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Merry Christmas: A Look Back at Project Advent II

12/25/2012

Do you remember the three words that I launched this project with?  Anticipation.  Expectation.  Joy.

I know that I keep coming back to the events in Newtown on December 14th.  It's been really prominent in my thoughts.  Certainly, when we started Advent, none of us anticipated something so awful happening.  None of us expected to arrive at Christmas in the shadow of not just that event, but another mass shooting which occurred yesterday.  Another!  All of us have struggled to cling to our joy.

I've been trying to find some kind of perspective to help me around it, but there just is no perspective where things like this make sense.  Instead, I've had to turn my focus within.  Let me share one of my very favorite passages of scripture with you.  It's from the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.
34 "Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.
35 
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you invited me in,

36 
I needed clothes and you clothed me,
I was sick and you looked after me,
I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
It is a sad truth that the smallest and most helpless members of our society are the ones who bear a disproportionate share of the brunt of society's worst tendencies.  But that doesn't mean you and I can't try to help.  We can work together (and it doesn't even have to be that much work!) and do whatever we can for the least of these brothers and sisters.

And when we do...

When we do, it's just like we're doing it for Him.  There's your joy.  As good as the anticipation and expectation of Advent are, they're still looking towards a defined end.  Anticipate bigger.  Expect eternity.  Love each other.

Joy. 
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Project Advent II, Day 24: The Newtown 2025 Fund

12/24/2012

First, some pictures from today.

Christmas cookies were decorated for Santa.
Christmas Eve service was attended, with these three beautiful kiddos.
The Christmas tree was appreciated one last time before pajamas were put on.
Now, on to today's project.

I can't claim to be a perfectionist (a frustrated perfectionist, maybe), but I would definitely say that I live my life beholden to the schedules and timetables that I set for myself.  I don't know when I became that way, but my poor wife can tell you that it's definitely been for as long as we've been together.  The easiest way to see me at my worst is to knock me off schedule.

As your Jewish grandmother always says, though, "Man plans, God laughs."  It doesn't matter if I wake my family 3 hours before church or 30 minutes: we'll be walking in to service about 10 minutes late.  Life with a family has made me learn the value of flexibility.

I had hoped to have today's service completed by today, and have it ready to announce, but it was just too involved a task for me to complete in an hour, or even in the week or so that I've been working on it.  Let me tell you why I'm OK with it being in progress.  What is Advent?  As I mentioned at the beginning of the project, it's a time of preparation.  Advent is the journey to Christmas Day.  I've only begun today's project, but it's the first part of a journey.

My children have made me an entirely different person than I was eight years ago.  I think I've always been a pretty emotionally open person, but having children took things that were always there and brought them right up to the surface all the time.  I'm watching It's a Wonderful Life right now as I type this, and when it showed the scene where George Bailey runs back into his home and embraces his children after his vision of the world without him, I got choked up.

If you ask me what my proudest accomplishment is, I will tell you that it is fatherhood.  That's why I haven't been able to stop thinking about the parents of Newtown, CT for the last week and a half.  I think about the sounds that will fill my home tomorrow morning, sounds which will be absent from so many homes in that town, and it just shatters my heart.

The Wednesday after the shootings, I saw an interview with Frank Keating on CNN.  He was governor of Oklahoma in 1995, when the Oklahoma City bombing occurred, and they were asking him about his perspective on what lies ahead for Newtown.  He noted that 17 years after the OKC incident, funds are still being used to put victims’ children through college, provide counseling to first responders and cover medical care for the severely injured.  That made me start thinking about long term goals.

So many people have reached out to Newtown already.  If you go to IndieGogo and search for "Newtown," it returns lots and lots of results.  It's encouraging to see people taking action.  I considered just contributing to one of the existing fundraisers, but so many of them were so vague about their purpose: "to raise money for the victims..."  I wanted to do something with a very specific aim.

Here it is, and here is why it's not entirely ready yet.  I've been working with an attorney friend to set up a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization called the Newtown 2025 Fund.  My goal is to establish a scholarship fund for the current kindergarten class of Sandy Hook Elementary School.  For the next 12 years, it will be able to take in contributions and let them grow before being disbursed.  The only two criteria it will have are that the recipients must be a member of the kindergarten class that is enrolled at Sandy Hook right now, and they must graduate (from any high school) in the spring of 2025.

I've never done anything like this before, so I'm figuring it out as I go, but my friend has been really helpful.  I hope to be able to announce the successful formation of The Newtown 2025 Fund in early January, and to give you the chance to help me establish it, and to help spread the word about it.  If you're reading this right now, I won't ask you to promise a contribution, but will you commit to help me tell others, and to pray for this project?

Affirmation Project:  This may sound like a cop-out, but today I just want to send an affirmation to all of you.  This month has been so full of friends who have contacted me to encourage me or to say that they have enjoyed following Project Advent.  Christmas can bring with it such a tide of emotions - it's a joyous time of year, but so many of us also contend with more difficult feelings, too.  If you see this, just know that I am thankful for you.  God made you wonderfully and fearfully.  Thanks for being a friend.
That's the end of Project Advent II!  Check back tomorrow for the wrap-up, OK?
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Project Advent II, Day 23: The WE Fund

12/23/2012

My friend Wyatt is a great guy.  He's a brilliant medical researcher, a great father, and a generous friend.  He and his wife Enusha have one of the most romantic stories of courtship ever.  She also works in medicine.  When the two of them were married, they started a non-profit organization called The WE Fund to promote scientific solutions to societal problems.

Here, from The WE Fund's Facebook page, is a description of their organization's goals:
The WE fund supports those who use basic science to provide the insight necessary to solve the most important human problems in development, research, and conservation.
Unfortunately, their website is offline right now, but I contacted Wyatt and he anticipates that it'll be back online in January.  Today, I dropped a check in the mail for The WE Fund.

Tomorrow's it - the end of this year's Project Advent.  I'm kind of coming down to the wire on preparing for what I'm working on, but I really, really hope it comes together.

Affirmation Project:   There's a girl whose family goes to our church, and she occasionally works in the nursery.  As I was walking down the hall to get the kids this morning, she got excited and said, "I never knew that you and Mrs. Lewis are brother and sister!"  My sister, Kristen, used to be a counselor at a junior high here in Lubbock, and is working her first year in a high school this year.  This girl had seen a picture of my kids in Kristen's office, and put things together when she asked about it.  I'm proud of you and the difference that you make in your students' lives, Kristen.  It makes me proud when they associate me with you!

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Project Advent II, Day 22: Helping the Mullins

12/22/2012

You may remember a week and a half ago, I asked for your help with today's project.  My original goal was to find somebody who needed a number of household repairs and tasks done, and to help them out with that.  It turns out that finding somebody for that was much harder than I had anticipated!  But earlier this week, my wife's cousin Chad called me with a suggestion.

Chad owns a few rental homes, and told me the story of Mr. and Mrs. Mullins, who live in one of them.  They're a retired couple on a fixed income, and he has battled with cancer for the last several years.  They believed it to be in remission, but it has returned.  Mrs. Mullins has some back trouble, which makes it difficult for her to do certain things around the home.  Chad told me that they've always kept the place really nice, and have always been fantastic tenants.  The home is in good repair, but their health troubles have made certain cleaning tasks really difficult for them.

The project took on a different direction.  Instead of repairs, we'd be doing cleaning.  This morning, Chad and his daughter Halle met us at the Mullins' home, both of us armed with cleaning supplies.  A few minutes later, my friend Amy Johnston showed up with her three daughters (and one of their boyfriends, too!).  The next hour and a half was a whirlwind of Swiffers, bleach wipes, magic erasers, mops, Windex, and dust cloths.  Chad and Halle worked outside to tidy up the yard some.  Amy and I focused on the kitchen, scrubbing down the cabinet fronts and counter tops.  Blake and one of Amy's daughters took turns on the Swiffer, while another of her girls cleaned the glass in the front door.  Amy's oldest daughter and her boyfriend cleaned the bathroom until it shone.

And you know?  I really have to brag on all of our kids today.  All of them just got out of school for the Christmas holiday yesterday, and they've got their whole break ahead of them.  It's a Saturday morning.  There's a million things they could be doing, but instead of doing any of those things, they are with us in the home of somebody they don't know, doing a great job of cleaning.  I was so proud of them all, I thought I would burst.

I was dusting the many family photos that hung in the Mullins' living room, and Mr. Mullins came in and said, "Careful, now!  Those are my trophies."  And as he said it, he stopped to look at a picture of his grandkids and his whole face was covered with a smile.

While we were wrapping up, Chad's wife Heather arrived with a trunkload of groceries for the Mullins.  We unloaded them and put them away, and Mr. Mullins told us that he had never had anybody do this much for him before.  Chad thanked him for giving all of us the chance to bless him today.

Today wasn't the project that I had imagined, but it ended up being something even better.  Merry Christmas, Mr. and Mrs. Mullins!

Affirmation Project:  I was surrounded by so much generosity today.  Chad, who set this up, and who has done other things to help the Mullins.  Heather, who shopped for them.  Amy and her kids, who gave their time to come and help us out.  My friend Ann, who didn't feel well enough to join us today, but who contributed a gift card for groceries.  My mom, who overwhelmed me with an unexpected act of kindness.  Thank you, everybody.
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Project Advent II, Day 21: Snacks for All Saints Teachers

12/21/2012

Short and simple one today.  We actually signed up to do this at the start of the school year, but each Friday a different parent brings snacks up to All Saints for the teacher's lounge.  Today was our turn.  I made pigs in a blanket, and picked up fresh bagels from Einstein Brothers.  It looked like they were a hit!

The rest of the day was really nice, too.  Blake went home with a friend to play for the afternoon, so I got to have a daddy-daughter lunch date with Ava.  I told her I'd take her anyplace in Lubbock.  She chose Chik Fil A.

Affirmation Project:  My cousin Aaren - geography meant that we couldn't be as close as we would have liked when we were growing up, but you've become such a valued part of my life, it's like we've made up for all of that lost time.

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Project Advent II, Day 20: Saint Benedict's Chapel

12/20/2012

My friend Courtney got in touch with me after I worked at the Sick Children's Clinic earlier this month.  It turns out that she is now the full-time financial administrator for Second Baptist Church, the church that sponsors the clinic.  She invited me last year to work an evening at Saint Benedict's, because Second Baptist also does that every Thursday night, and she was getting in touch to renew the invitation for this year.

They start serving the meal at 5, which is when I get off of work.  Fortunately, St. Ben's is only about a quarter mile from my office, so I hopped in the car and booked it over there as quickly as I could.  When I got there, the tables inside were already completely full, and most folks had already had a first serving of food.  However, there were still seconds to be served, and a crowd of people waiting outside for seats to open up so that they could come in and eat.

Last year, I waited tables, taking food out to people and picking up their plates when they were done, or bringing them more food if they wanted more.  This year, I stood in the assembly line and helped make plates.  The first two people put meatloaf and green beans on the plate, I added potatoes, Courtney topped them with gravy, and the last volunteer added bread.  It was fun!  We caught up on the last year, talked about what's been going on in our lives, and just enjoyed each other's company.

The hour passed quickly.  I thought about how many of these projects have involved feeding hungry people.  It makes me glad that there are places like this where people can get a meal.  It makes me glum to think that in 2012 in America there are still so many people who need a meal.  Tonight, though, I also thought of a scripture that I haven't thought of in a long time, Hebrews 13:1-2.
Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.

Affirmation Project: Mark, I'm really proud of you for the new job that you started this year, and for the way that you're always there for my kids.
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Project Advent II, Day 19: All Saints Chess Club


Oops!

Here's what happened.  I sat down in my chair last night at about 9:00, ready to type this post.  I put my laptop on top of my lap, and promptly fell asleep before I even opened it.  I woke up six hours later with a crick in my neck and no blog entry written.  The blog elves did not come and cobble it together for me this time.

Anyway, yesterday was all about time spent with kids.  It was my final visit to the All Saints Chess Club for 2012.  I didn't get to see Blake this time.  Every Wednesday, a group of second graders from All Saints goes to the Ronald McDonald House to help out there and bake cookies for the guests, and yesterday was one of his days to go.  Still, there were about 10 kids who did come yesterday, so it was a pretty full house.

The children started coming in a few at a time.  Some set up boards while others just watched or visited.  A boy named Ryan asked if I would play with him.  A while back, I reached the decision that I wouldn't ever take it easy on these kids, mostly because I'm not good enough to take it easy on them.  Still, after a few opening moves, it seemed like Ryan may have been struggling, so I pulled back a little.  Kid hustled me.  I spent the rest of the game watching him mop my pieces off of the board.

But that's not the real story of yesterday.  The weathermen had all predicted severe winds yesterday, but it was still calm when I arrived at the school.  At about 12:30, though, one of the kids shouted "The storm is here!" and then you could literally hear the exact moment when the wall of wind and dust slammed into the side of the school.  I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that it felt like the building actually moved a little bit.  Besides Ryan, the rest of the kids just entirely lost interest in chess at that point, and went into full-on Crazytown mode.  I'm thinking that maybe in addition to other safety-related talks they've probably received at school this week, their teachers may have taken the chance to review severe weather safety, too, because this crowd was ready to dive into the bunkers.  I am not making this up: a few of them just started running laps around the library.  One of them kept poking his head outside before coming back in to report, "It's still so windy!"  Two boys took every book about weather that they could find off of the shelves, and started looking for information about dust storms.  Sorry about that, Mrs. Gretzler.  So, between moves with Ryan, who was getting increasingly impatient with waiting to beat me, I was making the rounds of the room, trying to introduce a little bit of calmness to things, assuring the children that everything was going to be OK, and not to listen to the first grader who insisted that a tornado was just outside.

It was quite an hour.

But the child-related chaos was not over, for, you see, last night was the children's Christmas Pageant at our church, and if you guessed that maybe one of my children did something to draw attention to themselves, well I just don't know what would have given you that idea.

Here are all three of them pre-show.  Ava was a sheep, and Blake and Jack were both shepherds.  Also, look at the adorable little girl behind Jack!  That's our friends Marcy and Clay's daughter Addison.
The program began, and it was really cute.  Different children read parts of the story and acted it out, and then they'd all sing.
My friend Charlie played "Away in a Manger" on his trumpet, and sounded fantastic!
Here's Blake about to read his part, which he did wonderfully.
And here's Ava, paying close attention to the signals that the director was giving them.  She had come straight from dance class, which is why she's wearing stripey tights and a leotard beneath her costume.

And here's Jack, who was front and center.
That look of concentration is him realizing that there is a microphone less than a foot away from his face.  Luckily, he hasn't reached the age yet where he'd think to commandeer that mike for himself and say things into it.  Instead, he decided to lean forward and rub the soft, spongy black microphone cover all up on his face, adding a nice rumble and screech of feedback to the program at random intervals.  I was laughing too hard to record it.  I only got this.
video
The very first words out of his mouth when we went to get him after the program: "Did you see me put my face on the thing, Daddy?"  He was so proud.  I was, too.  I mean, they're my kids.  Of course I'm proud.  But especially when one of them gets a laugh.

Affirmation Project: Heather Griffis, FUMC's children's minister, I really don't know how you do it.  I've watched you take control of a group of 30 kids, with nothing planned to do, and completely draw them into some game that you just made up on the spot.  You are so good at making something wonderful out of something disorderly, and you do a great job of making our children feel like a part of the church family.
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Project Advent II, Day 18: Second Helpings

12/18/2012

First things first.  My friend and loyal reader Ali requested that I put something shiny in a post for her, so here it is, personalized with a shiny letter "A" and everything!
OK, now on to today's service.   I had originally planned to return to the Sick Children's Clinic, because I had such a wonderful experience there last time, and because they had doctor's hours today.  Unfortunately, the doctor's hours started at 10 AM, and at the very end of the day yesterday, my manager scheduled a 10 AM meeting that I really needed to be at.  I texted the folks in charge to apologize and let them know I wouldn't be there.

Luckily, God provides!  Because it's Tuesday, I knew that Second Helpings was serving at my church, so I ran over there during my lunch break and helped serve food.  So many of the friends I made during my visits last December were there again, just as they probably have been all year long.  Today's menu included beans, green beans, carrots, fried chicken, baked chicken with a sour cream sauce, salad, and dessert.  My station was right beside the salad, where there were two large bowls of salsa, one red and one green, spooning it out to anybody who wanted some with their meal.  I got to stand beside Nell, one of my favorite ladies, and visit with her, and the hour passed quickly.

Affirmation Project:  I'm really grateful for the family I married into.  Over the last year, Courtney's cousin Chad has become a really treasured friend, and today he shared something with me, something very kind that he recently did for somebody in a position of need.  Thank you for letting me know about that, and for the part that you've agreed to play in Project Advent this weekend, Chad!
A Special Look What Danny Made! Note:  This is my 300th post!  It's a landmark I'm happy to have reached, and happy to have fall in the middle of Project Advent.

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Project Advent II, Day 17: The Bridge of Lubbock

12/17/2012

Today has been a kaleidoscope of emotions.

Hurt: Although I've made my email address available on my contact info page, I usually receive very few actual email messages from readers.  Folks either leave a comment, put something on Facebook, or tell me what they think in person.  This morning when I awoke and checked my email, I had a message from somebody whom I've never met, telling me that I'm a "commie faggot" for making a donation to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.  I haven't replied yet.  I should probably just delete it.

Friendship: I also had a comment left on that blog entry from the Development Director of CSGV, thanking me for my donation and attention!  It turns out that we actually have a mutual friend, too.

Joy: For my hour of service, I returned to The Bridge of Lubbock, where I sorted coats last week.  Ashley, the director, had told me that I should come back to help with their annual community Christmas meal, which was today.  I'm so glad that I did.  I'm always a bad judge of numbers of people, but there had to have been several hundred people who were fed today, and the food looked fantastic.  Christmas ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, green bean casserole, salad, and rolls, with a choice of several pies for dessert!  As people came in, they took a seat, and we would bring plates out to them, along with more food if they wished.  It was a windy, dusty, unpleasant day outside, but as soon as people came in, you could just see the peace and camaraderie of the place overtake them.  Everybody who attended was also given a coat and a Bible, and a new toy if they had children with them.  There was a family who arrived later than most other folks; I showed them to seats and brought them food, and then came back a while later to ask if there was anything else they needed.  They had three boys, the oldest of whom must have been around five, and they asked if there were any toys left.  Up to this point, I hadn't really done anything with the toys, because I'd been busy bringing food and then busing tables, but I went to check.  There were exactly three toys left.  Putting them into those boys' hands felt as good as though I was handing them to my own three children.

Pride: This is me with my friend Charlie.  We go to the same church with his family, and he's about Blake's age.  When he saw something about boys and girls who are cold, he wanted to do something about it, and asked his school if he could start a coat drive.  They said he couldn't, so he did it through our church instead.  At The Bridge today, his coats made up a large part of what was given out.  In fact, he was able to collect so many coats that not only did everybody who attended Christmas Lunch at The Bridge today receive one, he and his mom went to CASA when they left and gave away another 150 coats.  I'm so proud of you, Charlie.  I'm so amazed at your heart.

Sorrow: I had the chance to see some old friends under very sad circumstances today.  Dr. John Marx taught with my dad in Texas Tech's department of chemistry for many years.  I grew up alongside his son Sam and daughter Ruthie, and went to school with them.  I was in the same Boy Scout troop with Sam and Dr. Marx.  In many ways, he was a lot like my dad, a quiet, thoughtful, gentle, fiercely intelligent man who was never happier than when he could share his love of science and of the outdoors with the boys in the troop.  He had what surely must have been one of the world's largest private collections of science fiction, with over 80,000 volumes in his library.  Every now and then, I would buy some from him, and he'd throw in a few extra ones that I hadn't asked for but that he thought I'd like based on my purchases.  His picks were usually better than mine.  Last Thursday, Dr. Marx passed away.  Sam, Ruthie, and Mrs. Marx: I am so sorry for your loss.  I really thought the world of Dr. Marx.  It does put a smile on my face, though, to think of him and my dad hanging out again.

Excitement: Tonight was Blake's last Cub Scout meeting until after Christmas, and he was awarded his Bobcat patch, his first award in Scouting.  I'm a proud dad tonight.

What are you feeling tonight?  There's one week until Christmas Eve.  Don't let it be a frantic time, let it be a hopeful time.  I know, easier said than done.  I'm working on it, too.  Let's work on it together.

Affirmation Project: My friend Steve Moss posted a really encouraging video on my Facebook about service to others as the way to being a light in the darkness.  It was something very touching at a time when I needed to see something like that.  Steve, I've known you for 25 years, through so many changes in both of our lives, but a constant through all of that time is that you have always been a true, loving supporter not only to me, but to so many others who have been in your orbit.

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Project Advent II, Day 16: Coalition to Stop Gun Violence

I can't believe I'm saying this on a Sunday night, but I'm actually glad that tomorrow is Monday.  Maybe when I go to the office tomorrow, I'll actually have the chance to sit still for a few minutes.

First, to follow up on yesterday's entry.  At the end of today, after the kids had their baths and were in pajamas, I got them to help me make our goodie bags for the Hope Lodge.  I told them what the stockings were for, and they didn't even ask for any of the candy we were putting inside them.  They were just so excited that they were getting to do something that would make people happy.  It really, really blessed me.
I'll be delivering the stockings tomorrow, and I hope that they'll be enjoyed by the guests at Hope Lodge.

Now, for today's project.  My original plan today was to take the kids out to lunch and pay for a stranger's meal.  That's something I've always wanted to do, and have always thought would be fun.  I'm just not in a fun place yet, though.  Every time I close my eyes, I see that little girl in the blue shirt, the one who was sobbing as the police led her class away from their school.  I called an audible, and changed where the donation for today went.  Today, I sent an hour of pay to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.  It's not a lot, but it's at least something.

We're in the final week of Advent.  I'm really looking forward to some of what's coming up this week.

Affirmation Project:  One of the things that I have to do on Sundays is lead a weekly Bible study.  This year I have a pretty small group, just myself and three people.  Today, two of them couldn't make it, so it was just me and Stephanie in class.  Stephanie, today I just want to thank you for being in class, not just today, but always.  You are so knowledgeable and passionate about the Bible, and having you in class has really made it a fun group to be with this year.

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Project Advent II, Day 15: IOU Hope Lodge

12/15/2012

One of the most amazing days I had during the first Project Advent was when I went and helped at the Hope Lodge.  To refresh your memory, the Hope Lodge is a place where cancer patients and their caregivers and loved ones can stay if they have to travel for medical treatment.  It is free of charge.  The one in Lubbock is the first, and so far only, one in Texas.  The rooms are comparable to what you would find in a really top-notch hotel, and there are lots of other amenities and conveniences that their guests have access to.


My plan today, since it was a Saturday, was to work with the kids on something special for the Hope Lodge.  There are about 20-25 guests there at any time, and we were going to make little care packages for them.  I had a bunch of little stockings, and the plan was to fill them with some treats to make the day a little nicer for the guests of the Lodge, things like chocolate kisses, puzzle books, and other little fun things.  I had all of the stuff ready to go, but then came The Event.  The Event Which Required Attention.


See, my job is in IT.  Most of the time that just means I have to keep stuff plugged in and working well together, but every so often something bigger comes up, and today was one of those days.  Anyway, I ended up spending about 12 hours at the office today working on The Event Which Required Attention.  By the time I was done up there, I needed to get home with the kids, get them bathed and put them to bed.


The stuff for the care packages is still here, and they'll still get made and taken, but I'm afraid that for today I have to break my streak.  I know there's still time that I could make them myself, but I've still got to work on some other things tonight and besides, I really wanted the kids to get to do this with me.


Affirmation Project:  Courtney worked last night, and again tonight, so I needed somebody to be with the kids while I was working, so that she could sleep.  My mom watched them this morning, but had something she needed to do this afternoon, so I called our favorite babysitter, Kerri.  We first met Kerri almost 6 years ago, which I can't even believe.  At the time she was a Tech student, and now she's a grad student; we met her because she also works in our church nursery.  All of our kids have been in her care at some point or other, and somewhere in there, she became our go-to gal when we needed somebody to babysit for us.  She came over today to spend the afternoon with the children, and do you know what she did?  At the end of the afternoon, she wouldn't let us pay her.  Kerri, you're so much more than a babysitter to us - you're like another member of our family.  Thank you.

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Project Advent II, Day 14: Dinner for Fire Station 6

I'm having a really hard time finding the motivation to type this today.  You know why.  I had today off, and I had the TV on while I was in the kitchen, getting some things ready for tonight's project.  I was cooking when the news came on.  You know which news.

Like every American, I am heartsick today.  I'm sure that in the weeks ahead, we'll be finding out more about the reasons that today unfolded like it did.  Right now, though... God.  Oh God.  My chest and stomach have been in a vise grip all day long, and I'm just barely holding back the tears.  And part of me thinks that maybe I'll feel better for still writing this up and sharing it, but the bigger part just wonders what's the point.  What's the point?!?  Here's something I wrote at the conclusion of last year's Project Advent:
There was this moment last night, as we held our candles, and Pastor Craig read from the first chapter of the Gospel of John, where this last month clicked into perspective for me.

"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."

Only when we stop caring about each other and taking care of each other will the darkness overcome us.  Light a candle against the darkness.
On days when I'm not feeling as driven towards service, this is something I've thought about to help stir me: these actions are like lighting a candle.  But a day like today happens, and... what?  What does it matter if I spend an hour putting something good into the world when some maniac can put SO MUCH evil into the world in even less time?  And when it's happened SO MANY times this year that I can't even keep track of them all anymore?

And morons on Facebook ranting about how the answer to this epidemic is for even more of us to be armed, for teachers to carry guns to school, for you and I to carry guns to the movies or to work - for all of us to be prepared to kill our fellow man at a moment's notice.  Are you prepared to live like that?  To see every day as a potential opportunity to cowboy up and put a bullet into somebody?  I'm not, and I never will be.

But again, what does it matter?  If I sit here and type 100,000 words about this, I won't have changed anything.  Tonight, all of us are anguished.  All of those precious children...

I did do my service today, though, because I've made that commitment.  Today I wanted to do something special for my friend Brett.  I've known him for literally my entire life.  Brett is about five years older than me, and we grew up down the street from each other.  We used to play baseball in the cul de sac I lived on with all of the other kids from the neighborhood.  Now he's a fireman, and I asked him if I could bring dinner for the men at his station tonight.  He happily said yes, and gave me details about how many guys would be on shift, and what time I should bring the food by.

I made a big crockpot of chili (which I also took some fixings along for: cheese, Fritos, sour cream, and jalapenos), a pan of cornbread, and a peach pie (which was compliments of my mom.  Thanks, Mom!).  When we got to the station, we were greeted by Brett's sons, who were there spending the night with him.  Brett and his crew were just getting back from a call, and they seemed really pleased to have something hot to come back to.  Brett was really kind to my kids, and showed them around the whole station.
Blake got comfy in the living area, and commandeered the remote to change the TV to Cartoon Network.  "Want to come and see the fire truck, Blake?"  "Nah, I'm good."

Ava was intrigued with all of the gear.
She was making me laugh - as much fun as she was having, she was still certain that Brett was going to blast her with the sirens every time he reached for something.
A quick photo with an old friend.  I'm thankful for you, Brett.
My boys with one of Brett's boys; this is the most still Jack was all night, and he was still a little blur.  Kid was HYPED to be at the fire station.
During the day today, I had lunch with my mom and then took her to see Argo.  In the opening scenes, when it showed the Iranian Revolution, my mom said, "I remember this.  You were too young, though.  You were only four."  And she was right: I was alive when that happened, but I have absolutely no memory of it.  I learned about it years later in history class.  I picked up my children from school today, and they had no idea what had happened in Newtown, Connecticut today.  I'm glad of that.  But I think they still sensed the sadness in me.  So, you know, I did what I could.  I took them to dinner at one of our favorite places, the Holly Hop, where we had hot dogs and ice cream, and even sat at the counter while songs played on the jukebox.

Jack had a little accident while we were there, and I was about to lose my temper with him, and that's when a sweet grandma came in with her friends, smoothed Jack's hair with one hand, and told me I had beautiful children.  "Treasure them, because they just grow so fast, and you just never know..."  She squeezed my hand and went to place her order.  You just never know.  But you can buy them some ice cream, and tuck them in at night, and then cry about things that you pray they'll never know.

And you can see a rainbow when you're driving them home from school and remember Genesis 9:16: "Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth."

Affirmation Project:  Another longtime friend, Geoff Hearn, completed nursing school today!  He and I used to be in Boy Scouts together, and his dad was like my second dad.  I'm really proud of you, Geoff.  Congratulations.

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Project Advent II needs your help!

12/13/2012

Last year, I asked for your help with contributions to prepare a meal for the guests of Ronald McDonald House.  You not only came through, you overwhelmed me with the amount of support you provided.

I'd like to ask for your help again this year, but in a different way.  Actually, two different ways.

On Saturday, 12/22, I want to form a service strikeforce of anybody who wants to be a part of it, and I want to go knock out a year's worth of tasks in a single morning.  For this to happen, here's what I need:
  1. A Suggested Recipient: Ideally, I'd like for us to go and assist somebody who really needs the help.  Somebody elderly or infirm, somebody who has a hard time doing for themselves.  If you know of somebody in Lubbock who could use a hand with some household tasks, maintenance, or repairs, please contact me, either through a comment on this entry or at dannyholwerda@yahoo.com.
  2. A Whole Crew of Helpers: The list of things to be done will depend on who we go to help, but what I need the most is willing hands.  Whether they need trash hauled, grass mowed, repairs made, or paint applied, I want us to go and do whatever they need.
Can you help me with either of these?  I'm still amazed at the outpouring of love that my friends showed last year.  Amaze me again this year!  Let's make the weekend before Christmas a time when we give somebody a truly fantastic gift.
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Project Advent II, Day 13: Innocence Project of Texas

Today I wanted to help an organization that I see literally almost every single day.  I work in downtown Lubbock, and a little over a year ago I noticed their office directly across the street from my own office.  Here's a picture to help you visualize it.
Now, without looking at the title of this blog post, can you guess which of those two offices I volunteered at today?

From their website:
The Innocence Project of Texas is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to securing the release of those wrongfully convicted of crimes in Texas and educating the public about the causes and effects of wrongful convictions. We operate out of our organizational headquarters located in Lubbock, Texas, but we evaluate claims of innocence made by individuals convicted of crimes across the state. On average, we receive more than 150 letters each week from individuals requesting our assistance on innocence cases. We currently have more than 500 cases in line for investigation.
I stopped in at their office a few weeks ago, and visited with Nick Vilbas, the executive director.  He told me some more about the Project and the kind of help they need.  Before IPOT will agree to help with a case, there are a few criteria they look for.  It must be a state, not federal, case.  The individual must have exhausted their direct appeals.  There must be some new piece of evidence that needs consideration.  Most importantly, the individual must claim actual innocence.  In other words, they must not have been involved in any fashion with the crime they are accused of, not just petitioning for release on a technicality.  Because of the huge volume of requests that IPOT receives, the biggest limiting factor they have is just getting enough people to put eyes on all of those letters.

One of IPOT's biggest cases so far was the exoneration of Timothy Cole.  Because this involved a case that happened here in Lubbock, it was in the local news a lot.  Mr. Cole died in prison while serving time for a rape which he did not commit, and which he was cleared of posthumously through DNA evidence and a confession from the man who actually committed the crime.

Because I'm not a lawyer, or even law student, I'm not really qualified to do most of the work that they need done, but there's one thing that 15 years of office life have prepared me to do, and that's filing documents.  When I crossed the street today, Jennifer the intern explained their filing system to me, showed me a cart full of letters and case documents, and set me loose on the cabinets.  I finished the stack just as I finished the hour.

On the way out, I stopped to talk with Nick again, and to thank him for letting me come.  IPOT is an organization that I'm going to find a way to make time for during the year ahead.

Affirmation Project: Rachel Rieckhoff, you've been one of my truest friends for two decades.  Nothing I can even say here can begin to thank you (and now your family, too) for the highs and lows that you've shared with me and my family.

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Project Advent II, Day 12: All Saints Chess Club

12/12/2012

Today was the halfway point of Project Advent II!  Less than two weeks now until Christmas.  Are you enjoying the anticipation, the expectation, and the preparation?  Are you finding a way to make Advent mean something?

Today was also the second of my three scheduled visits to the All Saints chess club.  It was a pretty small group today, but that was OK.  It just meant that I got to play more with the kids who were there.  Like I mentioned last week, I've noticed that some of the kids are struggling with the fundamentals of the game, so I picked up something extra when I was shopping for yesterday's entry.
It doesn't show up well in this picture, but it's a chess set with information about each piece printed on its base, to show players what moves each piece can legally make.  I'm hoping that it'll help some of the newer kids figure out the game a little bit more quickly.

Here's Blake eating grapes.  I just thought it was a funny picture.
Nothing too exciting to report from today's hour of service, but it was still a nice time.  I have a couple of good ones coming up in the next few days!

Affirmation Project: Justin and Laura, you are one of the funnest, coolest, most interesting couples that Courtney and I know!  You have always been so supportive to us, and we count ourselves lucky to know your beautiful family.

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Project Advent II, Day 11: Angel Tree

12/11/2012

Today was BIZ-ZAY.  Courtney worked last night, so I got the kiddos all dressed and off to school this morning.  Then there were a few fires to put out at the office, followed by our office Christmas party at lunch time.  Our office parties are usually a good time, and there was fajitas to eat (and a cake that my coworker Earlene, the amazing baker, made), so I didn't want to miss that.  That ruled out lunch time for service today.  Came home, had dinner with the family, and then went up to church for a two hour church council/charge conference meeting.  And just like that, the day was pretty much gone!

But as I walked out of church tonight, I realized what a rare circumstance I was in.  I was out on my own, with no children, and Courtney was home with them.  I called her and asked if I could go out to do a little Christmas shopping for the kids.  I think she was relieved at the thought of not having to do it herself, so she instantly said yes.  I ran back into the church and grabbed a card from the angel tree that they had set up.  Here's the one I took:
As you can see, there's no identifying information, just an age and sex, a number to connect it to the child who made the wish list, and then the items on the list.  But I picked this one because I felt like I knew this boy.  He likes trains, bikes, animals, scooters, and gadgets: if he was just two years older, this kid could be Blake.  We couldn't do every single thing on the list, but here's part of what he'll be getting.
In addition, we got him a few pairs of blue jeans and several shirts.  Boy #84, I may never meet you, but I love you, and I hope you have a wonderful Christmas.

Affirmation Project: I had the chance to sit by the newest pastor on FUMC's staff tonight, Rev. Bailey Barkley.  He's been with our church a fairly short time, just about six months, but he's done so much already.  When Blake made his first trip to church camp this summer, Bailey was the counselor who stayed in his cabin, and Blake came back full of stories about the cool new pastor.  He's been a big part of starting some new ministries that have really taken off.  Most of all, he's just a really good guy.  I'm looking forward to the chance to know him better.
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Project Advent II, Day 10: The Bridge of Lubbock

12/10/2012

I just sat down to type and ended up falling asleep for an hour and a half.  Oops.  Going to keep this one a little bit shorter than usual.

The Bridge is a multi-pronged outreach center, located in a building that used to be an elementary school.  They offer hot meals, an after-school program, a children's health clinic, and a free clothes closet.  When I filled out a volunteer application their director, Ashley, contacted me almost immediately to tell me that she loved the idea of Project Advent, and would love if I came out to help with their clothes closet today.

In 1984-85, I was actually bussed to this school, back when it was Posey Elementary.  Pulling up to the building and walking in was a real flashback.  I found Ashley, and she showed me to the room where the clothes closet is.  There were only a few folks getting things that they needed, and other volunteers were taking care of that.  In the next room, though, was a huge mound of coats.  The staff needed these coats separated out into size and gender, so that's what I spent the next hour doing.

As I sorted coats, one thought stood out to me, and it was this: women, why do you settle for the crazy confusion that is sizing of women's clothes?  Sorting the men's coats was incredibly easy: S, M, L, XL.  Done.  Women's?  8, 10, 12, 14, but then sometimes one of them says Petite, but then sometimes one has a number that's smaller than the number on another coat but it's actually bigger than the other coat because there's also a letter next to the number.  Craziness.

Affirmation project: Laura Blevins, you have been my friend through thick and thin for over a decade now.  You are so selfless, and you see things about me before I see them myself.  You make me face hard truths in a loving way.  You're a rockstar of a mom.  Thanks for everything.  (Also, I do still plan to collect that shipment of cookies that I bought during your bake sale someday.)

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Project Advent II, Day 9: Meals on Wheels

12/09/2012

Like I mentioned last Sunday, our Sundays stay pretty busy.  Last year, I used my contributions as emergency service replacements, but felt a little guilty about them.  This year, I purposely planned them for my Sundays, and set my mind at ease.  I want this project to be about cheerful service, not stressful service.

A few weeks ago, I received something in the mail from Lubbock's Meals on Wheels, asking for contributions for holiday meals.  Everybody is familiar with Meals on Wheels, right?  It's a program for homebound or challenged people, many of them elderly, to receive hot, nutritious meals delivered right to their homes.  Along with the food, the recipients also have somebody checking on them, talking with them, breaking the isolation that so many in that situation experience.  The Lubbock Meals on Wheels program has been delivering meals for over 40 years, and is entirely funded by community donations.

What was neat about the mailing they sent is that it had a special placemat that you could add your own message to and send in along with your donation, and then the placemat will be delivered to one of the meal recipients.  Instead of writing something on it myself, I thought it would be fun to let the kids color it and add their own messages.  When I told them what it was for, they loved the idea, and really treated it like something special.

I had such a good time watching them make the placemat, that when they asked me if we could go swimming afterwards, I couldn't say no, even though it was only about 40 degrees outside.  Swimming ended up being a blast, though.  There were two people swimming laps in the lap lanes, but we had the entire pool to ourselves aside from them.  Jack was especially thrilled; he jumped off the side of the pool into my arms, and then put his face about an inch from mine and beamed, "I'M HAVING THE BEST DAY, DADDY!"  He was right: it was a really nice day.

Affirmation Project: If the phrase that I used in the first paragraph, "cheerful service," means anything special to you, then you may also be a member of the Order of the Arrow.  If I made a list of the five most influential things in my life, Boy Scouts would easily, easily make it on that list.  I was a pretty bookish, solitary kid, and I didn't even want to join Scouts when my dad made me.  It turned out to be one of the best things that could have happened to me.  Scouts made me into the person I am today.  It taught me to work with my peers, and to develop leadership not only in myself, but also to help develop it in others.  It instilled in me a love of the outdoors and of trying new things.  And, you know, it was just a lot of fun.  Mr. James Harris, my Scoutmaster, shaped my life and the lives of so many others.  Doing a project like Project Advent only occurred to me at all because of the brotherhood of cheerful service that I was fortunate to be a part of.
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Project Advent II, Day 8: Science Spectrum Holiday Wonderland

12/08/2012

Man, another busy day here, but a good one.  Blake's cub scout pack put out fliers during their Monday meeting for the annual Scouting for Food canned food drive.  I took him back through the neighborhood that he papered on Monday, and we picked up the sacks of food that people had left out.  Actually, about the first half of the neighborhood hadn't left out any sacks, and Blake grew more and more incensed as we walked down the street: "Daddy!  Do people not know that there are other people who are hungry?!?"  Fortunately, the second half of the neighborhood was much more productive, and he was much more happy.
That thing in his left hand is a paper Chinese fan.  I wondered why he had picked it up on a morning when it was forty degrees outside, but soon figured out that he planned to use it to signal me while I drove.  He had this whole little set of movements to tell me whether I should slow down, speed up, or stop.  It was like watching one of those dudes on the runway of an airport, only more adorable.

After we dropped off the food, I took the kids to Holland Gardens for a while to look at all the trees and decorations.  Ava felt strongly that we should get the pink tree with the pink lights.
Jack was into the Storm Trooper nutcracker.
After the store and a little lunch, I took Blake with me to the Science Spectrum, Lubbock's top-notch children's science museum.  My kids are big fans of the Science Spectrum; we've had a membership for the last few years, and they never, ever get tired of going there.  To tell the truth, I almost never do, either.  Today was their Holiday Wonderland event, which was open to the public. It's a neat mix of fun crafts and activities, as well as some winter-related science projects.  Blake and I were asked to man a table where children could make reindeer or penguin sack puppets.  It was fun!
He got a little restless, though.  Right behind us, there was a projector set up playing videos of Christmas music, and kids would come by and dance.  I don't know where Blake gets it, because it's sure not from me and Courtney, but he's got some seriously impressive moves.  How good?  Good enough that these two girls asked if I'd take their picture with him.
That's my boy.

Affirmation Project: My manager Randy is also a dad, of two kids close to my kids' age.  Maybe that's why he's always so understanding when I need a little flexibility to do something with my family.  He's patient and encouraging to me, and makes Vista Bank a better place to work.