Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Give a Clap

On Saturday, December 18th, my daughter and I drove to Maria's Shelter on South Yale in Chicago.  This is part of our Christmas tradition -- the Saturday before Christmas, we go to this shelter for women and children and serve, with many others, a meal for those who live in the shelter and tens of seniors from the area.  Before the event, many people buy gifts for the children and another group of people put together gift bags for the mothers and the seniors.  For these children, these gifts are the only ones they will receive and for the mothers and seniors, this is the only day of the year on which they are served.  For those of us who serve that day, our only objective is to give the mothers, kids, and seniors a few hours during which they can be at ease, can feel less burdened by all that weighs down, all that pulls on them.  They can eat a good meal, receive some small gifts, oh, and experience the one moment that everyone present waits for with great anticipation.  A visit from Santa Claus!

This year was no different from the last seven or eight.  About ten volunteers show up, set up the room with twenty long tables and chairs, cover them with red and green table cloths and centerpieces, and prepare ham, turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, collard greens, green beans, cranberry sauce, salad, rolls, macaroni and cheese, broccoli casserole, cakes, cupcakes, cookies, candies, juice, coffee, and soda.  A lovely white Christmas tree sits off to the side of the room.  A green one sits up front next to an empty arm chair surrounded by wrapped presents.  Christmas carols ring out from a small stereo on the floor.

The room is cool, but there is a sense of home and familiar faces work hard to make sure all is ready when our guests arrive.  We volunteers see each other every year and for some of us, only at this place, on this date, every year.  Sometimes, we don't have enough serving utensils, or plates, or gravy, or ham, or aluminum foil, or to-go bags.  Sometimes, someone gets sick and can't bring an essential item.  Every year, Marcus brings the soda.  Every year, we think he's not coming and  start to panic about all the thirsty mouths that we won't be able to quench.  Every year, though, he comes.  And every year, he brings soda from Treasure Island.  And every year, he brings his Santa suit.

Like every other year, around 11:30 a.m., the seniors start to arrive, brushing the snow from their coats and boots.  They sit patiently at tables as the mothers and children also arrive.  Excitement rises and the room begins to warm both in temperature and love.  We pray, eat, talk.  As we finish eating, Marcus stands and casually walks to the restroom.  He will transform his tall, fit, handsome, jeans-and-sweater-clad self into Santa.  He will don a red suit, a pillow tucked beneath a black belt, a white beard, and black boots.  

The meal is good.  The company is good.  The decorations are good.  But, there is nothing that compares to the moment Santa comes through the door: "Ho ho ho!"  He waves, and in his deep, convincing voice, he booms: "You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I'm tellin' you why: Santa Claus is coming to town. . . ."  The kids are going crazy.  The moms are smiling.  The seniors fold their hands and take it all in.  "He knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you're awake; he knows when you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!  Oh . . ."  The excitement reaches epic levels.  The kids are screaming out the song.  The volunteers sing too, and laugh with joy.  We love Marcus.  And we love how devoted he is to this role.  It is my favorite part of the entire event.

Santa takes his seat in the empty chair upfront, the green tree to his right, the presents nearby.  He calls the kids up to sit in front of him.  The kids run at full speed and slide to a sitting position, looking at Santa like they can't believe their eyes.  These kids (and their moms) live in a large room, all together in a cramped space, beds pushed up next to each other.  Their moms have been physically abused.  These are hard lives.  Santa sings Jingle Bells with them.  Then, he quiets them down and says he is going to pass out gifts, but before he does, he asks: "What is the greatest gift we have ever received?"  He asks this every year and each year it takes all I have inside me not to yell out: Jesus!  Or, to raise my hand like I did when I was ten.  The kids yell out: "toys!"  "dolls!"  "video games"  Then, one quiet, bright-eyed kid in back says: "Jesus!"  Santa affirms him: "Yes!  What's your name, young man?"  The boy says: "Charles" or "Marquis" or "James" depending on the year.  And then Santa pauses and says: "Alright, everyone, give Charles a clap!"  And we all clap for Charles.  A smile this young shy boy cannot contain breaks across his face.  The first time I heard Marcus say "give so-and-so a clap," I thought it was such a strange phrase.  Something I hadn't heard before.  I had heard, "give so-and-so a hand" or "let's clap for so-and-so."  Never "give a clap!"  I grew used to it over the years, though, and have come to love the phrase.

Next, Santa passes out gifts to each child.  And for each one, Santa reads the tag on the present and calls out the child's name.  So, it goes like this: "Where's James?"  Little James steps up boldly, hands extended.  "There you go, young man.  Everyone, give James a clap!"  And we all clap wildly for James like he's just finished a marathon, or hit a home run, or given a stirring performance.  We do this for each child.  I can't help but think that when they hear us clap, for a moment, they feel on top of the world, loved like never before.  Those of us clapping feel this somehow too.  Just to be part of this scene makes your soul soar, makes you smile with abandon, makes your heart race.

After the gift-giving, we clean-up, pack-up and all head home.  We say "see you next year!" and hug.

We didn't know this that day, but this year was the last time we would see Marcus.  On that Saturday, he had five days left on this Earth.  On Christmas Eve, he was killed in a car accident.  Our Santa.  Our Marcus.  Gone, just like that.  No next year.  My heart broke when I heard the news.  I flashed through all the years.  I saw him once a year, but I relied on him for the soaring of my soul, broad unstoppable smiles, and a heart racing with excitement for the joy he brought.

One thing kept coming to mind: man of God.  Marcus was a devoted follower of Christ.  And, you needed only to see him at Maria's Shelter in his Santa suit to know that.  The Santa thing is complicated because mostly, this distracts from Christ.  But, Marcus was able to show Christ even through the secular Santa.  He centered his gift-giving on Christ, he loved the kids the way Christ would.  His eyes radiated a calm and peace that comes only to those with Christ at their center.  I prayed earnestly, fervently, for the family he left behind -- his parents and siblings and nieces and nephews.  The loss of him would be great.

But then, seemingly out of nowhere, my soul started to soar, a broad, unstoppable smile spread across my face, and my heart began to race.  My mind turned to the parable of the talents in Matthew and the master's statement to his servant upon the master's return: "Well done, good and faithful servant!"  (Matt. 25:23)  Instead of these words, though, I heard: "Everyone, give Marcus a clap!"  And all of heaven broke into applause because Marcus was faithful with the gifts God gave him.

I have been thinking of Marcus since I heard of his accident.  Each of the words we exchanged, his tall frame walking into the shelter every year, carrying bags of soda, his deep, booming voice singing "You better watch out . . ."  I see his dark eyes, and his shy smile.  I see his calm, steadiness.  I wonder what I'd do differently if I knew I had only five days to live.  I wonder what I'm doing today that I wouldn't be doing if I only had five days to live and why I continue to do it.  Most of all, though, I pray that when it's my time to stand before my Master and King, He will say: "Everyone, give Kellye a clap!"  And all of heaven will break into applause, not because of fame, or money, or success at work, or because I have lots of friends, or possessions, but because I will have been faithful with the gifts God has given me.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Love or Barbies?

The other night, my daughter and I went out to dinner.  We started playing this game where we would ask each other to choose between two options very quickly.  So, it might go something like this: pepper or salt? [answer] sun or moon? [answer] water or land? [answer] cats or dogs?  [answer] goats or chickens? [answer].  This game got started, I later learned, because my daughter intended to slip in a question at the end, just as my momentum had built on answering quickly, to get me to reveal what I'd gotten her for Christmas: movie or book?  Harry Potter or Toy Story?  See?  It was a well-devised trap.  But, I did not fall for it.  In response, I said with a smile:  "goats and chickens."  (See http://bit.ly/aoggq4)

We played this game, giggling, for almost our entire dinner.  Near the end, we were running out of ideas, so I started down a line of questioning that went something like this, followed by my daughter's answer: love or hate?  [love]; love or war? [love] love or like? [love].  Now, these "love" answers came rapidly.  I barely got the question out and the answer was given.  I wanted to challenge her a bit, though, because the love choice was easy when compared to hate, war, and even like.  So, I threw in love or hamburger? [love] love or Sprite? [love] love or dessert? [love].  About now, the answers started coming slower.  A little more thought was being given.  A second or two passed, especially on the love or dessert one.  Nevertheless, I began to feel so proud as a parent.  I'm doing something right, clearly.  My daughter chooses love!  I decided to push things a little further: love or toys? . . .[um, love?]  love or Barbies? . . . [smile, shoulder shrug, quiet voice, love, I guess, but maybe Barbies].  We both laughed, but something powerful struck me.

We play this game everyday in our lives.  We must decide between love and something else.  For most of us, most of the time, we choose "something else."  Often, we don't realize.  Often we do.  And, the answer almost always turns on what is most comfortable for us and how similar the to-be-loved is to us.  In other words, if it is easy, if they are like us, we will choose "love."  The harder it gets, the more often we will choose "something else."  The closer we get to having to give up something we already love to love someone else, the more likely we are to turn away.

Here are five scenarios to illustrate the point.  In law, these would be called hypotheticals.  In music, variations on a theme.

1) I'm getting off the train and an old woman needs help lifting her suitcase down the steps. I'm in a hurry.  One additional step in my day and I'll be late.  The woman is my mother.  Love or get to work?  Love!

2) I'm getting off the train and an old woman needs help lifting her suitcase down the steps. I'm in a hurry.  One additional step in my day and I'll be late.  This woman reminds me of my mother.  Love or get to work?  Love.

3) I'm getting off the train and an old woman needs help lifting her suitcase down the steps.  I'm in a hurry.  One additional step in my day and I'll be late.  The woman appears dirty and homeless.  Love or get to work?  Um . . . love?

4) I'm getting off the train and an old, dirty, homeless woman needs help lifting a large black trash bag down the steps.  She is talking to herself.  I'm in a hurry.  One additional step in my day and I'll be late.  Love or get to work?  Maybe get to work. . . .

5) I'm getting off the train and an old, dirty, homeless woman needs help lifting a large black trash bag down the steps.  She didn't pay for her train ride.  I saw her go from car to car avoiding the conductor.  I'm in a hurry.  One additional step in my day and I'll be late.  Love or get to work?  Get to work.

Why do we do this?  We look at people and determine whether they deserve our love?  We withhold it if we conclude they don't?  We withhold it if it makes us uncomfortable?  We withhold it if we are scared?  We withhold it because we don't believe they will be sufficiently grateful?  Wait a minute.  We withhold love?  We only hand it out to the deserving, safe, grateful?

I can't help thinking of a comment I read in the last day or so in discussions about the DREAM Act and immigration issues.  The comment was this:  "Romans 13:1-7 states, 'Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.'  Clearly illegal aliens don't believe this basic Christian tenet, so I do not see why I should be obligated to respect mercy or forgiveness for them."  This comment has been nagging at me.  I hate it, but for reasons other than I would have thought.  There is unlove in the comment.  That saddens me.  There is misunderstanding, perhaps purposeful, in the comment.  That bothers me.  

What I hate about it, though, is that I think the essence of the comment hits close to home.  I haven't said it or thought it in this particular context.  But, isn't this an expression of how we frequently act?  We set out before us what others have done or do and then we decide whether we should love them, whether we should forgive them, whether we should extend mercy to them.  The woman who is my mother getting off the train, well, she gave birth to me.  She loves me.  I will love her.  The woman who resembles my mother getting off the train, she seems nice enough and reminds me of my mother.  I will love her.  The dirty and homeless woman is sad, she needs help.  And I won't need to touch her, just her bag.  I guess I'll love her.  The dirty, homeless, crazy woman with the black trash bag looks scary.  What if my hand slips, what if she smells, what if she starts talking to me?  What if she's ungrateful?  I doubt I'll love her.  And, the dirty, homeless woman who didn't pay her train ticket?  Why should I love her?  I paid my ticket.  She obviously doesn't respect the rules.  I will not love her.

Thank God He does not love us the way we often love others.  In the book of Matthew, these words of Jesus are recorded:  "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.  He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?  Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?  Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."  (Matt. 5:33-38)

A follower of Christ should be known for loving the undeserved, unsafe, ungrateful.  As Jesus said, even the pagans, the unbelievers, love their own people -- those who love them, those who look like them, act like them, seem safe like them.  A follower of Christ is different, though.  She understands how she has been loved:  "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."  (Rom. 5:8)  While I was still a sinner (and I still am), Christ died for me.  Died.  Not carried a suitcase down the stairs for me even though I didn't buy my ticket.  Not drove me to the doctor even though I came to the country illegally.  Died.

When I find myself thinking about the worth of another person, whether they deserve love from me, whether I "should" be obligated to extend love or mercy or grace or forgiveness, whether something they have done disqualifies them from receiving my love, or whether I have the right to withhold love from them for any other reasons, I will remember what Christ did for me.  I will remember these words of Jesus: "Freely you have received, freely give."  (Matt. 10:8)  When I have the choice between love or something else, I pray that love will flow naturally, quickly, unreservedly out of me.  Love or Barbies?  Love!

Monday, December 20, 2010

No Turning Back

Two years ago today, I wrote out the most important words of my life:



Thank you for not giving up on me and appearing to me. I am today turning my life over to you and I am ready for what that means. Even though I know I am not worthy of the sacrifice you made, I accept Jesus Christ and ask that you forgive all my sins. I am coming to you as a sinner and in repentance for past and current sins. I know I am imperfect but I am trying. Please take me in and help me.

I didn't know all that December 20th would eventually mean to me on that day.  I still don't have a complete understanding and won't I suspect until the end.  I know that it is a stake in the ground for my faith not only because of the commitment I made that day, but because of the commitment my friend Steven made that day, and which God revealed in an astonshing way.  (See "Take the Marine to Lunch")

I look at the words I wrote that day and know that they are still true today.  I am grateful that God does not give up on me.  I am grateful He whispers to me.  I turn my life over to Him everyday and everyday stand prepared for what that means, difficult though it is.  I am today equally unworthy of the sacrifice Christ made for me, but accept it all the same as a free gift.  Everyday I praise God for His forgiveness and repent of new sins.  I am a sinner still.  I am imperfect still.  And everyday I surrender my imperfection, all that I am, to Him.

In two years time, God has done so much in me, but there is so much more to be done.  I'm humbled by how much.  Sometimes I wonder how God possibly has time for anyone else because He must spend so much time making my heart right.  Yet, I hold on to Paul's words "I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns." (Phil. 3:6)

And, as the song says:  I have decided to follow Jesus.  No turning back, no turning back.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Fallout

God's calling on my life is to tell stories -- stories of His greatness, stories of how He works in and through me, stories of how He works in and through others.  Over the last two years, in connection with my legal aid ministry work, God has exposed me to so many stories of His greatness that I cannot possibly tell them all.  Some are stories of redemption, some of extreme grace, some of outrageous love, and some of peace that passes understanding in a time of despair.  God has taught me the power of prayer, of words, of loving like Jesus.  God has also exposed me to stories of unspeakable pain, shame, guilt, and sin.  In getting to hear these stories, I come to understand more about who God is, and who we are in Christ.  

There is one set of stories that nags at me.  I can't shake them.  I don't know what to do with them.  They wake me up, they keep me up, they resurface, they pull, they pound.  They are painful and seemingly hopeless at times.  These are the stories of the undocumented immigrants who come for legal advice.  I must say here that I am not a person who has any interest in politics.  Literally none.  I don't watch it, don't talk about it, am simply not interested in it.  Politics is the last issue I would ever want to talk about at a dinner party, at my own table, or anywhere else for that matter.  And, the "immigration issue" in the United States can appropriately be characterized as a polarizing political topic.  My natural inclination in this situation is twofold.  First, God made me in a way that I am incapable of seeing another human being, undocumented immigrants included, in any way other than in the way I see myself: in need of love, in need of grace, in need of forgiveness.  Second, God made me in a way that I am utterly disinterested in political discussion, which causes me to disengage, avoid, and stay virtually silent in such discourse.  When you combine these two things, you get quiet, loyal, and non-judgmental love and service, but you do not get a voice.

Until now.  Something in me broke recently after I met with several clients in a row who are suffering from what I can only call: the fallout.  That is, the unexpected, incidental product of our governing immigration laws.  And I can no longer abide disengagement, avoidance, or virtual silence.  I will be true to what God has called me to do; I will tell the stories I know; to do otherwise would be disobedient.  To do otherwise would be to renounce justice and eschew the oppressed.  (Isaiah 1:17)  Because however just the face of our immigration laws may be, the fallout, the unexpected, incidental product of them is unjust, injustice.

[I have changed names and certain non-essential facts so as not to impinge on the privacy or confidentiality of these individuals]    


Maryanne came to see me because her son, her beloved son, worked at a local restaurant and was being harassed by a co-worker.  He was being called names, threatened, defamed.  When Maryanne was much younger, she was married in Mexico.  She got pregnant.  Her husband left her.  She could not provide for herself.  She tried staying with family, but they could not feed themselves, let alone her and a new baby boy.  So, not long after her son was born, she came to the U.S.  No papers, an experience she describes to me and it scares me to know that any human went through something like that and reminds me that only a desperate person trying to save her child's life would endure what I can only call torture.

When she arrived in the U.S., though, she had no problem finding work.  And her son?  A-student all through school.  But they are both undocumented, illegal.  Now her son is out of high school, wanting to go to college.  But he is "an illegal."  Known now by this alone.  He cannot adjust his status, he cannot, under current law, make things right.  Those he works with have figured this out somehow and a woman, the harasser, believes he should not be allowed to work and threatens to turn him over to the government.  She threatens to report him so he will be deported.  She sends defamatory notes to people he knows, to people in the community.  She calls him "an illegal."  That has become his name.  And the mother, broken, ashamed, embarrassed, sorrow-filled, sits before me and asks what her son can do.  He has been in and out of the hospital with bleeding ulcers, digestive track problems, anxiety attacks, all resulting from the way he came to the U.S. as a baby.

His mother appears to hate herself.  It is her fault.  She brought him here.  She is why he is "an illegal."  She is like stone.  She has accepted that this is her punishment for a decision she made in desperation as a young, abandoned mother.  At the end of our time together, she tells me, off-handedly, that she has an inoperable brain tumor.  I wonder if she will ever forgive herself.

The fallout.


Alberto came to see me one day because he owed about $20,000 in unpaid taxes.  Alberto attempted to reach agreement to pay this amount off in installments he could afford.  He told me he owed the money and wanted to pay it, but just couldn't in one lump sum.  I worked out an arrangement with a couple of phone calls so he could pay it off in monthly installments.  Nice and neat.  Problem solved.

One day, several months later, Alberto returned, asked to see me, and we sat down together.  He has deep brown eyes, calloused hands, broad shoulders.  I welcomed him and asked what I could help him with that day.  He took a deep breath and his proud, stiff, hard-working body started to shake.  Tears filled his eyes and ran down his cheeks.  I took his hand and asked him to explain when he was ready.  He began by telling me that when he was 20 years old, he came to the United States illegally.  Today, he is in his forties.  For years, he worked, paid taxes, was a leader in his community.  But he has been struggling with employment and has been unemployed for nine months.  And the struggle is harder now than it was before.  He is an "illegal."  Known now by this alone.  He cannot find work.  No one will hire him.  And because of his circumstances, and the current state of the law, he has no ability to adjust his status in the United States.  He cannot make things right.

He shakes more as he tells me he can no longer support his family.  The only way is for him and his family to go back to the town in Mexico where he is from, a place he hasn't been in years, a place his children have never known.  When he told his family this was their only option for survival, his sixteen-year old daughter said she refused to go to Mexico.  She was born here.  She is a citizen.  She has friends.  She has a future.  And the day before he came to see me this second time, his daughter slit her wrists and was in critical condition at a local hospital.  She would survive, though.  His entire being was filled with shame, with guilt, with sorrow.  He said it was his fault.  The decision he made at age 20 when he had no children, when just about anyone would hire him, when he felt proud to be able to provide for a future family, now haunted him, hindered him, devalued him as a man.  To stay here means no work, no ability to work, no ability to provide, and to live underground, in fear.  To leave means to leave his family behind.

The fallout.


Josephina came to see me because she had worked dozens of hours for a local hotel, in hot, suffocating conditions, without being paid.  Her employer refuses to pay her as promised and refuses to pay her overtime.  Her employer does this and believes it can get away with it because it believes she is "an illegal."  After all, she is Mexican, works in the hotel laundry business, has not complained about her conditions before, has not complained about her lower-than-minimum-wage pay.  But Josephina is here legally.  She came legally.  She has proper documentation.  She has all the rights and privileges that accompany such status.  Doesn't she?  Technically.  But she looks like people who are illegal.  She works in a place where many of the people are undocumented.  She makes little money and all that she has goes to support her family.  And her employer knows all of this.  So, it takes license with her rights and privileges knowing she will not raise her voice, she will not complain, she will question her own documentation.  Worse yet, she will begin, and, in fact, she tells me she has begun, to believe she is not welcome here either.

The fallout.

I do not believe our immigration laws were designed to create a separate population of people known as "illegals."  I do not believe the intent was to break up families, to punish desperate mothers and fathers for a lifetime.  I do not believe that our laws were meant to make those who come legally believe that they are not welcome.  But this is the fallout.  And to allow it to continue is not to do justice.  (Isaiah 1:17)  It is not to love our neighbor.  (Matt. 22:39)  It is not to welcome the stranger.  (Matt. 25:35)  It is time to be a voice.

The DREAM Act is the first step to relieving the fallout, to doing justice, loving our neighbor, and welcoming the stranger.  Read about it here.  Call your senator and ask that he/she support the DREAM Act.  A vote will take place Saturday, December 18, 2010.

[Check out Welcoming the Stranger, Matthew Soerens & Jenny Hwang for more information about "justice, compassion, and truth in the immigration debate."  Amazon]             

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Our Finest Gift To Bring

A Colorful Cartoon of a Boy Playing a Drum - Royalty Free Clipart PictureThere is a song that is overplayed on the radio, in shopping malls, in little toys you buy at the store, and on Christmas albums. You can’t go through the Christmas season without hearing it at least 1000 times. Pa rum pum pum pum. You know it: The Little Drummer Boy. I used to turn the station, or run out of the store when this song started because it’s too rhythmical or too repetitive or too something. Last year I heard Josh Groban’s rendition of it (watch here) and it gave me chills. I listened to it constantly. So much so that my daughter complained, wanting a little variety in our Christmas-song diet. I lost track of the song as we got into February, Spring, warm weather, Fall. But, recently, I re-discovered it and it has had the same impact – chills, joy, longing. I can’t stop listening to it. I’ve got it on a loop on my I-pod. It stuns me. I wish I’d written it.

This all must sound so strange. You’re thinking: Really? Little Drummer Boy? No! That song is awful. All the pa rum pum pum pum. So annoying.

Let me explain. First, the lyrics (after the ellipses, please insert the pa rum pum pum pum if you’d like):

Come, they told me . . .
A newborn king to see . . .
Our finest gifts we bring . . .
To lay before the king. . .

So, to honor him . . .
When we come.

Little baby . . .
I am a poor boy too . . .
I have no gift to bring . . .
That’s fit to give a king . . .

Shall I play for you?
On my drum . . .

I play my drum for Him!
For to honor Him!

Mary nodded . . .
The ox and lamb kept time . . .
I played my drum for Him . . .
I played my best for Him . . .

Then He smiled at me . . .
Me and my drum.

The thing that gets me is the command right from the get-go: “Come, they told me.” A king has been born, come, let us go honor him by laying our finest gifts before him. This concept is hard to relate to. We don’t have kings. We don’t bring them gifts. We certainly don’t bring them our finest gifts. Criticism is our most given gift.

But, if this were the tradition, imagine the slight sickness that rose in the back of the drummer boy’s throat when he realizes he has no gift, let alone a fine gift, or a gift that is fit to give any king, let alone THE king. We can relate to this in a small way – we are invited to a dinner party, or to visit a friend, we have a busy day, and we forget to give proper attention to picking out a small gift of thanks for our host. So, either we show up with nothing but apology, or we get a gift that is far from fine and pass it along as if our host won’t know we bought it just minutes earlier at the closest convenience store.

Upon arriving before the king, the drummer boy has nothing to offer, so he asks (I imagine in a small, defeated voice) if he should play his drum.  It is all he has to give.  At this point the song really starts to gain some momentum and if you let yourself, you will start to feel the excitement as you imagine the drummer boy doing what he does best for an audience of one.  Mary gives him the go-ahead, with a nod, the ox and lamb tap their feet, and he plays.  (I think of these young men as I imagine the drumming). 

My favorite part of the song is when Mary nods and the drummer boy begins to play.  And, the lyrics are "I played my drum for Him!  I played my best for Him!"  It is as if as he gets going, he has a revelation that his only gift -- his drumming -- IS his finest gift, the only gift that was fit for his king.  His soul soars with this realization.  He not only plays, but plays his best.  Then, the most amazing thing of all happens: the king smiles at him.  The King smiles at him. 

This makes me cry.  Seriously.  It makes me cry because it stirs something deep in my soul.  I want to make the King smile.  More than anything else, I think.  So, I wonder what gift I would bring.  I look around at the stuff that surrounds me and I would have the same sickening feeling as the poor drummer boy: I have no gift to bring that's fit to give a king.  Nothing external to me could possibly suffice in light of the gift He is, the gift of reconciliation and forgiveness that He offers.  If today someone said to me: "Come, our King is here, we must go lay before Him our finest gifts," what am I going to lay down?

We know that all God desires of us, to make us His children, is "a broken and contrite heart" (Psalm 51:17) but once we have given Him this (or, better said, each time we give Him this), we feel a longing too, to praise Him, to make Him smile.  At least I do, and it is this longing that I feel exploding out of this overplayed, under-understood song.  But, what also arises out of this song for me is that God has already given me the gift with which to make Him smile.  For the drummer boy, it was his drumming.  I'm sure you can think of people for whom you can immediately identify what the gift is.  What is the gift or gifts God has planted in you to use to please Him?  Your finest gift to bring that would cause your soul to soar and the King to smile?   

Are you playing your drum for Him?  Are you playing your best for Him? 
Pa rum pum pum pum.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Presence in the Absence

I have been studying prayer lately, trying to understand why we pray, how to pray, what it means to God, whether it matters.  This is a big topic, of course, and one that a seemingly unlimited number of smart people have written about.  One thing that has happened during my study of prayer is that I've started to pray nearly constantly.  And, what unexpected joy, peace, and freedom it brings me deep in my soul.  Perhaps when I finish my study (to the extent I ever feel like I have), I will share what I have learned.  For now, though, I am bursting with a simple prayer of thanks today because of the feeling the snowfall outside my window prompted.

Now, I must tell you that each winter I hang a sign on my door that says: "Let it Snow . . . somewhere else."  I like looking at snow from my window and sometimes from ski slopes, but overall, I'm not a fan.  My dream is to live on the ocean in a warm climate where it never snows.  So, the feeling the snow triggered this morning came as a surprise.  I felt like a little child.  I caught my breath and smiled and a rush of excitement swelled in my chest.  What explains this?  My daughter's shriek when she looked out the window at 6:30 a.m.?  Thoughts from when I was younger and loved to go sledding, build snowmen and forts?  Drinking hot chocolate, sitting by a fire, and playing board games with my family?  The beauty of it as the snow sticks to the pine tree, or gathers on the roofs, or effortlessly falls to the ground? All of these things contributed to the feeling, but there is something else that is more powerful at work.

The silence, the stillness, the white-ness.  I stepped outside my back door and there is not a sound.  Not one.  And how can something falling from the sky so steadily that it's piling up on concrete, and grass, and tree limbs be so eerily silent?  Not quiet, but silent, without sound, an absence of sound.  It makes me smile with deep-seated wonder.  Then, there is the stillness, which is similar to, but not the same as, the silence.  The flakes are falling to the ground, so there is movement, but in the movement, stillness because of the steadiness of the falling.  This is weird to say I know, but it's true.  There is a stillness in the steadiness of movement.  So, when you combine the silence with the stillness, it's almost too much to bear, probably because of how rarely we experience this partnership.  Now add in the white-ness and the whole experience becomes stunning if you let it.  White = pure, holy, clean, light, opposite of dark.

Today there is an absence that is making me aware of a presence.  Absence of sound, absence of movement, and absence of darkness.  Silence, stillness, white-ness.  And because of this absence, I am keenly aware that God is present, nearby.  I imagine another time when absence so clearly represented presence: the moment Christ gave up his spirit on the cross and breathed his last.  The silence and stillness in that moment had to have been enough to make those present weep.  And we know it prompted one man to say: "Surely this man was the Son of God!"  (Mark: 15:39)  We often think of the tearing of the curtain of the temple from top to bottom as creating a loud, unmistakable crash or roar.  Matthew describes the earth shaking and rocks splitting, tombs breaking open, and bodies being raised from the dead.  But today as I watch the snow fall in utter silence and stillness, I wonder if the tearing of the temple actually had an otherworldly stillness to it.  Stillness even in its terrifying steady movement.

So steady, silent, and still is God's grace and love.  It is different than snow, to be sure, after all, this snow will cease, God's grace and love will not ("For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations" (Psalm 100:5)).  But what an incredible reminder.  One of the contributors to Philip Yancey's book Prayer said: "Each day is a kind of treasure hunt, looking for God's treasures, but it takes an intentional connection with God to awaken me, to make me aware."  God reached down to me today through the snow to reveal a treasure; to tell me He is near and His grace and love fall down on me, steadily, silently, unendingly.  I am reminded anew to "Be still, and know that I am God."  (Psalm 46:10)

Thank you, dear Lord, for the snow.  Amen.        

Thursday, December 2, 2010


Yesterday I had one of those days where my to-do list was so long I didn't think I could possibly accomplish what I needed to even before I started.  Then, as the day progressed, a series of other tasks/conversations/people arose that at the time I couldn't help thinking were interrupting my to-do list progress.  "Interrupt" has several definitions, but I generally have a negative connotation with the word -- I think disruption, interference. 

As I rode the train home and tried to decompress a bit, I thought of what more I needed to do after dinner to continue to make progress on the to-do list.  My mind drifted into the interruptions and I realized that I had accomplished much of what I needed to and, more importantly, the interruptions were the best, most focused, most intensely felt, parts of my day.  An encouraging phone call with a client in a very difficult situation with her children; a meeting with leaders in my firm about how to best exemplify our core values; a brief conversation in the hallway about Thanksgiving and vacations wished for; a long, unexpected conversation with a friend about our passion and calling in life, whether we are living it out, and if not, why not; and an email exchange with a friend about the our prayers for and the importance of the DREAM Act.  Thinking of these moments is like looking back and seeing the presence of God even though I may not have noticed it necessarily at the time.  Even with these "disruptions," I was extremely productive.  Time somehow expanded in my day to fit what was to be experienced and accomplished.   

I continued to think about these wonderful interruptions this morning and hoped I would have some more today.  Then I thought about how so much of the healing Jesus did when he was here on earth began with an interruption.   

For example, think of the story of the sick woman who touched Jesus' cloak as he was on his way to help the daughter of a synagogue ruler named Jairus. (Mark 5:21-43)  Jairus' daughter was dying and Jesus started on his way to put his hands on the girl to heal her.  This must have been quite a scene, and Jairus and his family had to have been in a hurry, wanting Jesus to arrive as quickly as possible to stop the pain and make sure their girl would live.  But, as everyone rushed to the girl, a large crowd following and pressing around Jesus, the journey was interfered with, disrupted.  A woman, described as having "suffered a great deal" with a bleeding disorder for 12 years, "came up behind [Jesus] in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, 'If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.'"  And she was healed.  But, the text says "[a]t once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him.  He turned around in the crowd and asked, 'Who touched my clothes?'"  The disciples got a little annoyed, asking "You see the people crowding against you . . .and yet you can ask, 'Who touched me?'"  As if to say: How should we know?  It's crowded.  And you're God, shouldn't you know?  I imagine they viewed this as a severe interruption of the plan to go save Jairus' daughter.  And, Jairus undoubtedly viewed it this way, after all, his daughter was dying.  In fact, during the interruption, Jairus' daughter died.  Jesus was undeterred by such things, of course, and told Jairus: "Don't be afraid; just believe."  (v.36)  Jesus healed the interrupter and brought the girl back to life.  Healed in the interruption.

Another example is when Jesus restored the sight of a blind beggar sitting on the roadside near Jericho.  (Luke 18:35-43)  Jesus and his disciples were on their way to Jericho.  The disciples must have had a to-do list in mind (if not written).  They were interrupted by shouts from the side of the road: "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"  "Son of David, have mercy on me!"  The disciples "rebuked" the man, telling him to be quiet.  (Sometimes I have the same reaction as I'm working away and the phone rings, an email pops up, or someone enters my office -- I think "be quiet," "I'm busy," "go away.")  Jesus had a very different reaction, asking the man to be brought to him, and then asking the man: "What do you want me to do for you?"  The man, very simply, said: "Lord, I want to see."  Jesus gave him sight.  Healed in the interruption.

A couple other examples: when Jesus healed the paralyzed man lowered through the ceiling in middle of Jesus' teaching (Luke 5:17-26); when Jesus invited himself to Zacchaeus' home to bring forgiveness after spotting Zacchaeus up in a tree catching a glimpse of Jesus (Luke 19:1-9); when the little children, to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs, were brought to Jesus against the wishes of the disciples (Matt. 19:13-15).  Healing and forgiveness in the interruption.

One last example, this one slightly different, because of who is interrupted, is when Jesus talked with the Samaritan woman at the well.  (John 4:1-26)  She had her to-do list: go to the well and draw water for her household.  But she was interrupted because Jesus was sitting near the well and had these words for her:  "Will you give me a drink?" And, when she pointed out that Samaritans and Jews don't talk to each other (particularly an unmarried man and woman alone), he said:  "If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water."  You know the rest of the story . . . or, if not, take a look at it.  The point is, healed/saved in the interruption. 

God interrupts our to-do lists.  In The Literate Farmer and the Planet Venus, Robert Frost said this about interruption:

"We need the interruption of the night
To ease attention off when overtight,
To break our logic in too long a flight,
And ask us if our premises are right."

Jesus seems to have viewed these encounters not as interruptions, but as intermissions -- a time to ask those around him if their premises were right.  Intermission is a synonym for interruption.  Synonyms of intermission include "respite" and "rest."

Note to self: pay attention to the interruptions (or, I mean, intermissions).   

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thankful For The Cornerstone

When I moved to Chicago in 1985, I started attending school at Holy Name Cathedral.  I was in fifth grade.  Each day for recess, we lined up in our maroon and gray plaid uniforms and walked in a line, in pairs, across State Street to an empty parking lot.  We were allowed to bring bouncy balls and jump ropes.  There were no slides or gyms or swings; just a tall cement wall (the side of a building) against which we would throw the balls.  Mostly, we just stood around talking and shivering in the winter cold.  

One day, as we walked out for recess, after we had learned in our social studies book about capstones, or cornerstones, our teacher pointed out the cornerstone on the side of the building, which had originally been set in 1852 (and then re-set/dedicated in 1957, see above).  I was fascinated by the idea of a cornerstone -- that every other stone or brick set for a particular building would be set with the cornerstone as the reference point.  I wondered about what happened if the cornerstone was mis-placed, or crooked, or not strong enough, or displaced.  And I wondered how the builder or architect knew exactly where the cornerstone was supposed to go, or whether the foundation on which it was placed would hold.  Or, what if the builder chose the wrong stone to be the cornerstone?  After the building was built, could you replace the cornerstone?   Probably not if it holds the whole building together.  If the cornerstone was displaced, would the entire building fall immediately, just crumble to the ground?  And if that was the case, shouldn't the cornerstone be protected so that cars don't run into it or people don't take a hammer to it?  The cornerstone on the church seemed so vulnerable.  There it was, the only piece with a date and a dedication.  Everyone would see it.  Anyone could hurt it.  Might be best to build a barrier around it, just in case.

Last week, I read Psalm 118, and in particular, the verse that says "The stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone."  (v. 22)  I had read this before, but this time, all the memories about the cornerstone at Holy Name Cathedral came to mind -- seeing the writing, wondering if the weight of the whole building really rested on that one stone, thinking about what would happen if that cornerstone were damaged or removed.  I thought about all the cornerstones I have had in my life and how I have replaced each of them over time, continuing to search for the one that holds, none of them up to the task.  You know, those things in different phases of your life that all else is held in reference to.  Every stone of your building (your life) is set in reference to that one thing, the cornerstone.

For a period of time in high school, my cornerstone was Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.  I planned my days around the time of games; I finished dinner quickly, got my homework done, and then got in my "lucky" position to watch the game.  My mood changed if they lost, I felt despondent and disappointed.  If they won, I felt like I'd done something great and it carried me through difficult days at school.  The winning feelings at the end of a season in which the Bulls won a championship carried me through entire summers, and then right into college.  But then, MJ retired and the magic ended.  The cornerstone faltered, was removed, was damaged.  My building started to crumble, or at least feel unsteady, without a reference point.

In college, I met the man who would become my husband.  And he, then our relationship, became my cornerstone.  Everything I did referred back to him or our relationship.  Then I went to law school and my cornerstone changed again.  I studied, wrote outlines, debated the rule of law and justice, took the bar exam.  Then I had my daughter and all else paled in comparison.  A new cornerstone.  A new reference point.  I was a mother, a new identity bestowed.  Then I started at an intense, international, high-achieving law firm.  A new cornerstone.  On and on.

I am not proud of what appears to be such schizophrenic life-building.   But, what it reveals is the searching I have done, and the searching we all do, for the right reference point -- the cornerstone that we can truly rely upon to be steady, strong enough, up to the task, dedicated from the beginning and enduring until the end.

I am so thankful for so many people in my life, so many experiences.  God has blessed me in ways that I cannot comprehend or even begin to find words with which to thank him.  But what I am most thankful for is that I have identified my true cornerstone, my true reference point.  The stone according to which all decisions are made, according to which every other stone is set.  The stone that allows me to be a mother, a daughter, a sister, a lover, a servant.  "For Jesus is the one referred to in the Scriptures, where it says, 'The stone that you builders rejected has now become the cornerstone.'"  (Acts 4:11)

I didn't know in fifth grade why the idea of the cornerstone had such an impact on me, or that I would spend the next 25 years searching for my cornerstone.  Now that I know, now that I have no concern about whether my cornerstone will hold up, I can be nothing but grateful.

As my thanksgiving this year, I will shout:  

"The stone that the builders rejected
has now become the cornerstone.
This is the Lord's doing,
and it is wonderful to see.
This is the day the Lord has made.
[I] will rejoice and be glad in it.
Please, Lord, please save [me].
Please, Lord, please give [me] success.
Bless the one who comes in the
name of the Lord.
[I] bless you from the house of
the Lord.
The Lord is God, shining upon [me].
Take the sacrifice and bind it with
cords on the altar.
You are my God, and I will
praise you!
You are my God, and I will
exalt you!
Give thanks to the Lord, for
he is good!
His faithful love endures forever."

(Psalm 118:22-29)


Friday, November 19, 2010

Why wouldn't we?

As the holiday season gets closer, my level of stress increases.  I think most of us are this way.  I've been trying to get to the bottom of what is really causing the stress: too much family time?  over-spending?  over-eating?  the weather and impending months of cold and snow?  the fact that it is dark when I leave the house and dark when I return?  None of these.

The stress this year arises from gifts.  Giving and receiving.  You see, I don't want anymore stuff.  I have enough.  And, as you know, I'm on the reduction plan (Reduction Link).  This plan will fail if for the holidays, I receive more stuff.  Please don't misunderstand, I am grateful when my family and friends give me gifts.  Much of gift-giving is the thought behind it, the care people take in coming up with just the right thing.  But so much of gift-giving around holiday time is not knowing what exactly to get, not spending enough time selecting the gift, and ultimately giving someone something that within months has started to collect dust or been forgotten among other gifts.  Dusty or forgotten gifts leads to guilt.  Guilt that you didn't appreciate a gift someone gave you, guilt that someone spent money on something for you that you don't use, guilt that you don't even remember who got you the gift that has become a permanent fixture on your bookshelf.  If not guilt, then at least waste.  Christmas has gotten so out of control, so disconnected from Christ.

I don't remember the last time I received a gift that changed my life.  Think of the last time someone gave you a gift that changed your life.  If things like the laser-guided robotic vacuum, a VHS to DVD converter, a video camera Pen, or the ipad are coming to mind, your definition of life-changing may be slightly skewed.  Or, think of the last time you gave a gift that changed someone's life.  I, for one, have not given a Christmas gift ever that has changed someone's life.  I am capable of doing this, though, so why wouldn't I?

This year for the holidays, I am going to give gifts that actually change lives.  Here's what I'm doing:

First, through World Vision, I will use my holiday gift-giving money to buy a goat and two chickens for families who are hungry and undernourished so that they will have eggs, milk and meat to eat.  This sounds foreign, I know.  But this gift will change lives, plain and simple.  You can join me in this here:  Give A Goat and Two Chickens.  It's $100.  The i-pad is $500.  ("But i-pads are so cool and what does a goat and a chicken do for me?"  You are not alone.  This is the self, so destructive and selfish it is!)

Second, I will talk to each member of my family to suggest that we do this as a family.  Instead of us each spending money getting each other more stuff that will ultimately prove unsatisfying, we will spend whatever we budgeted for gift-giving this year to change lives.

When Jesus told the story about the sheep and the goats, He said that the righteous will ask "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?"  He said the King will reply: "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers, you did for me."  (Matt. 25:37-40)  When I've thought of this story, I've thought of people I see around me -- the homeless, those who go to food pantries, those in my neighborhood.  But, you know what?  I know of others all over the world who are hungry and thirsty.  And simply because I haven't actually seen them with my own eyes does not make this passage any less applicable.  I know they are there and what I do for them, I do for Christ.

Do this with me.  Let's see what happens inside and out.

Why wouldn't we?

[Look over to the side on the blog and respond to the poll when you have made your gift]

Friday, November 12, 2010

This Is Not About Me . . . Or You.

If there were some kind of device that could track the thoughts in my head and how often they are about me, I would not ever buy that device.  It would be embarrassing.  The readings would be off the charts.  I imagine a bar graph that would look something like this:

Just being honest here. The light blue bar is the time I spend thinking about me and the dark blue is the time I spend thinking about others. The self is king, you see. Things I think about on a daily basis: what to wear (me-centered), what to eat (me centered), where I need to go (me-centered), what I should pray about (lots of me in there), my relationship with God (me-centered), my relationship with others (again, mostly me-centered).  Even things that seem like they should be or would be about others are about me in my own head. See how on Sunday, the "me" time goes up, even though that is the day I spend at church, with God, with family.  This drives me crazy because I love others and God so much.

Why is it, though, that I so frequently think of others or God as just another way to think about me?

Here's an example:


One Saturday morning, I'm sitting at home reading and the doorbell rings. No one ever rings the doorbell unless they are delivering pizza or trick-or-treating. It's too early for pizza and it's not Halloween. I go to the door to discover a young African-American man standing there in a tie and a jacket. Cornelius is his name. Turns out he is selling magazines for an organization that helps troubled youth raise money for college. He tells me he is from near St. Louis and had a very difficult childhood and an addiction to drugs that started at a heartbreakingly young age. He asks if he can ask me a few questions about life and success. I smile and agree, knowing that he ultimately wants my “success” to lead me to buy some magazines.
He asks me what I believe the most important thing to be as he proceeds and tries to make decisions that will make him successful. Talk about a loaded question. Several things came to mind: character traits (integrity, honesty, perseverance); inter-personal skills (need for a mentor, confidence in relationships, ability to listen); money-related things (be wise, manage well). What I said was very different: “The most important thing is to have Jesus Christ at the center of your life.” Cornelius was thrown off his game for a minute, undoubtedly expecting to hear about integrity, honesty, money management, and the need for a mentor. He told me, suddenly, in a moment of total vulnerability it seemed, how concerned he was that he would actually make it out of his circumstances of his past. He had a criminal record for drug offenses, but wanted more than anything to get beyond this.
We talk for ten minutes about what weighs so heavily on his young shoulders, conscience, heart. He must move on to the next house, though, so he can meet his sales numbers. I write a check for Outdoor Photographer and as I hand it to him, I ask if we can pray together. He says quietly: “I don’t really know how to pray.” I tell him I will do it. I reach out my hands and he puts his in mine. (We are still standing at the door and now we’re holding hands.) I pray words that I don’t recognize for Cornelius and when done, I release his hands. He looks at me with wide eyes. His lips are parted slightly and he begins to back away from my house in stunned silence. As he does, he says: “No one has ever prayed for me.” He walked backwards halfway to my neighbor’s house before finally turning around. For months, I have wondered about why Cornelius came to my door that day. What did his appearance there mean for MY life, for ME?

Here's another one:

The Hunter.

I am on a plane. The flight will be 16 hours. A man who is the size of an offensive lineman for the Bears sits next to me . . . in the middle seat. He barely fits, parts of him occupying some of my seat space. And, he has not a thing with him – not a book, not a magazine, no headphones, no I-pod, no Kindle, no Ambien, nothing. Meanwhile, I have a backpack that is stuffed with more things than I could ever use even on a 16-hour flight. My Kindle has 10 books loaded on it and ready to be read. I have two Bibles. I have my I-pad for movies. Cards, snacks, 5 magazines, TV shows, I-Touch, gum, neck pillow, eye shades, glasses, pictures of people I love. You get it.

I’m looking at this guy and wondering if perhaps he is a terrorist. If you were going to blow up the plane, there is no need for anything to do aboard. He didn’t quite fit my (racist, stereotyped) vision of a terrorist, though. He notices I’m studying him. “How long is this flight?” he asks. Now, I’m really getting concerned. No one gets on a 16-hour flight and doesn’t know how long it is or hasn’t talked to all their friends, and even some strangers, about how difficult such a long flight is. “It’s sixteen hours,” I say. “Wow. That’s a long way,” he seems truly amazed that he has found himself in his seat. “Yeah,” I say, “what are you going to South Africa for?” Can’t help myself. Before we take off, I am tasked with getting to the bottom of this guy’s story. “Hunting,” he says. Slight judgment in my human heart now enters the fold. Great, I’m sitting next to an elephant poacher. “What about you?” he’s looking at me with curiosity. I hadn’t really practiced my “elevator speech” about this trip, so I gave him an inartful description about going with a group from my church to teach pastors in Zambia.
“Church,” he says with slight disdain. “I’ve never really been a church guy. My ex-wife and I went to a Lutheran church. My girlfriend and I went to a Presbyterian church for a while. I’m just not . . . well, I just can’t keep the Ten Commandments. So . . .”

I feel like God has just pitched a fat softball across the plate.  And if I miss it, I will be devastated.  I turn in my seat to face the Hunter and say: “Really? Neither can I!” He looks puzzled. “No one can! That’s why Jesus came. He is the only one who could keep them.”
“What do you mean?” he asks, now turning his body slightly toward me. I went on to explain the sacrifice Christ made, why he came, what it meant in the context of the Ten Commandments.

“Huh,” he said as he crossed his arms, settling in. I was just getting started. This was going to be quite a 16-hour trip. Maybe I’d have a reason for those two Bibles after all.
As I drew in my next breath to better describe God’s grace, one of my teammates came over and asked the Hunter if he wanted to switch seats because my teammate had an aisle seat that might better suit this large man. I wanted to yell out: “NOOOO!!! We’re just getting started here. There is so much more to be said and heard!”

The Hunter said sure. He didn’t seem relieved really, but happy enough to have a more lenient seat. For the rest of the trip and for the months that have followed, I have thought about this experience, what God was teaching ME, what this experience meant for ME and MY relationship with God and what he wanted ME to be.
Another one:

Sister Sarah.

I meet a friend for dinner one night. We meet on the early side because I want to make the 7:00 train home. The one after that isn’t until 8:30. Our dinner runs late because we’re having such a good time, I cut the cab ride to the train station too close and miss the train. So annoyed. Now I have an hour and a half to kill; I’m tired; I’m a little cranky at the thought of not getting home until almost ten. I head back to my office, and shuffle through emails and work-related matters. At 8:20, I head back over to the station and climb aboard.

When we arrive at my home station, I stand near the doors waiting behind an elderly woman with a suitcase. The conductor helps her carry the suitcase down the train stairs and we are on our way. I walk faster, so reach the steps into the parking lot first. I feel her behind me, though, and know she needs help with the suitcase. I carry it down and say goodnight. She says thank you and walks down the sidewalk. I sense something about her and continue watching her as I walk to my car. I can’t figure out where she’s going because she’s not going toward any car. I get in my car and my long day comes out in a sigh.

The woman, still standing on the sidewalk, pulls her wallet out of her bag and starts to dig for a coin to put into the payphone. I drive over to her and ask if I can drive her somewhere. She looks at me without a hint of suspicion and says she would be grateful if I would. We pile her stuff in and she tells me she needs to go to the seminary about 5 miles away. We start talking and she tells me her name is Sister Sarah and that she teaches at the seminary and had been visiting Philadelphia for a few days. She says she didn’t think she would make the train because of her flight time and was concerned she would have to take a cab all the way, which would be very expensive. But, her flight arrived a half hour early (we both expressed our astonishment about this), and accordingly, she was able to make the last train. “And, then,” she says, “when I get here, there you are to take me home. God is really taking care of me tonight.”
For several days, I have been wondering about Sister Sarah and what it meant to ME that I met her. What role did she play in MY story?

Last one:

Jesus Christ.

Just over two thousand years ago, Jesus was born in Bethlehem. He came into the world “to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (Heb. 9:26)  He came to fulfill the “Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 5:17)  He came “to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:28)  He came to bridge the divide that sin caused between us and God.  I believe, so all is well, right?  I can go into my little cocoon and know that I am safe in Christ.  Can you believe what Christ did for me?  Me, me, me.

In the last day or so, I’ve been reading Hebrews and came across this:  "How much more, then, will the blood of Christ [in contrast to the blood from animal sacrifice], who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!" (Heb. 9:14)

Reading this was like being hit by lightening. It’s the “so that” part that got me, gets me. This story, the worldwide, eternal story playing out, is not about me.  And it’s not about you. You would think that because it comes so naturally to want things or make things about me (you), it would be hard to accept that it isn’t.  But, actually, there is a kind of exhilarating, unexpected, freedom in this.  It is a relief.  Because when it's about me, or you, or us, it seems so small and insignificant.  It's so self-indulgent really.  Everything feeds the me machine.  What does that food, drink, drug, act, person, sunset, picture do for me? 

Feel the weight that lifts from you, though, when you say this out loud: "This is not about me.  This is not about me."  There's something to it, I'm telling you.  It's like putting down a heavy bag.  Or sighing.  There is magnificence in knowing and understanding, that what it is about is God.  So much bigger, so much more significant.  It is God’s story.  I am here, and He has cleared my conscience, to serve Him, to play the part, the role, He has given me. 

God knew Cornelius needed more than anything someone to show they cared about him and that he did not have to know all the secrets of success to get out of his past and into hope.  His hope could reside in Christ.  God knew that the Hunter needed to understand that it is impossible not just for him, but for all but Christ himself to keep the Ten Commandments.  The Hunter suddenly had hope.  God knew that Sister Sarah would be too tired to wait for a cab to take her home from the train station when she arrived after her trip home from Philadelphia.  So, He placed hope in a Nissan there for her to get her home safely.  

I am so grateful it's not about me, or you, for that matter (no offense).  

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Does this sound familiar to you at all?

You're at the doctor's office, waiting.  Lots of waiting.  The receptionist needs to talk to you about insurance and whether the address they have on file is current.  She is annoyed that you are there.  You are annoyed that you are there.  Plus, you're not feeling well to begin with so you may not be on your best behavior.  After assuring the receptionist that your information is accurate (after all, you think, I've been living in the same place for the last 15 years!  Nothing has changed!  Why must we do this each and every time I come in??), you wait some more.  People around you are coughing and sneezing.  You are becoming increasingly annoyed at the waiting because you become convinced you are actually getting worse, not better because of the germs flying in the stifling room.  Finally, a nurse comes, calls your last name and three others and together you troop to the rooms one after another, where you will wait for the doctor.  Because you were in a hurry, you forgot your book, and now are faced with the prospect of reading an US Weekly or People magazine (and one that is six months old at that).  Someone who doesn't really speak to you other than "roll up your sleeve" and "step on the scale" takes your blood pressure and reveals the bad news about your weight.  That scale is never right; always a few pounds heavy.  After these intrusions, you are back to your US Weekly.  You hear someone you believe to be the doctor outside several times, but he never comes in, and you grow annoyed that he's just socializing outside with his staff while you're waiting for him.  How arrogant.  Does he think his time is more valuable than mine?  By the time the doctor does come in, you have vilified him.  And, you are feeling physically better -- your throat doesn't really even hurt much anymore, you wonder why you came in the first place.

Now, picture this instead.

You go to the doctor's office.  You step up to the receptionist and she says "Good morning.  I will be right with you."  You meet her eyes and say: "Thank you."  She turns back to you and says: "I believe we have all your information.  Still with Blue Cross?  And still on Maple Drive?" You say yes to both.  She says: "Have a seat and someone will be right with you, okay?  I'm so sorry you're not feeling well."  You:  "Thank you so much."  You sit down and survey those around you.  There are many who are much worse off than you.  A man to your right holds his head in his hands and is clearly suffering.  You say a prayer for him quietly.  The woman to your left has a baby on her hip and a tissue in her hand.  Her cheeks are rosy, her cough is deep.  You say a prayer for her.  How hard it is to be sick, even if it's just a cold, and take care of a baby at the same time.  Happens every day all over the world, but you've been there and you know.  A nurse appears and calls your first name.  She walks next to you.  "Not feeling so good, huh?" she says, looking at you and smiling slightly.  "Yeah, not really," you say, returning her eye contact.  "I'm sorry.  Someone will be in shortly," she says.  "Thanks."  You sit down in the room and laugh when you see the magazines piled up.  A nurse comes in.  "Hi there.  Sorry you're not feeling well.  Let's take your blood pressure and get your weight.  You can take your shoes off before stepping on the scale."  With those obligations out of the way, she says: "The doctor is running a little behind, but should be about 10 more minutes."  You thank her.  The doctor appears, looks you in the eye, you feel cared for and that he will listen to you long enough to know exactly what the problem is and how best to treat you.  "I hope you start to feel better soon.  Get some rest if you can."

Can you IMAGINE if this is how EVERY SINGLE encounter you had was EVERY SINGLE day?  Probably not.  After a recent experience returning an item at a store, I started imagining, dreaming, of a world in which the second scenario might happen all the time.  Not some, or most, but all.  What if every time I saw someone, I greeted them?  What if I thought people actually did care that I was feeling sick (not just my family and friends)?  What if when I saw someone suffering, I prayed for them right then and there and then reached out to offer a word of encouragement or support, or simple presence?  What if I was able to say the kind word, the compassionate thing, every time I had an opportunity?  What if I came to expect the best from me and from every person I dealt with?  It's hard to even envision, I know.

But, this is what God calls us to if we are followers of Christ.  And it's not just surface politeness.  It's not fake interest.  It is truth.  It is fruit of the Spirit: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control."  (Gal. 5:22)  In Ephesians, Paul said: "Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains.  Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should."  (Eph. 6:20)  And, in 2 Corinthians, he said: "We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God." (2 Corin. 5:20)  

If you follow Christ, you are his ambassador.  Ambassador means "an authorized messenger or representative."  You carry Christ's name.  You have been authorized.  You are his representative.  I know!  Think of all you have done and said . . . and, yet . . . it is who you are, who you are becoming.    
Does this seem just slightly hard to you?  A little intimidating?  Like you might not get it right every time?  Like you haven't gotten it right in quite some time?  Me too.  But "to experience one's closeness to God is also to experience the obligations to be God, to be the agent of His power and love."  (M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled)  To have a relationship with God through Christ means to have new obligations, to carry his name, to be the agent of His unfailing love, patience, kindness, mercy and grace.

Let us pray that words would be given us so that we would make known to those around us the "mystery of the gospel."  That we may declare God's unfailing love, patience, kindness, mercy, and grace in words, in action, and in all that we are.  Why?  Because we can't contain it because of the love, patience, kindness, mercy and grace God has shown us.  Why?  Because people will want what we have -- a relationship with Christ.  And, this relationship changes not just an otherwise unpleasant experience at a doctor's office but an eternity.  

Sunday, October 31, 2010


Last night, totally spontaneously, I made a red-wine reduction sauce.  Seriously.  (Those who know me don't believe this could possibly be true, but I'm telling you, it is.)  As I was making it, I was wondering what exactly was happening and why exactly it is called "reduction."  The recipe I was using said to reduce the liquid by half before putting in several other ingredients.  So, is it just reducing the amount, and if that's the case, why not just use less to begin with?  No, that's not all that's happening, just like a bulb of garlic is VERY different than a clove of garlic.

In cooking, reduction means thickening or intensifying the flavor of a liquid by boiling.  Through this process, flavors already in the liquid are concentrated.  This is why various cooking websites counsel you to use a "good" wine for this process.  If the wine doesn't have any good flavors to begin with, there is nothing good to intensify or concentrate.  So reduction actually increases the flavor.  This cooking lesson came at a good time for me.  I had spent all day packing up stuff and giving or throwing it away.  Reducing.

Why?  Beginning a couple weeks after I got back from Africa, I started feeling a dull ache of anger.  It arises at strange times, always unexpectedly.  I don't always recognize it as anger, and I hadn't been able to put my finger on its cause.  On Friday, on the train ride home, I finally got it -- I recognized the anger when it came and I knew exactly what caused it.

A young guy came aboard midway through the ride and by then, all of us who had gotten on downtown had gotten comfortable, spread out our things, stuck our earphones in, and tuned out the world.  This guy approached a man in a suit who was sitting in one seat and whose stuff was sitting in the other.  The young guy asked if he could sit where the man's stuff was.  Without looking the guy in the eye, the man said "No," stared out the window, and took a swig out of a giant Budweiser can.  You would think I'd just witnessed a serious criminal act.  Rage bubbled up from inside of me and I looked around to see if anyone else noticed.  I was incensed.  How did this man (and it's not just him) become this way?  How did this become okay to say, to do?  No one said anything.  No one else moved.  Because of where I was sitting, there was nothing for me to do, although I do wonder if I would have acted if in a position to do so.  But, how is it that we believe our stuff deserves a seat on a train, even when another person wants it, has no other seat to sit in, and asks politely?  At that moment, all the anger I'd been feeling came together.

I have been angry because of our excess.  My excess.  Your excess.  Excessive on the inside.  Excessive on the outside.  It's not just the excess, but the failure to recognize the excess.  To come to believe that excess is the normal, or worse, not enough.  Our excess is exemplified in two things: excess stuff and excess self.  And the excess stuff just feeds the excess self.  So much so that we have entire places, houses for our stuff (called storage facilities).  I recently pointed out to my daughter how ridiculous it is that we have little homes for our extra stuff.  Before I finished the thought she added: "Especially when there are people who don't have homes."  Good point, and this is where the excess self comes in.  What if I took what I spend to store my stuff and instead put it towards a home for a homeless person.  I'm not kidding.  I pay $139 per month to store stuff.  There is a men's hotel downtown where a person, who God loves just as much as He loves you and me (and that is an incomprehensible amount), and who has no home when it's 34 degrees, or 12 degrees, or 0 degrees to sleep, could stay for over two weeks for that price.  But so far, I have deemed my stuff more important.  I am concerned only that I have a home . . . self. 

Our external excess is distracting us from what God is wanting to do in us, the flavors He wants to enhance, concentrate, and intensify through a reduction process.  When He made us, He built into us all kinds of good things, good gifts.  Jesus said there is no greater command than (1) to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength; and (2) to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  (Matt. 22:36-39)  Right now, we don't even love others as much as we love our stuff.  And it is this that allows us to deny a person a seat on a train because our stuff needs the same seat.  Or to come up with reasons not to help those we walk by everyday.  To allocate resources to store and maintain things instead of people.  To believe we are too busy to have a conversation with someone who is too difficult, too needy, too different.  To refuse to buy coffee that is fair trade because the store that sells it is 5 miles farther away.  To be seduced to buy a new i-pod when there is nothing wrong with the one we have.  And, it is why Jesus said: "[i]t is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."  (Matt. 19:24)  

So, I have decided to reduce.  I will reduce by half before adding any more ingredients.  I will make less, or decrease, my excess.  I have started on the external excess, cleaning out the home I rent for my stuff.   I will also reduce on the inside.  This will take God's help, for sure, but includes continuing to try to love others -- and I don't just mean family and friends -- as I love myself.  Because what I want more than anything is not more stuff or more self.  I want God to intensify, concentrate, make stronger, the good things He planted in me.  What I want more than anything is, in the words of John the Baptist, that He becomes "greater and greater" and I become "less and less."  (John 3:30)  There's only one way this is happening: reduction. 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

And A Little Child Will Lead Them.

On Sunday, my ten-year old daughter decided that she wanted to pack six individual bags, each containing an apple, a banana, and a baguette for the homeless people I pass on my way to the office.  On Monday, she packed these bags at 6:30 in the morning before school.  After she finished packing, I put my arm around her with pride and said:  "God will bless you for this." She smiled and shook her head, in disagreement or uncertainty.  I said, "Really, He will."  She hugged me with gratitude, the way she would hug God if she could.  I felt like I was really teaching her something here.  You know, that God blesses those who feed the hungry, serve the poor.

But then she taught me.  And God taught me through her.  "Mom," she said, "we should put Scripture in the bags from when Jesus fed the one million people."  I smiled and said, "you mean the five thousand?"  She said: "Whatever." (What this means from a pre-teen is: "do you think he couldn't have fed a million?")  Knowing that story as well as I do, I advised that it was too long to put on an index card, but that I would find something more suitable to include as I rode the train downtown.  (Ok, I didn't really say it with these words, but looking back, I'm afraid that was the tone.)  She shrugged, as if to say "Whatever.  I think the story about feeding the million is best."  As I got on the train, this came to mind: "I am the bread of life..."  Perfect!  That would be perfect.  Short, meaningful, there's bread, but not really bread . . . I was just so proud of myself.  So, I looked in my Bible to find where this was.  Yeah.  Perhaps YOU knew this already, but when did Jesus say this?  Just after he fed the one million (five thousand).

Okay then.
So, I wrote John 6:35 on an index card and put it in each bag.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

"Take the Marine to Lunch"

Part 2 of "my story"
-- to my dear friend, Steven.
 (Part 1 is here: Did Something Happen)

"Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by."  (1 Kings 19:11)  Recall the rest of the story?  "Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind.  After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.  After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire.  And after the fire came a gentle whisper.  When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave."  (1 Kings 19:11-13)

Several weeks after my experience at Willow, I decided I wanted to commit my life to Christ. But I didn’t just want to think it quietly in my head. I wanted to write it down, say it out loud, read it over and over, tell everyone I knew, and live it. So, on December 20, 2008 (remember this date), I wrote out a prayer as best I knew how in my journal:

Thank you for not giving up on me and appearing to me. I am today turning my life over to you and I am ready for what that means. Even though I know I am not worthy of the sacrifice you made, I accept Jesus Christ and ask that you forgive all my sins. I am coming to you as a sinner and in repentance for past and current sins. I know I am imperfect but I am trying. Please take me in and help me.

I didn’t know exactly what this commitment would entail. I was still learning (still am). I did know, though, that I had never been more sure about anything in my life. I felt like I was on fire, like I could do anything, like God was walking every step I took with me.

On a January morning in 2009, I was riding the train downtown to my office. I settled into my seat and cracked open the book I’d been reading for several days. I had read a couple pages, when five words came into my mind. These five words were clearer and louder in their impression on me than if a voice had said them out loud. They were: “Take the Marine to lunch.” I had not been thinking about lunch. I had not been thinking about the former Marine who sat on the Jackson street bridge on my path to my office asking for money. I'd passed him dozens of times in the last several months walking to work. Those five words were from God, I was sure of it. This was one of those whispers from God I’d heard Darren mention at Willow that memorable day back in November.

I got off the train and walked toward my office, knowing I would pass the Marine. I was excited to get a peak at him and plan what I'd say when I proposed lunch. I had time, of course . . . it was 8 in the morning, I wasn't going to take him to lunch right then. He had his green military-issued bag, straddled by cardboard box pieces that read: “Please help. Former Marine. God Bless You.” As I passed that morning, I looked at him differently. I looked at him like he was someone I knew. He was familiar. I looked at him with Jesus’ words in mind: “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Mat. 25:40)

I had several tasks to do that morning, but I was distracted knowing that at noon, I would be dining with the Marine. What would I say? How would I broach the subject? Would I tell him the reason I was asking him to lunch? My office window faced the spot on the bridge where the Marine sat, so throughout the next several hours, I glanced down, trying to get a better feel of how the conversation might go. A couple minutes before noon, I looked out the window one last time before heading out on my mission. He was gone. As in, not there, nowhere in sight, not available for lunch.

I was crushed. I asked God what this meant. Had I failed in obeying him? Was “take the Marine to lunch” just something I made up in my own head, wanting to believe God spoke to me? Or was this a test, a test from God to see whether I would obey? I was so disappointed, but prayed: “I’m here. I will do what you ask.”

For the next four months, I passed by the Marine’s spot on the bridge. He had not returned, not even once. I began to believe that I had made him up, that he was a figment of my imagination. I doubted God had asked me to take him to lunch. I doubted that God whispered anymore at all.

Then, on May 7, 2009, I walked from the train station to my office and the Marine was back – his cardboard sign attached to his bag, his yellow and black cup for money out in front of him. I felt nervous and unsure about what to do. After saying a prayer, I approached him and said hi. He looked up at me with crystal blue eyes, a scraggly beard and a baseball cap. I asked if I could get him something to eat. If he was hungry, I was going to feed him. But he said a man had just come by with a ham sandwich. "Here we go again, watch, he won't need anything," I thought. "What is it that God wants me to do?" I asked if there was anything he needed and braced for a big ask. He asked for a mere $5.00 to cover his shortfall for a room that night at a men's hotel down the street. He was younger than I’d thought, just a couple years older than me and the way he talked reminded me of friends I had. Clear, confident . . . normal. He wore black jeans and black boots and sat with his legs crossed. I gave him a five-dollar bill. We exchanged names -- his is Steven -- and I went on to work.

Our interaction was short, but I felt it was arranged by God and I felt content and joyful knowing that. I said hi to him the next day too. We talked briefly. Then, the following Monday, May 11, 2009, I stopped to say hi again. This time, he was hungry, so I got him a muffin and some coffee. He asked why I was being so nice to him when I didn't even know him. I said: "God told me to." This started a longer conversation. I'd noticed that he had a Bible on his lap.  I asked if he was a Christ-follower. He said yes and began to tell me his story.

"I started going to a church on the South side in November. I really liked it. It was different than other churches I'd gone to in the past." My mind started running, thinking of my own experience -- my first time to Willow in November, how different it was from my prior experience at church. "I kept going, each week. And then, one weekend, in December . . ." He kept going, talking about an altar call the pastor at the church made. I stopped listening and started praying: "God, please let him say he came to know you on December 20th. Please, God, just let him say December 20th." My insides starting jumping. My heart was pumping.

" . . . I'll never forget the day it happened. It was December 20th. The pastor asked if I wanted to accept Jesus Christ as my savior. And I did. . ."

December 20th.  December 20, 2008.  I wanted to shout, to scream, to say "WHAT? ARE YOU KIDDING ME? GOD, ARE YOU KIDDING ME?" I wanted to laugh, to cry. Of all the people in the world, of all the days, of all the months, of all the years.  This man, homeless, jobless, hungry, and me, on my way to work as a lawyer, with a home, full from breakfast.  Two strangers on a bridge.  God found us, picked us out, on the very same day.  And not only that, but then brought us together in a most unlikely, unable-to-be-made-up way.

God came to me in a gentle whisper (not in violent wind, or in an earthquake, or in fire), saying "take the Marine to lunch."  And that day on the bridge began a whole new story for Steven and for me.  A story God had planned all along.  You'd have to ask Steven what our friendship and God's intervention has meant to him.  For me, it has been an incredible richness of blessing, of obedience, and of understanding what it means to love like Jesus did.  Steven has blessed me in ways he may never know.  We have been through a lot:  birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, cancer, job offers, spiritual hunger and mentoring, difficult conversations, celebrations, miracles, anniversaries, stories of war, grace, forgiveness, pain, love.  Steven is so important to me, everything about him -- who he is, what he says, his incomparable faith, his strength, his doubt.  I have never met anyone like him.

God has also used that day in May and my friendship with Steven to teach me about who He is.  That He uses whispers not only to seek our obedience, but also to show who He is, to demonstrate His glory.  If I ever doubt God is with me, that God is real, that God loves me, I need only look back on that day in May 2009 when God showed me in an unmistakable way:  I am here.  I am real.  I love you.