Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Off-Center



I am off-center.  For the last three days, I have gone to a local chapel to kneel before God just to try to find my way back.  At home, I can’t pray, can’t concentrate on Scripture, and can’t locate the stillness.  Plastic inflatable nativity scenes and snowmen, unwrapped do-it-yourself crafts, and new books seem to be crowding in.  I want to be present and engaged, but am unfocused and distracted.  I have checked Facebook, Twitter, texts and email more often in the last five days than maybe ever.  And, there are fewer posts on each than normal.  I have watched movies that remind me of a different time in my life.  I am looking for something, searching desperately.  

I wonder if I’m not the only one going through this kind of disconnectedness.   I wonder if you too have wandered around Facebook in the last few days, updating your photos, reviewing the timeline feature, reading the “info” about your high school friends.  I wonder if you have looked around at the new stuff you have and somehow feel less whole than when you didn’t have that stuff just days ago.  There is such restlessness of soul it is hard to even put into words.  Something is reaching out, but missing, like trying to grab the next monkey bar with sweaty hands.  I am with family and friends, at home, with home-cooked turkey.  Why are things just slightly off?  Isn’t this the time when I should be most connected and grounded, most fulfilled?

Has something suddenly, yet imperceptibly, disappeared…or surfaced…or shifted?  Where is the center?  Where has it gone?  

Maybe I was never on-center to begin with.  Maybe much of my work, my ministry, my life is really about the affection, affirmation and acceptance I seek from other people.  So, when I am not experiencing any of these, I am discombobulated and aimless because what normally keeps me afloat and seemingly on target is missing.  

Henri Nouwen said: “When you experience a great need for human affection, you have to ask yourself whether the circumstances surrounding you and the people you are with are truly where God wants you to be. . . If you feel a great loneliness and a deep longing for human contact, you have to be extremely discerning.  Ask yourself whether this situation is truly God-given.  Because where God wants you to be, God holds you safe and gives you peace, even when there is pain. . . .

Every time you do something that comes from your needs for acceptance, affirmation, or affection, and every time you do something that makes these needs grow, you know that you are not with God.  These needs will never be satisfied; they will only increase when you yield to them.  But every time you do something for the glory of God, you will know God’s peace in your heart an find rest there.” (Keep Living Where God Is, The Inner Voice of  Love, Henri Nouwen)

I have not, over the last number of days, felt safe or at peace.  I have felt so far away from God.  I think my center, much of the time, in my everyday work/ministry/living life, is me. And so when there is no work, ministry, or normal living, I feel off-center because the center is off.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Dark Side Of Christmas

"Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again.  Once they have seen him in a stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of humankind.  If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant's child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there too.  And this means that we are never safe, that there is no place where we can hide from God, no place where we are safe from his power to break in two and recreate the human heart, because it is just where he seems most helpless that he is most strong, and just where we least expect him that he comes most fully.

For those who believe in God, it means, this birth, that God himself is never safe from us, and maybe that is the dark side of Christmas, the terror of the silence.  He comes in such a way that we can always turn him down, as we could crack the baby's skull like an eggshell or nail him up when he gets too big for that.  God  comes to us in the hungry people we do not have to feed, comes to us in the lonely people we do not have to comfort, comes to us in all the desperate human need of people everywhere that we are always free to turn our backs upon.  It means that God puts himself at our mercy not only in the sense of the suffering that we can cause him by our blindness and coldness and cruelty, but the suffering we can cause him simply by suffering ourselves." 

--from The Face in the Sky, Frederick Buechner

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

My Favorite Anniversary



I am not a big birthday or anniversary fan.  No reason, I just never really got into them that much.  But today's anniversary is something different altogether.  December 20, 2008 was the date I committed my life to Christ.  So, today marks my three-year anniversary knowing, loving, walking with, and living for him.  As I read these words yesterday morning in Zephaniah 3:17, they struck me as the most appropriate description in so many ways of my experience over the last three years.

“The Lord your God is with you,
he is mighty to save.
He will take great delight in you,
he will quiet you with his love,
he will rejoice over you with
singing.”

I will spend the day thanking God not only for finding me in the first place amidst lots of wreckage and ruin, but for lifting me out, delighting in me (in me!), quieting my soul with his love, and rejoicing over me.  Living with and for Christ is not a series of do’s and don’t’s.  It’s not a life of rules and regulations.  It is more like dancing on the water with your arms lifted high and your mouth open in laughter under the sun.   

Monday, December 12, 2011

Come And See What The Lord Has Done!

Africa, Days 6 and 7

I still do not know why God asked me to go to Kazungula, a border point between Zambia and Botswana, and share the love and message of Christ with truck drivers there.  I know only that he did and I went in obedience.  The result was an awesome display of God’s faithfulness, goodness, grace, and desire to seek after those who are lost.  What our small team (me, Chris, Martha, Mary, Enala, and Howard) saw in Kazungula on December 9 and 10, 2011 is not like anything we have ever seen before, or may ever see again.





We talked to about 90 truck drivers in our two days in Kazungula. When we arrived the first day, 62 trucks were lined up to cross the border (one at a time on the single working ferry) and most wait 5-6 days for their turn.  




At first glance, there appears to be nothing there that is familiar except the sun above and the earth underfoot.  And the sun is so hot, sweat runs down your back just standing still.  The earth is so dusty, you are covered with grime and dirt within the first few minutes.  Exhaust fumes from the starting up and slight movement of the trucks in line fill the air.  Empty water bottles, wrappers, and cans litter the ground. Children anywhere from 5 to 17, boys and girls, walk up and down the line of trucks by themselves selling eggs, fish, CDs and DVDs.  Flies swarm.  There are no bathrooms and there is no water.  Women and girls go truck to truck offering themselves for money.  The truck beds are loaded with copper, hydroxide, tobacco, and other things.  Men gather on the side of the road cooking nshima and chicken that they have bought in the market.  Many have been drinking beer since the early morning because it is the only way to face 5 days in line in this place.  Truck drivers are one of the primary carriers of HIV and AIDS.  Sixty-five percent of the population of Zambia has HIV or AIDS.  

When you see Kazungula, you may be tempted to believe God has left it, or perhaps was never there.  Each truck driver faces unbelievable loneliness and boredom.  They are away from their wives and families, sometimes for up to a year at a time.  Each confronts overpowering temptation.  Most of them doubt God could ever want them.  Most of them believe they have fallen too short and too often.  Most of them question if God is even present in their world.  They seem to have concluded that they, either by choices made or circumstances, are beyond God’s reach and unable to be saved.      

But, you see, no place and no man (or woman) is beyond God’s reach, not even in Kazungula.  No one has made too many bad choices or finds themselves in circumstances that cannot be redeemed by God.  I, and the members of the team (all from Zambia), had been praying for weeks that God would go before us and prepare the hearts of the truck drivers we would meet for the love we had for them.  When we arrived at the border, we prayed again, together, and broke off into teams of two.  Our mission was simple: approach the drivers, introduce ourselves, and ask them about themselves – where they were going, where they had come from, what were their struggles – and then tell them we were there to let them know that there are people in the world who care about them and a good God who loves them.  

It did not take long to know that God had indeed gone before us.  In just minutes, we found not the eyes of dangerous, untouchables, but the eyes of Jesus.  The first day, 28 truck drivers committed their lives to Christ.  We gave each of them New Testaments and bright-colored bracelets that said “God loves me,” “Saved,” “I love Jesus,” “Forgiven,” “John 3:16”, or the one they all wanted most: “WWJD” (What Would Jesus Do).  Word of our presence spread quickly; we stood out, after all.  And, if you looked around Kazungula on December 9, you saw many men wearing their bracelets, prompting further conversation no doubt.  Suddenly, it was like light had entered Kazungula.  We listened to their stories: how painful it is to wait for days to cross the border; how the heat makes sleep nearly impossible; how much they long to be home with their families; how they cannot attend church because they are always moving from one place to another; how they have failed God in so many ways; how they feel incapable of resisting sexual temptation.  One man, who was a Christian already, told me he was so relieved to see us because it reminded him of God’s presence.  





Our second day in Kazungula was similar.  Twelve more drivers gave their lives to Christ and dozens of seeds were planted, which we trust God will germinate and grow in his own time.  On our way back to Livingstone, which is where we stayed, both days, we could not find words to explain what we had experienced.  So, all we could do was to sing loudly with clapping hands and smiling faces: “Come and see, oh!  Come and see!  Come and see, oh!  Come and see!  Come and see what the Lord has done!  Come and see what the Lord has done!”  None of us on our team could have done what we did in our own power.  Only God could have and did accomplish the reconciliation of 40 individual souls to himself through Christ.  And with each one, all of heaven celebrated.  (Luke 15:7)   

There is, of course, still no bridge that connects Zambia and Botswana at Kazungula, but because God used us to demonstrate the sufficiency of his grace, his far-reaching and overflowing love, and his overwhelming presence, there is infrastructure there that is stronger and longer lasting than any bridge that could ever be built. 

For the truck drivers in Kazungula, I pray:

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord;
O Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy.

If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins,
O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness;
therefore you are feared.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
And in his word I put my hope.
My soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.

O Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
for with the Lord is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.  

(Psalm 130)

Amen.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

White Butterflies

Africa, Day 5 (yesterday)

Some things on the 12-hour drive from Ndola to Livingstone:

a brown dog hit on the road by a van;
a little white dog surrounding the brown dog in mourning;
fresh mangoes;
yoked oxen (my yoke is easy and my burden is light);
6-8 police stops and two border stops;
1 police stop in which we are cited for not having a fire extinguisher;
the police officer who says: we have nothing like forgiveness here;
stop in small town to buy a fire extinguisher;
a debate about whether people in a field were weeding or planting maize;
discussion of our favorite person in the Bible other than Jesus (Nehemiah, Jeremiah, David, Philip, Paul (2));
watermelons, tomatoes, fruits, pots;
cactus;
open land green land;
irrigation systems;
fluffy, majestic clouds;
a Subway sandwich shop;
the trampoline at The Fig Tree Restaurant;
Chips Ahoy and Ritz Bits;
samosas;
using the 1000 Kwacha (20 cents) bathroom with no door;
fresh air blowing through the van;
sharing stories of our encounters with Christ;
cold Coke;
an overturned truck;
prayers for protection and expressing thanks;
and white butterflies going ahead of us all the way.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Marching in the House of God

Africa, Day 3, Ndola, Zambia

I think the days here are longer, or perhaps it just seems that way because of the expansive life, song, and beauty in every moment.    

Last year, we went to New Hope Christian Centre, a ministry that cares for, feeds and educates orphans and vulnerable children, many of whom have HIV themselves.  I loved these children and I wanted to give them something, but I hadn't brought anything with me.  Instead, they gave me the most amazing gift -- they sang I Love You Jesus Deep Down in My Heart in the most angelic, beautiful voices.  That song, sung by those sweet voices has stayed with me for the last 14 months.  I have heard their voices resonating inside me and when I tell Jesus I love him, I often do so through that song.  This year, I wanted to give them a gift in return for what they gave me.  So, before I left the US, I ordered a hundred colorful bracelets that say I Love You Jesus, or God Loves Me, or WWJD.  I brought them with me to hand out.  Today was delivery day!  


I slid a bracelet on each child's arm (there were about 45 of them) touching their hands and arms, looking them in the eyes and telling them, "God loves you;" "Jesus loves you."  Some whispered "thank you."  Others smiled.  Still others just stared at me with curiosity.  But they sang a song again: We are marching in the house of God.  They marched around their little one-room schoolhouse, dancing, singing and laughing.  I have not experienced the house of God in this way before, but let's just say you may see me marching around at church very soon.  

"Jesus called the children to him and said, 'Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it."  (Luke 18:16-17)

Guess I'll have to go back and bring another gift . . .

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Walk in Love

Africa, Day 1

It is 2:48 a.m. I have been awake for 25 minutes now, tossing and turning.  My body thinks it should be up doing instead of down resting.  I am simultaneously cold and hot.  Bug noises rise and fall outside and I remember Michigan summers with my bedroom window cracked open to the warm air.  My heart and mind can’t quite hold the fullness of the day that has passed, every moment of it overflowing with life.  After the very long plane journey, I arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa at 7:30 a.m.  I said goodbye to my seatmate Bruce, a white Zimbabwean who now lives in Calgary, Canada, and with whom I shared 12 hours in the sky running from London to South Africa.

Straight from the airport, I went with my pastor friend Edgar to the home of a man named Mike.  Two little dogs greeted us and the rich earthiness of the summer air nearly took my breath away.  At home, the warmth of this sun will be veiled for months.  Mike and his wife run a ministry called Dumpsite.  Each Saturday morning, they make a bowl of meat, rice, and vegetables for, on average, 200 people who live on a large landfill, collecting, sorting, and then selling garbage scraps and recyclables.  They also make two large tubs of juice.  Edgar and I helped load the bowls of food into a van along with the juice and black plastic bags filled with shoes and clothes.



Mike explained that when we arrived at the dump, he would preach the gospel and then everyone would gather in groups of ten.  Then, we would give each group a palate of food bowls, a black plastic bag, and a cup of juice.  Distributing the food, drink and clothes this way creates community and accountability, preventing line-jumping, pushing to the front.

We followed Mike and his team in their van to the dumpsite where people had already started to gather.  Mostly women and little children.  They gathered in a semi-circle around the van the massive dump looming large in the background.



Mike shouts praises to God and those gathered echo his praises.  He passes out a single sheet of paper to each person, which includes the text from Ecclesiastes 3:1-14, part of which promises that “God has made everything beautiful for its own time.  He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.”  (v. 11)  This was quite a promise to contemplate among a crowd suffering from deep, abiding hunger, deathly sickness, chronic foot and belly pain.  God has made everything beautiful for its own time.  Has made.  Everything.  Beautiful.  I can’t help but wonder how any of this is beautiful, this aching hunger, this living amongst garbage, and this lack of access to clean water and basic sanitation.  I can only agree that I cannot see the whole scope of God’s work and it must not be time yet.  Mike tells the group that if any among them has AIDS, God loves them. If any among them has HIV, God loves them.  He tells them that though their pain and suffering is so great now, God has planted eternity in their heart and through belief in Christ, eternal, everlasting beauty is on the way.

After preaching his message and praying, Mike asks the people to disperse into groups and we hand out the food, drink and clothing.  After this is done, a line forms and Edgar explains that those in line had prayer requests for Mike.  Mike listens to each one, types each prayer into his mobile device, and then lays his hands on the shoulders, on the feet, on the stomach, on the eyes depending on the request.  He asks God to heal, to provide, to protect.  For some, he thanks God for answered prayer.  Mike will forward these prayer requests to a team and he and the team will pray for each person all week.  Next week, he will come and do this again. 

Next, we travel to the other side of the dump where hundreds of people have set up “homes” among the garbage.



Mike has brought us here, where he will distribute fresh vegetables and heavy-duty nails in an effort to keep the homes standing.  As we walk through this village, scraps of garbage, colorful plastic bottles and caps, and animal bones litter the ground.  We walk a winding path looking for residents to tell them we are here with nails and food.  Faces begin to appear in doorways and people come out to see us.  We shake hands and exchange names and greetings.  Their hands are warm and dry in mine.  They call out Mike’s name from afar, smiling broadly when they see he has come.  He touches them and asks them about their families.  One man approaches Mike and explains that he needs to see a doctor, pulling down his shirt over the shoulder revealing large red sores that he says cover his chest and back.  He has AIDS and it is eating him from the inside out.  The man looks at me and says he needs a doctor.  Another man staggers behind us, talking nonsense, younger men holding him up as he walks.  Mike says this man will die in a few days.   

“Many of them are drunk and have HIV and AIDS.  We cannot judge them.  We don’t know how it is to live here,” Mike says as we walk back to the van.  “I only can love them.”  By now, there are dozens following us to get the vegetables and nails.  As we walk, Mike shows me homes that have collapsed and not been built again.  “The person who lived here probably died and they just leave the home like this.”  There are two well-built structures that Mike raised money to have built for two elderly men so that they can live the remainder of their lives with protection from the rain and some amount of dignity.  I say my goodbyes to Mike and ask what will happen with the man who needs to see the doctor.  Without hesitation, he says “I will take him now.”  And suddenly I see the beauty.

Before I left home, my 11-year old daughter handed me a stack of letters she wrote for me to read while I am away, one for every other day.  When I return to my lodging after the visit to the dumpsite, I read today’s letter, in which she instructs me to read 2 John 6: “And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands.  As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.”  This passage allows me to piece the day together and see how we can and so often do walk through life, and love only on the side, only when the opportunity to love finds us or arrests our movement.  But, in Mike, I see that to walk in love is a whole other thing.  It is to go where love is needed and provide it.  Where this need and this provision collide, there is the beautiful.



Friday, November 18, 2011

Dot-Dot-Dot

Being committed to Christ is the re-orientation of an entire life.  It is not a Sunday commitment, a retirement plan, a hobby, or a part of a whole.  It is the whole.  It is everything.  There are deep parts of us that love the idea of such a makeover.  We get a sense of real rest.  Indeed, God planted this desire in us.  But, the idea of giving our entire life to anything is pretty scary and unfamiliar.  A life that is not devoted to me, but to someone else is about as foreign as would be rolling out a red carpet and a special entrance to board the least-sophisticated, lowest-mile, three-carry-on-bag travelers onto an airplane first.  Unheard of.  I mean, unless it’s opposite day.   

Jesus once encountered a man who, without being asked, said: “I will follow you Lord; but first let me go back and say goodby to my family.”  In response, Jesus said: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”  (Luke 10:61-62)  Many of us, when presented with the Gospel would say, and have said,  “I will follow you Lord.”  It is quite easy to say.  We often then say, though, “but first let me . . .”  I know this “dot-dot-dot” very well.  I bet you do too.

I will follow you Lord, but first let me … see a clear sign that what your word says is true, that your promises will hold up.  Let me know that if I buy what you’re selling, it won’t, in the end, be for naught.  

I will follow you Lord, but first let me … grasp fully how the whole thing works.  There are so many books out there, I don’t know where to start.  The Bible is really thick and I don’t understand so much of it.  I want to understand every detail first so I can defend my decision if asked.

I will follow you Lord, but first let me … know that my friends and family will not think I’m weird, and will still accept me.  I want to be liked and admired and if I commit my life to you, I’m afraid I will lose friends.  My family won’t understand.  The people I’m trying to impress may find me less impressive.  

I will follow you Lord, but first let me … visualize what my life will look like if I do.  What are you really asking of me?  I know your Word says I must live like you did (1 John 2:6), but the way you lived seems a little uncomfortable to me.  You had no home.  Your people rejected you.  You were spit upon, crowned with thorns, beaten and laughed at.  Your path was constantly interrupted by those who lived unworthy lives, did bad things, and suffered from disgusting diseases.  You were nailed to a cross and killed.  I have plans, Lord.  This would get in the way, I think. 

I will follow you Lord, but first let me … explain to you that I’ve got things under control.  My finances are in order, my health is good, my family is thriving, I’m moving up in my job, and my golf game has really come a long way.  

 I will follow you Lord, but first let me … tell you that I can’t abide any more rules and instructions to follow.  Each year at work, I get an employee handbook and although for the most part these are pretty easy to follow, I have to remember and follow them.  There are speed limits, tax requirements, bills to pay.  If you add on another set of rules, I just don’t think I can do it.  I know the Ten Commandments and I have failed them over and over and over and over.  And I have tried really hard, but I keep getting tripped up, often by the same ones and there seems to be no end to the resulting frustration.

I will follow you Lord, but first let me … help you to understand that I can’t get ahead in this world if I am not fully devoted to getting ahead right now.  I know you said you were here and experienced the world, but I think it was different for you.  After all, you are God, and it just had to have been a little different.  I am climbing a ladder, you see, and there are people just at my heels.  If I stop, they will surpass me and I won’t get the promotion or the raise or the praise or the offer to speak.  Without those things, I will be nothing.

I will follow you Lord, but first let me … get a few things straightened out, you know, clean myself up a bit.  I still do some sinful things.  I’m just on the verge of overcoming them, I just need a little more time.  

I will follow you Lord and let me confess to you that

I see what you’ve done in my life, the times when there is just no other explanation for my deliverance but you; I look at my children and know that there is something more here than the effort I’m putting in.

I don’t know how it all works, but you have shown me enough for me to believe, and in fact, sometimes when I’m alone, I can actually feel you inside me.

Sometimes living just for me feels a little narrow and I get tired of myself and all the consuming and doing.  When I do things for others, it actually feels pretty good.

I’m a little tired of trying to keep up and often look for a place to be alone and sit still, you know, to just be.  The things I'm seeking happiness in don't seem like they're helping.  I just want more and more of them.

On the outside, there is much comfort, but to be honest, there is restlessness in me and some uncertainty about what this has all been about.

I’m not so sure I’m in control.  I look around and see things fall apart in other people’s lives and know that I’m next.  I know that my finances, as safe as I may try to keep them, are subject to things I just don’t control.  And recently, a friend was diagnosed with breast cancer.  But she was really successful and healthy.  My family has had some disputes lately and things are a little rocky when certain issues are raised.

I think I need some help.  I keep sinning and can’t seem to stop no matter how hard I try.  I think I might need some help to get it all straightened out.  And I have done some things that I would give anything to let go of and be forgiven of because they have become so heavy. 

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  (Matt 11:28-30)

No more dot-dot-dot.  

Monday, November 7, 2011

God Is Here

At church, our worship leader said, “God is here,” and I began to cry.   I repeated this phrase to myself.  God is here.  God is here.  I wiped the tears, feeling the deep truth of this suddenly and unexpectedly.

Then, as a body, we sang “Holy, holy, holy.” The tears continued.  I looked around, wondering if it was just me, so touched in this moment.  Those around me did their own adjusting to His presence.  Couples moved closer to one another.  A mother wrapped her arm around the teenage, rebellious son.  God is here. 

I listened to words about the kingdom of God and our lives within it and a rush of perspective moved through me, over and under and around.  What is real is that God is here.  

I walked in a daze to the bookstore to find a book that includes a map of where Jesus was teaching as described in Luke’s gospel.  My daughter and I read it together every night – one night she reads and the next I read.  But, we really need a map.  Where is the Sea of Galilee? Where is Capernaum?  And where are these places in relation to Bethlehem and Nazareth?  She asks me these things as we read and I just don’t know.  I find a book with maps and pictures, broken down by each book of the Bible.  At the beginning of the section on Luke, there is a map of the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, Bethlehem, and Nazareth.  Tears formed in the backs of my eyes and my throat ached slightly as happened.  These are real places.  I ran my finger over the map, stunned.  God is here.  

I sat at a high table reading and waiting for my daughter to return from her weekend retreat with the junior-high ministry.  I watched people come and go, mostly in groups of two or three.  They held things – coffee, Bibles, journals, bags, purses, children, hands, tragedies, triumphs, hurts, healings.  They talked about the afternoon game and their favorite coffee flavor.  God is here.

My daughter’s purple suitcase sat sandwiched between two others with a little green tag with her name.  I pulled it out, “This one is mine.”  The yellow buses pulled up and kids poured out.  “Where is mine?”  I saw her small-group leader and searched the sea of faces for the one I knew so well, the one I saw take its first gasp of air.  And there was the face!  My breath caught in my throat and tears rushed in again.  I shouted her name over the noise and she turned, knowing my voice.  She smiled and ran to me.  I smelled her hair and felt her fingers and knew again.  God is here.  

On the way home, she told me of some verses in the Bible she had discovered.  She told me that she underlined them and read them during her “solo time.”   When I asked her which was most meaningful to her, she said it came from Matthew 6.  And from the back seat, she read it slowly as if for the first time:

Our Father in heaven,
may your name be kept holy.
May your Kingdom come soon.
May your will be done on earth,
as it is in heaven.
Give us today the food we need,
and forgive us our sins,
as we have forgiven those who
sin against us.
And don’t let us yield to
temptation,
but rescue us from the evil one.

God is here.  Yes, God is here.  

Saturday, October 22, 2011

If It Is God Asking, What Else Can You Do?

In just over a month, I leave for Livingstone, Zambia to set up church on the side of the road for long-haul truck drivers who wait to cross the Zambezi River for up to six days because at the point that connects Zambia and Botswana, there is no bridge.  This is a crazy assignment.  I have met one long-haul trucker in my life.  I am a white woman mother lawyer writer from the Midwestern United States.   What sense does this make?  Not much.  And yet, I have no choice in the matter.  Really.   

See if it makes any more sense once you know the background:  In September 2010, I went with a team to Ndola and Lusaka, Zambia to teach pastors.  (If you want to read more about that, see entries 9/13-9/28 here: Trip)  While there, we had an opportunity to go to Livingstone, which is at the southern tip of Zambia, on the border of Zambia and Botswana.  (See Map)  

As we got close to the border, I noticed that there were between 50 and 60 long-haul trucks lined up on the side of the road.



When I asked about this, I was informed that there is no bridge across the Zambezi and so trucks line up and wait to get taken across on a ferry one truck at a time.  What?  Yes, these truckers wait 5-6 days on average to get across the River on this ferry: 



Something took root in me at that moment.  Why doesn’t someone build a bridge?  How much would it cost?  How many additional days are these truck drivers away from their families because they have to wait here?  Doesn’t the stuff they are hauling spoil?  Does it get to where it needs to go on time?  What happens at night when loneliness sets in for these truck drivers?  What about their families back home?  Can they survive for the weeks that these drivers are away?  How are the drivers spending their time as they sit and wait?  Are they eating?

I could not let this go.  And I began to see this little border crossing as a microcosm of what was wrong on a much broader scale – a lack of infrastructure was causing all kinds of social problems: a breakdown in the family, sexual promiscuity, loneliness, the spread of HIV/AIDS, hunger, and despair.  I wasn’t sure if I was right about this, but it is what I began to see.  For the rest of the trip, I talked to anyone and everyone who would listen about the fact that there was no bridge and what could be done, what was being done.  I prayed about it just about every day.  I learned that Zambian presidents had been promising to build a bridge across the Zambezi in Livingstone for 60 years.  And yet, in 2010, there was no bridge. 

Now, keep in mind that during my visit to Zambia, I also learned about HIV/AIDS projects that care for dying people and their families, orphans who cannot afford school uniforms to go to school, huge villages that have no access to clean water, and more.  These things started to feel to me like they had their cause in something else – like the absence of infrastructure, the absence of bridges.   

Just days after I got back to the U.S., I told a colleague of mine that I felt strongly that God was calling me to form a church on the side of the road for the truck drivers.  My colleague said: “Don’t do that.  Build the bridge.”  For months after that conversation, I researched bridges and what was being done to build a bridge.  Turns out that much is being done and it is a very complicated process because it involves the sign-off of three countries – Zambia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe.  The project will cost $100 million and all sorts of engineering, social, and economic studies have been done.  In fact, the proposed bridge looks amazing. 

So, a bridge will be built.  Problem solved, no more long waits, no more loneliness, hunger, despair, right?  That is not the sense I got.  A steel bridge, no matter how spectacular, will not relieve the loneliness and despair, the thirst of the soul.  Something even more fundamental is needed: the One who gives living water.  (John 4:10)  Otherwise, the thirst will return somewhere else, sometime else, with someone else.  (John 4:14)

And so, I will meet a team of Zambians there and we will set up on the side of the road, serve food, sing music, and preach the gospel to truck drivers in Zambia and Botswana.  This is the call, and I have no choice.  What a privilege!  Have I ever felt more purpose, more fulfilled, more loved?  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer explained the immediate response of Levi when Jesus called him to follow in Mark 2:14, when “the cause behind the immediate following of call by response is Jesus Christ himself,” we follow at once. (Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship at 57)  Or, as a close friend said to me as I described to him a feeling that this project seemed out there and that no one really understood why I was doing this: “If it is God asking, what else can you do?”  Indeed.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

God, With A Flashlight And A Shovel



My heart is like a house.  It has many rooms.  And in those rooms, there are some pieces of furniture that sparkle as the sun shines through the windows.  You know those little squares of light where a lazy cat might lie all day?  Like that.  There are other pieces of furniture that never get any natural light at all because they are too far from the windows and too heavy to move.  There are several closets in my heart where no light ever goes and random old junk piles up, collecting dust in the darkness.  Then, there is the basement.  Down there, it is cold most of the time, kind of damp and musty.  And it is dark.  I don’t even know what is down there.  I have lost track and maybe it is best not to know.  None of the stuff in the basement ever moves into the light unless it is forced up and out. 

God is walking around in my heart with a flashlight and a shovel.  He is in the closets and in the basement, shining a bright light on all the old stuff that has piled up and wanting to dig it up and force it out.   He doesn’t point the light into the many shadows and dark places all at once.  And I can go days sometimes feeling like perhaps the basement and closets have been cleaned out and everything inside is sparkling in the sun.   But then, he goes farther into the basement, another step down, another crevice found.  

Yesterday, God pointed his flashlight with cutting precision into a really dark place.  I was reading Isaiah and came to chapter 60, verses 19-21:

"No longer will you need the sun to shine by day,
nor the moon to give its light by night,
for the Lord your God will be your
everlasting light,
and your God will be your glory.

Your sun will never set;
your moon will not go down.
For the Lord will be your everlasting light.
Your days of mourning will come to an end.

All your people will be righteous.
They will possess their land
forever,
for I will plant them there with my
own hands
in order to bring myself glory."

Now, most of this sounded wonderful to me as I read.  Something weird happened, though, when I got to the part that says “for I will plant them there with my own hands in order to bring myself glory.”  I had a twinge of discomfort and resistance.  I couldn’t place it at first, so I read the passage again.  And it happened again – a pushing back or a closing down at the idea of God doing something to bring himself glory.  This was a really hard thing and I feel saddened and ashamed by it.  Something so deep and dark in the basement of my heart, outside of my consciousness, resists that God should be glorified. If someone gets glory, that means that someone else does not, right?  If God gets the glory, then I do not.  If God is worthy of the glory, then I am not.   This diminishment of my self hurt and I resisted it without even realizing it.  My desire to protect and prop up my own ego is deeply engrained and powerful and dark.  

The reality is that there is a desire in my own heart for God’s glory.  To admit this, well, you try it.  See how it feels.  Perhaps it will bring to mind this description of Satan:

"How you have fallen from heaven,
O morning star, son of the dawn!
You have been cast down to the earth,
you who once laid low the nations!
You said in your heart,
'I will ascent to heaven;
I will raise my throne
above the stars of God;
I will sit enthroned on the mount of
assembly,
on the utmost heights of the sacred
mountain.
I will ascend above the tops of the
clouds;
I will make myself like the Most
High.'"
  
(Isaiah 14:12-14)  This is fall-to-the-ground, face-down, ask-for-forgiveness darkness of the soul.  This is the essence of sin:

"Sin has many manifestations but its essence is one.  A moral being, created to worship before the throne of God, sits on the throne of his own selfhood and from that elevated position declares, 'I AM.'  That is sin in its concentrated essence; yet because it is natural it appears to be good.  It is only when in the gospel the soul is brought before the face of the Most Holy One without the protective shield of ignorance that the frightful moral incongruity is brought home to the conscience. . . . However painful, it is precisely this acute moral consternation that produces true repentance and makes a robust Christian after the penitent has been dethroned and had found forgiveness and peace through the gospel."

(A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy)

I have places in my heart that sit in soft shadows – my deception, and lust, and unkindness.  But then, there is the bottom of my heart, which is utterly without light, buried in darkness, seemingly never to be claimed or acknowledged.  It is so far down that I couldn’t even identify it.  Before yesterday, I could not have articulated my desire for God’s glory.  I didn’t know it was there.  I would not have thought it was.  And then God came in with his flashlight and a shovel.  Today I feel bruised and sore, dethroned and brought low.  I have been convicted, guilty-as-charged.  I am so sorry.  But most of all, I feel something inside being transformed and made new, like Christ is reversing the very essence of my self-centered, self-aggrandizing nature so that I am capable of fully honoring God and sacrificially loving others.  In other words, by shining his light on my darkness and shoveling out my deepest sin, Christ forgives me and then works to transform me to be more like him.  (Philippians 2:5-11)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Idea of Him

Last night, I walked into a worship service at church in which hundreds of people were singing in full voice to God.  I stood in the back and just listened to the words: “Jesus paid it all.  All to him I owe.  Sin hath left a crimson stain.  He washed it white as snow.”  I felt suddenly and unexpectedly overcome, believing something was penetrating the defensive shell I had grown during my day at work.  But then, a line from a movie I have seen many times came into my mind:   “You love the idea of me, but not me, not really.”  Then, my heart tightened slightly and I was reminded of being warned as a kid to look both ways before crossing the street or not to talk to strangers.  I had not done anything wrong, but was headed into something and I needed to be cautioned.   

I don’t know exactly what busy street or stranger-filled environment I’m walking toward, but I heard Jesus’ warning to me:  “Be careful about loving the idea of me instead of me.”  “Do not take your eyes off me.”  I started to feel alert and saw some things I had not seen before about where certain relationships or tasks could lead me, the hard-working, overachieving, perfectionist that I can be. 

Jesus has given me the tools to know the difference – the difference between loving the idea of him and loving him.  According to the exchange between Jesus and Peter after Jesus had been resurrected, to love Jesus means to take care of and feed his sheep and to follow him.  (John 21:15-19)  John said: “This is love for God: obey his commands.”  (1 John 5:3)  Jesus described the greatest command as a two-part command: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Matt. 22:37-39)  Jesus lived how to love, so there is no ambiguity there.  Every person he encountered, he met with love, truth, and grace.  He touched the untouchable.  He ate with the uninvited.  He saw the invisible.  He heard the silenced.  His heart broke for the brokenhearted.  He opened his arms wide to have his wrists nailed to a tree, dying for the sinner.

I know what it is to love the idea of Jesus:  I love that he died for me.  I love his example.  I love his wisdom and his parables.  I love that he was able to engage with the least desirable of his time.  I love to tell the story of Jesus.  It’s fascinating.  I love to encourage others to live like him.  I love to hear stories of the people who have given up everything – not just possessions, but control – to follow him.  I love to read and learn about how to love him and how follow him. 

And I know what it is to actually love Jesus:  It is all of the above . . . but it is so much more.  It is dirty.  It is hands-on.  It is hard.  It can seem illogical.  It is not a list of rules that I can just check off and move on.  It is freedom.  It is life-giving and life-living.  It is purpose.  Every person I encounter, I meet with love, truth, and grace.  I touch the untouchable.  I eat with the uninvited.  I see the invisible.  I hear the silenced.  My heart breaks for the brokenhearted.  I care for and feed his sheep.  It is not a part of my life, it is all of my life.  I open my arms wide and I follow him wherever he goes and whenever he calls.

I find that loving the idea of him is easier and more comfortable, especially when I’m tired, worn thin, sick, lonely, hungry, removed, or busy.  So, he has warned me: keep loving me, not just the idea of me. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A Book Never Intended For Me

Many months ago, a friend of mine gave me the John Ortberg book called “Love Beyond Reason.”  This past Friday, for whatever reason, I picked it off my crowded shelf and began reading.  By Saturday morning, I was 50 or so pages in and I went to get a haircut.  I took the book with me just in case I had to wait.  When I arrived, there was no line and I went to the available hairdresser pretty quickly.  Now, this haircut establishment is one of those in-and-out places.  I don’t mess around with salons typically because my hair is short and, well, there’s not a whole lot that can go wrong.  Plus, I am generally not into talking while my hair is being cut.  I don’t know where this comes from because I usually enjoy conversations with complete strangers.  In any event, I put the Ortberg book and my purse on the counter in the little haircut stall area.  

“Whatcha reading?” the stylist asked me and before I could get any words out, picked up the book, looked at the back.  “Good?” she asked.   If you know me at all, you know that this question kicked me into gear.   To me, this is an opening to engage in a conversation that matters, not just one about weather and coupons and hair products.

“Yeah, it is good.  It’s about moving God’s love from your head to your heart.”  (This is what the cover of the book says.)  She nodded and seemed mildly interested.  We talked for the rest of the time about the fact that she prefers a traditional church service to the more modern services.  I listened to her and understood what she was saying, but got the sense that maybe she preferred the traditional service because she was used to it, but that she’d been struggling to really connect with God in her life.  We talked a bit about that and she acknowledged that it may have been the case.  But, she was a little hard to penetrate and I didn’t want to make her too uncomfortable, seeing as how we’d just met.  

When she finished my hair, I paid and left.  As I climbed into the car to pull away, I had this sense that I should just go ahead and give her the Ortberg book, like it might be what she needs.  I was not clear on it though, I felt unsure.  Usually, when I’m feeling prompted by God, I don’t sense much, if any, uncertainty, so I took note of the uncertainty and drove home.  I continued reading the book Saturday and then some on Sunday and Monday.  All the while, though, I had this nagging feeling that this book was never intended for me.  It’s not that I didn’t like the book.  I did, very much.  But something was off.  I have never had this feeling about a book.  Remember when you were a kid and you got your allowance, or found five bucks, and you could not wait to spend it?  We have a saying for this: the money “is burning a hole in your pocket.”  This is how I felt about this book!  Like I needed to give it away.

Yesterday, I got on a plane to Phoenix for a court hearing there.  I read the book much of the way.  Then, Tuesday evening, I was talking to a friend and told him the story of the hair stylist and the book.  I told him I thought I would take the book to her when I returned from Phoenix.  At the end of our call, he said, “Well, I can’t wait to hear what the purpose of your trip to Phoenix is.”  We hung up.  What he meant was that he couldn’t wait to hear what God’s purpose for my trip was.  He and I both knew there was one, but we didn’t know what it was yet.  I did have this lingering sense, way back in my mind, that the purpose had something to do with the book.

My hearing this morning went as predicted.  I got on an earlier flight home than anticipated and was at about 37,000 feet, finishing the last 10 pages of the book, when I realized the trip was coming to an end.  Perhaps there was no divine reason for the hours of flying and the evening in 106-degree weather after all.  I was in a middle seat and the woman to my right seemed bored and antsy.  She was well-dressed, very tan, in her 60s probably.  She played various games on her I-phone, closed her eyes, and looked out the window.  As I read the final few words in the book, I stole a glance at her and thought maybe I should tell her I finished my book, and ask if she might be interested in reading it.  Like I had been with the hair stylist, though, I was hesitant, unsure.  My hands started to sweat as I played this out in my mind, wondering what she might say, whether she would think this was a ridiculous idea.  She would think I was a little nuts to even talk to her.  The best plane etiquette, everyone knows, is to keep quiet.    

We sat shoulder-to-shoulder for another two hours without words and she continued to bounce from one activity to another.  I couldn’t pull the trigger, couldn’t find the words.  We landed and pulled up to the gate.  We stood up with the “ding” of the seat belt sign and as we were standing there, I turned to her and said, “I finished my book.  Any interest?”  This was the best I could come up with.  She asked what it was and I showed it to her, telling her, “It’s about God’s love.”  She pushed her hand toward me and said, “No.  No thanks.  I’m not into religious stuff.”  I said, “Oh, sure.  No problem.  Just thought I’d ask.”  “We are going to need a lot of love from God, though,” she said.  Unsure of what she meant and with no more time to discuss it, I muttered, “Yes.  Have a good visit here.”  We parted.

And still I had this book with me.  And still it was burning a hole in my pocket.  The reality was, though, that there were not likely to be any more encounters.  I’ve done the arrival at O’Hare deal many times and after I step off the plane, there are no more conversations.  The path is clear: walk through Terminal C, down the escalators, through the colorful, moving walkways, back up the escalators and through Terminal B, down the escalators to the baggage claim area, down another set of escalators to the parking garage, more moving walkways to elevator center 3, out the doors, to the car.  And this is precisely what I did today.  

I pulled up to the parking attendant window to pay the exorbitant O’Hare overnight rate and caught a glimpse of Antoinette, a young, African-American woman in a blue or black uniform.  I couldn’t tell because her booth was dark.  Her name tag was posted outside the window.  I handed her my parking ticket and credit card.  Keep in mind that no one ever talks to the parking attendants.  Okay, I’ll speak for myself: I don’t.  Not for any malicious reason, but usually by this point in my trip, I’m anxious to get home, the price tag is always so high and I tend to think the parking attendants set the rates (they clearly don’t), and there is always a long line of cars behind me.  Anyway, as I handed her my parking ticket, I noticed something.  She was reading a book.  Before I knew it, the words were out of my mouth, “What are you reading?”  She looked startled and kind of mumbled the title.  I heard only “Terry McMillan.”  

“Is it good?” I asked.  Now she was looking at me.  Something passed between us.  Something like: “Hey, we’re both human beings and we can talk to each other.  How cool!”

“Well, I just started it.  I’m only on page two.”  Then she offered a beautiful smile.  Really.  I suddenly felt drawn to her presence.  She returned my credit card and receipt.

“Are you looking for more books?” I asked.  This time, I felt no hesitancy in my spirit.  I reached into my briefcase and pulled out the book.  “I finished this one on the plane.  Want to give it a try?”  I handed it to her and she looked at it, flipped it over.  “It’s about God’s love,” I said.  

“Oh,” she said, “Yes, thank you.  Thank you so much.”  Again, with the amazing smile.  Again, something passed between us.  Love, I think.    

“You’re welcome,” I said and drove away.  Tears came into my eyes, as I understood what I believed to be God’s purpose for my trip to Phoenix.

That book was never intended for me.  And it wasn’t intended for the hair stylist or the lady next to me on the plane.  It was for Antoinette.  I don't know why.  I don't know what impact it will have.  I only know that it was intended just for her.  

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Looking Into A Mirror

People have asked me why I am so taken with the undocumented immigrant.  There are law-abiding people who need your help, they say.  

Good point.  

Why do the stories of the undocumented immigrants touch the deepest parts of my soul?  Why do I remember their stories more vividly than all the others I have heard in my work at the Willow Creek Legal Aid Ministry?  Why is it that I can still see the eyes of the undocumented immigrants when I close mine?  Why do their stories, so different from mine, seem like part of my own story?  After all, I grew up downtown Chicago in a upper-middle class white family.  I have never gone without anything I need.  I attended the best schools and enjoy any number of privileges.  The undocumented immigrants I have met have experienced a very different kind of life, one with very little schooling, if any, and even less privilege.  

For example:

Mario grew up poor, in a tiny village in Mexico.  At age 16, his alcoholic father disowned him because he was not “manly” enough.  His father beat him and told him to leave and never come back.  He even told the corrupt local police to arrest Mario if he was ever found near the house again.  He was told to leave and never come back.  So, one night in the darkness, Mario crossed the border illegally into the United States, a place he had heard about since he was a kid.  Now, four years later, he wants to become “legal” so he can go to college.  

Louisa is a single mom who, along with her two kids, lives with friends.  She left Mexico because she had no way to support herself and the kids after her husband left them.  They were smuggled into the United States, hidden in a dark, suffocating truck bed.  She came to the Legal Aid Ministry asking what to do about the traffic ticket she received.  She had failed to come to a complete stop at a stop sign and was also cited for having had her youngest strapped into a too-small car seat, a car seat she was able to afford only because a neighbor had put it out on the curb as garbage.  

Leo dreamed of coming to the United States for better work.  So he did, but without working through the normal, legal process.  The prospects here were just too tempting.  Now, twenty years later, he has a wife and two kids, each of whom is a citizen.  But he lost his job and can no longer provide for his family.   He wants to know what his options are for citizenship or residency.    

Despite our vast apparent differences, the expression of hope I saw on Mario’s face is etched into my brain.  Louisa’s heartbreak feels like my own.  Leo’s desperation seems familiar to me.  Why?  Why can I not turn away?  Why do I love Mario, Louisa, and Leo?  Because when I look at them, I feel like I am looking into a mirror.  

I have been undocumented.  And there was nothing I could do to bring myself into compliance with the law.  No amount of paperwork or legal arguments would secure my citizenship.  I had broken the law and the longer I lived, the more laws I broke.  Sometimes I felt justified by the circumstances, which were beyond my control.  Sometimes, I was just too tempted and gave in to the prospects.  At times, it was as if certain laws were enacted just for me to break them.  So incapable was I to remedy my situation that someone else had to intervene on my behalf – to the point of death on a cross, nails through the wrists, blood running freely.  All of this when what I deserved was to be deported, sent away, never to be reclaimed.  

Instead, I received eternal citizenship and an all-access pass.  So how can I tell the undocumented immigrant, “I can’t help you because you broke the law”?  How can I say, “You’ll have to just figure this one out on your own”?  How can I feel anything but compassion?  How can I turn away?

Why am I so taken with the undocumented immigrant?  Because I have encountered the grace of God and it has brought me to my knees. 

(See this post on undocumented.tv also!  http://bit.ly/nqyU9W)


Monday, August 22, 2011

Lord Jesus, Have Mercy On Me

A few months back, my daughter asked me if I thought I would have believed Jesus was who he said he was if I lived during the time he lived on earth.  I wish I could have answered very strongly: "Of course!"  But sometimes I wonder if my role wouldn't have been a little more like this:

Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate.  And I began to accuse him, saying "I have found this man subverting our nation.  He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king."  Then I began shouting: "Crucify him!  Crucify him!"  With loud shouts, I insistently demanded that he be crucified and my shouts prevailed.  So Pilate decided to grant my demand.  He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one I asked for, and surrendered Jesus to my will.

The governor's soldiers took Jesus into the Praetoreum and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him.  I stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head.  I put a staff in his right hand and knelt in front of him and mocked him.  "Hail, king of the Jews!" I said.  I spit on him and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again.  After I had mocked him, I took off the robe and put his own clothes on him.  Then I led him away to crucify him.

As we were going out, we met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and we forced him to carry the cross. We came to a place called Golgotha (which means the Place of the Skull).  There, I offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall, but after tasting it, he refused to drink it.  When I had crucified him, I divided up his clothes by casting lots.  And sitting down, I kept watch over him there.

I hurled insults at him, shaking my head and saying, "You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself!  Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!"  I mocked him.  "He saved others," I said, "but he can't save himself!"  I continued to heap insults on him.  

It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour.  For the sun stopped shining.  And the curtain of the temple was torn in two.  Jesus called out with a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit."  When he had said this, he breathed his last.  

Lord Jesus, have mercy on me.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Something To Celebrate

If you watch television, you will come to believe over time that your calling in life is to buy and consume – food, cars, technology, clothes, hair products, movies, music, books, sex, alcohol, and more television.  These things are so seductive.  They are salve.  You know that feeling of putting your hand under cold water after you have burned yourself on the stove?  Instant relief.  The pain ceases immediately and all you want to do is hold your hand under flowing faucet until the burn heals.  This is how I am with consuming.  Other than food that I actually need to survive, most of my purchases (sometimes even food) are made to relieve some burn I have.  This is not always a conscious thing, but I think probably almost always there.  For a moment or even many moments, consuming feels like satisfaction of some deep need.  I take something into my life and the space inside is filled, like the cold water rushing over a burn.  

When I was a kid, I lived in an area of Chicago called the “Gold Coast.”  And, it was as it sounds.  People there had the means to consume whatever was advertised.  Just to the southwest of the Gold Coast was one of the most gang-, drug-, poverty-, and crime-infested projects in the country at the time: Cabrini Green.  During this particular period in history, we all had a hero, whether we lived in the Gold Coast or Cabrini Green, named Michael Jordan.  Michael Jordan had a product line, you’ll recall, called Air Jordans.  One pair of these shoes was over $100, which was quite high during that time.  But to have these shoes meant something about your status, your allegiance, and your worth.  Despite this high price, many people who lived in Cabrini Green and in other impoverished areas wore these shoes.  The people who could “afford” these shoes complained about how sad it was, and what flaws it exposed in the character and perseverance and values of the poor, that they would spend what little they had on these expensive, unnecessary Air Jordans.  No wonder they were poor, they said. 

Today, those who can “afford” smart phones – i-Phones, etc. – make these same comments about those who cannot afford such things.  I have heard people complain that poor people should use the money they spend on i-Phones to buy healthcare and then at least that problem would be fixed.  If people would save their money and spend it on the things necessary for survival instead of on these unnecessary things, then they would be better off.  There are homeless people I know who have been screamed at by passers-by for having new shoes or expensive looking jackets or bags.  How can you be begging for money on the street and then using it to buy such things, they ask.

Unquestionably, people make bad, illogical purchasing decisions.  This is true of poor people and wealthy people.  And, I cannot explain every poor choice, clearly.  But I am willing to bet all I have on this:  most of our poor purchasing decisions (and by this I mean purchases we make that we cannot afford or that we simply do not need by any objective measure) are driven by a burn that we would do just about anything to relieve.  The people who lived in Cabrini Green and bought Air Jordans and the people who lived in the Gold Coast and bought Air Jordans suffer from the same affliction.  They have a huge space inside of them and when a salve that offers the hope of alleviating the pain appears, they will take it at any cost.  This is true whether it ultimately undermines healing, busts budgets, causes longer-term pain, or looks like the most illogical choice one could make under the circumstances.  

Last week I hosted a dinner for about 25 people in my life with whom I have experienced the presence of God.  We gathered to celebrate God’s goodness and from the outside, a description of this collection of individuals sounded a little like the beginning of a joke: a lawyer, a homeless guy, and an ex-prisoner walk into a bar . . . We were from all walks of life, literally.  As one friend said, you could not have come up with a more diverse and unlikely group had you simply taken everyone on a local city bus and put them at a table together.  We shared communion together, prayed together, shared a meal, and then shared stories about the work of God in our lives.  There are simply no words to describe the holiness of that night, and my head is still reeling from it.  I have struggled to understand all that happened and all that I felt for days.  I only realized this morning, while reading my Bible, some of what I believe God showed us the night of our gathering.

1 Corinthians 8:1-3 says this: “But while knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens the church.  Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn’t really know very much.  But the person who loves God is the one whom God recognizes.”  Each of us at the table had our own Air Jordans at one point in our lives.  These Air Jordans came in different sizes, shapes, and packages, but we all had them, we all fell for them, we all sought their immediate relief from the deep burn in us.  We also all at one point in our lives came to the realization that these Air Jordans did not heal us.  They only made the burn deeper and more painful.  We came face-to-face with the fact that nothing we consumed could heal the deep burning in us.  No amount of cold water, no immediate relief, no Air Jordans and no cell phones, would suffice. 

We sat with each other at that table, each having had experienced this naked and terrifying moment.  And, for each of us, it was in this naked moment that the real healer showed up and recognized us.  Every person had a story about the day Jesus Christ came into his or her life and brought healing of the long-term and transforming kind.  By this I don’t mean someone said they once lied and after they confessed it, they were healed.  I mean each of us had incredible darkness in our hearts, inexplicable pain, and inexorable trappings.  You know, the same stuff that’s in your heart and your life if you dare to look closely.  But each of us, in the very moment of deepest despair, was met with recognition from Christ, the one who created all things, “is before all things,” and in whom “all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:16-17)  With his recognition, the deep burn began to be healed for the first time. 

To be sure, each person at the table last week has a long journey to becoming fully transformed into the likeness of Christ.  Darkness still rears its ugly head in us and we still fall for quick-fixes and temporary salves.  Daily, we need to surrender the open spaces and burning places to Christ.  His work has begun, though, and he will not stop until completion.  (Phil. 1:6)  This is something to celebrate.   

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The One Thing

If you were to ask me how I would describe myself, one of the first things out of my mouth would be “hard-working.”  All my life, I have relied on this aspect of my character, if it can be called that, as the one thing that could differentiate me from others with similar skill levels. It is this that could allow me to climb the ladder of success.  I have never thought I am smarter or more savvy than anyone else.  What I have come to believe, though, is that I can achieve simply by outworking everyone else.  This is true at work, in ministry, in love, in everything.  It is a source of pride.  I work hard and no matter how far I’m pushed, I can always find more energy.  I will not be outworked!
Not all of this has been part of my consciousness, but rather, has been the way I have moved through life.  It has a long history in my psyche because growing up, I was led to believe that I was not as smart, not as talented, not as good. Second-rate, really.  And I believed this.  Believe this.  So, I allow the thing that is within my control -- my ability to muscle through with effort -- to define me.

What happens then, when someone says of me: “She is not a hard worker”?  Gutted.  Cleaned out.  Emptied.  The one thing I know to be true about me, the one thing that sets me apart, the one thing that has always been reliable and controllable, the one thing that defines me, gone with the breath of another.  Now, I know that what someone says about me is not necessarily true and I know that how other people perceive me is not definitive of who I am.  I know these things in my head.  Tell this to the deepest part of my heart, though. It does not believe you.  Tell me a thousand times that my worth does not depend on what someone else says or how I am perceived.  I will hear you, I will understand what you are saying, I will want to believe you.  But, I will not.  Not ever.

It is here, in this place of utter emptiness, that I meet God, or, should I say, that God meets me.  He is there telling me, through His Spirit, “I am here;” “You can rely on me;” “I am faithful;” “I will not leave you;” “The one thing that defines you is Jesus Christ.”  This indwelling of Christ in my emptied-out heart has power behind it.  The power of the One who created all, the power of the One who raised the dead.  Don’t get me wrong, this is not an overnight transformation, and I have my doubts at times.  To allow Christ to redefine me requires surrender and trust.  It requires letting go of a piece of me that I have believed is central to who I am.  Not easy.  Painful, actually, because I think, "well, if I am not this, than what am I really?"  Parts of me want to do something a little (seemingly) simpler – disbelieve the sentiment that I am not a hard-worker and go back to relying on the fact that I am. 

How unreliable faith in this perception or self-definition is, though.  How much more reliable is faith in the living Christ: the One in whom I have the assurance that I can do all things not because I am a hard worker, but because He gives me strength.  (Phil. 4:13)  The shell that I am without my self-definitions is filled with living water.  (John 7:38) 

What is your one thing?