Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

The best stories are unpredictable.

It was the evening of December 8, 2011 and I was in a risk-taking mood. Just a week and a half earlier, on the morning of November 27, 2011, while teaching an adult Bible class, I invited my Church family to assist with serving the orphans of our society. I told them of my social work case load of 16 youth ranging in age from 15 to 21, all removed from their homes and biological families. Young people who never exited the State’s system of foster care through reunification with their families or by adoption to new families. As thirteen of my 16 youth were over 18 years old at the time, there weren’t too many people lining up to help with providing Christmas gifts, instead preferring to donate to the cause of younger children in foster care. As Thanksgiving had just passed and Christmas would rapidly be approaching,  I mentioned that if I could raise enough money, say $400, I could purchase each of my kids at least a $25 gift card. Not enough to make a significant purchase, but enough perhaps to let them know that someone cares about them and that they are not alone.

The brothers and sisters at the Ward Street church of Christ immediately responded to this call and two weeks to the day of my request had already donated over $1,000 toward gifts for my teens. Folks were willing to give more and made sure I knew they were ready to give whatever was needed. People were so eager to help, I had to make an announcement to stop having funds donated. I would have a hard enough time wisely spending the money that had already come in.

Enlisting the help of my wife, gift cards were obtained from Ulta for makeup for my lone female client, from Chili’s for one of my college students, from Game Stop for a couple of my high school guys, from Target, the mall and so on. $100 was reserved for a young man trying to save up for a computer and when his foster mother was told of how the money came to be obtained, she said she “smiled for three days straight” reasoning that if someone was willing to ask church folk for money on behalf of foster kids that they “must have at least a little bit of church in ‘em.”

But there was one young man, whose case had recently been assigned to me, for whom I wanted to do something a little more extravagant. 17 years old, he had a decision to make prior to his 18th birthday in early January of whether to continue receiving services from the State and remain in his foster home, or to forego any further relationship with the bureaucracy and take his chances on the streets. He is the type of kid you can’t help but like due to his authenticity. For example, he informed me he was having a hard time making a decision about what to do at 18 as he feels he can only plan one day at a time and did not simply want to sign paperwork indicating an agreement he was not prepared to keep.

In looking for ways to build a relationship with this young man we came to talking about his favorite sport, basketball, and lamented the NBA lockout which was threatening the cancellation of the entire season. I asked him what team he followed and he confidently stated he was a Lakers fan, a rarity here in the Celtics’ backyard, and that his favorite player was Kobe Bryant. I chuckled in surprise and told him that I have been a life-long Lakers fan and that my favorite current player is Derek Fisher, who was acquired by the Lakers in the first round of the 1996 NBA draft along with Kobe. I asked him if he had ever been to a game and he laughed as he said no. I admitted I had never been to a game either, even though I lived in L.A. for a couple years, and teased that maybe we should go together some time.

Now here I was, sitting in front of my laptop on this early December evening, looking at tickets on StubHub for a prime-time Lakers-Knicks matchup at Madison Square Garden slated for February. The NBA lockout had finally ended and I was thinking, “Why not?” One answer was the insane ticket price of $175 a seat, close to an even $200 after fees. But I figured with All-Star point guard Chris Paul looking for a trade to the Knicks to form their own three-headed monster of CP3, Melo and Amare, and the Lakers coming to town I couldn’t really expect tickets to be less expensive in an arena that seats only 19,763. I informed Jaime I was thinking of buying two tickets, one for my foster youth with donated funds and that my seat would be financed in large part by gift subsidies from my mother who normally sends $150 my way between Christmas and my own early January birthday. I theorized this could be a once in a lifetime opportunity for both myself and my client and my supportive and amazing wife mirrored my excitement encouraging me to purchase the tickets.

I was still hesitant to click the orange “Checkout” button, when I read that Chris Paul had just been traded. To the Lakers. And just like that, the tickets were ours. When I thanked the church the following Sunday for affording me the opportunity to serve in such fashion and explained the idea behind the purchase, there were many a teary eye among the congregation. Then it was my turn to feel the waterworks coming on when 9 year old Steven Pawloski approached me after services with a big smile and insisted I take his recently earned $20 bill so that my client and I could “buy snacks at the Lakers game.”

I couldn’t wait to tell the young man about the tickets. When I was finally able to track him down a few days later and I told him we would be going to see Kobe play live as a Christmas/Birthday gift, he laughed in disbelief the way I imagine Sarah may have when she heard through the tent flap she was to have a son in her old age. He didn’t have much to say, but it was the first look of joy I had seen on his face in the two months I had known him. His foster mother later told me he had reported the news to her with a mixture of happiness and sheer confusion, asking “Why would he do this for me? He doesn’t even know me.” To which she replied, “People don’t have to know you to want to do something nice for you.”

But in the days leading up to the game, the Paul trade to the Lakers was vetoed by the league, the Lakers would find the condensed scheduling of a lockout-shortened season especially tough on their veteran legs leading to a woeful road record, Knicks superstar Carmelo Anthony was injured and it was announced fellow New York All-Star Amare Stoudemire would not be playing in the game after the tragic loss of his brother in a car accident. However, good spirits prevailed as we would still be able to see Kobe and D-Fish. Plus, with all of the Knicks’ firepower disabled, it appeared a lock we would see a L.A. win in our first NBA game.

I didn’t know who Jeremy Lin was until the night before the event. I was discussing the upcoming game and the opportunity it was going to build a stronger relationship with my client, when a co-worker mentioned the Knicks had some undrafted guard who went to Harvard and had been buried deep on their bench who had apparently found his way into the starting lineup and led the Knicks to a three game “Lin-ning” streak. New Yorkers and their losing team were finding love in a hopeless place as the California-born Lin, whose parents are from Taiwan, became the first Asian-American player to start an NBA game and lit up the Nets, Jazz and Wizards in a five day span averaging over 20 points a game. With the help of the New York City hype machine, suddenly Friday night’s matchup against the Lakers was again being billed as a marquee show, only this time due to a player who wasn’t even on the Knicks roster on Christmas day and was reportedly sleeping on his teammate’s couch.

The drive down to Manhattan provided ample time to hear my client’s own story from his perspective and our night was off to a good start as we walked through a lit up Times Square on Friday evening en route to the game. It appeared we were in good company as we approached “The World’s Most Famous Arena” with many fans dressed in Los Angeles Purple and Gold. There were also scattered Blue #17 jerseys fresh off the press that had already begun to circulate especially among the Asian-American fans in attendance. The souvenir stand on the lower concourse sold out of Lin jerseys before the game even started.

The sold out crowd was buzzing prior to the opening tip as we all looked forward to finding out if “Lin-sanity” could be sustained through a visit from Bryant, the league’s leading scorer, or if the novelty act was up. I was confident of the latter and leaned over to ask my client, ‘How much do you think we’ll win by?” He smiled as he shrugged his shoulders and declined to give his pick.

It did not take long to realize the young man had been wise in not counting Lin or the Knicks out. A couple minutes into the game, Lin knocked down a three from the corner over 7”1’ Center Andrew Bynum putting the Knicks up 3-2, and he didn’t look back. Lin set up Tyson Chandler for a bucket that put the Knicks up 5-4. They would not trail again. A jumper, a second assist to Chandler, another jumper, followed by a Lin steal and layup forced a Lakers timeout five minutes in with the score 13-4. Jeremy Lin was outscoring the Lakers himself by five points. My client and I looked at each other shaking our heads in disbelief and remarking that the Lakers looked tired after last night’s overtime win in Boston.

The electric New York crowd became more energized with each Lin basket and assist as the Garden’s Jumbotron incited cheers of Je-Re-My! Je-Re-My! Nearing the end of the first half, Lin blew past Derek Fisher on a fast break spin move and his following acrobatic lay-in gave him 18 points, gave his team a 9 point lead and won the hearts of all frustrated Knicks fans for life. The Knicks have this elaborate alumni program and kept announcing “Once a Knick, Always a Knick!” before announcing the attendance of Larry Johnson, Anthony Mason, John Starks and Walt Frazier at various points throughout the game. I found myself thinking that even if Jeremy Lin’s overnight sensation story doesn’t last another week, he already had earned himself an alumni pass based on the crowd’s admiration.

There wasn’t much to be pleased about as a Lakers fan as Kobe started the game 1-of-11 from the field and Metta World Peace (formerly Ron Artest) had three more personal fouls than he had points (zero) shortly into the second half. Kobe appeared jealous of Lin by the mid-third quarter and awoke his Black Mamba alter ego as he began splashing ridiculous fade away jumpers over the backboard while double teamed and even awed the New York crowd with a laser pass to himself off the glass before tip passing to Pau Gasol for his only assist of the game. Kobe’s gunning brought the Lakers within 6 on a couple of occasions, but the basketball Linja could not be stopped.

Lin hit a three pointer in the face of 7”1’ Pau Gasol, then pump faked another Laker before connecting on a 20 foot jump shot, before splashing yet another three from the corner sending the crowd into a frenzy. Lin invoked memories of the NBA Jam announcer exclaiming “He’s on fire!” and “Is it the shoes?!?” While the originator of the latter phrase, Spike Lee, looked so enamored standing courtside I thought he might immediately switch out his #2 Landry Fields jersey for Lin’s #17. Not that Fields would have even minded, as he owns the couch Lin is sleeping on, and despite only scoring only six points in the game he tweeted afterward “Most fun I’ve ever had playing ball. Plain and simple. God is great! Congrats to @JLin7.”

Jeremy Lin, the Balling LINJA, Energizes the Knicks and Provides Inspiration Beyond Basketball

It sure looked like Lin and his teammates were genuinely having fun out there. Jumping and shouting and laughing with joy while playing the game. And while Kobe had laughed Lin off as a nobody the previous night when asked about him, it was Lin who had the last laugh metaphorically on Friday. He put the nail in the coffin when he called for a clear out with two minutes left in the game, causing the fans to rise to their feet in anticipation. He drove past Matt Barnes and split the Lakers’ seven footers once again finishing off a circus shot and the chants of “Je-Re-My!” morphed into “M-V-P!” Spike Lee and Justin Tuck of the Super Bowl Champion Giants (it pains me to write that) were bowing to him from their courtside seats, which I’m sure if Lin even noticed among the celebratory chaos, would have made him uncomfortable given his strong Christian faith and humble personality. After the game he praised his teammates with a few sports clichés, but was never self-congratulatory and thanked God for allowing him to live his dream. Certainly his performance was worthy of accolades as after Friday night’s game, Lin had scored more points in his first three NBA starts than any player in the modern history of the league. To borrow a line from Ron Burgundy, I wasn’t mad, I was impressed.

As we walked out of Madison Square Garden amidst drunken New York fans, the young man I took to the game came away with a similar impression of Lin, noting “I have to respect him.” People who have attended events at the Garden for years and covered professional sports in New York noted it was “one of the coolest nights” in the history of a landmark arena that has seen so many unforgettable events and “one for the ages”. I would have to agree. Neither I nor the young man will ever forget Friday night. The night Jeremy Lin cemented his status as a star and provided hope that all things are indeed possible, even for the overlooked and underrated. Sometimes all you need is an opportunity and to know that someone believes in you. Despite our team’s loss, I hope my client and I can both hold onto this lesson we witnessed firsthand.

It seems things don’t always go as planned. Sometimes they turn out better.

Last Sunday, my family was invited to visit the Greater Hartford Church of Christ in New Britain for their Christmas Worship Service.

A member of the church, Augusto Russell, shared a true story during the service that helps spread some Christmas joy. Augusto mentioned that another member of the church works for a local post office and about this time last year, a letter arrived to the post office addressed to God.

Unsure of what to do, the postman made the decision to open the envelope. Inside was a letter from an aged widow who wrote something along these lines:

Dear God,

My friends and I do not have much money. I was hoping you might be able to help us out with a Christmas dinner. If you could find it in your heart to provide us with $100, I could buy enough food for a wonderful Christmas meal. This would mean a lot to all of us.

The heart of the postal worker was moved and so he decided he would try to answer the letter. He passed the letter and a hat around to his co-workers and soon collected $94 in donations to send back to the widow.

A couple weeks into the new year, a second letter from the widow arrived to the post office. With eager anticipation, the workers gathered to find out the result of their generosity. The letter read:

Dear God,

Thank you so much for answering my prayer. My friends and I enjoyed an amazing evening and great meal. We will never forget this.

P.S. I think those jerks at the Post Office stole 6 bucks.

“Santa Claus is coming to town! Santa Claus is coming to town!” At least, I think he is…

Christmas is a week away. Clara is now three years old, Shepard is sixteen months and next month a new child will be away in a manger putting any thoughts of a silent night well into the rear view mirror for the foreseeable future. But the idea of having three kids age three and under is not the primary thought occupying my mind this Holiday season (I’ll deal with that in January). Rather, it is the realization that three years into this journey of parenting, the white elephant in the room remains what to do with Old Saint Nick.

Jaime had a classic Santa experience believing until around age seven or eight. She has fond memories of believing in a larger than life figure who displayed extravagant generosity and being comforted that someone was looking out for all the children of the world, regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds. When Jaime figured the ruse out, she wasn’t upset, but instead delighted in assisting the faith of her younger siblings.

I, on the other hand, was that kid on the playground who was telling your kids that Santa was a hoax resulting in angry phone calls to my parents about how I was ruining the magic of Christmas. You see, my father had been a true believer in Father Christmas. When he found out the whole thing was fake, he felt deep in his soul that he had been lied to and when he recounts that moment, one can still hear the pain in his voice. I imagine his childhood anger dwarfing Miles Finch’s fury after being called an elf by Will Ferrell. What really got my dad going was that his own parents had deliberately duped him. He vowed that day he would never lie to his own children in such a manner. So, naturally I shared my father’s disdain for Kris Kringle as I was never given a chance to believe anything but anti-Claus propaganda.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bitter about my own childhood Christmas experiences. We had a great time and I don’t feel I lost anything by not believing in the jolly benefactor in the red suit. We still had presents under the tree, still opened stockings, still belted out “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” But I want to believe there’s a third way. Something beyond deliberately lying to my own kids on the justification that the entire culture does it and therefore it must be okay, but leaving room for childlike faith to soar and grow in the goodwill of mankind, the supernatural, or both.

Presumably, the argument could be made that the whole Santa production is really for us parents and the enjoyment we receive from manipulating our children and then vicariously experiencing their wonderment. I don’t buy this theory entirely though due to the sheer number of folks who pleasantly recount their credence in the charm of the North Pole. Plus, if it were really all about Mom and Dad, it wouldn’t make sense to forgo all the credit for the awesome gifts and transfer the gratitude to an anonymous bearded senior citizen.

Then there’s the whole religious element. The origins of Santa Claus include a mix of semi-Christian mythology and history, but gradually he has become, at least to some degree, a symbol of the commercialism of the season. Some even protest Papa Noel as an anti-Christ figure, the icon of secularism that threatens to swallow the birth story of Christ. Even though Santa is an easy anagram for Satan, I don’t subscribe to any ill-will toward Mr. Claus and dismiss claims such as these quite easily; perhaps because my particular faith tradition was more concerned that December 25th was being celebrated as Jesus’ actual birthday without any “Scriptural authority” or common sense (shepherds don’t typically hang out with their flocks outdoors in the winter).

For a while I thought perhaps I could take an M Night Shyamalan approach to the whole Santa dilemma. You know, pull a “Sixth Sense”, never actually speaking about the guy, but not denying my kids the experience of believing. Then when they figure it all out they could look back and realize I had never actually said Santa was real. They could then replay their whole childhood looking for the red doorknobs that would have tipped them off sooner to the secret of Santa. But while I believe myself to be decently clever, my kids are pretty smart cookies and I recently had to resign that this plan is not feasible in the long run.

So back to the drawing board. But speaking of cookies, I am completely down for eating a plateful of warm chocolate chip cookies with a tall glass of milk each Christmas Eve. So count me in… for now.