Sunday, February 24, 2008

Odd Couple

My first love was a long, lanky man with slicked-back gray hair and black leather ankle boots. He called me, "Jenny." At age eight and fifty-eight, we made an odd pair.

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

Blue Eyes in 230-C

“Mama?” he said sheepishly while exiting the car.

“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.”

My son, quite a lover of people himself, began to smile as I recounted the whole story. By the end, he was quite proud of himself for being absent-minded and even let me hug him before returning to class.

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.”
Psalm 46:1

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Miss Iola's Cherry Pies

It's been an interesting week, so I thought I'd post a story that a friend of mine, a missions pastor, once told me. I loved it so much that I just had to commit it to paper. (Marcos y Mey: Dios te bendiga, mi hermano y mi hermana!)

Miss Iola always sat in the second seat of the first pew at country Methodist church in the hills of Henderson, North Carolina. “Amen,” she’d affirm often as I, a young student Pastor from Duke Divinity School at the time, preached some of my first sermons.

“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

Go On And Do It

“It was like a game of Twister being played on a global scale,” remarks John Wood of his demanding travel schedule as an international marketing specialist for powerhouse computer software company, Microsoft. “The job was financially rewarding but full of high pressure and stress,” he comments in his book, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, one of my new favorites.

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