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.