Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Stolen Christmas

     We had become three.
     A family.
     Our first daughter was born on December 4th.
     On December 24th we piled all that we planned to share with Rhonda's family for Christmas into the 1969 VW Squareback and headed South, down Interstate-5.
     Rhonda had spent weeks creating special homemade ornaments for her parents and her sister's family.  They were made of baked clay, intricately hand-painted and then varnished. She had put wire loops into the top of each, and tied ribbon to the loops so that they could hang from trees.  There were snowmen, Santa, Mrs. Claus, reindeer, candy canes and other incredibly and wonderfully made symbols of the season that my mind can no longer take hold of.  My wife is a very talented woman.  This collection of pieces was a labor of love for her family as well as a money-saving device for us during this "first-as-a-family-we-don't-have-much-money" sort of Christmas celebration.
     We had managed a single gift for each of the family members, in the weeks before Christmas, but nothing elaborate or costly.   Everything was wrapped, bowed, then gently and precisely-positioned into the back of the VW.
      Our daughter was nestled into her brand new carseat.  We had no idea how she would handle the 8-9 hour drive, but within the first hour after leaving home, her head fell forward against a padded support and she was out.  Our little car rambled on into the cold December night.
     Through Olympia and then Centralia.
     Past Portland and Corvallis.
     We were making really good time.
     Not a stir from the baby.
     As we drew close to Southern Oregon a fog descended onto the roadway until it enveloped the landscape ahead.  We had to drop our speed from 60 to 45.  From 45 to 30.  We had planned to arrive around 8pm.  The lights were on at a gas station in Grant's Pass so we pulled over, grabbed a snack and waited to see if the fog would lift a bit.  It didn't.  So, we got back into the car and drove.
     At one point we discussed that we should have called Rhonda's folks at the gas station, but we hadn't.
     It was 1985.
     A cellphone call wasn't an option.
     Instead of the fog moving away, it got thicker.  Most people had the sense to get off the road.  There was nearly no traffic on the highway.  The fog became so heavy I couldn't see the painted lines on the road before me.  I slowed the car to 20 mph, and then even slower.  It sounds crazy, but in order to stay in the lane, for a while, I opened the driver-side door and looked down to my left; just trying to keep the car to the right of the white, dotted line.  It got so bad, I decided to pull over to the shoulder of the freeway for a moment to discuss our options.  We talked about the possibility of staying right there until Christmas morning, but decided against it.   We edged back onto the road, and plugged along at 5-10 mph for what seemed like a long, long time.
      Finally, we saw a glow, amidst the haze in front of us, and in a little bit, road markers telling us of the coming exits into the city of Medford.  A big sigh of relief.  A few moments later and we had arrived at our destination.  It was close to midnight.  We were so tired, we just grabbed a few necessities, including our newborn baby and scrambled into the in-laws house, greeted the family that was there and were soon in bed and asleep.
     The next morning; Christmas day, with the smell of pancakes, bacon and coffee in the air, I trudged out to the VW to get all the packages that were left there the night before.  My wife's nephew, Seth, was bouncing along beside me excitedly, knowing that there was a present inside the hatchback for him.
     "Uncle Ev," he said, "Where are the presents!?"
     I had walked directly around to the driver's side of car, remembering something I needed to gather from the front seat area.
     "They are right there in the back," I replied.
     He was standing on the bumper, his two, little hands cupped together in a circle and peering between them through the rear window.
     "Where Uncle Ev?  I don't see them."
     "Just a second Seth.  They're right there.  I will help you with them after I find something else I left up front last night."
     "But I don't see them Uncle Ev.  Where are they?"
     "Right there in the back....just hold on okay?"
     I closed the door to the driver's seat, walked past the frost-covered windows to the back of the car, lifted the hatch and reached in to grab all those carefully wrapped gifts that had traveled with us from Enumclaw, WA to Medford, OR.  Only....there was nothing to grab.  Everything was gone.  I looked at the empty space for second, and rubbed my eyes like it was a mirage, closed the back and walked Seth into the house.
     I asked if anyone had gone out to the car to bring our stuff inside already.
     A chorus of negative responses.
     My heart sank as I shared the reality of what had taken place during the dark of Christmas Eve-night with the rest of the family.  Everything but the baby's carseat had been removed from our car.  All of the presents and ornaments were gone.  Even my wife's winter jacket, which I had bought for her the Christmas before, when we lived in Chicago.
     I have never tried before now to write this story down.  Some years it comes to mind for Rhonda or I, but we don't really spend much time discussing it.  Not because it is too painful to recount.  The truth is, it has become more of story about faithfulness than tragedy.  I remember the pain of the moment only slightly.  I hurt most for my wife who had put her heart into the special-made gifts that she had prepared.  The rest of the stuff was replaceable.  Those items were not.
     For a while I held out hope that somewhere, somehow the police might stumble upon some hand-made ornaments cast aside in alley-way in the city and call us to come pick them up.  They did not.  So, mostly the whole event has drifted away into the abyss of past memory, supplanted in time by all the Christmases where we received abundantly more than what we have needed or deserved.
     We are contented.
     We have been taken care of.
     That was 31 years ago.
     The year that Christmas was stolen, but not really.  
     The holiday was wrapped in the joy of the journey that God had brought us through to get to that day.  Not just the drive through the night, but the longer journey of our lives.
     Once, we were two young people in college.
     Then we were dating.
     Then we were engaged.
     Then we were married.
     Then we were a family.
     There was lots to think on and be thankful for.
     The pancakes, bacon and coffee of Christmas morning still tasted oh so good in spite of the rough beginning.
     And today I am convinced that no one can steal from you, anything that you have freely let go of already.  
     He is faithful.
     He is trustworthy.
     In Him we find completeness and wholeness.
                                                                   In Him we lack no good gift. 




Friday, October 28, 2016

Today Is Enough

For ten seconds maybe, I just stopped and looked at the tree, bending in front of me.
My hand was on the door handle to the truck, but I didn't pull.  I watched the wind tug sideways at the branches, like it was stretching out a bungie cord; the pine cones dangling there like Christmas lights strewn along the edges of a roofline.

I noticed that the wind was warm.  I held on for another few seconds and saw the blue sky calicoed by gray and white clouds that were rushing to the North.  For what felt like a camera flash, the sun appeared and was gone.  Then, the wind dropped off and the tree branches were released from their strain against it.

It wasn't anything huge to see, but there was a tiny gasp of peace that was released into my heart.  I don't know why I stopped and looked, but it helped me.  It warmed me.  It reset me.  As I climbed into the driver's seat, I became aware that I was smiling.

It was just a moment.  But in that moment I saw beauty in the world.  I felt it.  It was reassuring.

As I was driving away, I wondered how many moments like this do I miss?  The needs of what's next always seem to be stealing the heart from what's right now.  I've come to believe that there's only one person who can make a choice to reverse that trend in my life, and that person looks a lot like me.

I have been given a direction.

Jesus spoke about daily bread. (Matthew 6:11) This is the only time he uses this adjective in all of the gospel story...daily...But that was the kind of bread we were to ask for.  Sustenance for twenty-four hours.  As if that were enough to focus on.  Now, I know that our calendars are full, and I'm familiar with the fail to plan, then plan to fail concept.  I live by it.  Yet, I believe that once the plans are made for our tomorrows we need to commit to being fully engaged in our todays and what they may hold.  Somehow, we need to move away from the rush of busyness in order to encounter the peace and purpose of our moments today.

I want to hear Him speak to me on this day, in these moments, in accordance with His timing, not mine.  I want to be effective in sharing His presence with those I meet, out of the overflow of my heart, not the hurriedness of my agenda.  

We're told that our worry can't add a single hour to our life. (Matthew 6:25-34) Jesus also points out in that same passage that tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day...every rising of the sun and going down of the same will be enough for us to commit our focus to.

A favorite writer of mine, Bob Benson, put it this way,
     Today may be our lifetime.  Today is what we have. We must not waste its time or its moments in the anticipation of tomorrow.  I know there are values and necessities of preparation for the tasks and demands of a lifetime.  I certainly believe in making plans for educating our children, for weddings, for retirement, and all the other issues that will confront us.  But none of these are places where we will begin to live.  We live now, today, and Jesus is saying, "Pray for this moment.  This is the one."

I don't think that there is any more to add.  I am convicted.  I have no further argument.

Teach me Jesus, how to receive this life in the 24 hour parcels you have given me.  Renewed, refreshed and ready for what comes with each rising sun.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Wish We Could Hear the Music

   As I continue to grow up, I am learning that there is a voice that calls to us in our confused and rebellious wanderings, more often than we imagine... I am not talking about "the lost",  I'm talking about myself.

     When we moved to Africa, I was not prepared for many things that are native to the continent. Two days after our arrival, the sky opened up and dropped water down upon us in a volume that I was unfamiliar with. I watched, as the dirt and rock driveway to the compound we lived in became a river. I had seen a lot of rain come to a country before, having grown up in the area around Seattle, Washington. Yet, the rain came here so heavy and so fast. The lush greenery of Nairobi, stays that way, because of rains like this. 
     The Jacaranda trees burst out in their amazing vibrant, violet blossoms because of this deluge, coming periodically between days of 80-degree sunshine. 
      The Flame Tree also owes its beauty to the consistent rains of the equatorial city.  I can remember reading as a child, (having yet to witness this personally) about open prairies that become miles of lakefront when the rainy season sweeps through the plains of the Serengeti not far away. To loosely quote one of my favorite teachers; Bob Benson, 

  Water always seems to know where it’s supposed to be going…Why don’t we?  
     It has been directed by God’s hand since the beginning of time.  It falls from the heavens and returns to the heavens.  In between, it flows to lakes, streams or oceans.  Whether it is running down my driveway in Nairobi to bring life to the vines growing in my backyard or into the Rift Valley to give life to the herds of Wildebeest, it flows toward it’s purposed end. There is no indecision or misunderstanding. As I said, it is as though it had been choreographed, following the notes written in a concerto...
                                                      I wish we could hear the music.

     When Tim called and asked me to visit his friend Kenny, I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into.
    “He’s talkin’ real weird lately,” Tim said. “He keeps sayin’ how he wants to go see his Grandma again.”
    “What’s so weird about that?” I asked.
    “His Grandma is dead,” Tim said.
    “Oh. I’ll try to get over to see him this week.”

    The classic-structured Victorian home that Kenny lived in looked sad. Once it had been a major stop on the social calendar of the small town I grew up in. It was a huge rambling three story home, with bay-windows on the lower story and Cape Cod style dormers all around up top. Now in disrepair, the paint peeling off in large sections and the evidence of hard-living teenagers strewn throughout the grounds it just looked…weary. 
   I walked up to the doorway of the lower floor’s rear entrance, which had been made into an apartment that five young adults had rented. Kenny was one of those five. The door stood open before me, so I just walked straight into the living area. Pizza boxes with only a couple crusts remaining inside, sat open on the couch. Tennis shoes, record albums, T-shirts, dirty plates, silverware, bras and other various items were tossed around the room like fall leaves on the front lawn. I was looking around the space, trying to add up the whole scene in my mind when Kenny walked in from the kitchen to meet me.
    He was dressed ragged and was unshaven. His wavy hair hung down to his shoulders. He smiled broadly as he entered and offered a handshake of welcome. He had no idea who I was. After some brief introductions, we began to talk about things spiritual. He was very open about his life and the struggles he was having. He had brought with him some Dinty Moore stew that he opened with a can opener while we talked. Then he grabbed a spoon from between two of the cushions on the couch and began to eat. I watched him with curiosity as he ate and spoke. Suddenly, “mid-chew”, he stopped.
    “Oh…I’m sorry. Are you hungry? I didn’t even ask if you wanted some. Here, have a bite.”
    He held the spoon out toward me.
    “That’s okay,” I managed casually, 
    “I just had some lunch at home,” which was the truth, but it also was not the reason I passed on Dinty Moore that day.
    What I remember most about our encounter, other than what has already been described, is the sense I had in my heart, that Kenny was not hearing me. A soft, separateness hovered over us. It was impenetrable and non-threatening at the same time. I didn’t have to fear for his animosity toward me, no matter how close I cut with my questions. In fact it was the lack of response that bothered me the most. He looked me straight in the eye as we talked, and his eyes feigned sincerity when I asked him to call me if he had any need to talk with someone and he nodded back, but there was a glaze overtop everything he said. When I left and got into my car, I put my hands on the wheel and shook my head then took one last look at the old house. I noticed a yellow shutter that hung at an angle high above, on an attic window, because the hinge had come loose. For some reason it seemed to capsulize all I had just witnessed. Then I then drove away.
      Two days later, Tim called me and told me that Kenny had taken his life….
                                                      I wish He could have heard the music.

    A while ago I was watching a documentary on the gang problem in L.A. The interviewer was speaking with a couple young ladies about their involvement in the whole mess. Having lived in Chicago for some time, I had a general understanding of the emotional attachment that they were speaking about. Then they discussed an incident that actually happened while the reporter was piecing together the story. In a retaliatory shooting a young mother and her child were accidentally caught in the crossfire; the mother was wounded and her three-year-old boy was killed. The interviewer asked one of the girls about her reaction to what happened.
     “No reaction,” she said.
     “Nothing!?” the man asked incredulously.
     “It’s just part of living here,” she said. “You know that it could happen any time to anybody.”
    “And it makes no difference to you that it was a three year-old baby that was killed?…An innocent child?”
    The young lady just shook her head. 
   And that’s when I saw it. It was that same look that I saw in Kenny’s eyes a dozen years earlier. My heart skipped a beat. A sickness filled my soul, and I dropped my head, there alone in my living room, I wanted to shout out loud….Why can’t she hear the music?

    It was a short time after the television program that I just mentioned, on a Saturday evening. I was busily working on the final touches for the Sunday sermon when I heard the music. Now it wasn’t the first time I had heard, but it was this time that stopped me in my busy preparation mode and brought to me the idea that I am now trying to communicate. I had put on a pair of headphones and was listening to a CD as I was writing. It was the first time I had used the headphones, but not the first time that I had listened to the CD that was playing. As it played, I noticed that I was hearing with wonderful clarity, different rhythms and even instrumentation that my ears had never been privy to in the past, even though I had heard the songs being played many times before. The Lord caught me by the scruff of the neck and shook me a bit. It was clear as what I was hearing through the headphones. If you only knew how often I try to speak to you; try to help you hear things that are unique and special and you miss it….

     Just then His Spirit drew my attention to my two daughters who were seated at the kitchen table. They had earlier complained that the dinner that day had not satisfied. So my wife had prepared a rare, late-night delight for them. Top Ramen and grape soda. Life doesn’t get much better than this on a Saturday night for two kids who have just gotten a reprieve from “bedtime.” My youngest was missing the two front teeth on her uppers and so she was slurping those long noodles through the gap there, like a fire-truck reeling in hose. The resulting overspray from the soup was splashing onto her sister’s eating area, but instead of being frustrated, the oldest just reared back her head and laughed. There they were, in their nightgowns, slippers, and robes. Huge, purple grape-soda moustaches were on their upper lips, as they roared with laughter. I sat in silence, barely containing myself. They didn’t even know that I was watching. It was only a moment and then the noodles were gone and they were off to bed. 
     After they had gone, I thanked the Lord for that moment that he had brought me and for the moment in which I heard the music of joy that He wanted to play for me. My belief is that He is always playing music for us. Many times it has a different melody or rhythm than what we would expect to hear,  but it is always there. If we could just open up, take the time to listen, it would change so much about us. In some situations maybe even restore life where it has been lost, like water rushing to fill an empty lake bed in Africa, or perhaps it could breathe meaning back into lives colored gray with apathy….if we could just hear the music.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

You Have Been So Lost To Me

Rhonda walked into the field offices and greeted Margaret Njuki with a hug.
                                                              The embrace was without inhibition; it was kind and sincere.
We had been out of Nairobi for a considerable time and so had Margaret,
                     but the two women had developed such a close relationship during our time in Kenya...that they were as sisters to each other.

I watched from a short distance as the two women held each other, near tears, for quite some time.  Then as they separated, still holding hands, Margaret said the words that have stayed in both Rhonda's heart and mine, for nearly twenty years now,
                                                            "You have been so lost to me."

Thomas sat on the carpet with his back to the bed.  I was across from him, with my back to the wall.  He lives in an apartment with three others from South Sudan.  Each has their own bedroom.
He was very somber.  His eyes fell to the floor while he told me the events of the past week.  Typically, his eyes danced with light when we talk, but today...sadness.  There is much violence these days in his homeland.  His adopted brother, John, whom he had helped get through school, helped get a nursing degree, was dead.

A week ago, Thomas was fishing in Alaska.
That's how he makes a living.
That's how he has supported his family in Africa.
That's how he pays his portion of the rent for the apartment in Kent.
That's where he was when he last heard from his brother.
Now he's sending some money home to help with a funeral.
His forehead was against the palm of his hand as he wondered aloud ...
                                                                        how will John's wife and children survive? 

Later that day we prayed together with a handful of others gathered for bible study in another apartment.  In that prayer I believe that there was at least a small bit of release from the pain of being disconnected from his family.

My daughter and her husband arrived at SeaTac airport after a year away teaching ESL courses in Korea.  There were lots of hugs, some tears, (BTW - There is a 15 minute "watching and waiting" video posted to our Facebook page that preserves the moment) but mostly just a lot of joy
                                  as they returned to us after such a long separation.

You have been so lost to me.
This phrase reminds me of all the reunions and disunions of my life.  We were made to live in vital relationship with each other.  Not just with those that we have decided we are "in like" with.

AND Not just with our immediate family.  (Which is not always as easy as it sounds either)  :)

Jesus made an odd request of The Father in the middle of his prayer in John 17:20-22.  He said,

     "My prayer is.....that they may be one as we are one..."

This is odd because we can't really process it at all.
The Father, Son and Spirit live in perfect connected relationship all the time.
There is no setting in which one of them becomes lost to the other.
And somehow Jesus believed that type of relationship was possible for us too.  (heavy sigh)

Death would not separate.
Distance would not separate.
Politics would not separate.
Culture would not separate.
Race would not separate.
Emotional baggage would not separate.

Jesus just thought that with His Spirit in us we could somehow pull this off.
When I consider the possibilities that surround this thought, I am filled with hope.
When I consider the forces in play that work against this I am grieved.

I have decided that by His strength, and whenever He tells me to,  I will extend a hand.
I am asking anyone else so moved these days, to join me.

Some of the disconnect we experience here, we have no control over.  My friend Thomas has had to work through that recently.  It will be hard.  Yet, I know, that Thomas knows, that between he and his brother John,
                                           one day there will be a reunion!

It is the disconnect that we choose
that concerns me the most.

First off there is the disunion from our maker that needs to be sorted out.... can we hear him call out to us, with a broad smile on his face, eyes bright with joy as we walk toward him and receive all the benefits of the relationship that He intended to have with us all along?
And then a fresh breath of release fills our soul that enables us to take the next step.
I have been wronged.
We have all been wronged.
I have wronged others.  There's no way to escape these truths.
Additionally, I am constantly working through stereotypes that separate.  We all are.

Still, I am looking forward to the many moments ahead when I can surround someone with that hope and acceptance that Christ has given me and repeat those same words that He has spoken to me many times, the same words that Margaret spoke to Rhonda without calculating their impact, words that reveal the longing and joy that is part of the reunion...
Mending that which was broken.
Weaving together that which was unraveled.
Shouting out loud because I have been missing a relationship that has left me incomplete up to now...

                              You have been so lost to me!  


Saturday, July 9, 2016

Confessions: While Standing At The Crossroad

     I feel as though my life experience and my education are inadequate to unravel the knot of what is happening around me.
       I need to learn.
             I need to listen.
     I need to be able to help bear the burden of my brothers and sisters with greater sense of understanding than what I can offer.
     The rhetorical chatter on television and other media is like the constant roar of vehicles passing by each other on a six-lane freeway; hurriedly moving one direction or the other toward a stance that seems defensible.

     Alone in my car yesterday, I thought to myself...I wonder if I am sometimes more interested in finding support for my position than I am in learning about the pain that my brother or sister is experiencing.  Christ help me.   

I am privileged these days to have friends that are from cultures other than my own that will speak into me words of understanding.  I cannot share all that I have been able to hear and grapple with these past days, but it has been precious to me.

Our congregation is a mix of people from at least 10-12 different countries, including the U.S. and I am proud to be part of their family...
- My bible-study on Wednesday was with five friends from Kenya.
- Sometimes people from other nations in Africa attend this group, as well as a couple from Argentina.
- I am privileged to work with African-Americans on our church staff; in our office and as our Worship Leaders.
- I met yesterday with a small group of church leaders; black and white.  We ate, we talked, we prayed, and despite the difficulties of the week, more than once we managed to laugh together. 

All of these people are helping me to grow...to be educated...to understand some of the details.

     However, in the end, perhaps there is a point where the specifics should no longer be addressed; because the solution is more general.  I will never know all of the details of a matter that took place in another state or country and the news reports will never grant me insight into the hearts and minds of those involved.  Is it at all possible for me to judge rightly...ever?  Why would I wish to be the judge anyway?  That is a position I do not envy in any way.
     So, even though part of me wants to have an answer, an inarguable and precise assessment of the situation, I feel as though I am arriving at a response more general than specific.  The solution is more simple than complex.  I feel we are always being pushed to judgement and that is just not my role.  Today, I am being nudged in a different direction.

Paul put it this way: (The Message Version Bible)
       12 We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!       13 But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.

Martin Luther King Jr. said,  "I have decided to stick with love.  Hate is too great a burden to bear."

Hate.  Put it down.  Put it down.  Put it down.
Trust. Hope. Love.  Pick them up.  Pick them up.  Pick them up.

This is not some flowery response.  It is not a cheap out.  It will cost.
I will have to shut my mouth when I want to speak.
I will have to yield when I want to take control.
I will have to take a breath and bow my head when my emotion says otherwise.
This will be my role.
This will be my judgement.
This is where I will find rest.
This is where I will find peace.
This is where I will find the heart of my brothers and sisters.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Price Was Already Paid

Kenny played third base. He was a big kid at 14 . Probably about 5’ 10” and 160 lbs. He was growing a slight trace of hair on his upper lip, but he was still just a kid. 

His Dad was an alcoholic. Mostly when he showed up for the little league games, Kenny wished he could crawl under third base and hide. His dad would get louder the more he drank, which I guess really isn’t all that much of a surprise. As the coach, I mostly prayed that his dad wouldn’t show up very often...that prayer was answered.
I remember my years in little league, high school, American Legion and even on into college. My dad tried to be at every game he could. I was as proud to have him there as he was to watch me play. Kenny would get increasingly agitated and angry whenever his dad came to a game. It was hard to know what to do as his coach. It’s one thing to tell a kid to ignore a loudmouth in the stands or on the other team, but what do you say when the loudmouth is the kid’s dad?
Kenny would get embarrassed. So would I.
Still, as I said, he only came to a couple of the games that year, so for the most part it wasn’t as big a deal as it could have been. 
The “big deal” came later. It was about half way through the season when Chris, our Boy’s Club director asked me into her office. She had a report on the kids who had paid their team dues. Kenny hadn’t paid yet.
He has to pay sometime soon,” she said. I knew Chris well enough to know that if there was any other way to handle this, she would have already checked it out.
He’s the only one left. You better talk with him.”
Oh joy!” I thought to myself.
I asked Kenny to stay after practice the next day so I could talk to him about our “situation”.
He was kinda fidgety while we talked, but said that it shouldn’t be a problem. His dad got their monthly welfare check in a week. If the club could just wait until then, everything would be alright. So I went to Chris and explained the plan. She was fine with it. Things went on as normal. The day before the end of the month, I reminded Kenny about the arrangement and he nodded in understanding. At the end of practice the next day, I caught him as he was leaving.
Hey Kenny, do you have that money for me?”

He looked to the ground and kicked the infield dirt a little, “No. Dad left the house as soon as he got his check, I haven’t seen him since.”
Don’t worry about it,” I said. “Just tell him you really need it when you see him, or the district office says you can’t finish out the season. A couple more days is nothing. O.K.?”
He nodded his head, but didn’t lift his eyes to mine. I had a real uneasy feeling about things. I went into Chris’ office when I got back to the club to talk to her.
Is there any type of scholarship program for situations like this?” I asked
Not really. You can take it out of your athletic budget if you want. If his parent will come in and talk about it we can work out a payment plan, but I know Kenny’s dad, I doubt he’ll come in.”
I knew she was right.
What if someone pays it on his behalf. Is that alright?”
Sure,” said Chris, “But if you happen to know that someone who would pay, tell them not to make a habit of such things, because in the long run it really isn’t always the best answer.”
She looked me square in the eyes with a small smile on her lips. 
I understood.

The next morning, the sun was bright and I was thinking ahead to the game in the afternoon. The bicycle I rode to work sped me down the alleyways and sidewalks past the Diversey and Clybourne intersection and on to the front doors of the club. I had come early, hoping to have some time to plan for some of the open gym activities for the next day. As I was fiddling with the keys to the door I saw Kenny coming down the sidewalk carrying a brown grocery bag in his hand. He had a very forced look on his face.
Here, this is for you,” he said sternly.
What is it?” I opened the sack and looked inside. It was his uniform, clean and neatly folded. He spun away from me, but I caught his arm and pulled him back. There were big tears in his eyes that he began to angrily brush away with clenched fists. His once firm jaw, started tremble.
He fought to pull way from me, but I held him tight.
What happened Kenny? What happened to the money?”
My Dad spent it already. He went out and spent all of it on booze last night. It was his birthday. I hate him.”
His whole body was shaking now as he began to cry openly. I pulled him inside the doorway because I knew that it would worsen the moment if any of his friends saw him like this. I wanted to say, “I hate your dad too.” The honest truth is, that was what I felt, but I knew those words wouldn’t help. Kenny’s dad was still his dad and whatever I felt about him wasn’t going to change that. He would still go home to the same house tonight. For a moment I stumbled around not knowing what to say, (I seem to have that trouble a lot in life) but finally I managed these words,
I’m upset with your dad too Kenny. You have to remember though, there are some things in life that we don’t understand. I don’t get why your dad has this problem, but my sense is that the only thing that will ever change him is God. We need to pray for him don’t you think?”
His eyes looked up to mine, a mix of anger, hurt and embarrassment. It reminded of a little child who had just fallen on the sidewalk and skinned their knees running to their mother for comfort.
The other thing I wanted to tell you was this,” I said, handing him back his uniform, “Someone came into Chris’ office yesterday and donated some money to the baseball team for scholarships. She said we could use it for your team dues.”
It is truly something to see when a very measurable weight is lifted off of another person’s shoulders. Kenny’s face changed completely. I really can’t describe it.
Looking back on that moment. I guess what I was watching was the literal effect of grace in another’s life. No, it wasn’t necessarily a spiritual experience for Kenny. Yet, you could say that very definitely his spirit was lifted. In some way his sense that someone cared for him was heightened. 
He dried his eyes.
He lifted his shoulders up and stood straight with deep relief evident in his whole body. 
A solemn, but hopeful smile spread across his entire face.
Like I said, maybe it wasn’t a spiritual experience for Kenny, but in hindsight it has been for me.

That moment will be a visual image all my days of what “grace” looks like on a person’s face. 
A gift of undeserved favor. 
The difference it can make in your outlook; in your appearance. 
I wonder if we realize the spiritual implications of this concept. I think sometimes that we in the church have taken away grace as our bridge to heaven and somehow replaced it with a badge that we all can earn in some way. Grace isn’t grace if you have to earn it. I am not a great theologian, and don’t pretend to be, but earning any aspect of our salvation just doesn’t jive with my best understanding of what Jesus was saying when he taught us about grace. When we truly understand that there isn’t, wasn’t and never will be a way to earn God’s love for us, most of us will be a lot better off than we were beforehand. 
Somebody loves me. 
Somebody cares so much for me that He gave His life  for me...as undeserving as I may be. 
There was no bargaining involved. He didn’t try to sneak out of it. 
He saw my face that day in Gethsemane. 
He looked past my eyes and into my heart. 
Then He looked Death in the eye and didn’t blink. It was Death that looked away first....
...and because of that I am the beneficiary of something I really have a hard time trying to explain sometimes, and have been recipient of, more times than I can number.  
I do know this...it sure feels good!  In fact it has changed my life, and I would count it a privilege to share that gift with you.  :)

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Almost 55

I awoke at 3am a couple weeks ago.
Sleep felt claustrophobic and heavy.
There was lighter air that came with a thought; an embraced truth.
It drifted to my heart and was unveiled in my mind like unfurled ribbon.

       Lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus laid hold of you.

The words began to bang around inside me like a tin can kicked down an alley.
They clanged against shadowed corners of my thinking and brought new light and life to my mind.
They stretched me out and noted my weakness.
They identified my strengths and hopeful thoughts, but also the worn and weary edges of my commitment...to that voice; to the One who called me in the long ago.
I was just a teenager.
A dreamer.
Not as much a leader as a follower.

I'm 54 years old now.
I am tired sometimes.
I don't like to admit it, but I get there; both in strength and in spirit.

Still, I carry a banner.
I carry a cross.
The one that's mine.

In the grayer days I have laid it down and picked up other things that seemed lighter and less obtrusive and stepped to the side.

I don't know if others have noticed me in those moments.
I don't know if it matters.

I just found a rest stop and sat there awhile, with indefinite plans, before walking again.

And He sat beside me,  observing what I was holding and what I had laid down.  Today I realize that He has always let me go where I wished and walked with me even on those days; patient and silent..until that 3am wake up from His Spirit.

And I discovered the gray that seemed easier to carry was no longer so.  It had become cumbersome, so I let it go.

I have found that clarity is feather-weight.
It is sunrise.
It is freedom from the mundane, it is to....

       Lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus laid hold of you.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Tuan's Story Of Crumbs

                He had been attending for a few weeks when I caught his arm as he was heading out the  
           front door, following the conclusion of our Sunday morning service and introduced myself.
           Later, we made an appointment to get together and get to know each other better.  It was
           during that meeting that I asked him what drew him to our church.  There were several ideas
           that he shared with me as to why he stayed at our church once he arrived, but the story of
           why he came that very first time was rather unique, and he has given me permission to
           share it.  So, this is Tuan's "story of crumbs"... :)
      The most difficult decisions you will ever make are the ones God has already made for you... 
     But how do we know that we are on the right path? For me, that means "following crumbs". God leaves all of us many crumbs so that we can stay the course.  But unlike the story of Hansel and Gretel, these crumbs do not get eaten by birds; they do come and go but it takes recognition, discernment and obedience to lead us back home, to Him.

     Several years back while “strolling” through life, I found myself lost. I had a good paying job, the bills were always paid on time, I took vacations often, and had strong relationships with a small group of friends that I could always count on. But I was empty inside.  I couldn’t really explain why I felt that way, but the void grew and quickly overwhelmed my life. I was falling apart. As it is when you lose control of something valuable, anxiety sets in.  I became desperate as the downward spiral dictated my emotions and also hindered me physically. 

     It finally dawned on me that while I spent a lot of time praying to God to help me get through what I could see was an impending onslaught of depression, I failed to listen or see. Simply put, I did not do my part.  That’s when I started to pick up the crumbs. 

     I was living in Seattle at the time and my commute to work was by way of bike on the Burke Gilman Trail.  On a commute home one day there was an older man riding in front me.  I don’t know what the circumstances were, but it appeared something he ran over had caused him to crash on the pavement.  A few of us stopped alongside him and quickly realized that 911 was in order as he was not responsive.  After that incident, whenever I saw debris on the trail that I felt was a potential hazard, I would stop and remove it. A simple crumb at the time.  I once found a wallet on the trail. I got to work, Googled the person using his driver’s license, and wallet and owner were quickly reunited, just another crumb that I had picked up.  I started to befriend a homeless man on the trail. I would see Duane regularly on my way to and from work pushing his shopping cart full of his belongings. And over time I finally decided to stop and say “hi”. I would offer him what I had in my backpack as far as food but soon offered more.  Shoes and clothing would eventually follow. Yet more crumbs on the trail.  My best friend was going through a bitter divorce.  I did my best to help by being there as a friend but it was obvious that he needed more.  I saw that as a crumb and followed it, and told him my story about crumbs.  He’s now a Christian and finding his own crumbs.   
     I even found crumbs at work.  Superficial conversations with my coworkers were mundane, but upon closer inspection, were really crumbs. The crumbs were telling me that stronger relationships could be built through what once was only water cooler jibber-jabber. So as the crumbs emerged, I availed of what was given and threw in a few crumbs of my own and the conversations soon took on new life, with greater meaning; allowing me to even talk about God, at work of all places!     
     Following the crumbs even led me to Budapest, Hungary.  This past summer while traveling through Europe, the crumbs gave me the opportunity to feed the onslaught of refugees fleeing from Syria and overwhelming the Hungarian city. 
     And most recently, a golden crumb as I like to call it.  After 3 years of looking for a church (yes, it was that hard for me to find one), the crumbs led me to Hillside!

     Now it seems I have an imaginary basket full of crumbs, and no matter where I look I will not be steered wrong as long as I follow the crumbs. It has become clear to me that the more crumbs I pick up, the better I feel about myself and the more hope I have each day.  More importantly by seeing and recognizing these crumbs I started to hear more and more from God.  What He told me was threefold:

      1)    Pick up the crumbs; stay on the path.

      2)    The crumbs will make you feel better, you in turn will talk about crumbs, making others feel better. They will look for their own crumbs.

      3)    The crumbs are from me and they are all around you, always.  We now have a relationship, consume at will and you will never be lost, hungry or full, but you will be satisfied.

     To sum this up, I believe that God provides the means and the opportunities to help us from veering astray, but we still have to help ourselves to completely stay on course.  We must take action to fully be receptive to what has been given in order to grow and have an unbreakable bond with God.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Frightened Church

     A few weeks ago I told a story that was part of my life-education while living in Chicago in the mid-80's.  I used it as an introduction to the message I shared about what happens to the church when we look at our world through fear-tinted glasses. The story goes like this...

     I was a tad behind schedule that morning, riding the bicycle I had borrowed from the pastor’s daughter (a girl's bike, complete with a white-woven basket in front, ornamented with flowers around the upper rim) down Damen Avenue on my way to work at the Boy’s club. Switching over to a side street to avoid traffic I was finally making some good time, but after hopping the bike over a curb, I felt the back end hit the pavement with a thud, braked the bike and looked down at the hind wheel. The tire was quickly going flat. I bent down and got a closer look. There was a roofing tack stuck in the tire.
     I pushed the bike over to the curb and began looking for a pay phone. I couldn’t see one anywhere. Then, kitty-corner from where I was, my eyes were drawn upward to a beautiful cross that was attached to the top of an ornately decorated church facility surrounded by a black, wrought-iron fence. A beautiful cross, shining in the morning light, above stained glass and spired window settings. I rolled the bicycle toward the front steps and set the kickstand.
    Walking around the bike, I reached to open the front door, but both sides of the double-entry were locked. I rapped my knuckle against the hand-carved wood, backed away a step and waited. Nothing. I tried again. Same result. I peered through the small inset window in the upper half of the door. I couldn’t see any activity in the hallway that stretched out several yards behind the door. Yet there was a light on in the corridor that intersected the entryway hall. I backed up again and noticed an intercom box to the right of the door and stepped over to it. I pushed the button marked “talk” and said,

Hello!?” then released the button.
A voice crackled over the speaker, “May I help you?”
A sense of relief swept over me.
You sure can help me,” I said.
You see, my bike tire went flat just around the corner, if you can come and open the door, I’ll just make a quick phone call...let the Boy’s Club know that I will be a little late and get a friend of mine to come pick up the bike on his way to work...”
There was no response.
Hello...Is there anyone there!?”
I’m sorry sir, I’ll have to check and see if it’s O.K. to open the door.”
I have to check with one of the sisters to find out if I can open the door.”
You’re kidding...right!?”
I’ll be right back.”
Wait a minute. I just want to use the phone. You can call the church where I live, they’ll vouch for me. It will only take a minute.”
I’ll be right back sir.”

    I stepped away from the speaker, shaking my head in disbelief. I waited. I waited some more. I watched the traffic run past the well- manicured front lawn of the church. I squinted a look into that little window one more time. Nothing. I felt like I was waiting on the wizard of OZ to give me some gift from behind the curtain. Finally the voice came back to the speaker.

Sir...Are you still there?”
I talked with a sister.”
She said that we couldn’t really help you.”
You can’t help me?”
I’m sorry sir.”
I wanted to tell her just how “sorry” she was. 
My throat was suddenly dry, but I still tried to speak, “There’s nothing...I mean...can I leave the bike here and walk to the club?...pick it up later? I’ll back away from the door and leave it on the stoop.”
I’ll have to check with the sister. Just a moment.”
No wait...just forget it. I can’t believe this...I just need to use the phone.”
I’m sorry sir.”
“Sister said that there is probably a pay phone in the tavern across the street.”
Thanks...I’m sure there is.” I turned away from the doors and started down the steps, then stopped and walked back to the speaker and pushed the talk button one more time.
Are you still there.”
Yes,” she said.
Do me a favor please. Tell your sister to take down the cross from the top of the building, it’s false advertising.”

    When I re-live this story in my mind, it's hard for me to believe I delivered the last line.  It doesn't really sound like me; at least the 54-year-old me.  Maybe it was more like the 21 year-old me than I recall. 
    Thirty-plus years later...
    The church we worship in is located in a very diverse area.  
    We have regular challenges with theft and vandalism on and around our property.  
   Part of our parking area is away from view of the church; hidden by a hillside.  We are aware of fairly continual drug sales and other activities that take place there.  
   The police have used our kid's playground as a stake-out location in attempt to catch some of the local suppliers.  
   Transients often sleep in our entryways.  Occasionally, they will find an unlocked door in one of our vehicles and fend off the cold there.  
    There is a weariness that creeps in when trying to be compassionate in this kind of environment.  That's just the truth.  
     That being said, I can understand some of the sheltered-ness that key characters in the story above were creating for "the sisters".  To me, this is not a story about a denominational stance.  It's easy to point at another faith group and expose their shortcomings. What's harder is to take the opportunity for me to address my own fear-based responses to what's happening in the world around me.  
    My worries.  My stereotypes.  My fears.  My church.  Where am I in all of this?  
    Faith only breathes in the realm of risk. 
  I can't retreat from view of what's outside my door; only address the completely comfortable situations that come my way and truly stay in step with Jesus.  That's a place too safe for faith to grow.  
    So, what is the line between faith and recklessness?  I don't always know.  I'm not sure that the line is so certain that policy statements can always define it.  Though I am generally in favor of policy statements, God seems to operate outside church policies with great effectiveness.
    I guess that in the immediate sense, the only thing I know for sure is that pointing across the street to the bar when someone with a need appears before me, is not the response of faith.