Monday, November 17, 2008
"He has made everything beautiful in its time." Ecclesiastes 3:11
For information on the book, check out ProperUseProject.com.
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Saturday, July 19, 2008
Every warm season since the death of Mr. Steve’s wife, Joan, a snowy egret returns to his house in coastal North Carolina. My aunt and uncle live just across the canal from his single-dwelling cottage. I admit, I’d heard the tales, too, and probably dismissed them as exaggeration…that is, until the irrefutable scene unfolded in front of me. Twice daily during nesting season, the white-plumed bird follows a canal to its end and swoops down on Mr. Steve’s back yard. The way the bird transitions from aerodynamic flight to full upright stance, using his great wingspan to gracefully stick the landing…Well, that, in itself, is- stunning.
What happens next, however, is enough to make one question the basic laws of nature.
Standing the full height of a small man, the animal walks gracefully across the knotty crabgrass and lowers his bright yellow beak. Then, the snowy egret, quite simply…knocks. He persistently pecks the glass of Mr. Steve’s back storm door, awaiting a response from within. (Mr. Steve even swears that if he doesn’t answer quickly enough, the egret will continue on to the front door, knocking feverishly.)
Eventually, Mr. Steve emerges, bucket in hand, lips moving in casual conversation. As comfortable as old friends, the two play a game of fetch. Mr. Steve pulls minnows from his bucket, while the hungry bird eagerly awaits his prize. The game continues until thirty or so minnows are safely stored in the egret’s long neck and he can return to the nest, retrieve the small fish and help feed his babies.
Observing through Aunt Faye’s kitchen window, I am always mesmerized. I never tire of watching Mr. Steve feed his egret. Witnessing the mutual exchange occur- fish for friendship- is nothing short of magical, hopeful and real.
Try conveying such a mystical moment to friend or perfect stranger, however. It’s near impossible. I can identify with the frustration Aunt Faye feels when telling the egret’s tale to the ladies at the local grocery store, whose response is usually a roll of the eyes or a suspicious cock of the eyebrow. Unless you’re in the presence of another first-hand witness, it’s just another fish tale.
I recently realized that telling a stranger the story of Mr. Steve and his egret is markedly similar to sharing with others why I am a follower of Jesus.
I must admit, the cards are already stacked against me regarding this. The proper term, “evangelism,” has earned a negative connotation, conjuring images of screaming tele-preachers or tract-bearing strangers. Eye rolling, suspicious glances and voiced disbelief are regular occurrences at the mention of the name Jesus. “Just another fish tale,” some eyes seem to say. Others question motives or become defensive, as if an unspoken boundary has been crossed.
Neither aggression nor agitation is ever my intention. When speaking of Jesus, I am simply spilling over, excited to share a genuine relationship that has brought order, humility and peace to my life. Besides, who would believe that a real God can speak to me audibly through songs…or to my friend, Debby, in butterflies?
Right or wrong, I have always shied away from evangelism for evangelism’s sake. Before becoming a Christian, I detested those who looked at me (as one of the unchurched) with pity, and I abhorred those who tried to sell me salvation as if it were simply fire insurance. If anything, these tactics were perfect God-repellants for my soul.
In the end, Jesus spoke to me for Himself. He knocked, and I answered. Then, He made His presence undeniably clear. He emerged…and I believed.
Such is Jesus’ modus operandi. He doesn’t do anything less for any one of us. That certainly eases my anxiety about being an aggressive evangel. Sometimes, the best thing I can do is get out of His way.
If you’re a non-believer, or a seasoned Christian who has simply lost the “magic,” don’t worry. Today I will not prick you with guilt or prod you with scripture. Like I said, the hand of Jesus is one of those things you have to see with your own eyes, witness for yourself. Even then, while He’s in plain view, you’ll likely shake your head or pinch your skin to verify sanity. Once you’ve experienced Him, however, you’ll never, ever forget.
He is always knocking, my friends, and I pray that you answer. May you witness your own fish tale today.
Monday, April 28, 2008
A pig-tailed first-grader rose to spell her word, smoothing out her fancy Sunday dress as she stood. After sailing through the practice rounds, she stood eager to spell her first word in Round One.
“Ate. E-A-T, ate,” she said, confidently.
“I’m sorry,” replied the judge, “but that is incorrect. The word is ate, not eat.”
Stunned, she remained standing, even as the next contestant rose to spell his word.
“Excuse me,” the girl interrupted. “I’ve never heard that word before,” she oddly protested.
“I beg your pardon?” said the judge, confused.
“It’s just that I’ve never heard it used that way,” said the girl.
As the recording judge, I exchanged quick glances with the others at the head table, all of us pondering how we would save the pig-tailed girl from embarrassment.
“I’m sorry.” The head judge spoke up. “Your turn is over, sweetheart. You just didn’t spell the word correctly, OK? Now, you must sit down in your seat. It’s somebody else’s turn.”
Red-cheeked, the first-grader simply stared at us, blinking. Finally, she plopped back in her chair without a word, her crinoline crunching beneath her. The first “casualty” of the spelling bee, horror plagued the little girl’s face.
“OK. Where were we?” said the judge. “Next student? Yes. You, there. Your word is: tense. The student felt tense before his math quiz.”
“Tense. T-E-N-S-E, tense,” a tall, lanky boy answered.
“That is correct, sir. You may remain standing,” commended the head judge.
The exchange of words and letters continued for three more rounds as some first-graders continued to stand while others took their seats.
“Excuse me,” the pig-tailed girl interrupted again, her small hand raised.
“Yes?” asked the judge. “Do you need to go to the bathroom, honey?”
“No, ma’am,” she said politely. “I just want to make sure you have the right spelling list. Are you sure that’s the first grade word list?”
“Yes, it sure is,” said the judge impatiently. “Now, it’s time for the next round.”
“But, ma’am. I studied all of the words. We all did,” she said, gesturing to her classmates from The Village School, renowned for winning spelling bees. “And, I just don’t remember that one being on the list.”
Eyebrows raised at our judges’ table. Kids stopped twisting their hair and poking their buddies to stare at the red-faced girl. I squirmed. Her lack of acceptance of a simple mistake made for an awkward moment.
“I must remind you that you are already out, young lady,” directed the head judge firmly. “Now, there are always more spelling bees,” she said, deciding to extend grace once more. “I’m sure you’ll do just fine next time. Please be seated until the bee is over.”
The spelling bee ended as predicted, with The Village School taking three of the top four places in the first-grade division. Finally, it was time for all of the contestants to join their parents at the Awards Ceremony. Curious, I kept tabs on the little girl in the pretty dress. I watched her burst into tears when she joined her parents, explaining her dilemma. Then, I spotted her sitting, arms crossed, during the ceremony, her first grade classmates receiving medals while she sat stunned, deflated and confused.
Witnessing that little girl learn perhaps her first hard lesson in defeat struck an all-to-familiar chord in me. Her situation wasn’t uncommon, yet I couldn’t help but draw a parallel to the hard lessons that many of us as adults are still learning. Think about it. When is the last time you came away from a situation in utter disbelief at its outcome?
Just like the pig-tailed first-grader, if we are not careful, we find ourselves living by a number of false beliefs that seem to give a sense of security but miserably fail us in times of distress. Unfortunately, these beliefs are eventually uncovered, usually through painful circumstances such as accidents, divorce, sickness, death, layoffs, betrayal…the list is hauntingly long.
False Belief #1- If I do everything right, I cannot fail.
The practice of controlling every element of our lives is probably the most common, and likely the most dangerous. While living by a proper moral code and practicing intelligent life skills absolutely aid a person in skirting danger and devastation, they in no way render someone immune from it. But, subconsciously we often think it does! Just as the little girl believed that if she memorized the entire first-grade spelling list, she couldn’t possibly make a mistake, many adults never even consider failure as a possibility. It is those who say, “I will be the perfect parent,” or “Divorce could never happen to me,” or “Other people get sick, but I won’t,” who find themselves the most devastated when these situations actually occur, especially when every preventative effort has been made to thwart them. Through control, we can find a deceptive sense of comfort.
False Belief #2- If I belong to a certain group, I am immune from disappointment and heartache.
Similarly, the belief that exemption from harm is automatic when one resides within a “safety net” is also destructive. While it was likely that the little girl would achieve success at the spelling bee BECAUSE she belonged to a successful school with ample resources, rich tradition and high expectations, had she never been told that success isn’t EVER guaranteed? She reminded me so much of those who believe that social or economic status equates a life full of ease and ultimate happiness. Others even use spirituality as a false sense of safety. Many believe that simply becoming and living as a Christian means that bad things will never happen to them. However, security is fleeting, and comfort isn’t God’s purpose!
False Belief #3- If I believe in #1 or #2 and I fail anyway, it must be someone else’s fault.
Finally, when the unexpected occurs, there are those who are quick to point a finger outward- at others. “Are you sure you have the first grade list?” the little girl boldly asked the spelling bee judges, still very sure that the simple mistake she had made couldn’t possibly have been a fluke, and was definitely NOT her fault. Blame is a common defense ultimately rooted in denial. For many, blame turns to anger and even vengeance. Not only do people point fingers outward, but they are sometimes pointed upward, at God. “Why did You let this happen?” we ask, or “I didn’t DESERVE this, God!” we shout. Sadly, it isn’t uncommon for hurting people to abandon their beliefs instead of seeking God’s wisdom for comfort and understanding.
As much as we hate to admit it, things happen, LIFE happens, mistakes happen. Yet, how do we resolve this and feel any sense of peace?
I believe the key lies first in the premise of humility. God’s Word says, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11) Sure, we understand this on an intellectual level, and most of us don’t intentionally flaunt extensive preparation, economic status or spiritual stance as an indestructible shield. Yet, our hearts are often counting on these things to keep us from experiencing hurt. So, we must check ourselves constantly. Are we depending on God for our ultimate comfort or something else? Do we believe we are more immune from disaster than others because of who we are or what we have accomplished? Are we exalting our control, our resources or our spiritual status as absolutes or as guarantees instead of as the simple tools they are intended to be? If we are, we should expect to be humbled!
Does that mean that God punishes us for a lack of humility? Actually, because we depend on other things for a false sense of security, God doesn’t have to do that. We, in fact, punish ourselves when our securities fail us because we have used them in a way God never intended.
Beyond humility, grace in all situations is also key. What about those tragedies or misfortunes, you may say, that are simply out of our control? How do we avoid them? We simply can’t. They are what they are…we are neither able to predict them nor direct their outcome, so we waste precious time in unnecessary worry. Instead, Philippians 4:6-7 suggests, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” God wants us to replace anxiety, worry and self-pressure for prayer, for giving thanks, for relinquishing control to Him. When this happens, the peace of God transcends all of our own self-made securities. Finally, instead of promising ultimate protection from harm, He promises to guide us and to guard our hearts and our minds. God doesn’t abandon us in our struggles! Instead, He offers a truer sense of security and protection through His presence and guidance. Then, if we let Him, He will renew us because of our misfortunes, not in spite of them!
My friends, if you find yourself asking, “Are you sure you have the right list up there, God? Are you sure I am supposed to be the one living out this life?” Be certain that the answer is a resounding, “YES!” Instead of pointing a finger outward or upward when life goes awry, pry open that hand and try presenting an open palm instead. Let go of those artificial securities and give Him thanks for His provisions, present Him your most precious requests, and trust that He will guard your heart in all circumstances. There, may you find freedom, where the peace of God transcends all understanding.
Monday, March 31, 2008
Saturday, March 15, 2008
Sleep should’ve come easily, then, but he found himself annoyed by the quiet. Santiago slept folded up on the edge of the bed, barely disturbing the covers. He still couldn’t get used to having a bed to himself and fell asleep thinking about his siblings back home.
A hellacious banging soon rocketed the thin man to the floor. “Who’s there?” Santiago shouted hoarsely in the direction of his door, catching a glimpse of the moonlit clock on the wall. Three AM. “What do you want?” Santiago sang out again, fear beginning to well up in him. The door swung open, sending Santiago scrambling out of the way of a monster. The large, sweaty man loomed over Santiago, yielding shiny silver scissors above his head. Santiago froze.
“Our Father, which art in Heaven,” was all the young man’s lips could manage. “Hallowed be Thy name…” The Lord’s Prayer spilled slowly at first, gaining speed as Santiago’s fear turned to hopeless resolve. “Thy Kingdom come…” He was no match for this man. “Thy will be done…” Santiago closed his eyes and awaited the piercing blows.
“…Deliver us from evil,” he continued, unnerved again at an eerie silence. “For thine is the Kingdom, and the power,” Was the man still there? “and the glory, forever and ever.” With a weak, “Amen,” Santiago willed his eyes open again. Blinking, he faced not a drunken murderer, but the most astounding of beings. Before him stood Jesus.
Silver coins replaced the scissors in His left hand, and he held them before Santiago, “Is it going to be what YOU want, Santiago?” With His right hand, He motioned to the heavens. “Or is it going to be what I want?”
“Oh, Jesus, I want what YOU want!” Santiago desperately replied.
Jesus gently lifted the young tailor from the floor, inviting him to stand beside him. The vision of a pulpit emerged. Jesus motioned Santiago to read from the Holy scriptures upon it. In obedience, Santiago began reading from Ezekiel, The Valley of the Dry Bones...
"The hand of the Lord was upon me, and He brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’
I asked Santiago once what kept that fire inside of him going. He proceeded to tell me the story of a young man who once wished to be a tailor. And with every moment of the story, Santiago breathed life into my dry bones.
Sunday, February 24, 2008
Grandpa Ham wasn’t perfect. A machinist by trade and a heavy smoker, he often had dirty nails, and he never ate leftovers. He was also infamous for walking nowhere, hopping in his big, brown car just to go a block to visit the neighbors. I didn’t care. A skinny kid with few social skills, I loved my grandpa fiercely. Big, glassy brown eyes captivated me in gentleness as only a granddaddy’s can. I knew he loved me deeply, too, and I’ve often felt guilty for that. I wasn’t his only grandchild, but when we spent time together, I knew he loved me something special.
We had great times together, my granddaddy and me. I can still see the olive drab couch where we sat for hours during a hot summer week, me trying my hand at crocheting a potholder and him reading his paper. Occasionally, he’d elbow my ribs or pop me on the head with his paper. “Little Jenny, Penny,” he’d say and return to his reading. I beamed, full with love, wishing the moment would never end.
He wasn’t a quiet man. He said plenty. Our biggest adventure was a trip to the mountains on which he bickered constantly with grandma, “I know where we’re goin’, Jo!” he insisted as we twisted around and around on back mountain roads, crossing the Mason Dixon Line not once, but twice. My big sister and I giggled in the back seat. Then, we pretended we were firemen, pulling our shirts up over our noses to breathe because Grandpa Ham never rolled the window down to smoke. Of course, none of us ever wore seatbelts then, either.
Grandpa never got mad at me. I don’t think he could, not even the time when I locked his keys in the trunk, and he had to take out the back seat of the car just to get to them. It wasn’t until last weekend, however, that I realized what a gift he was for me.
“No boys allowed!” my sister, myself, my seven-year old daughter and my 87-year-old grandma insist at least once a year when we declare it Girls Weekend. No matter how busy we are, we converge on grandma’s house, taking her to Wal-Mart, listening to endless stories, savoring grandma’s cooking, and even learning how to crochet again. For 48 hours, three generations summon back those great old times. Last weekend, however, a male intruder became a welcome guest in my heart.
It wasn’t the first time that I noticed Grandpa Ham’s picture on Grandma’s family shelf, a black-and-white capturing a rare moment of him in a suit and silk tie. I pulled the dusty picture off of the shelf and met those glassy brown eyes and gentle expression again. “Your grandpa got all dressed up when I won an award for twenty five years of service with Colonial Stores,” Grandma Jo recalled of her time as a cake decorator and bakery worker. The picture was a cut-out. Having been married to another wonderful man for ten years after Grandpa’s death, she wanted to honor Grandpa with a single photo on her shelf. Crooked yellow edges showed that an 8x10 marking the bakery honor had been sheared to reveal his single picture and was ill-fitting in the 5x7 frame.
I got to spend some quality time with Grandpa Ham again last Sunday, stealing away to Wal-Mart to scan the picture and restore it to a proper size. It was more for me than for grandma as I wept in the Wal-Mart parking lot, hugging his picture and staring into those eyes again. “I miss you so much,” I cried, thankful that my daughter was in the back seat, lost in her headphones, watching Barbie: My Scene Goes to Hollywood on her personal DVD player.
Memories of his life and death came flooding back. Ironically, my most precious moment with Grandpa Ham occurred during the latter, and I have never told another soul what occurred between us then…that is until now. A young college student locked up inside myself, clumsily navigating my way in the world, I returned to his home twice when he was near death. A long-time sufferer of emphysema, he rallied the first time. The second time, he wasn’t so fortunate. That day, I entered the hospital full of visitors to hear, “Jenny, he’s asking for you.” On the outside, I acted surprised. I wasn’t. On the inside, I just wanted everyone else to magically disappear so I could somehow say goodbye to my first love.
Still seeing me through the eyes of a parent protecting a young child, Mom and Dad explained that there were tubes and a breathing machine. He wouldn’t be able to talk to me. I just nodded because how could they remotely understand that I didn’t care, that I didn’t need him to speak to me and that the tubes were what would make our last moments even possible? Still, for support, they sent me in with a neighbor or a distant cousin, I honestly don’t remember. What I do remember is the moment that I saw him, he reached out his long arms for me. I ran to him and with a maturity from within and without a tear, I looked into his eyes, telling him a thousand things without saying a single word. He returned the favor and his warm, soft hand strongly squeezed mine. We spent the rest of the time holding hands, my head resting on his chest covered with tubes, the neighbor lady awkwardly mumbling about the weather to the rhythm of the breathing machine. Grandpa Ham died at home several days later, Grandma Jo and all five of his children surrounding him, telling him how much they loved him. I’m sure those moments were as much a gift to them as our time in the hospital was a gift to my grandpa and me, the odd couple.
I didn’t become a Christian until years after my grandfather’s death. Although my grandma and grandpa were church-going folks, there was never a spiritual element in our relationship. However, now in those difficult times when I just need to affix a human element to my faith, I imagine Jesus as my Grandpa Ham. I imagine Him as that rare person that makes you love who you are when you’re with Him. I imagine Jesus as One who overflows my heart with love just by His presence, the One with whom I can fill up a room with unspoken words. I imagine my relationship with Jesus as one more about just being than saying or doing.
So many of us are bogged down with what we believe is religion, ridiculous rule-following and God-punishing religion. My friends, it is so much more about relationship than religion! Our relationship with a loving Christ is what defines our character and the way we live our lives, not the other way around.
Last weekend, I thanked God for a precious memory and a very real reminder of who He is. If you are a seasoned Christian or a non-believer, here is my prayer for you, too, today:
“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Ephesians 3:16-19
Saturday, February 16, 2008
“What, honey? You’ve gotta go! I don’t want you to be late for class!”
“Mama, I forgot my lunchbox,” my son admitted.
Irritated, I sighed. “I put it by the door. Didn’t you see it? You know, this means Mommy has to go back home. Now, I’m going to be late for work!” I pointed out, anxiety rising as cars piled up behind us in the school’s morning drop-off lane.
I shouldn’t have said it, but impulse and the morning rush had won out over patience.
“I know, I know, Mommy. I’m sorry,” he said genuinely, a look of dismay covering his face.
At that point, I checked myself. “It’s okay, buddy, really. I’ll run home and get it for you. I’ll be right back. It’ll only take me a few minutes, okay?”
“Love you!” I yelled after him as he scrambled up the sidewalk to the door. He didn’t turn back to acknowledge my call.
“Good job, Jen,” I muttered to myself, disgusted at my lack of restraint, yet still annoyed at the inconvenience of having to retrace the trip home.
Slightly defying traffic laws, I barrelled down the back roads to retrieve the all-important lunch box, volunteers set to arrive for my direction in less than a half hour back at the office. “This is not the morning to have to go back home!” I muttered to myself, looking right and then left at a four-way stop sign. “Go!” I commanded the car directly facing me across the road, irritated that the driver had forgotten the right-of-way rules of four-ways. “You got there first, honey,” I condescendingly smirked. Upon further inspection, however, I noticed something out-of-sorts.
The car in front of me wasn’t going…couldn’t go…the driver was slumped over the steering wheel. My stressed-out frantic pace instantly reversed to slow motion. The scene was surreal. Here we were, the only two cars on the road in either direction, no-one else to stop and help a driver in distress. It was up to me. Just before I reached for my door handle, she moved. Her head reared up from the steering wheel, abruptly interrupting the stillness. She was crying. Violently, her shoulders shook, her mouth wide open. Startled, I teetered between running to help her or leaving her to the privacy of her own car.
She made the decision for me and pressed the gas to finally take her turn at the four-way. That should’ave been it. I should’ave gone on my way, perhaps throwing up a quick prayer that the young lady would have a better afternoon, but I couldn’t let it go. I followed her, thinking, My husband will kill me when he finds out I’ve followed a stranger! Just three turns later, the blue van turned into a cul-de-sac of modest homes, stopping in front of number 230-C. Pulling up behind her, I noticed she didn’t get out.
Rounding the van, I peered into the window to see most stunning blue eyes I had ever seen. Wet with tears, the eyes of a beautiful African-American woman in her twenties looked at me suspiciously. I tapped, and she rolled down the van window.
“I am so sorry to disturb you,” I apologized, “but I couldn’t help but notice you crying back there at the stop sign. Are you okay?”
“Yes,” she weakly offered, still unsure of my intentions.
“Is there anything I can do to help you?” I asked.
She shook her head, implying, “No.”
“I’m sorry,” I said again. “I saw you crying and my heart just went out to you. I just had the urge to follow you and tell you that I know what it’s like to be desperate. It may not look like it,” I added, realizing that I stood wearing my ‘Sunday best,’ mostly because it was the end of the week and nothing else was clean, “but just a few years ago, I found myself crying in my car, and any other time I happened to be alone. I didn’t know what else to do. Today, you just made me think about how alone I felt then. I just couldn’t let you get away without telling you that whatever your situation is, someone understands.”
She stared at me, more tears streaming down her face and into her long, brown braids.
“Can I at least say a prayer for you?” I asked.
“Yes,” she managed.
Resting my hand on her shoulder, I began, “Dear Lord, I lift up a beautiful lady to you this morning. Father, she is desperate, and her heart is heavy. Please, Lord, give her peace in all of this. Show her where to go or what You would have her do. Give her some answers, Lord, but mostly just put Your arms around her, and let her know You’re there, that You care, and that You love her just as much as You love all of us. Peace be with her, Father, peace be with her,” I ended.
I squeezed her arm, asked her one last time if she needed help, and walked away. Turning into my own neighborhood, I realized that I had just experienced an amazing God moment. I thanked the Lord that He interrupted my frantic morning and allowed me, ME, to comfort someone. Someone else deserved my thanks, too, I realized as I retrieved the small lunchbox by the door.
“You can just give me his lunch, Jennifer, and I’ll take it to your son’s room,” the office assistant offered.
“No, I really need to talk to him. I’ll take it myself,” I insisted.
Waving through the small window in the classroom door, I summoned my son to the front of the room and into the hallway.
“Thanks for getting my lunch, Mom!” he said. His smile had returned.
“No, honey, I need to thank you for something,” I said, kneeling down to his level.
With that, he just looked at me, puzzled, and quite frankly, afraid I was going to lay a kiss on him or give him a hug in front of his third grade friends.
I pulled him away from the door so we could talk. “Thank you for forgetting your lunch today!” I said, watching him remain speechless. “No, really! Because you forgot your lunch today, I got to help a beautiful lady out and tell her how much God loves her.”
Turning back down the hallway to begin my trek to work, I was stopped by a familiar little voice.
“Love You!” he hoarsely whispered in my direction. I turned to see that he had sneaked back into the hallway.
“Love you, too, buddy! I love you, too!”
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble.”
Sunday, February 10, 2008
“Amen!” she’d shout, spitting tobacco juice into a tin can that always accompanied her to worship, seemingly underlining her statement. Raising a mentally challenged grandson Tommy, Miss Iola claimed to be one of the original members of the backwoods church folks say had been established by Francis Asbury back when he first rode on horseback through Virginia and North Carolina. Miss Iola was an interesting combination. She looked all of her, “eighty…mmm,” years, her wrinkled face chiseled by the hard life she had lived while still maintaining a tender, Jesus-like heart. I could always count on my sermon rating as Miss Iola exited the church, usually giving me a hug and reporting an “eight” on a good day, and a “five” on a slow one.
I got to know wise Miss Iola as more than just another character in that little church. She had a knack for baking, especially for baking her own homemade cherry pies. While leading a Bible study entitled, “Servants of God to Our Neighbors,” I noticed Miss Iola’s eyes light up one evening. Every Saturday from that day on, Miss Iola would bake up one of her pies and deliver it to someone in the community she thought might be having a hard time. I enjoyed the times she’d ask me to go with her, marveling at this hardened lady’s incredible knack for using a simple act of service to sweetly minister to an elderly woman, a widowed man or a struggling family.
One afternoon, Miss Iola wanted to take her cherry pie to a young single mother with three children whom she’d heard was having a hard time. The young woman struggled financially and was sinking into exhaustion and depression. “My heart goes out to her. Lord, she’s havin’ a tough row to hoe, and ain’t nobody there to help her with it, neither,” she explained on the way. I waited on the sidewalk while Miss Iola approached the torn screen door of a dilapidated rental house. Noises from three little ones playing and crying came from inside, and we could hear the young mother cursing. Miss Iola knocked softly. The door swung open, and a disheveled figure grunted an irritated, “YEAHHHH?”
“Oh, Honey, I know you’re havin’ a tough time. God bless ya! I ain’t got much, but here’s a pie I baked for ya…Maybe it’ll help a little bit anyway,” Miss Iola said, patting Melissa on the hand and turning to walk away.
“Who…who are you, anyway?” the young woman burst out, “And why would you bring me a pie?”
Miss Iola stopped on the sidewalk, “Well, ‘cause I know what it’s like to try to raise young-uns on your own. And, well, ‘cause God loves ya…and I just wanted to let ya know that He’s rootin’ for ya.”
“Is that it? That’s why you’re bringin’ me your pie? You don’t want nothin’ from me?” she asked, her arms crossed.
“God loves you more than you know, Honey.” Miss Iola left it at that, and we headed for the car. The young woman’s face soon melted into a smile.
“Wait a minute!” she yelled. “I…I…got some coffee…if ya wanna…” We sat in her modest kitchen drinking coffee while Melissa tried to manage her three rambunctious children. “Really, why did ya’ll come here?” she asked, after awhile.
“The truth?” Miss Iola laughed. “God filled my heart with so much love that it just kinda…spilled over onto you.”
After a minute of studying Miss Iola’s lined face, Melissa asked, “Do you go to church around here somewhere? Is that why you came here?”
“As a matter of fact, I do,” claimed Miss Iola proudly. “It’s the one right there down the street a ways.”
“Oh, I get it. That’s why ya’ll came…to get me to go to church,” she said defensively.
“Nawww…Honey. That’s your decision. Come or don’t come. I just wanted ya to know that you’re not alone. That’s all. Besides…this cherry pie had your name all over it.” Before we left, I could tell Melissa was being won over by Miss Iola’s blunt honesty, just as I had been.
My approach would have been different from Miss Iola’s. I would have tried to tell this single mother the reasons why she needed to come to church- for the support, the teaching, and the fellowship. But, Miss Iola did things in her own way. She offered to come back to Melissa’s house and stay with the kids, just to give Melissa some time to clear her head. About two weeks after delivering her that cherry pie, Miss Iola walked into the sanctuary with Melissa and the kids. She looked a little uncomfortable when I greeted her. “I ain’t much the church goin’ kind, pastor,” she said quietly.
“I’m really glad you’re here. So, why did you come?” I decided to ask.
“Well, ’cause anybody who’d take a cherry pie to somebody like me without askin’ for nothin’…And anyone who’d offer to babysit my kids without tryin’ to armtwist me to come to church…Well, I just come to say thanks to God for Miss Iola. Is that a good enough reason?”
Miss Iola had learned she had talents that she could use for God, as we all do. Hers were her honesty, her time, and her pies. A month after first meeting Miss Iola, young Melissa stood up at the end of the worship service, gave her heart to Jesus, and became a member of that little church in the hills of North Carolina. Guess who was standing right there with her? Miss Iola, who said, “Amen,” and spit into her tin can.
Saturday, February 2, 2008
Consider this excerpt from Leaving Microsoft’s first chapter:
“Seven years in, though, that nagging question continually popped up: Is this all there is-longer hours and bigger payoffs? I had adopted the commando lifestyle of a corporate warrior. Vacation was for people who were soft. Real players worked weekends, racked up hundreds of thousands of air miles, and built mini empires within the expanding global colossus called Microsoft. Complainers simply did not care about the company’s future. I was, however, increasingly aware of the price I was paying. Relationships-starved of my time and attention- fell flat as a result…The company could rely on me, but friends and family could not.”
I first encountered John Wood on an episode of Oprah. (Yes, I love to watch Oprah…when I can stomach the show’s content.) There to talk about his radical lifestyle change from marketing Microsoft to promoting worldwide literacy, I was impressed with his humility. Here was a man who had everything…according to the world’s standards: a positive upbringing, an ivy-league education, a high-powered career with the ultimate in financial reward and infinite opportunities to travel the world. Yet, his lack of the word, “I” in the interview provoked a huge grin on my face. He credited nothing to himself…
-Not his education
-Not his rise in Microsoft
-Not his “get away from it all” trip to Nepal where he first met Pasupathi, a Nepalese man in charge of locating resources for rural schools in his region.
-Not his encounters with the children there, eager to learn, yet stuck in a place grossly absent of even the most basic school supplies
-Not his conviction to fulfill a promise to Pasupathi who asked, “Perhaps, sir, someday you come back with books.”
-Not his decision to leave Microsoft
-Not the use of his entrepreneurial skills to found Room to Read, a non-profit organization whose vision is to, “provide the lifelong gift of education to millions of children in the developing world.”
-Not the rapid growth of Room to Read, which has now provided over 4100 schools and libraries for those in need in Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia and India
-Not Room to Read's astounding success, a non-profit, “with the scalability of Starbucks and the compassion of Mother Theresa”
-Not even his book, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, an Entrepreneur’s Odyssey to Educate the World’s Children
No, the book jacket inscription reads, “This is dedicated to my parents for teaching me to love education, to take risks, to believe in myself and to serve others.”
Basically, John Wood’s entire experience can be summed up in his revelation, “I was put on this earth to do more than make myself better off,” and in his courage to act upon that premise.
When Oprah Winfrey asked Mr. Wood how he might encourage others, the absence of a canned formula for success made my smile widen even further.
“Whatever God gives you to do…go on and do it,” Wood responded emphatically.
Wood insists it’s that simple. Yet, I believe it is that profound.
“Whatever God gives you to do…” assures that there are many different tasks to be completed on this earth and that we are all gifted differently by God. Not all are called to be life-giving world entrepreneurs. Thank goodness. I’d be horrible at that! It seems that John Wood was made for such a task, however.
What task do you feel “made” for? What is it that you feel a passion to do? When do you feel most fulfilled? John Wood isn’t referring to something you feel “obligated” to do. Nor should we compare our gifts to others’ talents. Finally, Wood doesn’t suggest that your life’s passion comes responsibility-free. What Wood has discovered, instead, is that when one’s gifting meets purpose and service, magic happens. Motivation appears. Energy abounds. Excitement builds. Balance is achieved. Others are influenced. God is honored.
What are you waiting for? If you haven't already, take Wood’s advice and, “Go on and do it.”
“We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.” Romans 12:6-8
Saturday, January 26, 2008
Running With Scissors left me disgusted, disturbed and angry. Did my disgust stem from the accounts of a family friend turned predator or from the slovenly way the Finches ran their household? Was I disturbed that a psychiatrist, a doctor, drew so many victims into his own emotional madness without ever being questioned? Or, was I angry that all of Dr. Finch’s twisted actions were explained away as, “Biblical?” No. The horrors committed in the book did not anger me as much as they greatly saddened me. We cannot forget that Augusten Burroughs’ story, reminiscent of A Child Called It, is absolutely true, and as a mother, the very thought of young Augusten’s life makes me shudder.
Instead, my distaste stems from the sheer popularity of the book. Make no mistake, I believe that the recording of reality is essential in preventing repetition of abusive cycles. Awareness is key in shaking complacent bystanders out of their sleepy stupor and into much-needed action. But if these were the true purposes of this book, they have been quickly forgotten. Instead, the book (now a motion picture) is quite frankly, a freak show. I wanted to shake people who might be reading or watching Running With Scissors and say, “Hey! Don’t you get it? This is not an author’s twisted concoction! This really happened, and it continues to happen…probably right there in your own neighborhood.” Instead of getting a voyeuristic thrill, much like a rubber-necker slows to catch a glimpse of twisted wreckage on the highway, the reader should alternately be sickened and spurned to action.
Reading Burroughs’ book has obviously motivated me. While I can marvel at his geniously-perceptive writing style, I only learned one thing from his memoir: reality-based writing without the inclusion of hope is absolutely fruitless, even irresponsible. This isn’t an attack on Burroughs himself. My heart utterly breaks for him. The events that he witnessed and the horrors exacted upon him will probably never leave him. Just reading about his experiences will most likely never leave me! What will more importantly never escape me, however, is the hope that life itself, the good as well as the bad, provides.
My friends, we all find ourselves running with scissors at times, but what happens when we actually fall?
There isn’t a single one of us who hasn’t once experienced hurt or pain. The effects of those traumas, however major or minor, don’t just disappear. Neither should they be swept under the rug, thrust into a dark corner or reduced to whispers. The ultimate question isn't whether these things happen, or even why they happen, although initially these inquiries are absolutely legitimate. The final question is, "What will you or I actually do with them?"
The Apostle Paul reminds us in his letter to the Corinthians that while life is full of such injustices and seasons of despair, we are not built to be consumed by them. “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair, persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed!” -2 Corinthians 4:8-10
The human spirit is truly indomitable. Why? I believe it is because we are created in God’s image. Courage, strength, and hope aren’t taught from the outside in; rather, they are coaxed from the inside out.
So, if you are in need of some encouragement, some reminder that there’s more, that life is not solely about suffering, allow me…or rather, allow Him:
For those who find themselves fearful today, let 2 Timothy 1:7 nudge you, “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.”
For friends who are worn out by life’s demands, take God’s advice in Matthew 11:28-30, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."
For ones who are discouraged by an unexpected path, take refuge in God’s promise in Jeremiah 29:11, “'For I know the plans I have for you,'" declares the LORD, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'”
For those who ask God, “Where are You?” Or, “What's the point of pain?” hear the answer in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”
Finally, for those who are stuck, for those who are frantically treading water just to stay afloat, for those who just can't reach beyond the anguish, let me assure you of something. God is not a distant, hands-off entity, and He never, ever wastes a hurt. It is up to each one of us individually, however, to ask Him those tough questions... “How?”, “Why?” and then, “What Now?” Believe me, He will answer! Consider Paul's response to the Romans, "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? ...No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us."
-Romans 35, 37.
As you enter into another week of reality, of peace for some, of anxiousness and drudgery for others, I pray that you will be more than a conqueror, that you not only endure but that your true path will be made clear, that you not just find contentment but that you are consumed by it. Dear brothers and sisters, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Sunday, January 20, 2008
“Do you mean Webkinz?” I replied, noting the hottest stuffed animal craze since Beanie Babies.
“Oh! Yes, that’s what my niece wants for her birthday. She’s about the same age as your daughter there. Do they sell them here?”
It was the beginning of a conversation that could have happened to anyone, anywhere. Then Cora looked up. She looked out. She looked beyond. She let something go. And so did I. The exact moment wasn’t obvious to either of us. Perhaps it was the way she spoke to my children, or when she revealed she was a teacher. Maybe she saw my dangling cross, but fifteen minutes later, we were still chatting, people maneuvering around, curious eyes glancing at us in Rite Aid, aisle three. Finally, my son’s tugging and my daughter’s, “I’m hungry,” signaled a time for closure.
I couldn’t shake Cora from my mind, however, while standing in the endless prescription line.
“I have over twenty years in as a teacher,” she had confessed.
"…just here to pick up a few ornaments for a Christmas tree for my eighth-graders. That’s what they said they wanted, so a few of us decided to chip in.”
I cringed at the thought of a rickety room full of eighth-graders. I taught high school for twelve years myself, but eighth-graders? They’re tactless aliens. And she was going to get the ingrates a tree?
“I love my kids,” she explained. “There’s just something about them. I don’t have any of my own. You know, we just got this new student. She’s a, a whaddayacallit, a Gothic?”
“A Goth? In eighth grade, huh?” I smirked. Yeah, I bet that one will have a field day with a Christmas tree, I thought. This woman should be awarded sainthood.
“She’s wreaking havoc in our school, saying awful things, being moody and mean. Somehow she talks to me, though.” I could believe it. Talking to Cora was as easy and comfortable as chatting with my big sister. I hoped the Goth knew what she had in Miss Cora.
“Hey, have you ever heard of something called As-bergers? They say she has that,” said a concerned Cora.
The words stole my breath.
“Did you say, Aspergers?” I managed.
Perceptive Cora read my stunned expression, “Um…yeah. It’s a mild form of autism, right?” she probed. “Smart kids, but very quirky.”
Still speechless, all I could do was covertly point to my son, who was yanking on my shoulder for the fortieth time, ignoring all social rules about interrupting one’s mother.
“Can I go to the toys? Can I go to the toys? Can I go to the toys?” he kept repeating. More yanking. The toy aisle in plain sight, I finally granted his escape.
“He has Aspergers?” she whispered.
“We think so. Diagnosis is a long process, but right now it sure explains a lot,” I answered. “Did you say the Goth girl just moved here? Because if she did, and she has AS, you’re a Godsend. AS kids don’t handle change well…messes up their whole world. They’re hypersensitive and need a lot of structure just to stay at even-keel,” I continued. “My son almost loses his mind at the beginning of every school year. At the end, too. It takes us weeks to get him settled. Drives his teachers crazy. Your Goth girl is gonna need somebody.”
It was Cora’s turn to be wordless. Finally, she sputtered, “So, that’s why the Lord had me come in here today...to meet you!” An odd thing to say, but I felt it too.
“Do you want cash back, Lady?” the cashier at the prescription counter barked, interrupting my thoughts.
“Uh, yes. Yes I do,” I smiled. Ten dollars led me back to aisle three. Thank you, Jesus, I prayed. She’s still there. “Cora, this is my contribution to your Christmas tree. Those eighth graders are lucky to have you.” Cora was the kind of person you’d give a million dollars, if you had it. Yet, she acted like my ten dollars was a million, so what’s the difference? I looked directly into her brown eyes one more time, praying that in the future, my son might be as lucky as the Goth girl to have a teacher like Miss Cora. A teacher more inclined to mercy than judgment. “God bless you, Cora."
My Rite Aid rendezvous hasn’t quickly left me, and neither have thoughts of Cora and her eighth-graders. I could easily have dismissed her by grunting a, “No,” or by quickening my step.
I’m glad I didn’t.
We are swift in cursing our hectic lives, aren't we? Sometimes, in the rush of completing one errand, one task after another, we even declare God’s absence. "Where are you, Lord?" we ask.
Look up every once in awhile, will you? He’s right there…right there in front of you.
You’ll be glad you did.
"Pay attention, Job, and listen to me; be silent, and I will speak." Job 33:31
Monday, January 14, 2008
“…by taking a moral inventory of my life, I was able to see patterns of behavior. Through doing this, I discovered for the first time some of my family mottoes…These mottoes were not spoken…but more like, This is the way we do life in our house. Some of these mottoes were:
- You must please other people at all costs.
- Do not waste anything at all, even if it’s to your detriment.
- Pretend like it’s okay when it’s not.
- We are an island. We don’t need anyone outside of the family.
I believe that seeing these mottoes in black in white… that this was the first step for me toward change, toward making real change through a life process of depending on God."
“My life before was unmanageable. I was the Queen. Life was all about me, getting my way on my terms, in my timing because I knew best…I had the appearance of having it all together. If everything looked good on the outside, I felt good on the inside…I lived in self-centered fear…The walls I built for self-protection were insurmountable. I lived a double-life in repeated denial that anything was wrong…I isolated more, and I even prayed more…but hopelessness overcame me. I realized I could not change on my own strength. I surrendered my life and control. The Lord’s will (became) my daily goal and focus…I learned the tools to live life on life’s terms. This new life is amazing. I am becoming a new person. It is a slow journey, however, that takes patience. Now, I am no longer the Queen, but a beloved daughter of the King. I never have to be alone again because I belong to His Kingdom.”
Why do we do it? Why do we look beyond our own circles for heroes? Is it an insecure need for our champions to be perfect, to be all-conquering, and therefore…inhuman? Take another look at the people around you, not an obligatory glance, but a REAL examination. I had the chance to do just that this weekend as my two new heroines stood before the masses.
The view was spectacular.
"I have seen his ways, but I will heal him; I will guide him and restore comfort to him..." Isaiah 57:18
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
A month has passed since that first log-in…and prompt log OUT. Three things have brought me back. Ferocity, Faith, and Fellowship. Ferocity…what a funny-looking word for such a powerfully-projected image. The fierce urge to write has propelled me from youth. Yes, propelled. My life has a tendency to sit and wait…and wait…and wait. Yet, at times writing has been the catalyst, the spark, the necessary thrust toward forward rotation…and I am thankful.
Faith has been a crucial accelerant as well. Did I say the “F” word? In print? Mass clicking on the right corner red X is audible. (Curses! Did I just reveal that I’m a PC user and not a Mac girl, too? More exit clicking.) Faith’s biblical definition declares, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” Hebrews 11:1. At this point, I can genuinely say that I am absolutely sure of what I hope for and undeniably certain of what I do not see. Nothing but peace and freedom have followed those revelations. From my humble perspective, there are three entrances to the world of faith: God by family/cultural influence, God by theological study, and God by gratitude. While a combination of the three is ideal, it is not often reality. I have most definitely gained entry as the latter. God’s presence and workings in my life are irrefutable…and I am grateful.
Finally, while fellowship is the unexpected promise and necessary fuel for any blog…it is also the hope for this one. From my friends who hold me accountable with, “What have you written lately, Jen?” to my brother-in-law’s, “It’s great therapy,” a wishful purpose for Jen Thinks In Ink is to connect, to work it out, to share…with others like you. Kudos to Sissy and Matt for emotionally and technologically advancing me to this place (I still want my supergirl blog header!). Smooches to my family who overlook the constant clicking of the keyboard to see my accompanying smile. Blessings to my courageous faith friends who know the deal…God is Real!
Hebrews 10:25 says, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another…”
Won’t you meet me here again?