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December 27, 2008

Christmas 2008

As many people know, we have four major celebrations in a ten day period (Wendy's birthday, Christmas, our wedding anniversary, and New Year's). It makes for a bit of a crazy holiday season. We're half-way there as our Christmas celebrations wound down.

We spent Christmas Eve day with Wendy's family. It was the first time since our wedding, three years ago, that the entire clan had gotten together. It was a great day of celebration and, with a house full of kids, it was blessedly noisy and chaotic. The weather cooperated for us to make the trek without too much trouble and Wendy's new GPS system (a birthday present) calculated our arrival time with amazing precision.

Christmas morning was spent opening gifts with Madison. Not that she had any real gifts to open. She's at the "just hand over an envelope of cash" stage (and she had several envelopes from various family members). We all headed to Des Moines late morning to spend much of the rest of the day with my family. My Dad and brother Tim made eierflensjes (a Dutch crepe) which is a long-time family treat and tradition. We then opened gifts and headed home in the late afternoon.

It was strange not having Taylor with us, but she called in the afternoon on Christmas Day. She sounded absolutely wonderful. She said she's been eating a lot and has even been learning to cook as each member of her team are responsible for cooking (that's a huge step for Taylor).

And so, another year of fun, food, family and celebrating our Saviour's arrival has passed. Here are a few photos to enjoy.

 Hall family xmas 122408 LR  Brothers 122408 LR

Sisters 122408 LR  Sophias aunts 122408 LR  Sophias kiss 122408 LR  Tom and sophia 122408 LR  Cousins 122508 LR  Tim and Dad make eierflensjes 122508 LR  The keithley clan 122508 LR  Grandma jeanne 122508 LR  Odis 122508 LR  Tim 122508 LR  Eierflensjes 122508 LR

December 23, 2008

A "Celebrate Wendy" Weekend

Wendy 2008 11 (2) When your birthday falls four days before Jesus' annual birthday celebration, yours is often overlooked. I learned about this as a child with my friend, Scott, who complained about his birth date. People are busy doing the Christmas hustle and your "special day" becomes an afterthought. Worse yet, people tend to give you "combination gifts" in which Christmas presents and Birthday presents are combined into one. No matter how you figure it, the gift giver seems to get off cheap and easy.

Then, I married a Wendy, who shares the same birthday as my friend Scott. Being the thick-headed husband who forgets the lessons of his youth, I really blew it last year. I got wrapped up in the Christmas hustle and, admittedly, ended up as the birthday cheap skate. It wasn't pretty.

And thus, on the evening of December 21, 2007, the plans for December 21, 2008 began in earnest. The first six months or so were spent scheming, dreaming, and mulling over thoughts and ideas. By late summer I was ready to lay the groundwork and the emails and invitations were sent.

This past Saturday morning, I woke Wendy at 8:00 a.m. with a chorus of "Happy Birthday" and a gift. Those of you who know Wendy understand that she is a person for whom it is difficult to buy presents. She doesn't want or need "stuff." Her treasure lies in the intangibles of life. So, when she made an off-hand comment late in the summer about thinking she'd like one of those GPS units for her car, I made a mental note.

And that's the gift she opened. This particular model is configured for "auto" or "pedestrian" and I had it configured for pedestrian and programmed it with "Wendy's Birthday Treasure Hunt." I told her to get ready because she had a morning's worth of treasure to mine. At 9:30, I sent her off with her digital treasure map.

Her first stop was the local salon, where an hour long massage awaited. Upon completion of the massage, she was given an envelope with a message and some cash, which she would need on her next stop. Relaxed and rejuvenated, the map led her down the street to the local nail salon, where I'd arranged for our friend, Ann, to meet her. They had "girl time" as they got their nails done. Ann then gave Wendy another card, in which she found a gift card for the local coffee shop. Wendy proceeded to Smokey Row where her friend, and mentor, Monica, was waiting to have lunch with her.

Wendy returned home in the early afternoon. Knowing that she needs a little down time, I planned a relaxed afternoon on the couch watching a movie together. I had prepared her that I was taking her out for dinner. So, we got cleaned up and headed to our favorite place, Monarch's (where we had our wedding rehearsal dinner). I escorted her to the back room where her best friends and their husbands awaited us. Unfortunately, weather kept two of her friends from making it down from Des Moines (another problem with December 21 birthdays - inclement weather which ruins birthday parties). We enjoyed a leisurely dinner and retired back to our house for pleasant conversation.

It was a great day, and Wendy appreciated everything. I'm sure she thought that her celebration was complete. But not quite. I've learned that my wife, above all other earthly things, values friends and family. I'd provided her with the company of her friends on Saturday. But, her birthday would not be complete without the blessing of family. So, the family was poised and ready to surprise her on Sunday with a visit and family potluck. Once again, weather kept most family members from making it, but those who could make it gave her a huge surprise and we enjoyed worshiping together and celebrating Wendy over lunch.

Wendy said she felt blessed, but it was as much a blessing for me to bless her. My friend, Mat, emailed yesterday and groaned about the fact that I'd just raised the bar and his wife was now expecting a lot more for her birthday next year.

Trust me, Mat. It was worth the effort!

Chapter-a-Day Ecclesiastes 12

Final examination. But regarding anything beyond this, dear friend, go easy. There's no end to the publishing of books, and constant study wears you out so you're no good for anything else. The last and final word is this: Fear God. Do what he tells you. And that's it. Eventually God will bring everything that we do out into the open and judge it according to its hidden intent, whether it's good or evil. Ecclesiastes 12:12-13 (MSG)

My daughter, Madison, has final exams this week. She's been burning the midnight oil and burning the candle at both ends simultaneously. I've been proud of her diligence and her hard work. I'm sure it will pay off on the report card. That's how it works. Those who keep the final exam in mind through the semester and are prepared for the test usually end up making the grade.

Once we finish with school, it easy to forget about final exams. The notion that we have completed the required coursework and are free from examination settles in as we move on in life. And yet, God has reminded us that our life on this Earth is spiritual coursework and there is a test. However many days each of us are given, God says that there will be a final exam at the end.

Am I ready?

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickrand dcjohn

December 22, 2008

Chapter-a-Day Ecclesiastes 11

The Ghost of Christmas Future Don't hoard your goods; spread them around. Be a blessing to others. This could be your last night. Ecclesiastes 11:2 (MSG)

Wendy and I spent this past evening with friends. It was a wonderful evening of love and laughter, and we returned home much later than planned or desired. It was after returning home I was preparing for bed when I realized I had a text message. The text messaged announced a sudden and unexpected heart attack death. It's always a shock to hear news like this, no matter who it is. How awful for a family to lose a loved one during their Christmas celebration.

The reality was a sobering reminder as I headed to bed last night. Of course, the verse this morning brought it back to mind. How would each of jus behave differently if we knew that tonight would be our last? How different my perspective might be about the holidays, my family and my friends if I knew my soul would be required of me at the end of the day.

I realize that it's a lesson right out of "A Christmas Carol," but one of which I need to remind myself regularly. We aren't guaranteed a tomorrow. Today may be all I have. Perhaps I should live like it, give like it, and love as if this day really is my last.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickrand Kurioso

December 19, 2008

Chapter-a-Day Eccelsiastes 10

Stay calm. If a ruler loses his temper against you, don't panic; A calm disposition quiets intemperate rage. Ecclesiastes 10:4 (MSG)

Part of my occupation is coaching Customer Service Representatives (CSRs) in call centers. The number one question I get asked to address is, "How do you handle angry customers who are really angry and screaming at you?" The  "intemperate rage" of an angry customer who is taking out their frustration on the poor CSR who gets that call can be very unnerving.

One of the tactics I teach CSRs comes right from the Biblical principle that Solomon gives in today's verse. Once a CSR loses their temper with an angry customer, the result is almost always ugly. An angry response usually only serves to escalate the customer's anger and gives him a sense of self-justification for his out-of-bounds outburst. When a CSR refuses to reflect the customer's anger and, instead, remains calm and positive, the customer will often catch themselves and begin to calm down. (Another Biblical principle of returning a curse with a blessing is a good one to apply, as well!)

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickrand the Archigeek

December 18, 2008

My "Groundhog Day" Existence

My hotel room As I anticipated in my post on Monday, it has been a long week on the road. I've got a long day of training ahead and then will wrap up tomorrow before heading home. When you travel a lot on business, living out of a suitcase in hotels can be a surreal experience.

I left Billings yesterday and, after performing several training sessions, I headed to the airport and flew to Cheyenne, WY. I arrived about 10:00 p.m. and drove to my hotel. As I walked in the room I had this strange pang of deja vu. My hotel room Cheyenne was the exact same layout, with exactly the same furniture and the exact same furnishings in precisely the same color scheme as the hotel room I just left in Billings.

God, help me. I'm stuck in the movie "Groundhog Day"!

Chapter-a-Day Ecclesiastes 9

It's a Wonderful Life. Seize life! Eat bread with gusto, Drink wine with a robust heart. Oh yes—God takes pleasure in your pleasure! Dress festively every morning. Don't skimp on colors and scarves. Relish life with the spouse you love each and every day of your precarious life. Each day is God's gift. It's all you get in exchange for the hard work of staying alive. Make the most of each one! Ecclesiastes 9:7-9 (MSG)

The other night was the annual network broadcast of "It's a Wonderful Life". As my wife and I prepared for bed, I watched the classic ending in which George Bailey finally gets it through his thick head just how good he has it. He realizes what an impact his own life has on the world around him. Screaming and laughing through the snowstorm down Bedford Falls' main street, George finally appreciates the simple wonders of daily life that are, too often, lost upon us.

The end of the film never gets old for me. I'd be lying if I told you that I could get through the film's final minutes without getting a little "misty." I find myself in George Bailey's shoes all too often. The daily blessings that crowd my life are often lost amidst some momentary pressure that tyrannically occupies my heart and mind. Like George Bailey hanging over the railing of a bridge contemplating the decision to jump; Like Solomon sitting in his palace wondering what it all means, I find that my mind is so focused in the wrong places that I need regular doses of reminders like the verses I picked out today.

Now, if I can just find something festive to wear.

December 17, 2008

Chapter-a-Day Ecclesiastes 8

Not the ten suggestions. Do what your king commands; you gave a sacred oath of obedience. Don't worryingly second-guess your orders or try to back out when the task is unpleasant. You're serving his pleasure, not yours. Ecclesiastes 8:2-3 (MSG)

I'm training Customer Service Representatives in two client call centers this week. Data from our assessment revealed that they can improve their service by simply apologizing when something doesn't meet the caller's expectations. It's something that they are trained to do and expected to do, but there are some who absolutely refuse. In fact, I've had a few who have argued quite vigorously against it.

I had lunch with the call center manager later in the morning, and he asked me how it went. When I mentioned that he had a few representatives who didn't want to apologize, he basically explained that they can do what's required of them or find another job.

Our culture doesn't always translate the concept of obedience to a king. Perhaps it's easier to think of in terms of an employer. You sign on to do the task that the employer requires. If you don't want to do what's required, you shouldn't have taken the job. It's the same with God. As the old saying goes, "He didn't call them the Ten Suggestions."

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickrand Russell Heistuman

December 15, 2008

Long Week Ahead

I'm at gate 80 of Denver Int'l. It's going to be a long week tour of the west. First stop is Billings where the temps are below zero like Iowa, but they got a blizzard over the weekend! Brrrrr!

We rec'd emails from Taylor over the weekend. She is safe in country. Believe it or not, her complaint is the cold. It's the rainy season there and unseasonably cold. She is in a place witj no heat and it's cold enough in the house to see your breath. She said the food is great and the locals have been wonderfully hospitable!Long Week Ahead

Chapter-a-Day Ecclesiastes 7

He comes for everyone eventually. You learn more at a funeral than at a feast— After all, that's where we'll end up. We might discover something from it. Ecclesiastes 7:2 (MSG)

As a pastor, I performed many weddings and many funerals. People think I'm strange when I tell them that I prefer presiding at the latter. It's not that I don't enjoy celebrating life and love. I think the joining of a couple is a great event. Yet, like Solomon, I've noticed that, from a spiritual perspective, there is more going on at a funeral than at a wedding.

Weddings are, too often, a spiritual distraction. The bride is stressed out about every detail from her dress to the flower arrangements to the stupid veil that won't stay in place. The mother of the bride is stressed about making this the wedding she never had and wanting everything to be just right for her guests. The father of the bride is stressed about the cost. The parents of the groom is wondering if their son is man enough to take care of and provide for this woman. The bridesmaids, if they are single, are wondering when it's going to be their turn. The groomsmen are hungover from the bachelor party and just want to get to the reception. The groom is just wanting to get to the wedding night. God is generally a long way from people's thoughts at a wedding.

At a funeral, there's a dead body in the room. For those in attendance, there's no escaping the reality that someday it will be you lying in that casket. Funerals are often the only place that people honestly consider their eternal destiny. If someone is wondering where they're going when they die, I'd like to be there to have a chat with them.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickrand Derek_B