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? 

Monday, July 18, 2011

See Things

At the end of last week, I developed some kind of eye problem that has caused me to go without my contact lenses until my eye is healed.  I am wearing my glasses, and unfortunately, because I have become so reliant upon my contacts, these glasses are two or three prescriptions behind.  No one's life is in danger, but let's just say, I'm not at my seeing best.  This morning, as I made my way off the train, though, I saw things I have always missed somehow even with better vision.  When you get off the train at Union Station in Chicago at rush hour, there are mobs of people, all marching to work.  Mobs.  Some days it's worse than others because several trains, although scheduled to arrive just the right amount of time apart, come in all at the same time.  You feel a little like you're part of a herd and your best strategy in finding your way out to the open air is to keep your head down and make sure your feet don't get tangled. 

I noticed two things today.  Every single person carries, pushes, or pulls something -- a coffee travel mug, a briefcase, a backpack, a suitcase, a stroller, a box, a book, a child, a wheelchair.  There is not a person who is free-handed.  And it turns out, everyone has some kind of ailment.  The lady in front of me has an Ace bandange around her elbow.  The woman next to her has a black wrist splint on her right arm.  Another woman has a foot that bends inward and she walks crooked as a result.  A man up ahead limps.  Another man cannot stop coughing.  All these broken bodies.  If these were computers or mobile devices, we would trade them in, demanding a free replacement. 

Then there's all the internal ailments.  The guy who sat next to me on the train bit his nails down to the quick as if he has not eaten in days.  Anxiety.  It pulled his eyebrows down, wrinkled his face, and quickened his breath.  The father and son who ride together everyday sat apart today.  There were people all around who carried hurt with them along with their briefcases, bags, and books.  There were hearts broken this past weekend and deep, lasting pain that resulted.  There were parents walking to work who haven't seen their kids in years because of something that started small, or something that was really big.  There were Sunday nights that ended in marital fighting and turned backs.  There were regrets for things said and done.  There were heavy hearts for things unsaid and un-done.  There were those who were so happy this morning that Sunday night ended so that at least for a few short hours, the loneliness will abate.  And there are those who are headed for a day in which their deepest insecurities will be exposed, their longest-held fears realized, or their hardest choices made.  

These people I saw today are the ones that bump into me on the street, who cut me off in traffic, who go too slow in the left lane, who walk too absentmindedly, who don't go fast enough when the light turns green, and who haven't decided what to order by the time it's their turn in line.  These people I saw today are you and they are me.  They need grace.  They need love.

"So if you're serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it.  Pursue the things over which Christ presides.  Don't shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you.  Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ—that's where the action is.  See things from his perspective. . . . chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline.  Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense.  Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you.  And regardless of what else you put on, wear love.  It's your basic, all-purpose garment.  Never be without it."  (Col. 3:1-3; 12-14) 

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

It Means Living

A couple of years ago, I had lunch with a close friend and told him I had made the decision to devote my life to Christ.  I was so excited I could hardly contain myself.  He asked (only partially tongue-in-cheek): So, can you still play golf, or do you have to give that up?  He smiled and said, “Seriously, though, how has that impacted your life?  Are you different?”  Hmmm.  Was I?  I knew the theological answer.  But, how was I different, really?  What difference does it make to be a follower of Christ?  How is my life different?  How would my life be different if I were to follow Christ?  Maybe the answer to this question is what’s holding you back. 

Lots people think that what it means is to give up stuff you love doing.  Give up all your possessions.  Follow tons of rules that lead to failure and disappointment.  It’s a reservation system, an insurance policy so that when you die, you’re going to the good place instead of the bad place.  Your Sunday mornings are blocked off and sometimes you miss the first quarter of football games.  Doesn’t this sound a lot like dying?  I had an experience yesterday through which God showed me what following Christ means.  It means living. 

As I was leaving the Willow Creek food pantry, I met a guy named Allen.  He is homeless and jobless.  He is 25, African-American, and has long eyelashes and dark brown eyes.  His thin frame barely holds up his pants and as of yesterday afternoon, he could not remember the last time he slept.  Allen had nowhere to go and nothing to eat, so my friend Sue volunteered to drive him to a local place that could provide shelter.  She asked me if I wanted to come along.  Yes!  But before we took him to the shelter, we took him to lunch.  

He ordered a chili-cheese hamburger, fries and lemonade.  While we waited for our food, we asked him questions and he answered them shyly, but honestly.  A man he didn’t know drove him to our area from southern Illinois months ago and he just happened to walk into the food pantry on July 5, 2011.  He was born in Cook County, but grew up in Tennessee.  He used to go to church with his grandmother who laughed a lot.  He and his brothers were separated from each other and their mother when he was about 12 years old because his home was unfit for children. When he was a young teenager, his only goal was to graduate from high school.  And he did.  He worked for some time at a Proctor & Gamble factory.  His mother has a drug addiction and his six-year old sister died recently in a car accident as a result.  What he wants to do most of all is go to college and major in psychology.  Allen’s only clothes were the ones he was wearing – a green Whole Foods t-shirt and gray Puma sweatpants.  He had no identification, no wallet, and no money.  As far as I could tell, there is not a person on earth who would claim Allen as theirs, none who would take him in and love him.  No family.  No friends.  I don’t know, but suspect that no one has hugged Allen in many years.  I do know, because he said so with quiet confidence, that every day when he wakes up, Allen thanks God for the gift of another day and another breath. 

As we sat in the restaurant booth, I totally lost track of time.  We laughed at ourselves and told stories.  Sue told us about her relationship with Jesus and her years of struggle to understand what that relationship could be like.  Allen and I talked about regrets and anxiety.  When we finished eating, we made our way to an organization  called PADS, which we understood might help find a shelter for Allen.  I sat in the back of Sue’s car shaking my head and marveling at this remarkable adventure.  The day I had planned was so different than the one that was unfolding slowly before me.  I didn’t know what was to come, didn’t know how things would turn out, didn’t know anything other than at that moment, we were in the car headed to find out.  We stopped at PADS and learned quickly that there are no homeless shelters in the suburbs of Chicago during the summer months.  So there we were in a large conference room full of eclectic pieces of furniture and cold pizza on the table wondering what to do next.  Sue and I both prayed separately for God’s guidance and direction, but for the moment, heard nothing.  Sue tried to help Allen come up with ways to find his wallet, where he had his state identification card, which would allow him to get a job and open other doors for him.   

Then Rachel came into the conference room.  PADS was her address and she had come to pick up her mail.  She looked like she was in her early 20s, short and thin with brown bangs hanging in her eyes.  She told Sue she looked familiar and as they swapped names of places where they may have run into each other, Allen rubbed his hands over his face, resting his elbows on his knees.  I sat next to him, helpless, but present.  Rachel was homeless too.  She’d had some sort of falling out with her family.  This unfolded in slow motion and I could see so clearly the pain in her deepest parts.  I glanced at Allen and knew his pain went just as deep.  I asked Rachel where she stayed and she told us the name of a motel down the street.

Sue and I stepped outside and stood next to the building.  The bitter smell of hot tar from the asphalt burned our noses and we laughed, asking  “What do we do now?”  I prayed silently and she put her arm around me.  We laughed again.  We had no idea what time it was or what was next.  We just prayed for guidance.  The motel down the street that Rachel had mentioned was the only option and it would be our next stop.  So, we all climbed back in the car to find the motel and to ask about rates.  When we arrived, we were told there were no rooms.  Of course.  More laughing.  To see Allen laugh made my soul soar.  I asked if there was another place and the attendant told us there was, a little farther down.  So, that’s where we headed. 

The second motel was smaller, less appealing, but there were rooms available and a weekly rate.  We got a room for Allen and carried two bags of food he’d gotten at the food pantry into his room. The room reeked of stale smoke.  Sue adjusted the air conditioning and I fiddled with the refrigerator.  Allen sat absently on the bed, overwhelmed or grateful, or both.  I thought maybe he would sleep tonight.  He would be safe and he would have privacy.  Before we went our separate ways, we needed to get Allen to a place where he could order his birth certificate and begin the process of obtaining identification.  So, we drove him to the Cook County courthouse and as we pulled up, we all knew we were nearing the end.  Sue stopped the car and she prayed for Allen.  I put my arm on his shoulder from the backseat and Sue described how much Jesus loves Allen.  She looked at him, praying for him and into him.  She reminded him that if he were to turn to Jesus and ask for forgiveness, Jesus would forgive him.  And then Allen got out of the car and we watched him walk up the ramp to the courthouse entrance.  

I don’t know what will happen to Allen.  I don’t know if he was able to apply for his birth certificate.  I don’t know if he made it back to the motel.  I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again.  I know he’s claimed now, though.  He knows he is claimed and he knows he is loved.     

Jesus said: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”  (John 10:10)  And, the author of Hebrews described it this way: “Christ offered himself as an unblemished sacrifice, freeing us from all those dead-end efforts to make ourselves respectable, so that we can live all out for God.”  (Heb. 9:15) 

What difference does it make to follow Christ?  How is my life different?  Present.  Seeing.  Deep Laughter.  Surprises.  Unknown.  Fullness.  Fearless.  Freedom.  Wide Open Heart.