Monday, February 27, 2006

Fluff the Magic Dragon

A significant date in the secular world will converge with a significant date in the religious world to give me significant pause. April 15th stamps the due date for tax collection and March 1 will mark—literally—those of us who honor Ash Wednesday.

As my husband and I completed our tax returns over the winter break (believe me, it was not because we couldn’t think of anything funner to do…), we were forced to examine—in the absolute light of day—where exactly, the resources with which we’ve been entrusted went. The process is not a particularly appealing one to us creative types; pulling out receipts and lining up invoices in perfect little piles pales in comparison to putting oil to canvas, needle to linen or voice to song.

My left-brained hubby, by contrast, gets a veritable kick out of creating Excel sheets, affixing percentages to line items and developing beautifully-colored pie charts in an effort to show me visually where every single penny is spent.

Amazing that these two types of people can happily co-exist, huh?

But as it usually turns out, the experience of examining one’s stewardship over financial resources provides valuable clues into the very essence of how well—or not—one’s life is lived. When one can clearly see the percentage going to charity versus entertainment, for example, or for increased lifestyle, one grasps a fuller understanding of where priorities really lie.

Combined with the significant upcoming event of Ash Wednesday, where Christians around the world grapple with the mystery of sacrifice, I have been forced to squarely deal with the stuff of our family. With how much we earn and how much we spend, versus how much we save and donate to those facing less prosperous life circumstances. Throw on top of that this week’s Rocket Mom Society meeting in my home where our topic will be “Getting Your Act Together: The Stuff of Your Life” and the recipe cooking up in my kitchen casts a heavily scented aroma of introspection.

So how do you grapple with stewardship and sacrifice?

I have come to this understanding through years working in investments, as a former stockbroker married to a former stockbroker, as well as teaching and counsel from people in my life whose input I value. You may profoundly disagree with my perspective, and of course I respect the fact that yours may be quite different from mine. But as I look at the stuff of life: how to acquire it, manage it, share it and leave it, I grapple with a few basic principles. Sensing the timeliness of these matters, given that March 1 and April 15 are just around the corner, perhaps you are grappling with them, too.

1) We do not own resources; we merely exert stewardship over them. We did not create the beauty of the universe; our Creator did. He can do with it whatever He chooses. He has entrusted our universe to us in the best hopes that we will take care of it wisely. Our financial resources are not really ours, either. They have been provided to us through God’s grace with the hopes that we will use them wisely, too. So I don’t think of the things in my life as “my stuff.” It’s certainly stuff—and it may reside in my home—but I merely exert stewardship over it while I’m on this earth. I will leave it exactly as I entered it: utterly naked.

2) Resources come and resources go; we need to be content with both much and with little. My family has had much at some points in our lives and we have had little at other times. I like it better when we have more. I’m human. But there are always lessons to be learned in leanness. And our family has made a concerted decision to become leaner. It will have its own rewards.

3) At some point, stuff simply becomes fluff. It’s no longer a needed pair of shoes; it’s a luxury pair added to the other luxury pairs lining our closet floors. How much do we really need, after all? I read that tennis great Serena Williams owns at least fifty tank tops. She has an affinity for them. Obviously. I admit to having an affinity for certain things, too. And I have made a conscious decision to stop my affinity. How much do I really need? At some point, we need to rationalize a freeze to spending. To freeze lifestyle. Your freezing point may have a different degree than mine. But it’s a question worth asking.

4) Sacrifice always feels better than self-indulgence. While indulging in occasional whims is gratifying and permissible on almost all counts, it never provides long-lasting satisfaction. Sacrifice, on the other hand, requires personal denial, and leaves one feeling like a positive legacy has been cast as a direct result. I highly encourage everyone to sacrifice one tenth of their resources to those less fortunate, whether you believe you are able to do so or not. Begin slowly, if you must. And work up to any amount over and above a ten percent benchmark. When we sought counsel from one of our ministers at to a “before- tax” or “after-tax” ten percent, his response was simple: “Do you want before-tax or after-tax blessings?”

5) Give thanks for each and every blessing and count them often. Take nothing for granted. Not your health nor your strength nor your relationships nor your home nor your job nor your leisure. It all comes from above and needs to be acknowledged as such.

As you sift and sort through the receipts and bank statements that in many ways define how you are living your life, I hope that you take some time to think of how you can become an even better steward…and of ways in which personal sacrifice will lead you to a more saint-like existence.

Stuff really does become fluff when too much stuff occupies your everyday spaces, your everyday finances and your everyday thoughts. That’s when it’s truly Fluff the Magic Dragon. Don’t let its fire breathe too heavily down your neck.

Blessings on your week,


Monday, February 13, 2006

Simple Love Acts

“Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” The Bible

The third-biggest retailing holiday is one day away. Just behind Christmas and Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day will be celebrated by spending $13 billion on anything heart-shaped, chocolate-flavored or rose-scented.

While never refusing dark chocolate nor snubbing floral deliveries, I’m just not into either this year. OK. Maybe I’m still into chocolate. My hubby will be out-of-town on Valentine’s Day, so it just won’t be a very big deal; it’ll be celebrated upon his return. But apparently, very few others feel the same way. A recent report by Kiplinger’s found that men out-spend women three to one, spending an average of $92. Last year, 175 million roses were produced for Valentine’s Day alone, more than enough for every adult in America to get one.

Frankly, I’ve never been one to fall wholeheartedly into the whole Valentine’s Day ritual. Don’t buy my hubby silk boxers with little hearts all over them; don’t question our marriage if he walks in the door sans roses. So rather than give you yet another creative take on the Valentine’s Day “holiday,” I’m going to brag about a fellow rocket mom.

My friend, Kim, rocket mom to four kids (all within five years) sent out via email an invitation to a “Chicken Soup for the Soul” luncheon at her home. I had assumed that she was including her closest friends, but it turned out that she was inviting only those women who were serving in various caretaking—or shepherding—capacities at our church for her children. She wanted it to be casual; again, I assumed it was kind of a “drop-in-as-you-feel-like-it” kind of a party. But instead, it was a sit-down affair, with homemade chicken soup, salad, rolls and home-baked cookies.

Kim made a conscious decision to make adult friendships a high priority in her life, and despite feelings of being overwhelmed, or of being intimidated by entertaining styles of some of her other acquaintances, she was inspired to do something simple, yet meaningful.

After a lovely afternoon of lunching with new and old friends, Kim presented us with Valentine’s goodies bags: chocolates tied with a pretty ribbon and a quote, each of us receiving something unique.

“I believe your quote will speak directly to you,“ Kim said as, one by one, we read our quotes and nodded, some of us with lumps in our throats, about the uncanny effect that this little ritual had on us. (Sort of like opening a Chinese fortune cookie to discover what seems like a “fortune” written just for you, only better…)

When I reflect back on those memories which evoke the strongest sentiments, invariably they include those times when someone enveloped me into her cocoon, wrapping me with simple things, like hot food, fresh coffee and undivided attention. When a girlfriend grabbed me for my birthday or for moving away or just after childbirth, to enjoy a warm meal surrounded by all the creature comforts of her home. Those special times don’t come all that frequently, and so we remember them with special fondness. And so the older I get, the more convicted I become to practice hospitality to others when opportunities spring into my path.

This weekend, we had the opportunity to extend hospitality to a traveling drama troupe from Cape Cod. They were to perform the 15th century play, Everyman, in our town, before we got buried under the 26” of snow which hit the entire northeast corridor early Sunday morning. The team of eight needed three different homes in which to stay, and we offered ours as one of them. The plans took an obvious shift when we became stranded at home, as we sit on top of a mountain at the mercy of a private snow plower. So what we thought would be a weekend of entertaining for a couple of meals and a few warm beds turned into a solid two days of long chats by the fire, a half-dozen pots of coffee and a few more times around the kitchen table than we had originally planned.

And we were all so blessed. One of the gentlemen whom we housed remarked: “I’ll bet in twenty years you’ll all look back on this weekend and say ‘Remember when those three guys from the Cape came and stayed with us and we got stuck in the biggest snowstorm to have ever hit New England?’”

And of course, we all will.

There’s a game which is frequently played in adult discussion circles which goes something like: “Write down the names of three Academy Award winners for Best Actress; write down the names of three Olympian gold-medal winners; write down the names of blah-blah-blah.” (You get the idea) It finishes by asking you to write down the names of three teachers you had an impact on your life.

And of course, we can do that without batting our eyes.

Human connection. Extension. Intimate interaction. That’s what has impact. That’s what has meaning. Evokes the strongest memories. Conveys true love.

So on Valentine’s Day this year, I will try to do those seemingly small yet powerful love acts that might, in some way, have eternal significance. Flowers? Chocolate? Yeah. They’re all great. But opening my door to a stranger. Giving my hubby and my kids undivided attention. Leaving simple gifts on my children’s pillows. Writing a meaningful letter. Calling a long-lost friend. Following Kim’s example of hospitality. Those will be my inspirations for Valentine’s Day this year.

I hope you have a love-filled Valentine’s Day. In whatever form you think best defines it.



Monday, February 06, 2006

Playing Hurt

“Do not look forward to what might happen tomorrow: The same God who cares for you today will take care of you and yours tomorrow and everyday. Either God will shield you from suffering or God will give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace then and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations.” St Francis Desales

“Hands down,” my husband said. “It’s Super Bowl Sunday and you need to write another “Playing Hurt” Newsletter.

It was a tradition started by our old pastor and dear friend, Wayne Smith, arguably one of the most influential Christian pastors in America. He preached tirelessly for over forty years to the faithful who, Sunday after Sunday, both drove great distances to hear him preach as well as sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic for endless miles of the stretch down the only highway leading to the mammoth church in Kentucky. His message was always divinely inspired, but it was his yearly “Playing Hurt” sermon on Super Bowl Sunday that drew the ravest reviews.

It’s because most of us are playing hurt. In one way or another.

And so I wrote my first “Playing Hurt” Newsletter last year, as I played “excruciatingly hurt” when Nick got diagnosed with cancer. Am I worry-free now? Completely walking in faith without shuffling in fear? Absolutely not. I’m only human. I still play hurt on some days, like I did this Thursday when I got a phone call from him saying that he had a fever and was in the doctor’s office. My stomach moved to my throat; my heart raced faster; and my mind played mental gymnastics that were something less than limber.

I admit to playing hurt this year for entirely different reasons. I’m a tad bit physically hurt...but it’s that “good hurt” that comes from exhausting exercise, the kind that I didn’t get quite enough of last year because of Nick’s treatment. It’s similar to the kind of hurt that the football players in the Super Bowl play through. Achy muscle hurt. Broken bone hurt. Sore ribs hurt. As the football players stay in the game despite their hurt (did you catch the player riding the stationary bike through a pulled groin?), I booked a tennis game for tomorrow morning. Despite a throbbing previously-broken shoulder and a throbbing-even-more previously-shattered leg. I need to play hurt to make my body even stronger. Professional football players stay in the Super Bowl with broken fingers, pounding muscles, and aching heads. They stick it out until the end. Keep their eye on the ball. Until the game is over and a winner declared.

This year finds many friends of mine suffering emotional pain, and I’m playing hurt with them. Fractured relationships, parenting challenges, strained marriages. Playing hurt while helping them sort out difficult issues. And I have my own playing hurt issues to resolve, too. Disappointments on the business and personal side that require healing.

And these long, bitter days of winter don’t exactly help to lift our spirits, do they? Full of bleakness and of gray, devoid of sunshine and flowers, our landscapes are marked by leafless trees and barely-bubbling creeks. The dreariness makes it even easier to bathe in hurt and in pain. To become depressed with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. With little in the next weeks to look forward to other than a possible delivery from the florist on Valentine’s Day or the surprise of some dark chocolate, it’s almost “natural” to walk around playing completely hurt. No bright, happy colors in wardrobes or nature to inspire and delight our senses, playing hurt in January seems a logical choice.

All of us play hurt at some point in our lives. It's not the
playing hurt that separates us from the rest; it's how we choose
to play when we play hurt. I am fully aware that when I play sad
when playing hurt, that I do not play my best game. Because I
wallow in too much self-pity and take my eye off the ball. I am
also fully aware that when I play scared when playing hurt I do
not play my best game, either. Because then I live in fear
instead of in faith. And when I play angry, I play a pretty
horrible game, too. Because then I get cranky with everyone
around me and take all the fun out of things. Playing angry when
playing hurt serves no useful purpose at all; I need to clean out a closet or sweep the hardwood floors on those days.

When I play hurt, I need to play strong. I need to abandon fear and worry and instead, incorporate a walk in faith. "The Lord is near the broken-hearted and saves the crushed in spirit." I need to stop playing angry and get on with the game. I need to enter into the game with joy and with hope, for "those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and
not grow weary; they will walk and not grow faint."

Playing hurt is never as much fun as playing pain-free. Not in football nor in tennis nor in life. But playing hurt is something that, every now and then, we are forced to play. And sometimes through it, but certainly in the end, we'll see the beauty in strength. "…strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy, thanking the Father who makes us strong enough to take part in everything bright and beautiful that He has for us." (Colossians 1: 11-12)

With daffodils and sunshine just around the corner, I pray that whether you’re playing hurt or playing strong, you will gain strength with each passing day and that you will eventually soar like the eagles. Just like the pros at the Super Bowl.

Blessings on your week,