I don’t care what you want for Christmas

Don’t tell me what you want for Christmas. I don’t care.

I’m not a vending machine, and you’re not a quarter.

If you are on my Christmas list my goal is to gift you with something I consider meaningful that I hope becomes special to you.

I know. If you’re in charge of the gifting you worry that your recipient will be disappointed. And, selfishly, you want to be the cause of that squealing, split faced “this is the best thing that ever happened to me” moment under the Christmas tree. But isn’t “surprise” always an element of the biggest squeals?

The truth is your little gift getters and bed wetters won’t remember the next day who gave them what. And it’s unlikely that whatever you gave them will still operate the next week.

And what are the odds that their “must have” request only made their wish list because they were seduced by massive advertising, trend manipulation and herd mentality. Cabbage Patch, pet rock, beanie babies anyone?

I know, it’s easier to work from a list provided to you; easier still to give a gift card so they can “get what they want.” Honestly though, you can do that anytime.

If Christmas gift giving is our joyful response to the great gift that God bestowed upon us in the person of Jesus the Christ, let’s consider God’s rationale. Did God ask His chosen people what they wanted? They probably would have said, “Freedom from Rome,” “rain,” “food security” or a “cure for leprosy.”

Instead, God sent the gift He wanted us to have, a gift with special meaning to God. We still remember who sent it. And we still remember what it cost.

If you lament the commercialization of Christmas, do not participate. Give a gift that brings joy because your thoughtfulness made it special.

 

Handling Grand Things

Nature awes us at points where it convulses, where it snorts, sneezes and shudders, shaking its head to rise above the “ordinary” and astound us with a glimpse of grandeur.

Gentle waves sooth us, but we are awed when the ocean flails its fury against beach walls.

Rolling hills comfort us, but our mouths drop open when we first see a July cardigan of snow lying across the shoulders of Pikes Peak, which rises above Colorado Springs like Neptune from the ocean.

A cool breeze refreshes, but when winds wrap around themselves and drag a furious funnel tail through a city, we cannot comprehend its power.

We live in the womb of nature and pattern our lives on its dependability. We install no furnaces in Key West homes; no air conditioners in Juneau. We wear shorts in July and store our lawn mowers in November.

Predictable nature comforts. For awe, we search the fringes of nature for majesty, grandeur, depth, color, number or brilliance.

One summer almost 20 years ago I rafted the Grand Canyon with extended family members. During our first day down the icy Colorado River we stared until the wind dried our eyes.

Sheer rock walls towered 1,400 feet and more above us, close enough to touch. Frigid, 48 degree water poured over boulders that had crashed off the mountain walls maybe centuries before, forming rapids over which ran water in a volume of 24,000 cubic feet per second.

Big horned sheep scampered down barely visible scars across the rock face to pull juicy tufts of grass from sandy bars at the canyon floor. It was all new. It was all amazing. We wore out the ball bearings in our necks arching, craning and turning to absorb it all.

In a day or two, we settled in and motored mile after mile before the hum of a 30-horsepower engine. We huddled in rain suits to fend off the deluge of water cascading over us from the rapids, and we sat with backs to our equipment and watched the walls slide by on either side.

The canyon was every bit as majestic on the fourth day as it was on the first, maybe more so. The rapids were as big, the sheep as entertaining, the night sky as brilliant. But because our senses were so completely saturated with the marvelous, the equally marvelous had no chance to elicit a higher degree of awe. The next turn presented merely another incredible view.

Grand things lose their grandeur with familiarity. Proximity to things precious renders them ordinary.

That is something of what Jesus meant in Matt. 7:6 when he warned us not to throw our pearls to pigs. We handle precious things too casually.

We polish a new car every week. By the second year, we’re barely changing the oil.

Babies make us coo, giggle and jump with every sound. Six months later we roll over and moan a prayer that they will sleep through the night.

Newlyweds get cavities from their sweet, sugary murmurings. Before the first anniversary wives seethe restlessly, feeling ignored.

Those hungry cries that brought us quickly to our child’s room in the middle of the night mature into a pained cry as our teenager struggles with identity or a broken heart or embarrassment at school. But we’re too tired to stay up and talk, or too busy to give them our attention.

How does the grand become so mundane?

The car, the child, the wife, your worship become ordinary. We’ve floated that river for years. Where once we craned our necks and laughed, cried, cooed, huddled and prayed, the grand became ordinary with casual handling.

When we handle grand things with casual touch, our pearls are downtrodden and we become the pigs.

Thanksgiving Phrases

You may expect an article about “Thanksgiving phrases” to be filled with words of thanksgiving, praise and gratitude – syrupy slogans poured over a Norman Rockwell painting.

But four days in Nana and Papa’s house with up to 10 children at a time – all under age 10 – becomes an exercise in instruction, training, and preserving sanity, especially when Nana is under the weather.

Grandchildren, their parents, their parents’ friends visiting with their own children filling a house not constructed under military grade specifications created a colorful chaos in which ever diligent parents tried to find teachable moments. Following is a random litany of phrases that boiled to the surface that will give you an idea of the scene.

“How old are you?” “Seven and a half. It’s a hard age.”

“Can I have a cookie?”

“Who wants to play me in ping pong?”

“I’ve got winner.”

“I demand a rematch.”

“Is that special egg nog? Or is it just egg nog?”

“Turn that down!”

“Where is this supposed to go?”

“Do you need to go potty?”

“Who didn’t flush?”

“Can we take the bikes to the greenway?”

“Can we go back to the park?”

“I wanna play.”

“No one will play with me.”

“How’s Nana feeling?”

“Are you feeling better Jules?”

“I’m all betta.”

“I’ve got your number, daddy.” (Says 2 ½ year old)

“Probably not.”

“I’m hungry.”

“As you wish.” (Quoting Princess Bride, which practically ran on looped replay)

“Can I have a cookie?”

“You just ate.”

“But I’m hungry.”

“Have you picked up all the toys?”

“Go outside and play.”

“Shhhh. Nana’s trying to sleep.”

“Why can’t we have dessert?
“What were you playing outside?” “Ghost in the graveyard.”

“Larkin hurt her knee.”

“Go back out. You’re fine.”

“Colton hit me with a towel as hard as he could.”

“Colton hit Harper in the eye with a bat.”

“Is this a clean cup?”

“Are these clean dishes in the dishwasher?”

“Can I get some help here?”

“No running in and out.”

“Shut the door!”

“Carry your dishes to the sink.”

“Are we out of milk?”

“I thought we were going to have popcorn and a movie.”

“I want some cantelopee.”

“Who’s going to the grocery store?”

“I’m hungry.”

Thank goodness for the ping pong table, warm weather, forewarned emergency services and accommodating neighbors.

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

0070: A License to Drive

I recently had reason to take two cab rides in New York City. Without prompting, both drivers complained about Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, which employs no drivers and owns no cars.

My Yellow Cab drivers pronounced Uber like they were trying to expel a bone caught in their throats – “OOOBer.” They said it with disgust and disdain, mixed with a dose of self-righteousness and just a smidgeon of fear.

Uber and its primary competitor Lyft have not just upset the urban individual rider transportation system; they have turned it on its head.

Pick any iconic movie scene in Manhattan, whether the actor is fleeing a lover or racing to meet one, he or she steps into the street, raises an arm or whistles sharply and a taxi slides up to the curb. It’s always a boldly colored Yellow Cab, usually with a surly driver in a hurry. Taxis go with city streets like pretty fish go with Koi Ponds. 

Not just anyone can run a taxi in our major cities. Taxis are business and municipalities issue licenses for them to operate. Those licenses are restricted in number to keep their value high and to limit – in New York City’s case – the number of cabs to about 15,000.

Potential owners buy the license at the occasional auction. The high bidder receives a medallion to display on the cab as proof he is operating legally. At its peak in 2013 the price of a two-medallion license reached $2.5 million, seven times the $350,000 it fetched in 2004.

Much like homeowners were encouraged to do during high inflation, many cab drivers borrowed against the increased equity of their medallion to buy a house or a boat, send the kids to college, enjoy some vacations.

A year later, the value dropped 25 percent.

Today, my drivers told me, an individual medallion for an owner operator, which cost as much as $1.3 million, could be had for $350,000 – if the city, which issues the medallions, and the bank, which loans money to buy the medallions – would allow it.

They won’t because of the huge losses that would involve.

In the meantime, Uber and Lyft, which are not required to have medallions or to be licensed because, hey, they don’t own any cars or employ any drivers, are tapping the sap from Yellow Cab drivers’ tree of life.

So these independent businessmen, who drive their storefront for 12 or 14 hours a day through congested Manhattan streets, are worried. They are carrying fewer than half of the passengers they carried just a few years ago.

In the meantime they see men and women on street corners, looking furtively about, glancing back at their smart phones, trying to talk their Uber drivers to their location. One of my drivers said he was worried for those potential passengers’ safety, because while they are concentrating on their phones, they’re not paying attention to potential purse-snatchers around them.

The fact is the world has changed dramatically for taxi drivers. An entirely new system of individual transportation is disrupting a business that just three years ago looked rock solid, with a stable future.

When the drivers, in frustration, asked, “Why do people call an OOBer,” I offered a simple observation: Price. An Uber rider attending the same conference as me paid half of what my Yellow Cab ride cost. The price is arranged before pickup, and that’s the cost.

When my Yellow Cab was stuck in traffic, the meter kept ticking.

Other disruptive technologies will appear in our near future.

I asked a riding buddy who drives for UPS if Sunday delivery by the US Postal Service is disrupting his income. “No,” he said. “With Amazon Prime, there are plenty of packages for everybody to deliver.”

Then he said the real fear of package delivery services is if Jeff Bezos, head of Amazon, starts his own delivery system. That would leave them all shaking in their boots.

Maybe that’s an opportunity for those of you in the boot manufacturing industry.

 

I remember that

lucy-mcbathLucy McBath finds joy in her calling to make her son’s death have meaning. But the scars of her sorrow still show every time she speaks. 

 

News headlines flash at you and disappear, like an oncoming driver flicking his bright lights. Then sometime later the story beneath that headline is resurrected. You meet someone who brings it back to life and you think, “I remember that.”

Only now, it’s real because you’re talking to the person involved. It’s not ink on a page. It’s a voice in the ear, a person in your eye.

I met Lucy McBath in New York City this week. She’s the mother of Jordan Davis, the young man who pulled into a gas station Nov. 23, 2012 in Jacksonville, FL playing his music too loud for the pleasure of Michael Dunn.

Dunn asked/told Davis and his companions to turn down the volume. Davis, as a 17-year-old kid would do, got his back up and they had words. Dunn got a gun from his car and shot it 10 times into Davis’ car, striking him three times and killing him.

Davis was black. Dunn is white. But they both bleed red. The difference is that Dunn’s blood is still in his body in prison somewhere. Davis’ was spilled out onto the parking lot and his car seat.

It’s dangerous to be black in America.

Of course, I’ve just returned from the conference God and Guns 2016 at Riverside Church in New York City. So my nerves are raw. I’ve been illumined to the underlying causes of much of the gun violence in this country. (I’ll soon post stories at BaptistNews.com. There I covered them straight. Here I’m talking more from the heart.)

In New York I met Lucy McBath, Jordan’s mother. As soon as she started telling her story, I thought, “I remember that.”

But now, instead of a flashing headline, her story is meat and bone. She has dedicated her life to ending gun violence in America so that Jordan’s life and death will not have been in vain.

Addressing conference participants, McBath said change will not come if we wait for someone else or some other time. She quoted President Obama, who said, “We are the ones that we’ve been waiting for.”

McBath is the Faith and Community outreach leader for Everytown for Gun Safety, a fairly new organization with chapters in all 50 states that sprung up after the Sandy Hook shootings in Newtown. Their goal is “common sense reforms to reduce gun violence.”

“Ninety-one people each day will continue to die if people of faith are not engaged in saving lives,” McBath said. “It must be our task to usher in a nationwide moral movement against gun violence.”

She reeled off the statistics that any advocate will have at the tip of her tongue:

An American is 25 times more likely than in any other developed country to die by gun violence:

52 percent of women killed by guns are killed by their intimate partner or family member;

Easy access to firearms plays a major role in childhood death;

More than 21,000 people each year kill themselves with a gun;

The presence of a gun in the house greatly increases the chance that a domestic argument or a period of depression will turn lethal.

“After Jordan died I questioned the absence of the faith community,” said McBath, a devout Christian. “Their silence troubled my spirit. Where were the pastors, the ministers, the reverends and priests abiding by the Word of God to challenge the ethical and moral violation of the sixth commandment, ‘Thou shalt not murder?’”

McBath is dedicating her life to reducing gun violence so other boys like her son, and the sons of Sandra Rougier and Natasha Christopher and the students of Newtown teacher Mary Ann Jacob who all testified at the conference can live in a time and place without fear of being gunned down in the street.

I remember that.

Can a consultant help your stewardship efforts?

‘It was different because it was better’

It takes more than a tithing sermon from Malachi 3:10 to create an effective annual stewardship campaign in your church.

The question is, if you’re going to do more – if you’re going to approach your annual giving emphasis like a real campaign – can you do it by yourself?

Let’s assume your goal is to do more than prod your members to meet a budget. You want to teach stewardship and lead them to grow in the spiritual discipline of generosity.

That requires more than a single sermon and an all church mailing of pledge cards.

An effective effort requires a major time commitment to plan calendar, enlist volunteers, establish committees, design materials, produce mailings, conduct meetings and prepare appropriate sermons. And, the pastor and staff are expected to do all of this while keeping all their other ministry plates spinning.

Is it wise to engage the help of a professional consultant if you want your annual stewardship effort to be more than, well, more than an annual stewardship effort?

Two pastors of churches that recently conducted highly successful annual stewardship campaigns utilizing a resource development consultant confessed that they could not do it all.

Davis Chappell, pastor of the 8,000-member Brentwood United Methodist Church near Nashville, TN realized he had “so many wheels turning” in his second year at the megachurch that “I really needed someone I could count on who could help us.”

“As a pastor, you say you can do that in addition to your other duties, but you cut corners,” Chappell said. “The more you have someone who can take some of that off you the more successful you’re going to be.”

Chappell led the church’s annual giving campaign the previous year himself and saw growth. “We could do it ourselves,” he said. “But we’re stronger when we have a consultant who comes in to help.”

Bruce Cochran, pastor of 250-member First Baptist Church of Seymour, IN says the professional help they received increased their effectiveness, developed leaders, freed them for regular pastoral duties and resulted in significant financial gains to support church ministries.

Cochran said the difference in conducting their campaign internally as they have done, or in using a consultant “was polish, professionalism, efficiency and comprehensiveness.”

“It was different because it was better,” Cochran said. “It was communicated better, participation was better, and it was not just the pastor standing up and saying we should do this.”

First Baptist’s priority was to return to the place where it could again devote 20 percent of its income to missions – an historical standard the church had to back away from during the recession. Results were so positive the church is again giving to missions at that generous level.

The Brentwood church also gives missions high priority and dovetailed one of its satellite churches into its annual campaign effort with professional help.

Chappell said his church did not emphasize a financial goal or the need to fund a budget. “We pointed out that the stronger our generosity the deeper our outreach,” Chappell said.

The result was a growth in commitments of “roughly 340” new giving units and an $800,000 increase in committed gifts. “That is “really significant” for us, he said.

The satellite church, which was conducting its campaign at the same time, saw an increase of 65 percent – or $100,000 – which was “enormous.”

Chappell encourages pastors to address stewardship as a spiritual discipline. Besides, he said, “everybody’s talking about money” and the conversation is better directed from the pulpit than in the parking lot.

“The only thing worse than a church that always talks about money is one that never talks about money,” he said. “I’ve never known a person who accidently tithed. Discipleship is not an accident, it’s an intention.”

Help in choosing a consultant

The idea of choosing counsel to help you teach stewardship and generosity in the context of an annual campaign is a fairly new concept. “Teaching” is an added element from most capital campaigns and choosing counsel with ministerial experience and a deep appreciation for the ministries of the Church is very helpful.

The right professional counsel will offer insight, technical assistance and production services typically too time consuming for most congregations to duplicate on their own.

Make your expectations clear. The right counsel will operate in the background and will always shine the light on staff, but his/her enthusiasm and energy will infuse your staff with hope and anticipation.

Be “up front” about your church statistics and whether or not you have any issues, or skeletons, that should be addressed upfront to increase your chances for success.

Remember, your first conversation with a prospective counsel carries no obligation for either party. Consider that a consultant is coming to you at his or her own expense, so it is incumbent upon you not to host a parade of prospective consultants just to hear what they have to say. If you connect with a consultant and decide to engage his or her services, cancel any later interviews scheduled with others.

Write a clear letter of agreement or contract that details the areas of responsibility for the consultant and the client. The letter of agreement should also detail the financial arrangements, the period of the partnership, and how it can be terminated at anytime by the client.

Chemistry is important when you make your selection. And, when you have decided, work to develop trust. When you trust, and incorporate him or her into your staff and church functions, you will increase the sense of family and everyone will operate more effectively.

Your consultant can bring a sense of urgency to your effort, gently driving actions and results.

He or she also can bring a sense of confidence to church leaders. They’ve done this before. Trust them.

Call or write me and I will be glad to help you work through any questions you have about the process, with no obligation.

Soon

(From 1987 to 1999 I wrote a monthly column in the publication of Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina, where I was director of communications, called In a Word. This piece is reprinted from a 1997 column, written while my oldest son was getting ready to leave for college)

Shuffling down the hallway in the early morning, the glistening blue of Nathan’s freshly polished truck in the driveway arrested my sight through the window.

The little truck represents a promise I made to the kids that if they ever earned a full college scholarship, I would get them a vehicle to drive to school. Nathan did his part, and will be playing basketball for UNC Greensboro this fall.

I stood with my arms across my chest, watching the rising sun lay dappled ribbons of light across the pickup, and I pondered sadly the thin week that stood between that moment and Nathan’s departure to write a new chapter in our family’s life.

That evening my wife and I visited a young couple who were still doey-eyed and dopey over their eight-day-old baby. We toured their new house, admired the baby’s room, and talked of the tremendous emotional highs and lows that lay ahead of them through their daughter’s growing years.

It’s a brief journey, I said, from the hospital to college. Nathan’s leaving has taught me the shortest measurable unit of time is the moment between the delivery room cry, and the dorm room good-bye.

Why didn’t someone warn me about that when Nathan constantly wanted me to throw a ball, ride bike, shoot baskets, play with Legos, and read, read, read to him? Or when he fussed with his siblings on long drives? Or when he consumed the month’s grocery allowance in a week?

I confess to lunacy, actually having hoped some trying moments would pass quickly. I thought “how long?” when I cringed with him in the bathroom, trying to peel a gauze pad from the back of his 7-year-old thigh. He’d hit a bump, got tossed from his seat and his knobby bike tire rubbed off a 4-inch diameter of skin, two layers deep.

Like a fool, I put gauze over the open, oozing circle. Two days later we had to soak him in the shower to peel off the pad. I still hear his screams.

“When will you have it, dad?”

“Soon,” I said.

When he entered the Optimist oratorical contest I promised to help him edit his speech. Caught up in other work, he pestered me about when I could help him.

“Soon,” I said.

As he grew, and the family grew and my job grew, but the hours of my day stayed forever stuck on 24, “soon” seemed a reasonable answer to his requests. When could I help him memorize his play lines? When could I show him how to change the oil in the car? When could I take him practice driving? When could I talk to his teacher about math? When could I teach him a hook shot? When could I help him paint a 3-point line around his basket in the driveway?

Soon.

I don’t worry as much as their mom when the kids are out with friends. But now, watching the blue hue lighten with the rising sun, I remember once waiting through the interminable minutes for the clock to lift its heavy arms to curfew hour. With a shudder I feel the terror that grips a parent when the appointed hour arrives, but the child does not. Tingling ears measure the speed of every passing car, listening for one to slow, hoping the next one is his.

Yawning and stretching, my wife came out of our room, looked at the clock, and asked when I expected Nathan to be home from his early workout.

Soon.

Today she looks at his empty place at the table, walks past his room devoid of trophies, pictures and inspirational posters, marvels as the pantry shelves stay full like the widow’s oil lamp after Elijah’s promise, and pats the washing machine at rest. She cries, and asks when I think Nathan might come home for a visit.

I put my arm around her, look out the window where his truck used to sit, and say, “Soon.”