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).