The True Price of Priceless

Auctioneers like to tag physical objects such as rare paintings or unearthed artifacts as priceless. Going top shelf, as the phrase implies, supposedly elevates an object’s value – getting desire to move people to act outside of their natural instincts. Possessing a priceless item, we are told, is the epitome symbol of wealth.

But to me, priceless is more about things I cannot touch – but rather feel in a deeply personal way.

I’m talking about time with others.

The close of the year brings a blanket of reflection. And like many of you, I am aware of important people in my life that will not be here to join us in the ringing in of the New Year. Nothing reminds me more of the true price of priceless like death.

This isn’t about me, but rather those around me who lost someone this year. I’ve friends who’ve lost mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, and children. Add friends to the list and you quickly realize we are all impacted in an intricate web of emotional connections.

My wife’s best friend lost both her mother and father within a few short months. Another friend’s wife lost her courageous battle with cancer. And yet another friend continues to battle for his health in a hospital room.

In the end, priceless is not about the things we own, but rather time we spend with others.

Priceless? Ask these people if there is not a single object they wouldn’t trade for five more minutes with those they’ve lost. The value of the Mona Lisa quickly evaporates when placed against the opportunity of holding hands with the person who keeps part of your soul protected inside of their heart for safe keeping.

What life is reminding me is with the introduction of each new calendar year, time is not measured in finite units of time loosely based on Roman calendar. Both time and life are fluid – powerful reminders that we really only have the present. The past is over; the future is like reaching out to a cloud – elusive and invisible to our touch.

We do not own yesterday. Yesterday is done. We are left to live with the results of what we did or did not do. Tomorrow, in contrast, is a wispy concept of something we cannot count on with the slightest degree of certainty. That leaves us with the present as our only alternative.

God puts our lives in play, allowing us the opportunity to interact with others and impact the world around us. With a few words, we can change a life, a day, or simply make another smile in a difficult moment. But the timeline, God keep close to the vest.

As we go into the New Year, let’s take the lessons of the past year forward. Make sure you tell those who you hold dear how much they mean to you. Make sure you slow down and spend that extra moment listening to another. The true price of priceless is too high.

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Christmas Tree Tells Beautiful Story

Recently a friend described her biggest challenge of decorating their Christmas tree.

“You start going through ornaments, memories come flowing back, and it leads to eating chocolate, and then tears,” she said.

I know exactly what she means.

In our home we’ve always collected ornaments to symbolize what is going on in our lives at the time. They could be handmade, store-bought, or maybe even something we turned into an ornament. But in the end, our Christmas tree is about our family and the significant life experiences we’ve shared together. Consider our tree a biography with ribbons and blinking lights.

Earlier this week my wife and I found ourselves standing in front the Christmas tree, the only light in the room being the twinkling of bulbs, retelling stories from our life together based on whatever ornament caught our attention.

“Oh, do you remember when…” is our familiar jumping off point.

A favorite is a Styrofoam gingerbread man hanging from a high branch – as is tradition – because our then-toddler daughter kept trying to eat him. Scrawled across the back in my wife’s handwriting is a note “Please don’t eat me”. The tooth marks of a stubborn little girl are still visible on his the top of the gingerbread man’s head.

We laugh and find our hands searching for each together every time we retell this story.

Others symbolize a significant point in time – a small white plate embossed with the 1996 Olympics logo representing living in Atlanta when the world showed up for a visit. Another, a small toy yellow submarine, reminds us of how our kids watched – and wore out – a VHS tape of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine movie.

The tree also displays ornaments made either in school classrooms or on a kitchen table. Small dates, some fading over time, are written in on each as they represent important markers in time for us. Popsicle sticks, clay figurines, or art project all help create an eclectic tale over time.

There is one, however, that always stops us in our tracks – a small circular cutout photo of us when were a pair of broke college students who lived for opportunities to drive a thousand miles to an ocean beach. Carrying a small stash of cash, sleeping bags, and a musky tent, we’d rent surfboards, cook hot dogs on a small grill, and walk endlessly along the water. We were clueless – the only things we knew for sure was both our heartbeats responded to the melodic sound of waves, life was a big unknown, and we were absolutely crazy about each other.

Little did we know what we were getting into as we looked into that camera lens that an adventure of a lifetime that would one day annually play out on the branches of a Christmas tree. Our wildest dreams could never have dreamt the blessings life would provide to us as a family. And for this we are humbly thankful.

And the best news is we’re not done yet.

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Holidays Brings Out Odd Bedfellows

Early Saturday morning, before the sun even finishes its first cup of coffee, I find myself standing outside a local department store with my daughter stalking a hard-to-find gift for her brother.

“They are supposed to get seven in today,” she says as we pull into the parking lot. She’s been tracking a small computer game for weeks – crawling websites for intel like a hacker trying to break into the DNC’s email server.

Pulling up we see a line of people sitting and standing below the unlit sign.

“How many people are in line,” she says as slowly drive by.

“Six,” I say. As the passenger, it is apparently my job to scope out the competition.

“Good,” she says, pausing the car to drop me off while she pulls around to park.

Not even on a bet would I have believed I’d be up at 5 am and standing in line for an electronic object I don’t even understand how to operate – particularly when the store isn’t scheduled to open until three hours later.

Nintendo something-or-another is all I know about our target.

We settle in behind the others. Two are seated in stadium chairs; others stand or lean against the exterior wall. The doors remain locked.

The conversation leaks towards my daughter and me.

“Yeah,” says the first person in line, a man in a t-shirt and shorts. “I’ve been tracking these all over. Shows they should be on the truck here.”

I find myself marveling how people have elevated shopping to such a sophisticated level.

A woman joins us, standing behind me. She shares she recently left a 24-hour store two towns up the interstate after finding their inventory empty and a shipping manifest showing our local store would potentially have a couple on their overnight shipment. Doing the math tells me she’s already been up for hours.

What develops next is unexpected – at least from what the television news reports enjoy promoting. Then, unexpectedly, an odd camaraderie begins to form among these strangers.

“What are you here for,” the second in line asks the others. Everyone is doing the math in his or her heads, but this reveals not everyone is in line for the same item. A tangible relief rolls across the group.

The toy-seeking soldiers begin sharing war stories – of being in line in another location and coming up short.

“Last week I was next in line and the guy in front of me buys two,” says a man with the beard. “I’m like, dude, come on. I’m right here.”

Others share their versions of near misses or arriving only to find their intel incorrect.

“Maybe the store employees got to them first,” says another after telling about such an experience. “You know its gotta happen.”

Oddly enough, we all bond. We laugh, we share stories, and we buy each other cups of coffee after the store opens. But in the end, we’re soldiers of fortune – only our target is a toy made in China.

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Red Kettle Rings a Beautiful Message

Growing up as a kid, the spotting of red kettles on street corners and hearing the sound of hypnotic bell ringing was as much a symbol of the arrival of the Christmas season as Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

And I always wanted to drop a few coins inside. And as the quarters and dimes slipped through slot, an adult manning the kettle would always by recognizing me by saying, “Thank you and Merry Christmas.”

As a child, the praise of an adult and knowing you’ve done something good for others is a powerful reward.

Today, as an adult, I’m proud to have now be the adult standing next to the red kettles, ringing he bell, and thanking those who contribute.

The Salvation Army’s Red Kettle Program is a remarkable program. While nearly everyone recognizes the kettles, few probably know of the humble story behind them.

In 1891, the number of poverty-stricken individuals and families in San Francisco troubled a captain of the local Salvation Army. His hope was to provide people with a free Christmas dinner, but funding the program was his challenge. Living near the docks reminded him of a charity pot in the town of Liverpool, England. The concept, named a “Simpson’s Pot”, encouraged workers and the public to toss a coin or two into the pots as they strolled by in order to help those in need.

The captain went out, found a pot, and adapted the concept to helping the poor in San Francisco – and that year hungry families were fed by the generosity of those with open hearts and more fortunate financial circumstances.

The success of the program spread quickly. With a few short years, the program was adopted in Boston with big success. Shortly afterwards, the introduction of the drive to New York City resulted with a massive sit-down dinner in Madison Square Garden for thousands of those in need.

The Red Kettle Campaign, as it is now known, is celebrated and recognized around the world. In some communities, locals have event begun dropping a gold coin into a pot – a valuable contribution in both dollars and in bringing public attention to the campaign.

Today the Salvation Army’s program reaches helps over four and half million people during the Thanksgiving holiday season.

When I was a small child, I learned from example by watching my parents and other adults that giving to charity was what loving adults do. My mother slipping me a few coins each year was her investment not only in those in need, but helping me understand the giving to others was the right thing to do as responsible adult.

Today I am that adult standing next to the Salvation Army’s Red Kettle. And as my children grew up, they too, would take turns standing alongside me – learning the warm reward of helping others.

My hope is you, as well as those who recognize the Salvation Army’s Red Kettle campaign, will help keep this beautiful tradition alive. May God bless you.

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Free Speech Includes Flag Buring

I realize this may not be the most popular opinion, but the burning of the American Flag is a perfectly acceptable – and important – form of free speech.

Before you go off and burn the paper in your hand or smashing your device onto the concrete, hear me out.

Personally, I am deeply offended when I see someone burn the American flag. Inside of me, I discover a deeply visceral response, my pulse quickening, and my heart racing. You might as well spit on me. On the other side, the mere sight of the American flag flying above has brought me to tears of swelling pride more times than I can count.

But isn’t that the point of the flag burner? Isn’t the action of the intentional destruction of a deeply shared symbol designed to provoke a powerful reaction by others? Does the burning of the flag, an emotionally terrifying as it is to some, make the action a perfect tool to motivate and inspire discussion?

In the United States our broadly reaching freedom of speech is among the most powerful symbols of our inspired form of government. The concept that the government cannot take action against you for stating your opinions of their performance is one of the bedrock elements of what makes America the envy of the world. Go ahead, try publicly berating a government in the other 95% of the world and see how that works out for you.

I also believe our inspired concept of freedom of speech is the lynchpin that holds our republic together. Without free and effective tool of self-expression for the citizens to publicly disagree with the government, you can make a strong argument that our other rights would be greatly discounted to meaningless window dressing. Public disagreement and discourse is a necessary element of a functioning and evolving society and government.

The Supreme Court, for the record, is right on protecting flag burning under the shelter of freedom of speech. The action of flag burning is generally taken in the spirit of political speech. To ban the action would be an indefensible direct restraint of one’s ability to raise the attention of another in order to bring discussion to life.

Furthermore, one of the widely accepted manners of retiring an American flag includes the burning a worn or tattered flag during a highly symbolic ceremony. Again, the flag is being treated with reverence as an emblem of a government and peoples. To ban the burning of the flag for political purposes would run counter to the highly respected practice of retiring the flag in this revered manner. The court would find itself squarely in the crosshairs of unquestionably restricting political free speech.

The burning of the American flag as a political statement disturbs me deeply. But, regardless of the pain I feel, the action reinforces my belief that only the strongest of a nation’s people would allow such powerful statement stand as a example of freedom for the world to see.

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