Monday, May 27, 2013

These Mean Streets...

     When I was in my twenties, at a crisis moment when my emotions threatened to overwhelm me, I was listening to a B.J. Thomas song and as I heard the words, "He's the hand on my shoulder", I broke down and cried out to God, telling Him that I felt so alone and there was no one to put a hand on my shoulder when I needed it.  That evening, there in my car as I drove down University Avenue, for just 30 seconds or so I felt a warm, comforting hand on my shoulder but when I looked, there was no one there.  Yet I knew I was not alone.
    Over the decades since that evening, the memory has come back to me from time to time.  When it happened, it encouraged me, strengthened me, awed me. But it didn't mature me.  Over time the warmth of the moment faded and spiritual growth came through slow, consistent soaking in God's word, hanging out with others who were dedicated Christ-followers, trying my best to follow the One with nail prints in His hands.
    If God were to physically touch me today or demonstrate His power in any tangible way, I think I would be overwhelmed with gratitude.  I often pray for healing for myself and others and I have no doubt He can do it, both in the physical, the emotional, and the spiritual realm.
    It's just occurred to me recently that while Jesus performed miracles when He walked on earth, He also basically said that people who specialize in miracles such as casting out demons, calling out "Lord, Lord", and prophesying in His name  may still hear some shocking words at the end of time: depart from Me - I never knew you. In other words, as wonderful as supernatural manifestations of God's presence are, they can still turn out to be fake, they can be counterfeited, and in the end, they can leave the one who is highly invested in them eternally high and dry.
    But I have  never  seen such a rebuke towards those who help the poor.
    I've seen Scripture where God has trashed religious  people for fasting and offering burnt sacrifices while ignoring the poor (Isaiah 58). And as I've indicated, I've read where God has trashed people who were demonstrating that they were tight with Him because of the supernatural things they could apparently do.  (Matt 7:21 - 23).  And I've seen passages where God trashes His people for vicious talk, jealousy, dissension, arrogance, lack of compassion,  and hypocrisy.  (The book of James).  But I haven't seen anywhere in Scripture (although it may be there and I've just overlooked it - I'm not a Bible scholar) where God says, "Depart from me, you who help the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger within your gates".
    Does helping the poor automatically get you into the gates of Heaven.  I don't think so.
    But it does seem to be a sort of litmus test for those who claim to be Christ followers.
    I live in a poor area where houses are small, yards are open, meth houses are not unknown,  and everybody pretty much knows everyone else's business.  Unlike in nicer areas where most people have privacy fences, remote control garages, and large homes which sort of buffer one family from another, the raw tensions, passions, needs, and rough edges of people around us occasionally hang out for everyone to see and sometimes those unbridled passions culminate in tragedy.
     I know about the family down the street where both the mom and the dad have had horrendous health issues while both sons have done their best to mess their lives up big time.  I know about the widow a few houses down who faithfully works in her yard, volunteers with Hospice, attends church, and carefully locks her door against the crime which is probably present on most people's minds in this area.  I know about several families that have gone through divorce and about families where their kids are out of control, struggling with anger issues.  I know that  I live on a street where great compassion and courage live side-by-side with great depravity and endless need.
     Jesus attracted adulterers, murderers, white collar embezzlers, turncoats, occupying soldiers, secret followers from the establishment, rough edged, foul mouth "dock workers", disenfranchised political zealots, and prostitutes.  He walked the mean streets of Judea and I know He walks the mean streets of our neighborhood today.  I know He was here Friday night when everything came down and a man lost his life, a young boy lost what little innocence he had left, and lives were forever changed.
    Even though I was thrown for a loop by what happened, He was not.
    To Him alone belong the issues of life and death. And to Him alone belongs the power that can break iron bars asunder and release the captives from prisons of their own making.
     Jesus loves every broken heart, every broken life on this street.
     Church is where we go to have our batteries recharged.
     But the street is where our faith is lived out as we follow the dust covered sandals of a poor carpenter from Galilee who helped the poor, rebuked the respected, and willingly died a criminal's death.
     For me.
     For you.
     And for every broken life on these mean streets.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

When Two Worlds Collide

      Two nights ago, a man was kicked and beaten to death just a few feet away from our front yard  while I watched from our living room window.  It was dark, in the middle of the night, and the victim died on the other side of his truck, which shielded me from the particulars of what was happening. All I could really see was shadowy figures running back and forth across the lawn while I heard what I thought was something being slammed into the side of Sammy's truck. It wasn't until last night that I realized what I heard was probably Sammy's body being pounded up against the side of his vehicle.
      Ironically, he was really proud of that truck, an expensive over-sized vehicle that was always clean and polished and which basically shouted, "I've arrived!  I have money!" Mesmerized and shocked to my core, I watched Friday night as first the ambulance took Sammy away, slowly and without any sirens going, and then as a  tow truck hauled off  his beloved  truck, which was now ignominiously battered by bricks and almost certainly stained by Sammy's blood and was perhaps the best, albeit silent, witness to what happened to its owner.
    This morning  I didn't plan to go to church but at the last minute, I did.  In my opinion, it proved to be pretty much a disaster.  I love the music but this morning something broke inside me as I tried to reconcile the bright lights and the singing which was my current reality with the memories of a far different reality - of metallic thuds in the dark of night followed by  surreal strobe lights illuminating a death scene.
    This morning, two kingdoms collided inside me - the kingdom of darkness - which has left an indelible impression on my mind - juxtaposed against the kingdom of light which for a few tortured minutes today seemed to be as surreal to me  as the blue lights on Friday night.
     I had to ask myself, "Which one was real?"
     The answer was: both. Intellectually I know that. Heart wise, for a while, I didn't. Maybe that's not good to admit  but that's just the honest truth.
     All I can say is be kind to the stranger sitting in the pew next to you.  You never know what is going on inside their heart and when a person is torn between Kingdom realities, the struggle can be intense.
   Today the total stranger standing on my aisle stepped back to let me pass her and as she saw my tears she said, 'It'll be alright, Honey."
   And I know it will, just maybe not today.
   And maybe not tomorrow either.
   But in time, the ruler of this world must give way to the One that I am waiting for and at that time, all death will cease and every tear will be wiped away.
   Today I cried a bucket full and am still crying a little even as I write this.
    When I get to Heaven and see my Savior face-to-face, He's going to have to have a ginormous box of Kleenex and those in line behind me will have to just wait while the tears of this weekend are wiped away by His nail-scarred hand. He alone is my hope.
    That plus the words, "It'll be alright, Honey." spoken by a total stranger as well as the kindness shown to me by ushers and the pastor as I blundered out of the sanctuary, which for me was anything but this morning,  thinking to find a bathroom where I could "pull myself together".
    Earlier this month, I heard Lisa Harper quote the "noted theologian Mick Jagger", saying that Mick was right - you can't get no satisfaction down here.  On a Sunday morning following such a Friday night, I would have to agree.
     Yet I know that's  not really the end of the song. The rest of it goes: you can and will find satisfaction up There. 
     If you know Jesus.
     Which I really, really, really, really hope that Sammy did.
     This weekend for me, two kingdoms graphically collided, impinging on each other.  They are both real, very much so.
      I have to ask, to which kingdom do you belong?

Friday, May 24, 2013

Grace and love...

      This morning I had the privilege of going with a "loaner" child to the zoo... ha!  Actually, I have been known to borrow a friend's kid when I wanted to go see a children's movie but didn't want to look out of place!  But this was a bit different.
       This was an Easter Seals field trip and since the parents could not go as they normally do, they asked me if I wanted to go with their son.  No one  had to go with the four-year-old boy - the daycare could have managed without any extra help - but with a bus full of three and four-year-old kids, the more adults the better.  I haven't been to the zoo in ages, my little friend is a really cute kid, and so it was a no-brainer.  Of course I wanted to go!  The weather was perfect - blue skies, warm temps, and a slight breeze.
      When I got there, I saw a fairly good sized group and quickly found my little friend.  The first thing I realized was that I should have practiced a bit... Brakes on a wheel chair??? Who knew???  (Well, my friend did because later he put one brake on somehow and we did a half circle for a bit there...  Pretty sad when a four-year-old knows more than you do...)
      My little friend is legally blind but can see lights and large shapes when he wears his glasses.    As we approached the first pen, I said something like, "See the monkey swinging from the tree!"  One of the workers knelt down by my friend and said, "Do you hear the train coming?"  Immediately she got a response, "Twain!"  I realized I was still working my way up a much needed learning curve!  (How did I get this far along in life without learning how to converse with an extremely nearsighted child in a wheel chair???)  I paid attention and heard her describe things to my guy so I started doing the same.  "There's a giraffe! It has a really long neck and it's looking right at you!"
     I have to admit that my little  friend wasn't impressed with the giraffe but he did reach out to touch the wood barrier separating us from the wildlife and he asked about a golf cart that passed us a little later.  He also captained our "ship" at times, saying things like, "Push me!"  Clearly, I was falling down on the job; I guess when you've listened to one bear nap in the shade, you've listened to them all...:)  So I told him that we'd let the bear nap and move on. He turned his sweet face towards me and said, "I hada nap..."  I got the message: naps are okay for bears but not for boys...
     When we got to the penguins, he ordered me to move closer while he reached his hand out to touch the glass, clearly reaching for the light that was refracted through the water behind the glass.  The little guy has taste - it was the neatest exhibit that we visited, tons better than the bear thing or the snake thing or the capybara thing.  (Really, who wants to see something that looks like a cross between a pig and a ferret?)
     When we rode the train, I wondered what was going through his mind.  When we got to the picnic table, he told me.  "I want milk."  "No milk!  I want apples."  "No apples! I want milk."  I went through a routine worthy of vaudeville as I opened a jar of apple sauce only to have to close it again in order to break out the milk only to have to put it away in order to break out the apple sauce again.  He never drank or ate anything but had fun keeping me busy until finally I burst out laughing and said, "You are playing with me!"
      His teacher said he'd probably eat after his nap which automatically elicited another, "I hada nap!"
      During the trip, there was another woman who was accompanying her niece, also a child in a wheel chair. This girl looked to be about 7 years old and she only opened her eyes maybe two times during the whole outing.  She was  dressed in a cute outfit and her hair was nicely fixed but she never really moved or showed any sign of being aware of what was going on around her. The aunt and I talked some and she gave me some tips on how to handle the wheel chair.  When it was lunch time, we ended up at different tables and for a time I was so absorbed in the  I-want-whatever-you-don't-have-in-your-hand-at-the-moment game that I wasn't aware of anything else.  Then when we were "finished" and waiting for the others to catch up, just sitting in the shade soaking up the breeze, I saw that the aunt had a small bag that looked like a miniature IV and she was holding it up in the air. It was at that point that I realized the little girl must have a feeding tube. I watched as the aunt held the bag up for a bit and then lowered it and added some liquid into it before raising it again.
      And I thought about it.
      I thought about how it would take so much grace to love like that.
      The little one I was accompanying was adopted by two of the sweetest Christians I know. They got their son when he was almost two years old.  At that time he was thought to be completely blind, he couldn't eat any solid food, he couldn't sit up on his own, and he couldn't say a single word.  Today he walked at times while I held onto his hands, he sat up in the train with me, he told me what to do :) ("No dwinkee!!"  "Go!!!") and as I've already indicated, he operated the brakes on his wheel chair better than I did.
      That's love. That's grace.
       But doesn't the same thing apply in any relationship?  In any relationship, doesn't it take both grace and love? Grace for the difficult times and love all the time?
     I was still turning those things over in  my mind on my way home. As I parked the car, I suddenly really heard the words that were coming from my CD - something about a time when there will be no more pain, no more scars... And to my complete surprise, I started bawling right there in my car.  Because of a woman who pushed her niece through the zoo today  for 2 hours and then fed her through a tube while sitting at a picnic table.  Because of a boy who couldn't sit up, talk, or walk over two years ago and now he can do all those things.  And because someday both kids will be able to run, skip, and jump.
     In theinterim, there is Grace. And Love.  In all shapes and sizes.
     Today my little friend got to hear about monkeys swinging from the trees and I got to see.  Grace and love in action.

Friday, May 10, 2013

I Have Loved You...


 When we first got married over 26  years ago now, I took a couple of gift certificates to Dillards and bought a very expensive set of king size sheets.  Over the years, it proved to be a good investment - those sheets lasted for-ever! And we never got tired of them, we both liked the colors and patterns. Eventually however, even expensive sheets from Dillards wear out.  Still, when I could have thrown them out, I didn't.   I kept them partly for nostalgia and partly because, well, they are still holding together inspite of everything.  I sort of feel like they kept up their end of the bargain and now I need to keep up mine :)
    It has occurred to me today that our marriage is somewhat like those old sheets.  Still colorful in most areas but definitely marked with ink stains (I journal in bed) and even tears - the ruffled border is, alas, no longer attached in places.
    In the same way, we can look back over the fabric of our marriage and see holes that were torn by the death of loved ones, stains that were created by financial difficulties, raveled edges that testify to the joys and perplexities of child-rearing, rents  that testify to heated words and selfish actions.  By the same token, we  can also see patches where strangers were grafted into our lives for a time for better or for worse.  (Thankfully, mostly for the better!)
     If we just focused on the stains, the stresses, the losses,  and the tears that have come our way, we could easily have given up on our marriage.  It's so human to take one negative event and draw a lifetime of conclusions from it - and we've tried to do that from time to time, please don't think we haven't.  Thankfully God is always encouraging us to look at the big picture, the overall trajectory of our lives, the blessings as well as the difficulties.
     And so now you think you know where I'm going with this while I just hope I know where I'm going with all this :) Seriously.
     I think I'm just saying that what we are tempted to do in marriage, we are also tempted to do with God.  Something terrible happens and we tell God, "I'm outa here!  Clearly, You don't love me anymore!"  Frankly, I can understand that.  I saw my own mother wrestle with deep sorrows and perplexing situations until  ultimately it became a tussle with God; He won thankfully and she stayed the course - has long since been living at home with Him, free of any and all tussles. But still,  at one point  it was a battle.
    I also  think most Christians fear the awful gash in the fabric of our relationship with our divine Father.   Maybe it's because we use each isolated life  event as a thermometer indicating love (or lack thereof) and so we are vulnerable at each new bend in the road.  Whenever  a life altering event comes along or  a bunch of petty negatives keeps coming one after the other, in wave after wave, the relationship  thermometer looks busted, our hearts seem irreparably damaged, and we can easily  conclude that God doesn't love us anymore. Just as we can so easily do in our marriages. One tough thing cancels out years of good things so to speak.
    But what I'm learning from a Bible study on Malachi by Lisa Harper is that when, as she puts it, our Tara is trashed and our dog has died :), God tells us to look at the big picture, not to throw the overall fabric of our relationship with Him (and others) out because we hit a rough patch in life.
    Honestly, I fully believe that some day each isolated rent, stain, and frayed border here on earth will become  nostalgic markers  in the overall tapestry of His rich,  enduring, cradle-to-Heaven love.  But until then, we need to keep our eyes on the big picture.
     "I have loved you," says the Lord.
     But you say, "How have You loved us?"
                                                Malachi 1:2