Monday, December 2, 2013

A Different kind of Christmas

       Last year's Christmas was one of the most wonderful seasons in the nearly 10 years that my wife and I have been married.  For each of the previous Christmases, I'd find myself more excited for it to all be over than for the day to actually come and be celebrated.  I see the Christmas season as being riddled with busyness, obligatory social events, and as an annual excuse to fall behind on the tremendous progress we're making toward becoming debt free.  I abhor busy seemingly selfish shoppers slipping around from one slushy storefront to the next.  I always struggle to find where there is room for Jesus in all the song and dance and the parades of materialism and gluttony.  
        Merry Christmas right!  What an uplifting story to read as you're perhaps taking a break from decorating, or baking cookies, or perhaps cramming for your finals, or just trying to stay warm.  Well there is good news.  For the previous 3 years LeeAnn and I would end the Christmas season with questions of how we could make things better.  How do we invite Jesus into our season of celebration?  How can we allow my parents, who are not well off financially, still show us love without just receiving an insane amount of stuff we'd be unlikely to use?  Why would we all go into debt to buy things that we may or may not want, need, or even be able to use?  Though no one in my family is wealthy, we all manage to get by and are fortunately committed to lives of relative simplicity.  So how do we reconcile, simplicity with culturally encouraged materialism?  How do we let my parents show us they love us, but not go into debt to do so?  
       We had tried the, draw-names-out-of-a-hat-and-buy-for-someone-within-a-modest-limit-approach; but that quickly became either a gift card exchange, or $25 of stuff we really couldn't use.  "It's the thought that counts," or "well its just a little something to let you know I was thinking of you," were justifications for that process, but come on, if I'm honest, "I know you were thinking of me, you were planning to come to my house for dinner for the last month.  I know you didn't forget about me."
      So last year was a perfect Christmas.  We all took the money we would have spent on each other, to buy something that I likely would have bought myself later, or something I would have eventually donated or eaten, and spent the money as a family at KIVA International, which is a micro lending non-profit organization.  We don't donate, we loan.  Our money is paid back which we can then turn into more "hand ups."
      I narrowed the 5,000 current loans down to three families that we then discussed at dinner to see where we were being led to donate.  My parents, brother, sister-in-law, wife and as much as a 3 year old niece and 10 month old nephew were all part of the process. (learning from a young age the joys, of giving to people we don't know).  We decided to donate to Jose from Boliva who needed seeds to plant his plot of land, and Estrella from the Philippines, who needed canned goods to stock her store.  Jose, has already repaid his full loan, and Estrella is 57% paid.  Throughout the year as these repayments are made we are able to bless others.  Since last Christmas we also donated, only from the returned investments, to Demba Saido from Senegal, who needed cement to build his own house (25% repaid) and most recently Diana from Georgia (7%) who needed supplies for her own store.  
      A $200 donation that would have been spent on ourselves, has turned into $450 in less than one year, and has blessed four communities on four continents.  That is over a 100% return on our investment, and this year we'll simply add more to it.  All of this money goes to help the least of these.  Folks who have ambition, and drive and want to improve their position, and their family's in this world are blessed by this loan, and it essentially cost me a mediocre dinner at Applebee's, or a pair of slippers.      The potential impact of this money, if nothing were added to it is astonishing for them, but for my whole family it is exciting to see what we've been able to do, and how we've been able to help.  This has become one of our Christmas traditions, and something we're proud to be a part of.  I get to avoid the things that distract me from Jesus this time of year, my family gets to be meaningfully generous, and we continue to be committed to the things that we love and cherish.  

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

We're 8 Years Old!

     Well, on Monday my wife and I celebrated our 8th anniversary!  8 years is a long time.  Sure some of you have been married longer, some much longer but it would seem no one would confuse us for newlyweds.  We're two presidents in, more than 1/10 of our total life, two sets of (four total) olympics have come and gone, and had we gotten irresponsibly busy early on, we would have a child or two in elementary school.  (praise Him for responsibility)  
     We spent last Thursday through Sunday in Niagara Falls, and met two newly wed Hostel owners, who had us pegged as being married for 2-3 years.  This is kind of flattering. I was freshly shaven so I had my 25 year-old look on, and LeeAnn, well she always looks 25 so that's encouraging.  But the cool part, was that they thought we interacted different than typical 8 year old couples.  We actually enjoy being with each other!  Our vacation was spent, basically just being with each other.  We looked at the falls, poked around some vineyards, and ate a lot, but the thing that was most deeply rewarding was being able to sit with her and get reacquainted outside the typical distractions of work, church, class, friends, home owning etc.  We had nearly 4 full days of almost exclusively married couple time.  Here's what I relearned about my wife and why I love her. 
     Scripture is rather clear about marriage and its significance in the life of a Christian.  Unlike non-believers, we have the additional weight of our marriages being metaphors/illustrations of what right relationship between Christ and the Church look like.  In the Old Testament, the Prophets blast Israel for their whorish, adulterous ways of relating to Yahweh as their relationship erodes further and further from what the liberating God puts in place at the beginning. 
     Regardless of whether you're a headship guy, or complementarian gal, scripture is clear about what men and women are supposed to look like in this relationship.  How you put it into play is up to you.  But here's the rub, and the thing that I most want to celebrate about LeeAnn as my wife, is her unrelenting desire to serve me.  Scripture's system breeds happiness and is right relationship
     She dreams of making me happy!  She literally asks me what she can do to make me happy!  She willingly serves me, and dotes on me, and I catch her staring at me while I'm reading and she tells me she loves me, but not just in the, "Oh, hey dude, love ya," sort of way, but in a way where her eyes echo back what her voice says.  She lets me talk about everything I need to process, though I don't give her time to respond or give advice, and I find myself walking away chasing some shiny thing before she speaks.  She lets me try to be her Jesus despite all the times I lazy my way out of stuff, or simply drop the ball.  She tells me I'm handsome, and smart, all the things dudes who like to pretend they're all grown up and put together need to hear.  She plans vacations without planning every detail because I like flexibility even though it can drive her nuts.  She prays for me all the time, and tells me when I'm being a baby.  And she does it all in a way that seems effortless.  I think I'm a decent husband, but I need to--and I'd guess it's apparent--work really hard at it, and she is far easier to love than I am.  If you're reading this you probably know me and would confirm that!
     Why am I writing this sappy post on my blog, after having not written for over a month?  Is it because I think my wife could beat yours up in a fight?  Is it because I think she needs to be celebrated more broadly and specifically than I normally do?  Is it because she deserves it?  Yes, to all of them!  But more than all of that, this is something that just needs to be done.  Though my wife is the best on the planet, my guess is that there are other dudes out there who have these things to celebrate in their marriages too.  I find it odd that so many wives are perennial smiling servants, and so many husbands neglect to acknowledge, thank or celebrate that.  So LeeAnn, thanks for taking care of me. 

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes.  Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight.  
(1 Pete 3:3-4)

If you know LeeAnn, you must think Pete wrote this about her.  


Saturday, May 12, 2012

This week, I loaned a tiller that I'm borrowing to a friend who had a dozen or so people waiting around to help him with a bunch of projects around his house.  As you might have guessed, one of those projects was putting in a garden (tillers really are just such predictable unitaskers huh?)  I know the people that lived there two residents prior and they had a large lovely garden behind their garage.  As we began to discuss where he wanted it, this led us to a conversation about how long this plot had sat fallow.  Our best guess was only three years.
     This was fascinating.  Three years earlier, the rich soil was completely stripped of the invasive weeds and grasses.  It was well marked by towering tomato plants, sturdy root vegetables, and lazily creeping squash plants.  The soil intentionally gave its energy and nutrients to the plants that the owners selected to place there in their tight little rows.  It was free from freeloading dandelions, and crabgrass, nothing that bore no fruit was welcome in this 10'x20' plot, nor would it have been tolerated.
     The garden had been worked loose by the previous residents, compost was added, weeds were methodically removed.  Dirt was jammed under fingernails, blisters formed on the hands that were softened through a winter of unuse, sweat helped moisten the soil on the dry hot days, small nicks offered their droplets of blood, all in long pursuit of a garden which was well-prepared to bring forth the fruit its sowers knew the plants could provide.
     If you've ever gardened you know that it takes a few years, to really get the garden good, for the soil to be supplemented with proper nutrients, and become a good soil for growing.  It takes time to figure out the best layout to ensure appropriate sunlight and space for each plant and it is often a great amount of work, especially upfront.
     What was fascinating about this is just how quickly their work was utterly erased from memory.  As the required 5 men (and one woman in this case) stood around offering their advice on how and where to put in the garden, one could only see the faint frame of the former garden.  Not because there was any difference in the density of the vegetation that had so aggressively reclaimed the plot, but because the "garden" was just a little bit lower than the surrounding lawn.  The "garden grass" was indistinguishable from the "lawn grass".  It was literally as if there had never before been a garden where I was sure there had been one.  Nature had been busy, and radically effective in reclaiming its plot!
       It would take them an hour or so to till up the space.  It will take another bundle of hours to get the soil prepared, the plants in the ground, the water on, the weeds out, and the harvest in, but rest assured with appropriate commitment and knowledge this plot will be regained for the resident, it will slowly be snatched away again from nature.  It's kind of like a little battle huh?
     This is really the point of the blog.  Dirt is cool, but not necessarily worth 40 minutes of a Saturday morning.  This makes me think of the efforts we see in our own lives, and if we're lucky, our efforts in other's lives.  Naturally, we will become a weed-bed of freeloading plants, none of which produce any fruit of any value to anyone, except perhaps ourselves but at the preclusion of others bearing their fruit.  Dandelions left unchecked would conquer the planet.  (if you want to check this theory on a smaller scale look at my front lawn).  But they choke out other plants and the "fruit" they produce, is bitter and of hardly any value.
       In order for the proper fruit to come forth with appropriate abundance, a great deal of work is required.  (I've actually tried this so this is a real testimony.)  If you run out of garden space you can't just put a few seeds in the lawn and expect them to grow; it doesn't work.  If we want tasty fruit from our lives we must allow the Spirit to reclaim our nature.  We must work hard at preparing the soil so that our seeds of faith can grow, so that the seedlings of the fruits of the spirit can become mature and fruit-bearing.
     The final point is this.  Just like we're not done working on our marriage at the wedding, we're not done caring for the garden when the seeds are in, we're not done working on the preparation of our spirits when we see an shadow of fruit.  The garden described above was fully fruit-bearing, and fully matured.  With just a few years without attention, it regressed all the way back to its former state of nature.  Similarly, no matter how spiritually mature you are today, how far you've come or how secure you think you are, you aren't free from intentionality, and a need to be attentive to your garden.  Our nature will always sneak back into control, weeds will always pop back up if we aren't vigilant in protecting that space.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Wake up call

This week was an utter joy!  The week began with a class on Brethren Polity.  An admittedly funny juxtaposition of sentences even by my standards.  This was great because I got to spend a few hours with one of my denomination's leaders from the National Office.  It was reassuring to hear of how our tribe is, has and must change to continue to be relevant.  It didn't hurt to hear a few words of encouragement from him about how excited he, and others in the Brethren church are that "people like me," (by which he meant young leaders who have shown at least glimpses of potential to bring about radical transformation) are starting to emerge.  It must be noted that I still find it incredible that people see such potential for Christ's work to be done through me.  This is true, in part because I know where I came from.  I know about all the ludicrous things I've done, and still think of doing.  I know about my weaknesses and the things that I work so hard to hide from others, that I find myself looking over my shoulder to see who these people are talking to.  I never see anyone so I must assume they're talking to me.  More on this in upcoming blogs.
    I spent some time with my ministry team discussing the direction men's ministry is heading, and where we've been, and what obstacles are in our way, and what we can or can't do about them, and was reassured by their commitment, thoughts, frustrations and desire to see the same changes that we've been envisioning for nearly 2 years.
    I got to spend some more time with Will a few days later, chewing on some of the same things we typically talk about.  Children and raising them not to be animals, the role of community in the church, weird 5 stones specific things, our upcoming Marriage Camp, etc.
    I also got to spend some time with Jesus and my wife.  Tonight, I made these absolutely wicked portobello mushroom caps, with garlic, goat cheese and balsamic vinegar, grilled veggies and STEAK, had a Lucky U IPA, and simply spent the evening on my porch with my wife.  She likes me just as much as I like her and always says the most loving things when we have little nights like this.
   All of these things are so exciting!  I continue to realize how blessed I am.  How fortunate I am that God decided to bless me with all of these resources, skills, gifts, etc.
<cue rooster crowing>
    A week like this forces my hand.  I can either sit back, receive the compliments, enjoy the peace and love, fall deeper and deeper in love with the vision the Holy Spirit is giving me for my life, hang my hat on all the things that could be, or, I can DO something.  This isn't to say that I've done nothing, because I have.  What I'm saying is that I tend to choose option A.  I like vision and I love compliments and peace and possibilities.  I like coming up with ideas and strategies, and even have success implementing them.  But I realized this week, that much of what I, and others are excited about is stuff that lies ahead.  It's making those things happen that brings excitement.  When we look at the vision for Men's Ministry as a place and time when men are integrated into the lives of other men in their finances, marriages, families, jobs etc.; where old men seek out young men to train them to live like Christ, and young men run to old men to say, "hey, you seem to have this figured out, teach me," it is that reality that excites me.  Not the idea of it.  The idea of being QB for the Browns is exciting, the reality is terrifying.  There is a difference between ideas and realities, and it isn't the idea that excites me.
    This example is for the tangible things in the ministry I lead, but the idea, reality translates into my marriage, my education, your ability to raise your kids, your work ethic, your relationship with Jesus etc.  My football coach used to tell us to visualize the plays as they were going to happen in a game, golfers visualize shots before they take them.  In order to bring about a new reality it starts with our vision; we need to see it.  But if it remains only that change ain't-a-coming.  Do you dream about what your perfect marriage, perfect day of parenting, fulfilling relationship with Jesus looks like?  I hope so, but what do you do to make these things real, to make them happen, to turn them from ideas about a hopeful future, into descriptors of a real present?

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Today's Easter service had us write little Thank You notes to Jesus, and pin them to the cross.  Typically a little resistent to this sort of activity but found myself resonating with the activity.  As I begin to consider all the things I'm blessed with, then prioritize them so I can list those things for which I'm most grateful on a 3" square of paper, I find that the exercise forces me to look at the ways in which I'm foundationally blessed.  Let me walk you through where my mind went.  
    As one might expect, I first thought of my lovely wife, then my family, with whom we celebrated yesterday, then I thought of how blessed we are to have a church we love and who loves us, and how blessed it is that we pay our bills etc.  The typical things that a majority of us would recognize as blessings.  Then, I began to feel a little selfish.  All of this was Miles centered.  It is my security and safety that I'm most thankful.  It is that I have a super dope wife, and a pile of friends.  It is me who has health, and happiness, and an education and a winning smile.  I don't really know that I'm supposed to be thinking about myself, at least not to the exclusion of all other people and how Easter has blessed them.  Whether or not this Milescentric view of Easter is appropriate, is actually less the point.  The point is that I did feel like a weenie.  
    The weenie feeling, forced me to the foundational question of how the cross and the resurrection bless me and everyone else.  What actually happens in the resurrection?  Not from a logistical perspective, nor am I asking for an owner's manual for atonement.  What I mean is in my everyday life what is a reasonable way to view the resurrection and how it matters?  This is one of those things that is either profound or elementary, a phenomenon I see so often in Christianity.  Things that we learned long ago and have forgotten, or things that uneducated 14 year olds understand but I somehow miss, all too often rock my world.  
    For me the answer was that this is the only blessing that really matters.  All of these other things are empty without the promise of reunion with the Father.  For anyone who's not a Christian this sounds a little off, cliche or cultish, so let me try to unpack it briefly.  Of what value would, hot wife, 20" biceps, financial security, loads of friends etc. be if at the end of it all, when LeeAnn gets old, my 20"biceps become 26" flabby arms, the stocks plummet again, and my friends all die before me because I've been living on LeeAnn's crazy diet for 30 years, we simply end up as filling for a really expensive box, or worse.
   I see all the things I'm blessed with as bandaids outside the work of the cross.  If there were no resurrection, all the things we typically list as blessings are simply opiates to keep us trudging through til we finally die.  With the cross as the lens through which we see the blessings of health, friendship, love, etc. those blessings are given a greater meaning because we know the living God, who wishes to give us great gifts is just warming up.  Paying the water, electric and gas bill, though pretty sweet now, will be something completely menial when we are at the feet of the Father, chillin' with JC.  Without the cross, we don't have that to look forward to, we simply have at best a sweet retirement, at worst continued separation from He who loves us most.