This Is How Christmas (and Life) Should Be More like Halloween

I used to think Christmas was the holiday during which we love best. But after trick-or-treating last weekend, I’m pretty sure the grace of Halloween puts Christmas to shame…

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“Daddy, will other kids get more candy because their costumes are scarier?”

We are minutes away from taking to the streets for the annual Halloween ritual. My daughter is standing in front of me, dressed in white from head to toe, holding above her a transparent umbrella with homemade eyes taped to it and purple and pink streamers hanging from it. She’s a jellyfish with shimmering tentacles.

And she’s not one bit scary.

But I don’t have to think twice before smiling and answering. “No, Sweetie, with trick-or-treating, all you have to do is show up, and everybody who shows up gets exactly the same amount of candy. No matter how big or how little, no matter how young or how old, and no matter how scary or not scary you are.”

She smiles and skips away, tentacles flowing behind her.

I smile, too, because I’ve always liked Halloween, but all of a sudden I like it a lot more. Especially when I imagine my daughter six weeks from now, in kindergarten, learning a very different holiday lesson about what she has to do to receive good things. Most of us know the lines by heart:

“You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why: Santa Claus is coming to town. He’s making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty or nice. He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake. Santa Clause is coming to town.”

Yikes.

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The Secret About Healing Nobody Wants to Hear (But Everybody Needs to Hear)

Last Wednesday, when my weekly blog post went live, I panicked. I’ve published over two-hundred posts, and I never fail to get a little squeamish. But this was different. I was suddenly certain every reader would unsubscribe. This is why…

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I’ve had similar feelings before. When I write something I think might be a little controversial, I wonder how many people will be angry and alienated and click the unsubscribe link. And some weeks, the writing doesn’t come easily and the post feels a little clunky and I wonder how many people will decide my prose isn’t worth the time.

But this time, the writing had flowed smoothly and was, I thought, pretty decent. And it wasn’t controversial at all. In fact, I’d written about the topic before. Several times. And the posts had always been pretty well received. So, what was I suddenly feeling so insecure about?

I’d written about the topic before.

For a week, my shame came to me in a new form: a question—when are folks going to get sick of me struggling with, and writing about, the same old stuff? I imagined thousands of people at home, thinking, “Kelly’s struggling with his ego and achievement issues again and, once again, finding a mindful way back to his soul. Been there, done that.”

I was afraid I’d worn out my welcome.

Fortunately, I know I’m not the only one whose fear takes this shape.

Because I’ve seen it in almost every soul in my therapy office.

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Home Is Where the Grace Is

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It’s a Saturday evening and my oldest son and I are working the dinner shift at a homeless shelter. We’re staffing the beverage table with friends, enjoying the challenge of keeping up with the demand for drinks, working hard, and laughing even harder. And then I see him.

Or, rather, I see the back of him.

I see the back of a young boy—about my son’s age—already walking away from the table. While we were trading jokes and jabs, he had quietly approached us, picked up a soda, and is now returning to his seat in the crowd. I watch him rejoin his family—two parents and two younger siblings. I’d been at the shelter for ninety minutes, and I hadn’t even noticed them. While serving them, I hadn’t seen them.

There’s more than one way to be homeless, isn’t there?

Being houseless is one thing; being unseen and lonely is another thing altogether.

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A Letter of Thanks to You

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Dear You,

Yes, you.

Thank you, Faithful Friend. Thank you for the grace you give—the grace that reminds us we’re okay, good enough, even lovely. Thank you for being a space where we know we don’t have to do anything or impress anyone to be worthy of love and belonging. For being the embrace that doesn’t go away. For being the family we choose.

This world is a better place because of you.

Thank you, Exhausted Parent. Thank you for being bone tired because you care enough to pay attention. Thank you for remembering—no matter what the kids try to tell you—eye contact matters more to them than any iPad ever will. Thank you for looking them in the eyes, when all you want to do is close yours. Thank you for loving them enough to give them all of you, and then loving them enough to let them go.

This world is a better place because of you.

Thank you, Rebellious Spouses. Thank you for rebelling against the consumer disease. For refusing to treat your marriage as one more commodity in a world of purchased things. For refusing to make it a transactional place where you get what you you’ve always wanted and, instead, insisting it is a sacred place where two people learn to give what has always been needed.

This world is a better place because of you.

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Who Do You Blame When Life is Breaking Bad?

To blame or not to blame, that is the question. The answer is the difference between a life of resentment, and a life of hard but healing redemption…

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My son’s eyeglasses disappeared.

It was a warm summer evening, just the right amount of breeze, just the right amount of conversation with good friends, and, as the Tiki torches burned and the burning sun set, I was feeling just the right amount of perfect. Then he told me he couldn’t find his eyeglasses. A quick search of the backyard produced a mangled, canine-scarred pair of spectacles. My perfect night had just gotten hundreds of dollars more expensive, which is to say, no longer perfect.

And I wanted someone to blame.

Because someone is always to blame, right?

So, I began to lecture my son about leaving his glasses lying around, until tears filled his eyes and he reminded me I had told him to leave his glasses in his shoes while on the trampoline so they wouldn’t break while jumping.

My son had done exactly what I asked.

So I reflexively turned on my dog, but I quickly remembered our unspoken agreement: he doesn’t chew anything in the house, and the back yard is fair game. He, too, was doing what I had trained him to do.

My night had broken bad, and there was no one to blame.

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No Matter What, You Are Beautiful and Beloved

Whatever lies we’ve swallowed and no matter how loud the voice of shame hollers in our heads, there is another voice whispering, waiting patiently and hoping to be heard. It’s the brilliant, counter-intuitive, scandalous voice of grace, whispering its truth at the edges of our being: No matter what, you are beautiful and beloved.

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I walk into my son’s elementary school fundraiser dressed in a wig, bathrobe, and women’s boots.

A best costume contest has been advertised, so earlier in the day, I walked into a Goodwill store as a suburban dad and walked out as a rock star circa 1985. But now, as I skitter across the icy parking lot in four-inch heals with my chest hair showing, I realize something: with the exception of the few friends who came with me, no one else has chosen to compete.

The crowd of people slip-sliding from the parking lot to the entrance is all ball gowns and khakis and sport coats.

And, somewhere in the shadows of my mind, my shame-whisper begins it’s murmuring:

Everyone else knows what they’re doing and you don’t.

You look silly. Ridiculous.

You’re a joke. 

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Why I Don’t Believe in Grace Anymore

I used to say I believed in grace. I don’t say that anymore. Now I say I have known grace, and what I know is this: grace believes in me

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It’s 9pm, and I walk in the door still carrying the burdens of a day at my office. The kids are already in bed, eyelids heavy but holding out for a “goodnight” from Daddy. My wife is tired but smiling and happy to see me.

And I don’t want any of it.

I stomp around, tearing open mail, griping about food that isn’t in the fridge, acting like a serious jerk. And in some secret place inside of me, I know it. Somehow, this only makes it worse. I wait for the reprisal from my wife. The well-earned reprisal. The angry, “I don’t deserve this!”

But it isn’t forthcoming. Instead, she kisses me on the cheek, says she loves me, and goes to bed with the same smile on her face. I stand by myself in the kitchen, but I have two companions. My bad mood. And my wife’s grace.

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How Self-Acceptance Might Just Save the World

“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years.” 

—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 

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When I was in middle school, I was forbidden to see the new Batman movie starring Michael Keaton. I understand why:

He was complicated.

He was a superhero, but he was depicted as dark and disturbed and a little unhinged. Instead of wearing his trademark gray, he cloaked himself in black. Instead of telling jokes, he was somber and depressed. He did good things, but he did them for the wrong reasons. He was a complicated, tortured soul, working out his redemption in the best way he knew how.

He was a good guy, but he had bad parts.

In a word, he was human.

Now, almost twenty-five years later, our cinematic superheroes are increasingly complicated. They are good guys with bad parts. We’ve become quite comfortable with the complexity of our fictional characters.

Yet, we continue to resist, and fail to embrace, this complexity in our lives and in our hearts

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What Your Parents Never Told You About How the World Works

Parents want to protect their children. But in doing so, they tend to omit some vital details about life. How often does a parent tell a child people are basically good and beautiful, and the world is benevolent, and love can be trusted?

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Sometime in December—as this long, bitter, snow-buried winter descended upon Chicago—my wife was accosted by a squirrel.

She was walking out our front door when it ran up our sidewalk directly at her. She retreated inside and called us to the front door, where we looked out at the rodent through the pane of glass—the biggest, heaviest squirrel I’ve ever seen, sitting upright on our front porch, staring at us.

It was like Man Vs. Wild Goes to the Suburbs.

“Is it rabid?” my wife asked.

I scanned it for symptoms and didn’t see any. Incredulously, I responded, “I don’t think so. I think it just wants…food.”

I grabbed a scrap of bread, tossed it at his feet, and he proceeded to eat the entire thing right in front of us. And then he stared at us again, silently asking for more. We gave it to him and he disappeared around a tree.

That was three months ago. The ridiculous, record-setting winter continues, and several times a week, we look out our back door to find our big squirrel, perched on the deck railing, staring into our kitchen, waiting for food.

Recently, as I watched him eat and marveled at the size of him, it dawned on me: we’re not his only benefactors. In this long, hard winter, our squirrel is thriving because he’s learned one thing many people never learn: he exists in a benevolent world.

He’s learned to ask for good things until love responds.

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The Only Guaranteed Cure for the Fear of Public Embarrassment

When we quit admitting we’re wrong, we’ve quit growing up. If we’re afraid of being caught in the act of our own immaturity, we will forever be afraid to grow… 

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I got caught red-handed.

By a bunch of observant readers right in the middle of a viral blog post—a letter I wrote to my daughter about the real source of her beauty.

Near the beginning of the letter, I wrote, “When you have a daughter you start to realize she’s just as strong as everyone else in the house—a force to be reckoned with, a soul on fire with the same life and gifts and passions as any man.”

You start to realize. Start.

Vigilant readers asked, “But what about all the women you knew before your daughter? What about your wife?”

I read the comments to my wife, secretly hoping for a little reassurance. Instead, she raised her eyebrows. And her strong eyes—the fierce eyes I fell in love with—asked their own simple question, “Well?”

My daughter comes by her passion honestly.

So, I had to sit with how to respond to such an accusation. I had to sift through all the layers of self-protection and defensiveness to settle into this response:

Good catch.

I have to respond that way, because the truth is, if we’re afraid of being caught in the act of our own immaturity, we will forever be afraid to grow.

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