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I got into an argument with God this morning. I know it sounds terribly disrespectful, and as if I treat him with commonness inste...

Friday, September 23, 2016

Our Family Battle Plan against the Tyranny of the Urgent

She stood with one tiny hand on the doorknob, looking up at me. Small, thin, and big-eyed.
“I’m going out to do cartwheels,” she said, but I knew it was really a question. “Mother May I?”
I almost spoke, but stopped.

This morning, when I went in to wake her, I picked my way to her bed through a treacherous muddle of shoes, toys, clothes. At breakfast, I reminded, “You have to clean your room today. Before you watch a show, your room needs to be tidy.”

But regardless of that morning's advisement, I looked into those huge blue eyes and let her go turn her cartwheels in the yard while I went back to the dishes in the sink. The room can wait.

Moments later, she was back in with her sister. “Mom! We have a sickling!” In big sister’s palm is a blue and black butterfly. It sits calmly, gently lifting and lowering its broken wings. It will never fly again.

I wondered if it had any sense of being satisfied. Had it flown enough? Traveled adequately? Or was there longing and discontent? Did it wish for one more day? One more hour? One more flower to light upon? One more surprise breeze to lift it on a serendipitous course?

We gently placed it on a rhododendron leaf. The girls went back to cartwheels. The room and dishes can wait.

Yesterday, my beautiful friend quoted Mary Oliver:

Your clocks, he says plainly,
Which are always ticking,
do not have to be listened to.
The spirit of his every word.

“He” is the mockingbird in Deep Summer. He has a wisdom I’ve been grappling with long now.

This past spring, author-speaker-wife-mother Ann Voscamp borrowed my laptop to host her slides for a speaking engagement. My availability granted me a seat beside her on the front row in the convention hall. When she took the stage, she seemed to be talking only to me, and not the crowd of hundreds, when she held up a jar containing a few kernels of something. Corn, I think. Her husband is The Farmer. Each kernel represented one day she had left with her teen at home. She shook the jar. The paltry seeds barely covered the bottom. My heart sank.

My oldest is 17. I would have fewer kernels than that in her jar if I made one. She meant to be encouraging-- “You have this many days. Use them well!” But in my experience, those kernels get consumed far too rapidly by an entity I call “The Urgent.”

The Urgent is a Tyrant. He is voracious and omnipresent. He is behind the forces that work together to fill every hour of every day on the weekly planner--before the week even arrives! He has many tools in his arsenal for enacting his tyranny. He calls them necessity and generosity and propriety and many other wonderful-sounding things, but they are not all actually as noble as those commodities truly are. There are often counterfeits mixed in among the real. The counterfeits masquerade, but if we ever have the presence of mind to stop and lift the mask, we find we’ve been bowing to guilt and compulsion and people-pleasing and personal greed.

These are the guises by which The Tyranny of the Urgent is enacted and they are powerful.

Late this summer, my teens and I sat down together with a calendar. We know we cannot overthrow The Urgent in our lives entirely, but we have determined to make an effort. A concerted effort, as a family, to make the most of these days, redeeming the time, so we don’t look back like that broken and spent butterfly, wishing we’d had one more day, one more hour, one more adventure together when college takes one of us away and life alters forever.

I share this with you not to pass on a formula for victorious living. It isn’t like that at all. But we made a commitment and maybe it’s helping just a little. Maybe if you battle the same Tyrant, and he has you exhausted and spread too thin and missing the really important things because of the counterfeit necessities--maybe you can find your own path through the flood too.

We decided we would approach our calendar with a predetermined prioritization in mind. No event would go on the calendar in ink until it had been held up against our list of priorities. We set those like this:

Top Priority: Worshiping God as he has said he is to be worshiped.
What does that mean? We settled on Sunday corporate worship with other believers as a non-negotiable, and daily prayer and personal Bible reading--even if it is only a few short verses. Next, loving others in our daily lives as a form of living sacrifice that is our spiritual worship.

Second Priority: Family and School.
Here we are forced into something of a tie or at least a balancing challenge between family and school priorities. There are tests that MUST be taken for a senior in high school. Assignments must be completed. But family cannot be set aside either. Our relationships will change so much over the next few years. The dynamics are wide and varied. Every one of us has a bit of a breaking heart over anticipating the next step in the First’s life--even while we cheer her on, the hole she will leave is already gaping open near us. The suggestion of her absence is palpable.

Third Priority: Adequate Rest.
This will not be a time of leisure, and sleep may at times be too rare, too short. But an unrested person is a stressed and inefficient person. It is difficult to redeem the time when one is snappy, irritated, and anxious. We do not worship well, love well, plan or execute well. We are the people of rest. We are covered by grace for our failings. We are called to a time of Sabbath. We are trying to remember that God makes this a priority for us, and we need to believe him, that he is able to take us where we need to go and give us rest too. (This should probably be higher on the list, but this is where it fell for us. Help our unbelief!)

Fourth Priority: Extras.
Sports. The girls are committed to a team, but they are not essentials on that team in the way they might be if God had granted them superstar skills. Non-essential activities that are meant to bolster our worship. Volunteerism. We love to be about the church’s business, but for this season, we cannot do every activity that would fill all our spare time and take us from the opportunities in the community we live within to participate in everything else. We refocus on Priority 1, and remember the blessing of simplicity.

We had set aside tonight as a girls’-night out long ago with specific plans for the evening. As it turns out, those plans had to change. The event we had planned to attend together, anticipated, looked foward to, did not happen. But we kept our commitment to one another. This is how we’re battling the Tyranny of the Urgent. We can flex. We can change. We can adapt. We can remind one another what we committed to and keep the spirit of the commitment. We’ll still have our time together tonight. And that was what really mattered--not the what but the who.

And I treasure these things in my heart. The Tyrant has no place there. It is the home of Shalom, and today, I am pursuing Shalom over Desperate Urgency. A little at a time. One choice, one refocusing, one prioritization. Baby steps toward peace while seeking progress at the same time.

Love God. Love each other. Do the next needed thing. Open your hand and let go of what you cannot manage well. Redefine necessity. And know, every little thing is going to be alright.

"In all your ways acknowledge him and he will direct your paths."

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Mysteries Being Revealed: The Sign of Jonah and a Coin in the Mouth of a Fish

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” — Matthew 12:38-39

When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth, you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.” — Matthew 17:24-27


A mystery is not a secret. It’s not an unknowable concept. A mystery is something presently covered from sight or full knowledge, but in the process of being revealed. It’s something we will know. Like a gift that’s being unwrapped before your eyes.

There’s likely nothing that gets me quite as invigorated as a good mystery being revealed. Today, a bit of mystery was revealed, and I do love it when connections click and puzzle pieces come together and there’s a bigger, fuller understanding of my God in the results.

I have to give credit where credit is due for those who’ve had a role, whether they knew it or not, in today’s Contents of My Head explosion. I would say that my Facebook friend Father John Cox, an Eastern Orthodox priest who posts intriguing statements, examples, sermon snippets, and thoughts on social media, planted a fisherman’s hook in my brain earlier this week. He made a simple statement with no explanation beyond this regarding the components used by Jesus to feed a multitude in Matthew 14:18 — “We have only five loaves here and two fish.”

Father John says the five loaves represent the Torah, and the two fish represent the dual but equal union in Christ of God and man. He says, “The bread of the law kept the people of Israel alive for a long time. Now they need the fish of the God-Man - the Gospel of participation in His death and resurrection - in order to grow strong and thrive. Christ makes the meal complete.”

The passage says that, at this feeding of Jewish listeners, Jesus broke the bread and gave it to them. They ate, and took up 12 baskets full of broken pieces. The fish are not mentioned as being distributed yet. Interesting. The Jewish community is seeing a miracle before their eyes. They are being nourished by it. By him. They see the excess that he who came first to the Jew and then to the Gentile—together the entire world—produces, not accidentally, but abundantly for each of the 12 tribes.

But it’s not yet complete. First to the Jew. And then to the Gentile.

In Matthew 15, he again gathers a multitude around him. Mark’s parallel retelling specifies in chapter 7, verse, 31, that this gathering was in the Decapolis—an area of 10 Gentile cities.

Then to the Gentile.

This time, the God-Man takes “seven loaves and the fish, and having given thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples (Do we hear the Spirit say, "Go therefore…"?), and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up seven baskets full of the broken pieces left over.” (Matthew 15:32-39)

It would be the Jews who would hand him over to be crucified. It would be the Gentiles who would act out the laying on of hands, the whip, the nails. In the Jewish mind, there were only Jews and then everyone else. It was the whole world who turned against him, first the Jew and then the Gentile. It was the whole world he came to save. Only when both are nourished by the God-Man would the plan be perfected, complete—like the number seven represents in biblical literature.

“And they took up seven baskets full of the broken pieces” of bread and fish, 15:37 says. After the whole world had received him, first broken him and then received him, perfection in excess is displayed for all.

Much of this I had seen before and knew. But the fish representing Christ himself was a symbol I had not grasped. Even when Father John pointed it out, I wrestled. How? How does the fish represent Jesus? Where’s the evidence of that?

Today, it came together.

We had a guest speaker at worship this morning. Martin Ban, president of Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, Texas, filled our “pulpit,” — or would have, if we were that formal. Martin spoke on Matthew 17:22-27. He showed us how this fractured alignment of Jesus’s announcement of his impending death was connected to the discussion about paying the temple tax which immediately followed it. In summary: Jesus tells his disciples that he will die for them and rise again. The disciples don’t hear this as good news. They are distressed. Martin qualifies their distress under a broad umbrella of “disappointment” we all feel when our plans don’t pan out like we’d hoped. Immediately, the passage takes us to a discussion about taxes and then there’s a fishing trip involved. At first, it makes no logical sense, why this happens here, but he ties it together: The temple tax, Martin says, was the same tax paid in the book of Exodus, which was called a “ransom tax.” Jesus has just revealed that he will be dying, and even his closest followers don’t understand why this has to be—yet. The religious leaders completely reject that there’s anything special about Jesus, so they send out their collectors to demand that he—he who is the Temple embodied; he who IS the ransom tax—chip in his fair share. And he does, so as “not to give offense to them.” But how?

This is where the bells started to ring for me—at first, far away, as if muffled within the belly of a fish under the sea, but then clearer and clearer: “No sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.”

Where does the ransom tax come from in this scene? From inside a fish.

I understood the “sign of Jonah” up to this point to be the time Jesus would spend in the tomb. Jonah was three days in the belly of a fish and Jesus was three days in the dark tomb. But now I think it is so much more than that! Jesus wasn’t being dismissive of the Pharisees who demanded a sign, because the sign of Jonah is the full gospel being revealed. The sign of Jonah is a huge revelation of what it is the God-Man does for the world!

Jonah was in rebellion against God. Rebellion against God is the best summary there is for our universal human condition. God wanted Jonah to go to Nineveh and warn them that the residents there were in sin and would face judgment unless they repented. God had called Jonah to a mission of mercy in order to bring salvation to the people in that city. And Jonah didn’t want to go. As he rebelled, refusing to go with the message, he was allowing those who were perishing to continue to perish. And he was OK with that. He himself wasn’t participating in or encouraging their sin, but he wasn’t willing to help them to life-saving repentance. In this case, his rebellion was somewhat passive. He would just let them die. How many of us know our own sin to be just like that? I’m “pretty good most of the time, but I am quietly, passively keeping my knowledge and joy to myself, letting the others find their own way to death or life.” (Do we hear the Spirit say, “Go therefore and make disciples… I am with you always…” — the very closing words of this gospel, so rich with the sign of Jonah?)

But Jonah didn’t stop there. He didn’t just sit at home saying, “Nope. I’m good. They’ll figure it out, God.” No, he ran away from God. He brought others into his disobedience, and brought chaos on them in the form of a storm that threatened their lives. While Nineveh was passively perishing because Jonah wouldn’t go talk to them, the crew of the boat he used to try to run away were actively perishing—until they threw him overboard.

As Jonah sank into the depths that should have meant death to him, a giant fish swallowed him up. Today, I saw this fish as God himself, thanks in large part to Father John’s Facebook post. But I saw more than that: God himself swallows up our rebellion. That’s what Jesus took, what Jesus became in Gethsemane right before he went to the Cross. He became our sin. He became our rebellion. They say you are what you eat. The idea carries over to Jonah and to Christ and to communion. The fish is now united with Jonah. The fish that is showing us what God will do in Christ.

As a little girl, I wondered why the fish’s stomach acid didn’t dissolve old Jonah in there. We’d heard stories of how potent that stuff is, eating flesh right off of bone. But remember this is a mystery of God we’re talking about—like the burning bush. God is a consuming fire, and the bush burned, but was not consumed by him at the very same time. God can purify without destroying. In his mercy, this is what he did for Jonah. After three days, he delivered him safely, mercifully, to the shore, where the overwhelmed prophet finally chose to obey and lived to see the repentance of a people who were on their way to destruction.

After swallowing up our rebellion in union with himself, Jesus took it first to the Cross, and then to the grave—for the same time that the man Jonah was in the fish, the God-Man is in the tomb. And like the fish spit out Jonah, the grave too will give up Jesus, our ransom.

“Take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel,” the ransom tax. Peter, the fisherman, who will be sent out by Jesus like Jonah was, will see the sign of the prophet Jonah when he obeys this bizarre instruction. He will see his own ransom spit out of the fish, and later, out of the tomb. Jonah’s fish (God) and our ransom (Christ) on display for him, a mystery still being revealed to Peter and to us.

As all this was spinning in my mind, I was also prompted to the memory of John’s description of the fishermen disciples meeting with Jesus after the resurrection (chapter 21). On the third time he appeared to them after rising, he told them where to fish, and when they pulled in a successful catch, they found he had prepared already a fire with which to cook the fish. They ate together of it. Is this, perhaps, their first communion? Immediately after this, he takes Peter aside—Peter, who looked into the mouth of the fish and found his ransom there, Peter the fisherman—and three times emphasized, “If you love me, feed my sheep.”

“If you love me, do as I first asked of Jonah.”

No sign will be given you except the rich and wonderful and complete and perfect sign of the prophet Jonah.

It is no wonder that angels long to look into these things! (1 Peter 1:12) Nor is it a wonder that we will be given an eternity to continue opening these mysteries about the person, character, and work of God. Nothing less than eternity would be sufficient to fully know and enjoy all that he has to show us of himself.


Saturday, July 9, 2016

What if there was no forgiveness?

“It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever going to have.”
                        —Clint Eastwood as William Munny, Unforgiven

What if we lived in a world with no forgiveness?
I mean, none. No forgiveness at all. One bad turn earns another. Harm escalates. Retaliation is all we know. One day, a generation would look back, if they survived it, and say it’s all they ever knew.

Can you imagine? Maybe we’ve been given a glimpse into that in the last few days and weeks—a world that doesn’t know forgiveness. I dare say the description above is accurate. Literally, a hell of a thing.

A few years ago, when, in my view based on my short time on this planet, the world seemed much more innocent and manageable than it does today, I watch the well-known Clint Eastwood Western film called Unforgiven. I thought I would never watch it again. It is by no means an easy film. There’s not much clarity in this one regarding who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy. No white hat and gentle demeanor give that away. And there are far too many sunsets with not enough sunrises to offset them. A widowed man. Hard of heart, it seems. Gets invited into a situation that didn’t automatically intersect with his life. He has to choose whether to get involved, and how. And why.

A horror has been done, to a woman. Somewhere in the story telling, revenge gets the narrative. Greed has a leading-man role as well. Hopelessness and a theme of “We’ve all got it coming” pervade. One bad turn earns another. Harm escalates. Retaliation is all the characters seem to know.

There is no forgiveness.

The end was bleak. I felt drained. I never wanted to see it again.

I wonder if Mr. Eastwood felt the same way about his film once completed. I wonder if he couldn’t let it stand as it was. I wonder if he felt compelled to tell a different story, a story where there is forgiveness, and a hope of redemption.

I wonder, because later, I saw another of his films that came out after Unforgiven. It has a common feel. A widowed man. Hard of heart, it seems. Gets invited into a situation that didn’t automatically intersect with his life. He has to choose whether to get involved, and how. And why.

Over the course of the film, a horror is done, to a woman. It seems that revenge is going to claim this narrative too. At first. But I picture Mr. Eastwood standing as director, actor, writer, at a crossroads. Will this be a modern-day setting for Unforgiven? Or will he direct his character down a different path?

In Gran Torino, Mr. Eastwood took the other turn. The leading character has to decide, and his decision is that escalation will not continue because of him. His decision is, “Enough. It will stop right here, with me.”

I won’t go into details because if you haven’t seen it, and if you can stomach the hardness, the darkness that gives the story its setting, you should. You should see it and experience how the story doesn’t have to end the same way.

If there’s forgiveness. Radical forgiveness.

If there’s forgiveness, there can be redemption. There can be a better ending. There can be hope. And even if it’s true that “We’ve all got it coming,” there can be something even beyond that.

Something . . . beautiful.

The last few days have not been beautiful, but some of you have found beauty and shared it. I thank you. We are hurting and frightened and sometimes angry and craving beauty. Even little gifts of goodness are fuel in times like these. But they aren’t enough for the big problem. We need something bigger.

We’re not the first nation, people, community to hurt like this. We won’t be the last. Look around the world right now. Read Mindy Belz’s book They Say We Are Infidels. Remember the lessons of your history book. Look up Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr. Talk to your parents, grandparents if you’re still blessed to have them. Read Night. Read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. That’s just recent history. You can keep going as far back as you want to, even to the point of a woman named Eve, who brought forth two sons, the first record of brotherhood on the planet. The first record of murder.

We’ve all got it coming?

Unless, there’s forgiveness.

The same book that records the story of Eve’s boys also records later the story of a king who forgot, for a time, what he was called to do, sharing in the responsibility to nurture and promote the kingdom he had been entrusted with. In his arrogance, he made a grave error, and it cost many lives. They were lost in the form of plague, spreading across the kingdom. One death leads to another to another to another. Is there no end? There was nothing the king himself could do stop the plague. But someone did.

God himself said, “It is enough.” And where did that happen? The plague stopped precisely at the threshing floor of Araunah (or Ornan) the Jebusite.

Araunah the Jebusite had constructed his threshing floor on Mount Moriah. Does that sound familiar? Remember old Abraham, the fatherless, who gets a son, whom he loves, with his wife Sarah in their old age? Abraham was instructed to take his son Isaac to Mount Moriah, and for a time we are pretty sure that something awful is going to happen. But at the place, God showed Abraham that what he and I and Isaac all ought to have coming to us was not going to progress. God himself said, “It is enough,” and just as Abraham had predicted to his son, God himself provided the payment on that day.

That same God stopped the deadly pestilence at that same spot in the days of King David’s rule. It was enough. Because he said so.

But that’s not all that happened on that spot. David’s son Solomon was the one to build a Temple for God. Do you know where he built it? Yep. Mount Moriah, on the site of the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite—the same spot. The Temple, which was the place where sins were atoned for and forgiveness granted. The Temple, which was the physical, architectural embodiment of our need, as a race, for a means of forgiveness. The Temple, which represented God himself. 

A couple hundred yards to the north of that very spot, still a part of Mount Moriah, is another significant place. It’s called Golgotha in Aramaic. I haven’t been there, but I’m told that the proximity is surprisingly close. These places in old Jerusalem were in unmistakable proximity to one another, revealing unmistakable purpose. They mean something.

It was on that spot called Golgatha that God, in the man Jesus, said, “It is enough,” for all of humanity, for all the revenge, all the escalation, all the continuing paying evil for evil that we do. All the lawlessness, rebellion, and harm we do to each other is really enacted against him who made us too. But it stopped, right there, with him. Because he said so. Because he was willing to end it. He took MY responsibility for me, in my place. He said, “It stops with me. I will do it. I will bear it. I will pay for it.” And he did.

He didn’t have it coming. He chose what he hadn’t earned to put an end, in an ultimate, eternal sense—not just a temporal one—to this hopelessness we are so steeped in. As completely and abruptly as the pestilence sweeping across the kingdom came to a stop at the threshing floor of Aruanah the Jebusite, so did the condemnation of death come to a stop for me at that site when he said, “It is finished.”

It was enough.

It’s enough for you too, and anyone who will say, with their hope seated in this truth: “God saves. In Jesus, God saves.” In that, I am safe to put revenge to death. I am safe to trust that whatever harm is done to me, or to someone I love, that it cannot take from me my place in his plan, in his kingdom, in his presence. This isn’t all there is, and praise God for that! But this does still matter, and a world that doesn’t know forgiveness will not get better. It won’t even stop where it is now. It will only continue to escalate.

There are two possible paths before us all—corporately and individually. We can choose to move onward toward retaliation and try to settle the score ourselves, justifying our actions and leaving destruction after destruction in our wake. Or we can choose to stop, to lay down our weapons and our claims to even the score, and to say, “It is enough. It stops here. It stops with me.”

The person I most want to be like in my life showed me how. I don’t want to face you, my friends, my neighbors, my countrymen, my fellow inhabitants of this world, with a clenched fist—not a fist held in anger, ready to assault; and not a fist clenched tightly around any possession or right I fear losing. I want to face you with an open hand—to hold, to share, to walk through this existence with.

It is enough. Because of the example set before me in that man at Golgotha, not because of any goodness of my own, I want to say “No more. Let peace begin with me.” I want to choose that path.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Are You Being Served?

Are You Being Served?

If you’re at all into British comedy, the title probably makes you smile, or even chuckle.
“Are you being served?”
It’s so British and polite. To American ears, it sounds very foreign. Maybe even a little prickly. Self-sufficient people serve. They don’t seek to be served.

Self-sufficiency was a high virtue in my upbringing. I was the only girl in a family of boys, and there are many very good things about that. I learned how to do STUFF. Real stuff. Life stuff. I was never treated differently than the boys when it came to being able to handle tasks—physical or mental. Even though I was much smaller and did not have the brute strength they were biologically equipped with, so there were limitations, I learned and put into practice those kinds of basic skills that today I’m thankful for: how to change out an electrical outlet or a washer in an old faucet, how to find a ceiling joist or wall stud for hanging things. I once removed, repaired, and reseated a toilet. I keep my finances in good order and budget well, thanks to my dad’s teaching. Both my parents promoted education and worked and saved well to make sure each of us was given access to both formal education and an environment in which exploring thoughts, philosophies, and applications could be tested.

There is much good in all of that and I would not change my history in that regard. But my own pride enters the scene and turns self-sufficiency into a kind of god that isn’t healthy, and isn’t good, and isn’t even true. It turns the idea of service into something one-directional—all outward from me because of my particular arena of ability. It turns me into a type of god too, and believe me, ain’t no one of us wants that.

A couple of things have converged in this last month to show me how my true God is shaking up my thinking and moving me out of my personal preferences and comfort zones. In it all is the idea of service. Whose service? And what does it look like?

A few years ago, I read a book called Kingdom Calling in a class at Covenant Theological Seminary. A verse used in that book really stuck with me. It’s from Proverbs 11:10, and it says, “When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices.” (NIV) I read that verse and heard personal responsibility in it. “What does it mean to love my city?” I asked my friend Nat recently, while sitting outdoors in the sun on the stone steps of the building where his church meets. In the back of my mind was this verse, and the question, “Does the way God has blessed me bring joy to my city?” He had some ideas. Because his life is different from mine, his ideas were unique to him, but still worthwhile for me to listen to, consider how to turn them in the light of my own life and find a similar gleam as a new facet is exposed.

Ever since that class, I have applied that verse in one simple way as consistently as I can. When I am in a public setting being served by someone else’s labor—as in a restaurant, a coffee house, a bar, a hotel, at the hairstylist, etc.—I seek to reward the laborer for his or her service with a greater financial return than he or she would expect on average. If I have been so financially prospered as to be able to afford the service I am receiving, I want to bring joy to my server by rewarding him or her more graciously than the minimum required.

I’ve just come off the travel circuit for work. When I travel, I am away from my lovely daughters (with one exception: This year, I was able to take my oldest with me on one trip that overlapped with her spring break; it was a tremendous blessing to have her with me.). I am away from the familiarity of my own home. I am away from the friends I might call or text if the loneliness is heavy, or sadness sets in, or something wonderful and worth sharing occurs. But still, while I travel, I want to represent at least adequately (I would like to say “very well” but I know my failings) the identity I have of being redeemed and indwelt by the life-giving God who owns everything in the universe and generously pours out on us abundantly more than we ever even would have thought to ask for on our own. And so, I pray that the financial gift I leave in the room for my housekeeper blesses her, brings joy to she who is employed to keep things tidy and necessities available during my occupancy.

Do you see what I’m doing there, though? Do you see my one-way directional approach to service? It is true that I am benefiting from her service, but that’s not really where my thoughts are. My thoughts are “I have; she does not have,” and so in a way, I am wanting to be giving, like God, to her. Again, not a bad thing. But this season, God shone a light onto this in a different way that exposed my own poverty and reason for rejoicing that I was not seeing. He turned the gem of service to expose another facet—and this one shone on me.

This year, in Atlanta, I had a very young, petite, lovely Hispanic woman assigned to my room for the days I was there. She was friendly and soft-spoken and over time, I saw, very tender of heart. I wanted to bring her joy, and so, assuming I was well-placed to do so, I determined to leave her financial tips to bless her life. But at the end of my trip, she revealed something to me: She saw ME as her mission field, and what she saw was absolutely true.

She saw women traveling for business as her particular calling to bring joy to. She was aware that at the end of my long work day, I would come back to a lonely, quiet, empty, dark room, far from the family that fills my life on other days. She knew that often, I would eat my meals alone without conversation. That I would go to sleep alone without an evening conversation. That I would wake up alone with no one to greet me, and no one to greet. And because she would go home that evening after a long work day to be greeted by a boisterous and very present extended family, she felt pain for me in my days there. So she determined that in everything she could do, she would make my stay as welcoming and friendly and LOVING as she could—to bring me what joy she could. It meant greeting me with eye contact and warmth. It meant knowing how many days I was “with her,” and that’s how she said it, “I have you until Saturday, no?” It meant leaving one lamp on in the room, which costs the hotel energy yes, but meant that when I arrived back there, after dark, I, as a single woman, did not have to enter a dark room alone. I came in to the warmth of a light left on for me by someone who made it her responsibility to care. When I saw the lamp, I knew she had been there and she had thought of me, crossing the threshold, and she wanted me to feel welcomed and loved and not so alone.

When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices, and I was being served by her in a way that was far more than practical and pragmatic. It was deeply personal and relational, and it was what she could do, and what she did do. I gave her a financial gift, but she gave me a relational one.

Today, I got to chat only briefly with my new friend Jordan. He is a gift straight from heaven. Streams of cool water. We talked a little about the difficulty I have, in my pride, of being served—of asking for help. A very large part of it comes from my culture, that determination that self-sufficiency is to be prized as greatly as it is. Another large part comes from shame: Had I been stronger and bolder and more willing to truly BE righteous even when it looked unconventional, I might not have the depth of need that I do have today. I let too much go on too long, and in that regard, I made my own bed and now, that voice of the enemy who has no respect for grace and none of it to offer, says, “So sleep in it.” Part of it is the belief that I should serve, not be served, because of some status I’d like to think I possess, but truly, honestly, do not. Another part is the belief that I am a burden, and I don’t want to be a burden. I want to be a helper.

So I told Jordan that I knew there was pride in there, and that God had been showing me, slowly, gradually, that though I am to reflect and image him to others, I am not him, and I will not actually be him to other people. That I am just as needy in all the ways others are. That I need to let him work through others to me, if that’s how he chooses. And Jordan so gently, graciously agreed. Then he went on his way. But as he was working on a task this afternoon, his mind was going back over our conversation and he was talking to our mutual Savior about it, and he was prompted to call me and continue the discussion a bit with this encouragement that I so needed to hear.

Despite his youth, Jordan knows the scripture, and listening to him cross-reference and pull from memory, and cite verses while he builds his argument is a beautiful thing to experience. It’s possibly even more beautiful when he directs it at YOU for YOUR GOOD, and he’s spot on. He told me that I was missing something. He said a lot, and it went pretty much like this, “Christ is in you. Jesus said, ‘Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.’ This is how Jesus works. He puts a hungry child in your path. Do you feed him, or look away? A wounded person. Do you help, or cross over to the other side? A widow and orphans. Do you visit, or engage somewhere else? What’s the evidence of pure religion? ‘I was hungry and you fed me.’ Jesus doesn’t say, ‘A child was hungry and you fed him,’ he says, ‘I was, and you fed ME.’ Rebecca, Jesus is in you. You know that. You wouldn’t deny that. It’s a fact. For you to say, ‘I have a need,’ is an opportunity for us to serve Jesus, while helping you. And that’s what we’re here for—to serve him. And where is he? In you.”

There’s not one word of what Jordan said that I would try to contradict and feel honest doing so, but I really never grasped it that way—that service to me is service to Jesus because Jesus is in me. So why is it still so hard to be served? Jordan wants to serve his Jesus with his life—with the work of his hands, with the love of his heart, with the words of his mouth, with the presence of his friendship. How does Jesus ask us to do that? By serving those he puts in our paths—all of us, strangers, siblings, acquaintances—the whole of community that we make up.

Who are the poor in spirit? Jordan challenged me to consider. Well, that would be me, Lord. Had I never known my poverty of spirit I could never have known he who paid for me and gave me his Spirit. “It’s a two-way street,” Jordan reminded me. Jesus—whom we serve—did not come to be served but to serve, and to offer himself as a ransom for many. He came to serve—it’s outward from him. He receives our service—it’s back toward him. He receives our service—back toward him—when we BOTH serve others (who have Christ in them, and those who don’t yet but are still bearing his image and have need) AND when we allow others to serve us—who have Christ in us.

So, it’s not just about me. Once again—It’s not just about ME.

Oh, when will I ever get this right? When does the peeling ever become complete? I have service to give, and I have need, both at the same time, and he is in it all.

What about you?

Are you being served?

Thursday, December 3, 2015

To Ask the Unthinkable

I prayed today for God to break your heart.

I prayed that request in repentance too. It's not out of bitterness or desire to punish you. Just the opposite (which is so often how God works)--it's out of deep affection and care that I asked him that: to break your heart.

"If I ask wrongly, please forgive me. Forgive me and do not grant my request. Right my prayers. But if breaking that heart is what is needed, to give that heart its greatest desire, I pray for pain."

It sounds awful. I don't want you to hurt. But I had to ask for this, because I see you. I see you wanting something more and being held back from the freedom to go for it. Fear has you constricted. Fear of what? Your fears are not the same as mine. Convention binds you. Propriety? Professionalism? Reputation? Ah... I was there once. I too once thought that being above reproach meant me doing everything right all the time, rather than sinking into the fullness of unquestionable forgiveness and knowing the clean record never was my own in the first place. All his. His record. His grace. His favor and acceptance.

I see you wanting to love, wanting to draw closer to those in your path, and held back. Speaking of intimacy and relationship, and shutting your own thoughts and pain and longing up behind the mask of togetherness, leadership, professionalism. It's a semi-paralysis. Yours is not a circle to widen for others--not yet, though I see you want it to be. It's still a box. Hard, defined edges. Compartments. Roles. Might we call that box a casket of your making? I know you don't mean it to be that way. We all began there, anyway. Ever since that first fall. "Dead in our sins." Boxed up in self-love and self-protection. Can you have that, and your heart's desire too?

I'm afraid to say that most likely, no, you can't.

Loving others is dangerous territory. There's just no way to do it safely. C.S. Lewis wrote of this in The Four Loves:

There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.I believe that the most lawless and inordinate loves are less contrary to God’s will than a self-invited and self-protective lovelessness…We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; throwing away all defensive armour. If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as a way in which they should break, so be it.What I know about love and believe about love and giving one's heart began in this.

Because I see you, wanting more and holding out at arms' length, I pray for you. Today, my prayers wandered... wandered through my own evaluation, the whys for your sake. And in time, the Spirit brought to mind for me the ones who do it well. Not with polish. Not with programs. Not with regimens. No fanfare. Just authenticity. "Checking on you today." "I hear you." "I get that." Sometimes they curse, because pain requires it. Sometimes they cry because empathy finds another's place and stays awhile. Sometimes they laugh out loud because we're still here. That's all. We're still here, and it's worth a cackle of bewildered triumph. To know, we're oh, so broken. But we're held by him. Greater is he. They don't bring solutions. They don't bring great wisdom or advice. But they know the intimate silence of sitting on the red couch, just being near, sitting, and hurting, speaking softly if needed. Heavy sighs speak volumes for broken hearts. Makrothumia.

Oh, my friend. I see you. And I want your freedom. I want you to be free to love with abandon, not by halves. One thing I have learned, another example of this strange math of our Creator and Redeemer, is completely contrary to expectation: The more broken a heart becomes, the more love pours from it.

I wonder at it myself. Why do I not feel consumed with hatred? Oh, I am so weary of the things of earth--material goods that long ago tarnished and bring no joy, only demand their maintenance. Moth and rust and whatnot. Weary, weary, weary... And there was a time when bitterness sought a foothold. But vengeance is not mine, and over time, that gave way too. It did not take root for long. Instead, he's given me something else with each additional crack. He says the blood of Abel cried to him from the ground. I hear. I hear the groanings. I hear the moans. Wounds that won't close. Hurts everywhere. I didn't always hear. I didn't always see. Sometimes I think it was better that way, but what possible good was I then?

With every heart-breaking loss, another layer gets peeled. It hurts like hell, but he promises, this is all the hell I'll ever know. A little while longer, and we shall all see the Lord. Following every loss, every breaking, the sun sets and rises again, and the grief is still there and that's real. But there's another grain of understanding of what this freedom is. Nothing. Nothing. Listen to it, the inspired words, breathed out by God himself for our encouragement in the face of loss or opposition, or our own fears and doubts that hinder: For I am sure that neither life nor death, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing.

When we break, we bleed greater love. I didn't know this until I experienced it. I see it in others. There is something about a broken heart that requires honesty, and learns to be honest out of that desperate state of nothing left to lose. What is left, cannot be lost.

I see you, not yet fulfilled, for all your very good intentions. I see your heart so full of desire to love openly, that it's about to break itself, but fear holds it in a bit longer. You see, you think right now it is your love to give, and you must mete it out with wisdom and discretion. I know. I know. That's safe. But just as the Lord promises he is near to the broken hearted, to bind up wounds and to pour out lavishly on the undeserving his kindnesses for all eternity, he will be near to you and he will show you his prodigal excess. It's his to give, not yours. Love flowing outward like the river from the temple Ezekiel saw--ankle deep, then knee deep, then waist deep, then deep enough to swim in, and "wherever the river goes, every living creature will live." Live! The promise is for you and for the ones waiting near your own future banks.

I prayed for him to break your heart because I want to see you soar on wings like eagles, unfettered to this demanding ground. I want to see you free from your own self-made constraints to follow the heart that knows the answer to your own passion lies in something richer and deeper and from outside yourself. We have this treasure in jars of clay. Fragile. Breakable. But what is a jar for, but pouring out its contents? Not holding in, sealed--that's useless. Another friend who truly knows what it is to have a broken heart wondered with me about the absences of this intimate closeness in relationship that we all want and can't quite grasp much of the time. "In those days," she reminded, "the love of many will grow cold." I know it's not what you want. And so I prayed, in the Spirit, for whatever it took to prevent that--even pain, if necessary.

I prayed for you to bleed with the boldly brokenhearted. To be freed to love on the other side of fear of loss, equipped to comfort with the comfort by which you yourself will have, then, been comforted.

And just so you know, there's always a seat on the red couch. You know the way.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Silence: When the Father Turned His Face Away

How Deep the Father's Love by Stuart Townend; Fernando Ortega

How deep the Father's love for us
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure

How great the pain of searing loss
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the Chosen One
Bring many sons to glory

Behold the man upon a cross
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers

It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished

I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no power, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection

Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom

Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom

My friend sent me a Youtube link to a Fernando Ortega song, as encouragement as I'm wrestling right now (I know, you're not surprised) with some issues regarding my desire and abilities to serve Jesus. I told her and another friend, "I get such mixed signals from God!"
And the signals change when I least expect it. Who can know the mind of God? His ways surely are not our ways.

That Youtube link led me to the one above. We sang this one in church just a week ago, the first Sunday back from a mission trip with an amazing God and an amazing group of people. Same place we went last year. This year was a feast for me. Yes, it was hard. Exhausting. Challenging. Some things I had planned in advance didn't work out the way I envisioned. There was no huge moment of human success that I can point to and say, "There! We did what we came for! We did something for God!" But yet, it was so sweet and precious in other ways. Like the slow unwrapping of a beautifully ornamented gift, little by little, I saw people drawing closer to one another in a way that was obviously more pure, more genuine, more sincere, with more depth, more Spirit. I saw the tie that binds our hearts to one another becoming. Just becoming. Real. I am sure that he worked more within our group than he did through our group. It felt like a feast for one such as I, hungry as I am for community with a purpose.

It felt like we were building something along the lines of Hebrews 11:10: a city whose foundation, whose architect and builder is the Lord. I felt like a citizen and a fellow laborer in the city of the righteous, prospering. (Proverbs 11:10) Not financially. Not materially. But something even more.

There's been a theme running through our church teaching lately, about individual instrumentality in God's hands. Yes, he works through his body, which is all of us combined. Yes, his purposes have a corporate nature, to produce a people. But he also works individually, and this is something my denomination often forgets, or seriously downplays. "God is no respecter of persons" gets quoted to diminish individual value lest our heads get too big, and in that repetition, Satan's voice begins its insidious whisper. "Not you. Surely not you. How could you think YOU had anything to bring to his work? You're barely allowed in the back door. Tolerated. Not loved. Not useful." 

That's the battle. It rages. I know there's been progress over the last couple of years for me, but certainly not yet victorious living over that one.

Yesterday and today took an unexpected shift. Changes are probably coming. While I can't say for certain yet what that will look like for me, it seems possible that it isn't what I would choose. His ways are not my ways. And I don't like that. What I want to do, for him, what I feel equipped to do, passionate toward doing--may not be the way he wants to use me. And since I can't see where he's going with it, my feelings tell me the reason is that which the enemy whispers to me. And that my questions are being raised to nothingness. 

At this point in my life, I've stopped seeking big, complete answers to questions. I no longer expect to see a large, redemptive solution plopped into my lap. I find, often, it's just little things. Little revelations. "Why, God? What can I take from this?"

A seed. It may be years later when I look back and say, "Oh. That was what that was about. I see now." And even that is partial, incomplete.

Today it was just that one bold line in the song above: The Father turned his face away.
That's the little revelation. 

Who do I love more than anything else? That man upon that cross. Who do I want more than anyone else to be like? That man upon that cross. When do I love him most, and desire him most? When he shows me a bit of the love in his own heart that made him pay my ransom. How do I see that? When I catch a glimpse, even a shadow of a glimpse, of what he endured, his reality. 

I've lifted empty hands to heaven a lot lately. Sometimes I lower them full. In my limited thinking, I call that blessing. I rejoice, for a moment, and then I forget. I forget I even asked. I forget he answered. There's always another need right on the heels of the last.

Sometimes, I lower them still empty. And the voice says, "See? He's not concerned with you. Why should he be?"

But today I heard, "See? This is for a moment, but this is what he did. He felt this too--a hundredfold, a millionfold more greatly than you do now. There was silence, for a time. Without that silence, that absence of response, you would face that silence forever. But this, these moments in this life, this is ALL the silence you will ever know. ALL the separation you will ever experience--these seeming moments of it now. Your empty palms right now--very temporary, soon to be filled to overflowing for all eternity. Glimpse it. Taste it. He did, and he did it for you."

I don't know how he'll use me. I long for him to use me. I don't want anything else. And it's just because I love him. And I love him more now, because I know a little bit more what he did when he endured the silence, the unanswered prayer, for me.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Operation Exodus: Mission to Inner City New York

I promised a blog post about this seven months ago. I promised to blog about it, because I came home from an exhausting week in New York City's Harlem too overwhelmed to talk much about it.

I did talk when the opportunity came up, but I never had the sense that I was fully communicating what that grueling and exhausting and glorious and invigorating week really meant to me, or how it seemed to affect my just-turned-15-year-old daughter either. But it did affect us. Forever.

It was my daughter's first mission trip. She's had a heart for some type of missions or service since she was six years old. I think I was born an activist, often an activist without a cause, so it was automatic that I would want to feed and fuel her ministry interests. Long ago, I decided that somehow, even with our never-enough personal income, I would do what I could, God willing, to introduce each girl to short-term missions around the age of 15. The two older ones started locally younger than that. Since the summer after 5th grade, each has volunteered with a local church day-camp in the summer, assisting adults who serve community kids with a very affordable arts and sports camp. They love the children they get to meet, and make relationships easily. They also readily serve in the children's ministry at our church, and again, readily give themselves to the little people in their care.

On the subway: On our way!
Last year about this time, our church (which we had been attending just over a year) announced a mission trip to the inner city of New York City. High-school youth and adult youth leaders were invited to join in. It was the opportunity I had been praying for years would arrive, right on time too for my oldest to participate. I inquired about going along as well, saying, "I think God wants me to go." The youth pastor responded that he thought the same, and so, we were on board. The trip is expensive. We had no idea how that would work out, but there was a sense of a supernatural palm in the middle of my back, pushing me toward this and a still, quiet voice simply saying, "Go."

We signed up. I felt nauseous at the commitment, as we grownups who've forgotten the daily provisions we've always known often do. I never was sure I felt OK about writing letters asking for support, but we crafted one together and sent it to a few dozen people. Some of those responded very generously. (Some of you reading this are most certainly among those.) I was baffled, humbled, awed by how willing people are to enter into ministry work that they won't even experience or see the benefits from. We put together a yard sale and got some income from that. A friend (Tiffany) even donated some of her own belongings to our sale to help support us. The church hosted three fundraisers and we participated in all of them, with a share of the earnings going to our account. Another friend (Cathy) donated some of her homemade goods for one of the fundraisers, another (Emma's Mee-Maw) donated handmade baskets. The company I do most of my work for donated a set of homeschool curriculum resources. Emma did manual work for a woman in our community; I got an extra freelance editing job. It came together--with even a small amount of excess to share with others in the group of 35 who went.

So in early  July of last year, we arrived very early (hardly slept a bit the night before) to meet our group in the church parking lot. We boarded a bus that had been chartered for us and drove to Charlotte to catch a plane flight to New York City. It was Emma's first time on a commercial plane. That was exciting in a fleeting, life's-little-milestones sort of way.

We stayed in apartments in the same neighborhood in Washington Heights where half our group would be serving. The other half--our half--had to walk and take the subway each day to get to our location in the Inwood neighborhood. I believe the count was 15 women in one NYC apartment. Close quarters, but the amenities far exceeded my expectations. The building was safe, secure, clean, and nicely furnished. We truly felt at home in it.

On site, we met the hundreds of children we would be working with through Operation Exodus, a ministry of the Presbyterian Church in America's Mission to the World. The organization provides after-school and over-the-summer tutoring programs for kids at high risk for dropping out of school. These children come from some of the poorest families in this wealthy country. Many are of Dominican descent. Their parents or grandparents came to New York, settling in Harlem, to seek something better, more livable, than their homeland offers. But education for these kids remains a challenge. Poverty pushes many to drop out of school and try to fend for themselves before they are mature enough to do so. Operation Exodus seeks to intervene and break that cycle with high-quality educational tutoring and an environment that teaches and lives out the God-given value of each and every individual. The success rates for drop-out prevention due to Operation Exodus are exceptionally high.

Our church did a fantastic job of preparing us ahead of time for the personal interactions we would have, the fatigue, the pressure, the stress. We were taught strategies for dealing respectfully and effectively with difficult children, using a method called Love and Logic. We were given advice on how to deal with the unruly. We learned how to accept others' personality preferences, and ways to avoid and deal with conflict in a godly way. We planned ahead the content we would bring to praise and worship time, craft time, lunch, playground, game times. But nothing really could have prepared us for what was going to happen to our hearts in that week, and how deeply people we had never met and might never see again were going to lodge there.

Some of the faces from the unexpected group I was assigned to.
"God's a funny guy," a friend of mine used to like to say. Unpredictable, that's for sure. As a mom of four kids who had to give up homeschooling because it simply wasn't working for me and my little ones and who also worked in church nursery and toddler Sunday school classes for many years, I completely burned out on the total immersion into the preschool years some time ago. I love interacting with teens and older kids, the ones who can take a good conversation and move from the concrete toward the abstract. I don't mind the challenge of the difficulties that come with that time of approaching-adulthood. But put me in a room full of tentatively potty-trained three- and four-year-olds and I break out into a panicky sweat. So naturally, since "God's a funny guy," where did I get assigned: Preschool. And not just "that one year before Kindergarten," but the two-, three-, and young four-year-olds. Babies, in some cases.

A couple of my "babies": a brother and sister

We were prepared to work with partners from our own group: a male and a female in each class, assisting the tutors and then, when the tutors took their breaks and afternoons off to regroup, refresh--we pairs of volunteers would handle the entire class ourselves. That included escorting them across city streets to lunch and the park, and then back again for craft, reading, worship time. But upon arriving, we found so many preschoolers in the program that the grade was split into two, and I was given the younger ones on my own while my partner was put in with the fully-four- and five-year-olds. Another surprise.

My first day was difficult. The teachers were not the same type of tutors that the other grades had. They were, instead, more like grandmothers, and they seemed exceptionally stressed. The children were undisciplined, very high-energy, rambunctuous. There was more raising of voices to deal with them than I was comfortable with--and certainly not what Love and Logic had prepared me for. I just wanted to scoop those littles into my arms and sing or comfort or read--something calming and quieting for their spirits. I wasn't prepared well for the culture that I had stepped into, but I didn't trust my own perceptions either. Without a partner to evaluate my responses against, I felt unjustified in making any sort of judgment about the environment on my own even as it drained me and every shout felt like an attack. I persisted through the first day but at the end, nearly fell apart with exhaustion, stress. Every nerve was fried, honestly.

Our group debriefs every night in a large-group setting. We share the trials and triumphs. It's necessary in order to process well what the 12-hour day just held and to prepare to meet it again, better if possible, the next day. I didn't talk. I listened to others, but longed to get back to our apartment for some alone time with God.

I have to say that our group was well-prepared for the turbulence, even if we weren't aware of how prepared. Back in my room, prayer journaling, I was begging God to show me why I was there. I didn't think I could make an entire week of that kind of environment. I felt assaulted on behalf of the children, and useless. I thought it had been a mistake for me to go. One of the other women peeked in on me and saw my distress. Another did as well. In the smaller group, I could share a little of what had occurred, and they encouraged me to hold on, ask for help. (I understand one of them actually asked for help on my behalf. I'm not so good at that and I doubt I would have.) I slept soundly, woke earlier than anyone else, and spent a half hour in the quiet of the hallway to pray before the day started. I asked for supernatural help, so that I could show Christ's love to these little ones. I asked for mellowing of the leaders in my class too--for me to be useful to them.

To the rescue: The two Columbia football players
On the walk over to the site--many blocks plus a subway ride--our group leader pulled up alongside me. "Heard you had a hard day yesterday," he said. I responded affirmatively, and he asked if he could send someone else to help. I welcomed the offer, and another of the women was assigned to my class that day. But God came through in yet another big, and I mean BIG way. Upon arrival, I found not one but two of the biggest, sweetest, most helpful and pleasant young men I've ever met waiting for some direction in that preschool classroom. They were Columbia University incoming freshmen football players, and part of their introduction to Columbia life was to do five weeks of community service. These two were assigned to Operation Exodus.

The difference between Monday and Tuesday is the difference, I think, between light and dark. Monday was dark. Tuesday was nothing short of redeemed. With all the extra help, the classroom leaders seemed to settle down and relax. The children who were difficult the day before settled into the routine again--Mondays, it turns out, are high separation-anxiety days. Tuesdays are much more like business as usual. The children remembered me and vied for my attention in positive ways. They were intrigued with these nearly 7-foot-tall teens who had joined us and found great delight in climbing all over them. We managed to get to and from the park across city streets with the more-than-a-dozen amoeba-like preschoolers this time with plenty of hands to hold, eyes to watch. The day was still exhausting but delightful at the same time.

Walking home that night was completely different. Again, the group leader cruised up next to me. "You're smiling more than you were yesterday. Better day?" "Yes," I could say with complete confidence and relief. "A much better day." He smiled in a way that surprised me because I read genuine relief in it for him as well. "I'm so glad," he said. A good leader needs only, really, to get the job done. That had happened. Help was assigned. Followed through. Stamp it complete and close the file. A great leader does more than get the job done. He cares too. Our group leader, this year, is taking the whole group plus some more back to NYC, only this time, he's the entire ministry leader. Since last year's trip, he has been promoted to Director of Youth for the church. Apparently someone else sees with some regularity what I saw that day.

It would be impossible to detail everything that happened in that week, but I can and must share some highlights: An autistic boy who seemed to connect with no one let me share bracelet making with him--only he could not bear the mixing of the colored strings and took his bracelet apart to separate the colors into their own segments, then pocketed the strings carefully for some other purpose. Later at the park, when he did not want to leave and was near meltdown, he would let me and only me take his hand to lead him back. I had brought some books from home, and asked the ministry director for another one or two, which were eventually found for our class, and I did get to establish that quiet reading time for the group each afternoon before naps for them. The hardest part was settling the arguments over who got to sit on my lap, who sat beside me, leaning in, who stood behind leaning over... Each day, I left covered in sweat, saliva, tears, sometimes urine, and any variety of the contents of various juice boxes. And each day, I loved it a little more. I loved them a little more.

One of the Columbia players took over reading time after I left.
I was deeply blessed by the friendship I formed with one of the football players. We are still occasionally in touch now, touching base every few months to catch up some, and I hope to see him next summer when we go back. Our afternoon worship times with the whole group of kids, including the middle-schoolers, was at first a bit frustrating to me. We had prepared songs, a skit, content with meaning to communicate to them the lavish love of our Father God, given through his Son Jesus, but nothing seemed to be going in. They were tired at the end of the day, distracted, disinterested. But we pressed on, trying to bring our best. On the final day, God again showed up in a big way. He completely wrecked the schedule for that last day. The entire group except my little babies were to go to Central Park for a field trip, but some details went wrong and the trip was going to be delayed. We were asked to fill the morning's empty time, and so, on the literal spur of the moment, we had to act to put on our music and worship time in the morning. We scrambled. I was leading the talk part, and had an illustration planned to recap the week's teaching, but I needed our Arts & Media guy to come on board with me, with music and video to back me up, with very little prep and planning. He wasn't sure what I was going for, but he promised just to do what I asked when I asked. I had already lined up help in the illustration from our group leader, and he accommodated the change of timing. Somehow doing it earlier in the day, even though we were taken by surprise, seemed to work for the kids in the group. Remember, we are talking about more than a hundred--maybe two hundred--kids. All in one room. All tired of waiting for an event they had looked forward to, now at least temporarily disappointed.

But their response was fantastic! We wanted to end our teaching, which had been about The Prodigal Son, with a party, and a party it was! I got to lead the kids in acting out how we all turn away from God in our sin, but every single time he opens our eyes, we come to our senses, we realize our sin and our need for Jesus, we are forgiven and accepted, and invited to that Heavenly Party where we know the love of the Father always.

Joyfully joining the Heavenly Party!

As more and more kids entered the "party," we cued up the song "Celebration!" and got them all involved in a conga line to celebrate our redemption. It was memorable to say the least. If they took away only one tiny pearl from that week, I hope it was that through Christ, we can all be forgiven and included in that eternal joy of God's presence.

That sweet face!

Saying goodbye to my little ones that week was difficult. I don't know if I will see any of the same children this next year, but I miss them. I miss Penelope's spunk and Sydney's smarts. I miss sweet Angeline with the raspy voice, the deep black eyes, the fascination with my soft, curly, bright hair. I miss Daniel's humor and sly flirtatiousness. Each unique little person came alive that week and they are forever written on my heart. I wonder if children so young can remember me. I hope, at least, that they remember someone came, read to them, played with them, and loved them.

Emma's week changed her as well. She was met initially with one fourth-grade boy who immediately told her he didn't like her. She wasn't as good as last week's volunteer. He ran out of the classroom and she had to pursue him. By week's end, he loved her. Made her a friendship bracelet. She still wears it today. It has never left her wrist--even when she went to her Christmas semi-formal.
Emma and her fourth-graders in the subway

Prior to this trip, she felt fairly certain she wanted to be a nurse in the international mission field. She had even taken several elective medical classes in preparation. But she came home last summer with different wheels turning, and sought out an internship with New City school, a local private school for inner city kids. Because of her Operation Exodus assignment, she specifically requested to be placed in fourth grade. She loved every minute of it.

I know that, as one only at this church a little over two years, I am still newish to the group, but I have been welcomed there. Emma has most certainly been welcomed there. And as a group, I see some friendships developing since last year's trip that seem to reflect the adelphoi assumptions of the New Testament writers. Sometimes the mission is about who you go to serve. Sometimes it is about who goes to serve. Sometimes it is about both. Always, it is about our Lord--and as he is triune, it shouldn't seem odd to us that he can work in such a way as to accomplish something new for each group and his own glory. That he did.

And so we are going back. And we are preparing now. Our group has grown by a few, which is good. Our flights are booked and accommodations seem to be set. We'll return in July, similar to last year's dates. Fundraisers are being planned, and odd jobs sought. We would love to have your prayers for this trip--preparation as well as our purpose while there. If you would like to support us this year, and are able to do so with a tax-deductible financial contribution, you would bless us all with that donation. We must each raise, earn, and save $1000 to participate. Donations can be sent to
Grace Community Church
495 Cardinal Road
Mills River, NC 28759

Please put Watershed NY Missions on the check memo and include a separate note "For Rebecca and Emma." Any excess donations, if there was such a generous outpouring, will be shared with the group as there is need.

Thank you for your prayers, thoughts, and any support you offer to us, to Operation Exodus, to the children of Harlem and the future God has planned for them. It has been a humbling honor to be a part of this kind of Kingdom work.