“Advent” ures

adventcandlesWe are in the season. That time of year between Thanksgiving and Christmas when holiday music graces our airwaves and decorations grace our homes.  That time of year when cookies and cakes become a little bit sweeter and a lot more festive.  That time of year when wrapping paper and bows make their annual appearance under a bedazzled evergreen tree.  It’s the holidays, and for most of it still is “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

For Christian faith traditions this time period is known as Advent.  It’s best described as the time spent waiting and preparing for the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.  I remember it as a time when special candles were lit at church. There were three purple ones and a pink one placed around an advent wreath.  Each week the priest would light a new wick until all four faintly flickered. That meant Christmas was close, as was the arrival of Santa Claus.  Hey, at least I was anticipating something.

As an adult Advent is much different.  While I love the holiday season with its festivities, I also dread some of the coming complications that always seem to lurk whenever Christmas is close.  My least favorite activity is gift giving and the entire process that comes with it.

“What do you want for Christmas?” my mother always asks.

“I want you to spend the money on your grandchildren.” I always reply.

I don’t really need anything, and if I do need something, I go and buy it before I think about the holidays and my mother’s desire for me to open a gift from under the tree.  In my mind the money is better spent on toys or books for my nephew and nieces.  Plus, as adults, gift giving has become mundane.  I get my brother a $50 gift card to his favorite restaurant.  He gets me a $50 gift card to my favorite clothing store.  Let’s just skip it and save the 50 cents it costs each of us mail the cards via the US postal service.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love giving gifts.  I spend hours mulling the perfect present for my wife.  If I see something while I am out and about that I believe anyone else might enjoy, I’ll buy it in a heartbeat, and there doesn’t have to be a special occasion or reason.  I know a spouse who likes llamas, and I saw a llama iPhone cover, so I bought it.  I thought she’d like it, and I didn’t need to wait until Christmas to let her enjoy it.

But Advent isn’t about the gifts, at least I don’t think it’s supposed to be.  To see if I could find out what it is really supposed to be about, I consulted the experts.  I asked “google.”  Here are what some people have said about advent.

“It is the beautiful task of Advent to awaken in all of us memories of goodness and thus to open doors of hope.”– Pope Benedict  XVI

Mark the season of Advent by loving and serving the others with God’s own love and concern.”– Mother Theresa

“It is now, at Advent, that I am given the chance to suspend all expectation…and instead to revel in the mystery.”– Jerusalem Jackson Greer

“The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment right before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.”– Frederick Buechner

Thinking about that last quote reminds me of another one.

“Life is a journey not a destination.”– Ralph Waldo Emerson

As I look back at 2018, I see a year that was much more journey than destination.  I spent the entire year trying to lose weight; trying to get healthier.  I spent time this year, putting words on paper, writing the first draft for a book idea I’ve had for a long time.  I spent time reflecting on where I’ve been and wondering where I might go next, both literally and figuratively.

Which brings me back to Advent. In the religious sense, yes, we are preparing and waiting for a Savior. But everyone, no matter how they celebrate the holidays are waiting and preparing for something else.  They are already thinking about all the great things that will come next.  They are making resolutions.  They are thinking about words that will describe their new year.  They are looking at 2019 staring them in the face.

I’m no different.  When I set weight loss goals for 2018, I did it during Advent.  When I planned my diet and exercise plan, I did it while gorging on Christmas cookies and Egg Nog.  When I set “fitness” as the word I wanted to describe my 2018, I did it before Santa came. My 2018 adventure was set during Advent.

Wait a minute.Adventure.  Advent.  ADVENTure. That can’t be a coincidence. Advent is literally in adventure. Not only that, it’s the beginning of the word.  It’s practically the whole word.  What does that mean?  What does that say about life?  When I look closely, I realize, you can’t have an adventure without starting with an advent.  There has to be a time where you are waiting and preparing for what comes next.  Even if you aren’t actively prepping for an adventure, before something starts, you’re in a period of Advent.

Remember those candles I mentioned at the beginning of this.  It turns out they each represent an attribute we’re supposed to reflect on during this season.  They represent hope, love, joy and peace.  I don’t know about you, but when I think about those four things, I think about how I want my life, my adventure to look.  I want to find hope in where I am headed and what might come before me. I want to love others in the best way possible, so they might love others with the same possibilities.  I want to find joy in every adventure, even if it’s not in the happiest of circumstances.  And I want to have peace, knowing that my adventures are going to better me as a person and member of society.

The fact is that I want to be in a constant state of advent.  I want to always be waiting and preparing for life’s next great adventure. I want the attributes of hope, love, joy and peace to infuse their way into everything I do.  I want to awaken memories of goodness.  I want to serve others.  I want to suspend all expectations, and revel in the mystery that is life.  I want to remember that life is a journey, not a destination.  Life is an adventure.

This advent season, whether you are waiting and preparing to celebrate Jesus’ birthday, or waiting for Santa, take some time to prepare for whatever might be next in your life adventure. You don’t have to plan every step you’re going to take, or wait around for that step to find you, but being in a constant state of advent increases the odds that opportunities for adventures will arise.  Look for them.  Be aware that they will come.  Be ready. Adventures await.  Advent is here.

Advertisements

Moving the Finish Line

Related image

On Thanksgiving Morning, before I gorge myself on smoked turkey and creamy mashed potatoes loaded with gravy, I’m running a 10 Kilometer race.  It’s a distance I’ve run before, but this time I’ve set the goal to finish the race in under an hour.  I’ve never done a 10K in under an hour, but I feel fairly confident that this time will be different.  I’ve trained. I’ve put in the miles on the road outside my neighborhood.  I’ve done stair climbs to help me with the two quarter-mile hill climbs I’ll face toward the end of the race.  My weight is down, and my speed is up.  All of this will help me look at a clock that reads 00:59:59 or lower when I reach the finish line.

That finish line will also mark the end of a journey that started on January 1st,when I stepped on a scale and logged a starting weight of 323.4 pounds. On that day, I decided to live life differently.  I started eating a Ketogenic diet, exercising on a regular basis, and tracking everything. I knew that if I didn’t change, I was already on the way to joining the ranks of the morbidly obese men and women who died early in life.  Sure, I had tried to lose the weight before, with varying amounts of success, but this time I was determined to spend 2018 setting goals, reaching those goals, and becoming a healthier person.  I even set my focal word for the year as #fitness.

Now, I realize that the finish line on my healthy journey isn’t over when I cross the finish line on Thanksgiving.  I realize that if I allow myself to fall back into old habits, I can just as easily regain the more than 100 pounds I’ve lost.  I realize that food is still a crutch for me in a lot of ways, and binging at a buffet is easy when you see all the food you haven’t had in months. I know that even after Thanksgiving, I’ll have to diligently watch what I eat, and how much I eat.  I’m just setting that finish line as the end of my 2018 fitness journey, so that I can enjoy the holidays.  There will be a new journey in 2019, and it will require my new smaller physique.

Still, I have a few days left in this race, and it occurs to me that starting my healthy journey in January actually did something with the finish line of life that you can’t do when running a fixed distance race.  It moved it back.  It made it longer.  At least that’s what I hope.  There’s a bible verse in Corinthians that talks about running the race of life with perseverance.  To me, that means living intentionally, and trying to live for as long as you can. Persevere.  Find ways to move the finish line further away from your birth. Does that mean I’ll get 50, 60, maybe 100 years?  Who knows. But my much healthier lifestyle should help me make the mileage of my life increase exponentially.

That’s exciting.  I’m going to live longer.  I’m going to do more.  I’m going to face opportunities I never thought I would and come upon challenges I would have had to walk away from in the past.  Heather and I are about to go parasailing while cruising the Caribbean.  The weight limit is 250 pounds.  I could never have done it before this year.  I could never have ridden on a zip line in Jamaica or gone swimming with dolphins in Grand Cayman. But I am about to do all of these things and more simply because I moved my finish line.

I think I figured out how I did it.  I think I realized why I was successful in losing weight and getting healthier this year, when I have failed miserably in the past.  I think I understand this better now because I’ve been training for the 10K.  My health journey this year, is a lot like that race.  They’re similar because they aren’t easy.  They’re alike because they both take me out of comfort zone.  They’re comparable because they both required me to do some things I had to talk myself into.  I didn’t want to give up burger buns and French fries, in the same way that I don’t want to put running shoes on while it’s still dark outside.  Yet, if I want to cross the finish line of one race and move the finish line of another, then I had to do these three things.

First, I had to accept the challenge.  I’m not talking about accepting the challenge of losing 100lbs or running 6.2 miles in under an hour.  Rather, I had to accept that losing that much weight or running that distance wasn’t going to be easy.  I had to accept the challenge that setting those goals represented.  It was going to be a struggle.  It was going to be hard.  It’s called a challenge for a reason, and I had to come to terms with the fact that I couldn’t just say I was going to do it and then sit back and relax as it happened.  I would have to do the work.

And doing the work meant that I had to take a chance.  In reality, it probably meant that I was going to have to take more than one chance. For me, that meant trying a new diet I’d never tried before.  It meant exercising in ways that would use muscles I hadn’t used in years.  I had to take the chance that I could stick with a plan, and that I could work through the soreness.  I had to take the chance that I wouldn’t injure myself or get so frustrated with the food that I would cheat on the plan.  Signing up for the 10K meant I had to take a chance that I’d stick with training and would be ready to run that distance when the race arrived.

Because I did these two things with sincerity and commitment, a third thing happened; I was able watch for change.  I was able to step on a scale and see daily affirmation that what I was doing was working. I was able to look at my fitness tracker and see my run times become faster. I was able to buy new clothes because the old ones wouldn’t stay on anymore.  I’ve been through five belts this year.  I was able to go to the doctor, get blood drawn and see the best cholesterol and fasting blood sugar numbers of my life.  I was able to watch my body and my life change.

For me, 2018 has been a year of change.  I’ve got my life back.  I’m no longer beholden to food, or the effects it has on my body.  I’m no longer looking forward to my next meal, or next snack. Instead I’m looking forward to pursuits rather than pastries.  I’m looking forward to challenges instead of chimichangas.  I’m looking forward to busting through obstacles not breaking through the buffet line.  I’m looking forward to moving my life’s finish line even further than I already have.

On Thanksgiving morning as I run 10 Kilometers I’ll be thankful for that challenge losing 100 pounds provided me this year. I’ll be grateful for chances I was able to take eating and exercising.  I’ll be blessed by the changes I’ve been able to go through.  I’m sure as I cross that finish line, in less than an hour, I think back to 323.4 pound Steve and wonder if he would have even tried to run this race. I’ll think about life and the race I’m trying to run with perseverance now, and I’ll know it’s a race worth running faster, stronger, and harder than it was in January.  It’s a race that’s helped me move my finish line.

AIR IN MY (Metephorical) Tires

We are one week in!  One week into a new year.  It’s the beginning of the end for most of the resolutions that people made just 7 short days ago.  The gyms will start emptying.  The credit cards will start coming out of the wallets a little more.  Cigarettes are lit.  Wine bottles are uncorked.  Still the world keeps spinning because none of this really matters, at least it doesn’t matter to the majority of us who have made resolution after resolution, year after year, only to see it fall into obscurity within the existence we behold.  We commit, until we don’t.

For most of us, there is a certain period of time where it is easy to commit fully to whatever endeavor we desire.  We can diet for a week.  We can quit smoking for a month.  We can give up electronics after 8 pm until 10 pm when that text comes chiming in.  Commitment is rather easy when the time frame is indeterminate and all we have are the best of intentions.  “I can do anything for 21 days, and then it will be a habit I won’t even want to stop.”  I can’t tell you how many times I have said this personally.  I don’t care if it’s 21 hours, 21 days, or 21 months, if something goes against my earthly desires long enough, I quit.

And that is what has put me where I am today.  I want to be a writer.  I want to put ink to paper and create a book, plays, lectures, blogs and anything else that may come into my head.  Yet, something that should be done all the time is neglected because I give up on the resolution to sit down without distraction and write something, ANYTHING, every single day.  I want to save more money.  I’d like to see my bank account grow so that when my wife and I are in our 60s and 70s we can do some of the things we haven’t done yet, and so that we can help others in ways we never thought possible.  Yet, we still eat out more than in.  We still buy whatever latest gadget catches our eyes.  We still refuse to sacrifice now, for the greater good later.  And I want to lose weight and get healthy.  How many other people can say this?  I want to eat right, exercise, and see a number on the scale, and in my pants, that make simple addition require a calculator.  And year after year, I resolve to do all of these things.  And year after year, I fail.  I FAIL.

However, as the Mythbusters said, “Failure is always an option,” and when asked about the disappointing results of his invention, Thomas Edison replied, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  Well that’s me, in a nutshell.  I’ve found dozens of diets that will not work for me.  I’ve found tons of ways of saving money that will not work for my life.  I have found distraction after distraction that stop me from success in writing a single page.  And in each case, I have finally realized that there is a valuable lesson to learn.  Resolutions are like life.  They need A.I.R. in order to survive!

Accountability

As a former Soldier and current military spouse I have learned one thing about the Army life.  Nothing ever gets done alone.  Soldiers have battle buddies.  Those buddies are part of a Squad.  That squad is part of a Platoon.  That Platoon is part of a Company, and so on.  They look out for one another.  They share goals.  Each Soldier has a vested interest in the health and well-being of every other Soldier because only together can the fulfill their missions.

Make no mistake, resolutions are missions, or at least should be treated as such if we want to see success.  Keeping them in the dark from others is just like making them Missions Impossible.  We need help.  I know I do.  Trying to eat better, put more in the bank, or give up distractions may seem simple when we think about it.  But if it was easy, procrastination wouldn’t be a word.  Quitting wouldn’t be considered.  Failure wouldn’t be seen.  Yet here we are, another year has gone by, and the resolutions are the same.  It’s time to get others on board with what we want to do.

This means we have to be held ACCOUNTABLE.  Accountability is one of those words I learned in church.  Preachers would tell us to find an accountability partner that we could call or count on when times got tough.  When we find ourselves going down the path of an evil temptation, our accountability partner would be there to reel us back in and save us from ourselves.  It’s not a difficult concept to grasp.  Find someone in your life who is going to walk you off the ledge when you are about to fall, or who will take you to task when a momentary lack in judgement causes the temptation to get the better of you.  And find someone who will do it with tough love.

It’s easy to find a friend who you can ask to hold you accountable for your actions.  I’ve had several accountability partners in my life.  The issue is that I don’t like to be held accountable.  So, after I mess up, tell the truth, and have a long talk with one of these friends, I find myself more than unwilling to fess up again.  It’s not in my nature to allow another person to point out why I’m failing.  BUT I AM FAILING.  Then, because I still want to do it without being chastised (which they are not doing, but I am taking it as such) when I mess up, I decide to try and go it alone.  That doesn’t work either.

Together we achieve, alone we quit.  It’s a rather simple acknowledgement isn’t it.  Can you tell me a time in your life when that isn’t true?  I didn’t get through college without the help of my parents, study partners, and (ahem) designated drivers.  I didn’t survive basic training without my wife’s encouragement, my battle buddies’ patience, and my drill sergeants’ coaching.  I have never done anything without at least one person being there to back me up or push me forward when needed.  Alone I quit.  EVERYTIME.

We need other people, and that is really what accountability should be all about.  It isn’t about having that person that calls us to the carpet.  It’s about having other people to share in our lives.  Sure, I need to be told to put the cookie down, or to not buy the newest version of the iPhone, but I also need to just sit, and talk, and listen to others who are struggling like I am.  Accountability isn’t about being guilted because you have to tell someone else your sins.  It’s about sharing in common life experiences with others who just want to see you reach your goals as you hope and pray and help them reach theirs.

To that end I am not just holding myself accountable, but I’m relying on a group of great individuals to help me.  We get together once a week or more just to talk about life.  We can confess struggles.  We can share successes.  We can be ourselves.  And I know that through their difficulties they can talk me through mine, and I can be there for them.  That’s what accountability is all about.  It’s about sharing life, completely, happily, even in the biggest of messes.  Without it,  the mess never gets cleaned up and you’ll still be alone.

Investment

The second component our resolutions need is an investment.  Look, if we think that resolutions are just going to be easy, well… ok, we don’t really think that.  If you still do, you haven’t been paying attention to all of the failure out there.  When we think something is going to be easy, we put very little into it, and then we quit when it isn’t as easy as we perceived.  There has to be an investment in our resolutions if we want them to pay off.  It’s simple economics.

I’ve heard it said that three most important things we can give in the service of others is our time, our talents, and our treasures (money).  I think this is true because they are three of the most important aspects of our lives.  We have a limited amount of time.  Our talents help shape who we are.  And money, well most of us dislike giving that away.  In fact, as we get older and learn more about where our place in the world actually is, we guard these resources as our own lifeblood.  We have to keep them, and keep them safe.  And if we are going to spend any of them we make sure we are getting something very valuable in return.

That’s where investments come in.  We invest in the stock market to make sure our future is secure.  We invest in our work or hobbies because we want to share our knowledge and our gifts with others in order to make our families, communities or the world a better place, and we invest our time in so many things, all in the hopes that it will make us happier, more comfortable and worthy of this life.  But have we ever thought about how we need to invest all of these things into our resolutions if we want to see success?

I can give countless examples about why each of these things should be invested into our resolutions but I won’t.  We all know that taking time to do something, using our talents to do it, and spending treasures on things that will help are parts of success.  What I will say is this.  Our willingness to invest in our resolutions whole heartedly are what will determine the level of success we actually want.  If I want to lose weight to be healthy, but aren’t willing to spend a little more for healthier foods, I may lose weight by eating less, but am I fixing the other health issues caused by processed junk?  If I want to spend less, but am unwilling to take the time to balance my checkbook or figure out things I can cut, am I ever going to really see the bank account grow?  If I hold back of my natural abilities, because of distractions or procrastination, am I ever going to see words on a page come to life?  Of course not, because I haven’t made the investment.

Personally, I want to be so committed to my goals for the year that I am willing to invest.  I’ve spent money.  I’ve taken the time.  And I have put forth the effort with my gifts to make sure that I have started on the right foot.  And even just one week in, I am seeing a return on that investment.  That makes me willing to invest more, hoping for a bigger return.  (in my case loss, wink, wink)  I hope we can all do this, and find the proper balance for our investments.  We can be successful but only if we are truly invested in what we want to achieve.

Reward

This is the one everyone is going to agree with me on.  Like Accountability and Investment, our resolutions need a reward if we are going to succeed.  Actually, I believe they need multiple rewards throughout the year.  Heck, each of us is different, so while I may need a reward every few months just to keep me motivated, others may need some small token every day.  The amount of the reward or the how often it comes varies, but the importance remains.  We all need something to focus on in order to continually fight in the pursuit of our goals.

What was that quote, “Virtue is its own reward?”  Well that certainly is nice in sentiment, but l want something else.  I want something stuck out in front of me that I can fight for each and every day.  Football players aren’t playing their best simply because playing their best is its own reward and it doesn’t matter who wins.  They are playing their best for a shot at the Super Bowl.  When it comes to resolutions I would be the first to admit that six pack abs and a great cholesterol level should be enough to wake me up for crunches every morning, but they don’t.  I need some boxed up gift waiting for me when I succeed.  A new car maybe?  Definitely new clothes.  Something I would never get on my own that would motivate me.  We all need this whether we want to admit it or not.  (I think we can all admit it.)

Rewards are great motivators because they can be used to help teach us habits.  I know it worked with my puppies.  When I was teaching them to scratch on the door to go outside I would give them a treat.  Soon I didn’t have to teach them to scratch on the door.  After that I didn’t even have to give them treat.  They just knew if they scratched I would let them out.  It works the same for us.  My wife and I have a deal that we will save a certain amount every month toward a vacation, and the amount we save will determine the vacation.  To this end, when we started the plan, I would put cash in a jar, and would get to add up how much was in the jar.  For me that was a reward because I could see the money grow.  After a couple months it just became habit to put the money in the jar.  I stopped adding it up because I knew it was growing, and didn’t need the reminder.

Another reason rewards are so helpful is because they give us something to reach for.  I remember back in 2nd grade my teacher decided that we should all have to learn who the 40 Presidents of the United States were.  That’s right 40!  Yes, America had only had 40 Presidents by the time I was in 2nd grade.  Anyway, we had to know them in order.  And whoever could remember the most would win this felt camel wall hanging that held colored pencils.  I remember studying hard.  I’m not sure why I wanted a felt, colored pencil holding camel, but I did and I wanted it bad.

Washington, Adams, Jefferson through Jackson were pretty easy.  Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon…through FDR were easy as well.  Those were at the beginning and end.  Then of course, Presidents like Lincoln, Kennedy and Garfield were easy to remember too.  (this was the height of Garfield the Cat’s comic success.)  It was the one term Presidents with no real place in a 2nd grade history book that was hard to remember.  I mean, even today, I have a hard time placing Presidents Harrison, Fillmore or Hayes.  Yet, when the time came, I spouted off as many as I could as fast as I could.  And I don’t remember the score, but I was sure I had won.  I was certain of it.

Thing was, I didn’t get the prize.  As time went on, we never heard who had won.  We didn’t see the camel either.  The teacher had either given it to the winner without fanfare or we had been duped into learning something.  Certainly, she wouldn’t have done that to us.  After all we were at a Catholic school.  Wouldn’t tricking children be against the law of God or something.  Yet, no prize was given.  What’s worse, though I never said anything, I think I was the only one who noticed.

It wasn’t until the end of the year when I found out.  Most of the students were gone, having left for their summer vacations.  But a few of us stayed on that last day to finish cleaning desks, stacking books and wiping chalkboards.  The teacher was also there cleaning out her desk too.  When she got to the bottom drawer she said huh, making each of us look up.  She pulled out that felt camel with the colored pencils, and puzzling said, “I thought I gave this away already.”  I was the first to reply, “WHO WON?”  I expressed, still as eager to win the prize.  “You did,” she exclaimed, and I finally got my well-deserved camel and colored pencils.

In that moment, I knew that the reward was the motivating factor in me learning the Presidents.  I haven’t forgotten them either.  I can still name 90% in order.  (A couple of the names sometimes slip my mind.)  I heard a fact that most Americans can’t name more than 8 Presidents.  Seems to me more teachers need to be giving away colored pencils.

Anyway, we need rewards if we hope to see our resolutions succeed.  We need something that will help us create habits that contribute to daily success and something that will causes us to focus long term on the goals we have created for ourselves.  Just wanting to do something isn’t enough. We have to have something we want waiting for us at the end.

And that’s the end of this piece.  We need AIR.  We need it to live.  We need it to breathe.  We need it to be all around us in order for the world to continue supporting us.  And our resolutions need AIR too.  They need us to be Accountable to others because life isn’t meant to be lived alone.  They need us to invest in them.  We have to put something on the line so we have a reason to fight for success.  And they need rewards.  Tangible things that will keep us focused day in and day out toward the goals we have set.  If we breathe these things into our resolutions, we can’t help but see positive change in 2018.