Saturday, December 27, 2003

A treasure-house of gifts this Christmas

[note: this post was moved over from my original LiveJournal account, which is no longer active}

For unto us a child is born!

A blessed Christmas to you! I'm in Toledo, Ohio, visiting with my sister Sue and her husband Jeff. It's been a great holiday break so far, with very few blemishes (most of my own making, of course!) Christmas Eve and Day were beautifully "white," thanks to a couple inches of wet snow that stuck to the bushes and branches, and made even suburban Toledo look like a Christmas-card scene. I've been badly overserved at several different holiday meals - but, as a friend pointed out, those are all self-inflicted wounds, and will give me something to work on for the new year!

Lousy weather prevented us from going down to see my sister Sandy and her husband the Tuesday before Christmas, so we are going to make it up later today (Saturday)with a journey 40 miles south to Findlay, to have a late family Christmas gathering unlike any we have ever had...

...because this year, there will be no gifts involved.

I know, I know - it's un-American, isn't it? How will the world's greatest economy survive if we don't do our share to make sure Wal-Mart, Target, Kohl's and Best Buy have a banner year? Nope...sorry. We've opted out of society this year. Up until a week ago, Sandy was concerned about her job; add to this the fact that Sue's husband had an extended off-work time for a cardiac catheterization this fall, and I'm an unemployed seminary student who's had some significant health issues over the last 60 days. So when one of the sisters proposed it (I don't remember which one) it was easy to agree. No shopping. No packages to wrap. No immense amounts of money spent on just the *right* kind of wrapping paper. Just two sisters, their two husbands and one brother, and a very untraditional dinner at Tony's Ribs in Findlay and some time together as family.

Several people have asked..."How did you manage to DO that?"

Well, to be honest, like so many things, I didn't "see the light" - I "felt the heat." I think if I'd still been employed, I probably would have kept on trying to spend my/our way to a happy holiday....even if I'd had to do it myself. I am not nearly as virtuous (or as un-materialistic) as I would like you to believe I am. But I'm grateful it's happened, nonetheless... because it has forced me to look hard at the gifts I already have.

On the day after Christmas, a dear friend of mine in Toledo said to me, "I made out like a bandit yesterday." I was happy for her, but I also had to admit to myself (AND to my friend) that I have been making out like a bandit for years! Take family, for instance. For the last 12 years, I've lived 750 miles from my sisters, and have only visited them twice (maybe three times) each year in that decade-plus. [If they had been potted plants, they would have died of neglect!] But they still love me - and they still eagerly welcome me into their homes, and anticipate the times when I can come back to Toledo. They are concerned when I travel, and they are glad when I am "home" safe (wherever "home" seems to be at the time). I have met all kinds of people (through church, Alpha groups and through the recovering community) who would consider my two sisters and their husbands and extended families to be "jewels of great price." My gift, this year, is to be able to agree publicly and wholeheartedly about what a blessing they are, and how much I love them. And my prayer for the year-to-come is this: to commit to becoming the man that my sisters seem to believe that I am.

I'm also grateful for my sister Sue's inlaws, who have welcomed me into their home (and to their holiday table) for a number of years. Ernie, Chris and Aaron: what a gift you have given me, to be welcomed and greeted as family.

My Aunt Roma, in upstate New York, prays for me daily and writes me wonderful notes and emails, to which I am usually *lousy* in responding. I think that over the years, if I had not been one of her prayer assignments, that I would have been dead - or would have lost faith entirely - a number of times over. Roma can't get out all that much, and has endured more challenges than a space-shuttle launch - and yet her faith endures. When I finally can become the relative (or family member), or the prayer warrior, or the student of the Bible that my aunt Roma is, then I'll know I've accomplished something. She is definitely a gift (and an example) to me!

If a person's measure can be found in their friendships, then I am rich beyond Midas...beyond the Medicis... beyond Donald Trump or any Wall Street guru. If I were to list my friends, you'd be here reading until the time a stable version of Windows comes out. (About 4 hours before the final trumpet, in other words.) With their laughter, tears, emails, phone calls, hugs, and prayers, I have been enriched beyond measure. I would never be able to write enough to thank you, or God, for the blessings each of you have brought to me. What incredibe gifts each of you are to me!

I have been uplifted by both my faith and recovery communities. I am especially thankful to Atonement Lutheran Church, and my friends in several faith communities, who have supported me (spiritually AND financially) as I have begun my journey into "the divine madness of ministry" at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC). Thank you for the gift of your trust, your encouragement and your support! You have believed in me a number of times when I was quite willing to stop believing in myself...which is exactly how I understand that my Savior works, too. "Thank you" is way too small a word for folks like you!

The students and faculty at LSTC have become my family away from home. To my apartment-mate, Tim; my Greek-mates Laila, Tom and Mike; my Pentateuch partners Laila, Barb and Amy; and to my professors and fellow students: you each, at some point in this first semester, have been the hands and feet of Christ in my life. For as long as God, and the Lutheran church-at-large, chooses to allow us to journey together, I will give thanks for the gift of each of you.

One of the greatest struggles I've had this year was to move away from the community of recovery which has been my strength and my shield for 12 of the last 13 years. I am ever grateful for the recovering folk in Lenexa (and all over suburban Kansas City) who have continued to ensure that though I am absent in body, I am not at all absent in the spirit of the fellowship. And I'm very grateful that God has given me the beginnings of a new set of "home groups" and people in the Chicago area who genuinely seem to care. God's gift to me is that wherever I am, I get to "trudge the road of Happy Destiny" together, one day at a time, even when I'm not physically (or mentally) present! I'm also very grateful that the recovering folks in Toledo - who saw me when I was a *really* desperate case - still can laugh about those days, and remind me from-whence-I-came whenever I visit.

My greatest gift of all - the gift which makes all this possible - is my faith in God. At Christmas, I am reminded again and again that the One who knew that I would be an often-broken, often-failing ragamuffin still sent a Son as Emmanuel - God *with us* - for me. I know that God (as I misunderstand God, anyway) is one who uses broken tools like me to bring glory to the Kingdom...and trust me, I am aware that just *the knowledge of that fact* is an incredible gift. What's even better to know is that God's love and calling for me will never change, no matter what people of this world may decide. It seems that I was born broken, in a number of important ways - yet I have God's testimony that I was created and declared "very good." So I'm willing to wear both labels, today. Thank you, God, for this new life and this day. Help me to use them both to Your glory.

It's interesting - if someone were to draw up my financial balance-sheet today, it would be awash in red ink. I have three signficant assets that are free-and-clear - I'm typing on one, taking pictures with another and driving the third. Physically, I'd really like to trade this ol' body in on a model that works a greater percentage of the time. And there are still times when I can't help envying the young and the beautiful people, and wishing I were one of foolish as I know that is. So it seems that economically, physically, and in appearance, I am not where I'd choose to be, compared with so much of the world.

But in faith, in family, in friends, in community - that is to say, in relationships and in love - I am one of the richest people alive. If I were to shuffle off this mortal coil on Sunday, I would have 13 years "in the bonus round" - and very, very little of it has been my doing. All of it has been a very undeserved gift...for which I give thanks today.

Oh, yes indeed...this Christmas, I made out like a bandit. No doubt about it.

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