaded guns to church (since concealed carry is illegal in churches in Texas). The left is demanding, again, that gun control legislation be enacted. And while we are debating and reporting, while relief efforts and prayers continue, the real problem just keeps growing and growing and growing.

Remember the story about the master who demanded an accounting of his servants at the end of their employment? To one group he said, “You never missed an opportunity to visit me, to care about me, and to be kind to me.” To the other group he said, “Why didn’t you visit me, care for me, or be kind to me? Why didn’t you even notice me?” The first group shook their heads and said, “Sorry? We don’t remember ever doing things like that for you. Are you sure you’ve got the right people?” But the second group declared, “Lord, if we’d seen you, we would gladly have done all that, and more! Where were you hiding?” To all of them the master replied, “Whatever you have done to the least, the last, and the lost, you have done to me.”

And therein lies our problem, the one that helped create the horror in Sutherland Springs, in our youth who are radicalized into terror groups, and in so many more events yet to come. We are so busy creating our own safe environments that we don’t even notice people! We make sure our politics excludes people who get abortions, people who don’t go to church, people who are sexually different from us, people who aren’t smart, or attractive, or financially successful, people who don’t have the right social pedigree, in short, people who bother us. But research has shown over and over and over again, that people who commit these horrific crimes against humanity share one thing in common: they experienced trouble at home and school as a child.

I was a public school teacher, I also taught in a prison, and now drive foster children. I have seen evidence of this every single day in all across my career. I have never been surprised to see my former students’ names in the paper in the court listings; I could have told you years ago that this is where they would end up. Why? Because I watched people shun and isolate them until the only people who would pay attention to them were those who would drag them into the unhappiness they lived with – abuse, drugs, crime… But every once in a while, the cycle was broken. Sometimes, someone would notice the hurting child and accept him into a circle of compassionate friendship where positive living was the norm.

I am fully aware that most of us cannot barge into children’s homes and fix problems of abuse, poverty, hunger, and neglect. But we can notice them and include them in our own lives. Yes, their language and social manners may be offensive, but most kids are willing to change those things in situations where they know they are accepted, even loved, if they are asked to. (It sometimes took constant reminders, but when I asked my students to make these changes, they always did, because they knew I loved them either way.)

I implore you, if you are tired of our flags flying at half-mast all the time, do something about it! Seek out the least, the lost, the last – even in your own families. Pay positive attention to them. Welcome them. Find things to enjoy about them. Treat them with the same respect you treat your best friends. Include them. Do things with them (instead of for them). You won’t stop every crime, but you will make a huge difference in your community – one that could save lives in the future. This isn’t about committees, or legislation, or even morals. This is about YOU.

Let Your Battery Run Down (once in a while)

You know how they always tell you that it’s not a good idea to keep your laptop batteries charged at 100% all the time? I think that might be a good idea in life, too. I think that once in a while we need to let our battery run down to around 7%, not completely dead, but close. Why? Well, here’s my story to illustrate the why.

I drive for a living now. Some days I drive about 3 hours, others as many as 13. Last week I drove more hours than usual, and had three days of very long hours. I was exhausted. Our youngest daughter, who is an apartment-dwelling chef in Kansas City, had asked me to grow sweet potatoes for her this year. I did, but had to dig them last week when the temperature dipped to freezing. I don’t have the facilities to cure sweet potatoes so that they store well, so I needed to get them to our daughter quickly. As luck would have it, even though I was overly tired from driving, this weekend also required much of my time at church, draining most of my remaining energy. BUT, yesterday was a day that both our daughter and I had off. Now, our daughter lives almost 200 miles away, so it was going to be a long drive to deliver the sweet potatoes. Knowing full well how tired I was, I dithered about making the trip, but decided it was now or never.

After I got home from a relatively short drive for work yesterday, I threw a sleeping bag and pillow in the car and headed for Kansas City. I knew I could spend the night if I wanted to. As I drove east of Manhattan, KS, I began to see that the bridges and overpasses had been treated against freezing rain and snow. The entire length of I-70 running through Topeka had been sprayed. Not a good sign!

When I arrived in Kansas City, our daughter and I sat on top of her 5-foot high entertainment center, looking out over the river and surrounding city, just relaxing and catching up with each other’s lives. We got to talking about recipes, found one that looked good, and made it – just for fun. I had brought her the last of the parsley from my garden, so she used it in the puttanesca she made for supper. Delicious! Even better, our daughter’s wife got home earlier than usual from work and joined us for supper. After dinner we checked the weather forecast, and were dismayed to see that rain was to begin in Topeka at 3 AM and temperatures were to continue dropping after that, reaching 27° F. I did not want to be driving in traffic on icy roads in the morning, so I made the decision to drive home immediately.

I remained very alert and energized, taking joy in the visit, the food, and just relaxing with our daughter and her wife – until the last hour and a half of my journey. From there, it was a struggle to stay awake, much less alert. I should have pulled over and slept a while, but I didn’t.

Yes, I made it home, but today I kind of feel as if I met a semi-truck head-on last night. Headache, fatigue, thinking isn’t easy, that kind of thing. BUT, yes, I know, another but…today is the last day of the month and bills had to be paid today. And my time clock punches at work got all messed up and had to be sorted out today. And that nap that I’ve wanted all day? I never got it. Things just kept having to be taken care of now.

Why did I say that it is good to get this tired once in a while? Because when your personal battery is blinking and sending you messages saying you have 7% left, you make different choices, you prioritize. When there is only so much energy left, you put aside the things that don’t have to be done, (like baking the Halloween treats we usually take to people on this last day of October, the laundry, other cooking, reading), and you focus on the things that absolutely must be done.

I don’t like being this tired, but it makes me realize that a lot of what I do is frivolous. I need times like this to remind me to focus on the main things in life and not get caught up in the little details that, while I enjoy them, often use up more of my energy than they are worth. And, now that I’ve done the last thing that absolutely has to be done today, (writing to you), I’m going to get that sleep I really, really need. ZZZZzzzzzzz