Monday, June 30, 2014

Never Too Old to Learn from Mom

Yesterday, I learned that I am never too old to learn from my mother. When I was a child, she taught me life skills and boundaries and as I grew older, she taught me to explore and stretch those boundaries. Here I am in my forties and she in her ‘very mature adulthood’ and we’ve begun the transition that happened between every child and adult at this time in our lives where I lean less on her and she leans more on me. But that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have a lot to give and I that don’t have a lot to learn.

We were in the car in a long line of cars inching our way out of a downtown parking garage when the back-up lights of a second parked car in two minutes shown bright signaling their hope to pull out of their space in front of us in line. My mom, a very patient woman, was happy to let them out in front of us. She told me that every morning she prays that God would give her an opportunity to serve him and she figured this was one of those opportunities. Little did we know then that God had a much bigger job lined up for her just half an hour later.

It had been a very busy day and I’d only enough time to eat a couple of pieces of cantaloupe for lunch before heading off for the show with my mom. It was 5:30 p.m. now and I was starving so we picked up Chinese take-out on the way to my apartment complex. As we turned onto my street, we saw a very elderly man heavily leaning on a young man’s arm. The elderly gentleman didn’t look well so we stopped the car and asked if we could help. The young man told us that he was at the corner convenience store and the old man asked if he would help him get back to his apartment. The older gentleman had fallen in the parking lot and we could see he had a bloody elbow. (Quite frankly, this man was so frail I don’t know how he walked down the hill to the convenience store in the first place.) It took three of us to ease him into the car and Mom drove him up the hill to his apartment building. Again, it took all three of us to get him up the steps of his building and then up the steps to his apartment. It was slow going and the man had to rest for a while before tackling that last staircase.

The harshness of life had etched deep lines on this man’s face. At one point, as my mom was standing behind him steadying his balance with her hands on his waist, he told her not to stand so close because he had messed his pants. My mom smiled and told him in her most loving voice, “That’s okay. We’re not worried about that. We’re just worried about getting you home.” He kept apologizing when he had to sit down on the steps for taking up our time and she told him not to worry. “Take your time. When you’re ready, we’re here.” I watched her help this man up the stairs in amazement. My mom is handicapped and needs help on staircases herself and yet, she had a quiet strength supporting this man up every step. She asked him four times if there was someone we could call and he told us no. He had no one. He was all alone. We got him to his chair and noticed from the soiled newspaper on the chair that he was in need of more permanent help. We bid him good bye and all three walked out. We gave the young man his bag and offered to take him home. He said no and took off.

I need to stop the story right here for a moment and tell you something that I’m a little ashamed of. The whole time we were helping this older man, my heart wasn’t completely in it. You put me in a room with a bunch of grieving people or abused children and my whole heart is poured out for their pain without a thought. But other people’s physical pain and older people’s disabilities are hard for me (except when it comes to mom—then I don’t even think about it). As I said, I was starving and I was anxious to get home and get changed out of the dress I had been wearing all day and get into a pair of shorts and t-shirt. Not to mention that I spent the entire weekend surrounded by people and my introverted battery was seriously blinking away for a recharge. The whole time, my compassion was being beset with thoughts of the Chinese take-out and the purses we left locked in the car outside the building. I kept tripping on my dress on the way up the stairs and thinking how much easier this would have been in shorts. I was feeling guilty because Mom was helping him up the steps and I was carrying his jacket and bag—She very protective of my herniated discs issue. I wish I could say that God’s Spirit moved in me and I was full on compassion for this man and his situation, but I would be lying.

After he was in his apartment and Mom drove me to my front door, she told me she was going back and calling 911 for an ambulance because it was the right thing to do. I asked her if she wanted me to wait with her and she told me it was up to me. On the way down the stairs to my apartment (to put my delicious smelling dinner in the refrigerator) I was still arguing with myself. But in the end, I wasn’t going to let my mother wait out there alone. So I changed clothes quickly and ran back out to her car. EMS came as I was bringing her some water and we directed them to the man’s apartment. A neighbor appeared and explained that he hasn’t had anyone visit him in over a year. He has no family in town and his son who lives in another state stopped calling because the man is hard of hearing and wasn’t answering the phone. She tries to look in on him every once in a while, but thought he was away because his car wasn’t in the parking lot. As mom and I were walking down the steps to her car, she smiled and said, “I’m so happy that the Lord gave me something to do for him today.”

That’s the moment when I realized that she was teaching me a new lesson—How to live for and love Christ in strangers. I imagine that Timothy also struggled with selfish thoughts as Paul taught him how to live for Christ and be a leader in the Church. As I contemplate on this moment, I realize that my thoughts were trying to draw me away from the miracle Jesus was bringing into my neighbor’s life through my mom’s obedience and compassion and I didn’t let them. I thought those things, but I knew what I was doing was more important and put my will, my desires, aside for God’s will and desire. God isn’t unhappy with me because I had selfish thoughts. Next time I face a situation of selfish thoughts vs. God’s will, I think it will be easier for me to put aside those thoughts and the time after that—maybe they won’t occur at all. Being a follower of Christ isn’t a magic trick – Abracadabra, you’re a mature disciple. It’s a growth process and yesterday, God gave my mom an opportunity to serve, me an opportunity to grow, and my elderly neighbor – and answer to his prayer for help in the form of an angel and her daughter (and a young man none of us knew).

Monday, June 23, 2014

Until He Finds Me

I heard one of the most familiar scriptures in worship this week: The Parable of the Lost Sheep. “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent." Luke 15:4-7.

In the beginning of my walk with Christ, four words in this parable made a very big impression on me. In those four words, I began to know God's indescribable love. They showed me just how much God loves me, how precious I am to him. Those four wordsuntil he find it. Those four words tell me that no matter how far I've fallen away, no matter how sinful and defiant I am, Jesus will pursue me, look for me, search for me in the deepest of wildernesses to bring me back into his loving, caring arms. Until means that he will NEVER GIVE UP on me! Never. He will search UNTIL HE FINDS ME! Everytime! I'm humbled by and grateful for how deeply he loves me.

It brought to mind a poem I wrote a couple of years ago in response to Psalm 119:105-112.  I'd like to share it again here for you. Enjoy!

Light the Way
O LORD, You ways are superior
Your thoughts incomprehensible
and mysterious – 
still somehow accessible
to those who hear Your Voice
and praise Your Name.
In my heart and mind
You’ve revealed Your Word,
Your will, Your plan, 
in such a way 
that I can understand.
You’ve unlocked Your wisdom
Your Spirit illumines the way
as I determine to follow Your footsteps,
through life, 
every hour of every day.
Sometimes I’m bruised from falling
Pricked by thorns when I go astray and
You guide me back to the narrow path
When I cry out for grace 
in Jesus’ name.
You never leave me to suffer
nor condemn my miserable, sorry soul
though I’ve flaunted my defiance for all to see.
You won’t leave me in my arrogance
for You’ve given in Your Holy Word
a guarantee 
that You will search the wilderness
until You, the LORD, recover me.
I am Your child, Your follower
saved by Your love and grace alone
All that I possess I received from You
I have nothing of my own to give
in gratitude
except my heart, my soul, 
my mind,
my willing praise, 
and the life I live.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Why I Am a Christian

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it. Matthew 13:44-46

Last week, I spent five hours sifting through tens of thousands of books at a massive used book sale that benefited a local counseling ministry. I quickly browsed the classics and poetry and crafting sections, but spent the majority of my time combing through the religion section. I painstakingly fingered my way through each and every title, picking up to investigate those that caught my attention and tickled my curiosity. I felt like a treasure hunter digging through the relics of a past civilization searching for the long, forgotten, priceless gem of great beauty rumored to exist. Don’t tell me reading isn’t an adventure!!!

I turned off the TV and picked up and read one of those priceless gems last night—Jesus with Dirty Feet by Don Everts. I had actually put it back a couple of times because of the subtitle: A Down-to-Earth Look at Christianity for the Curious & Skeptical. While I was that person a decade and a half ago, I am no longer skeptical about the faith I have come to embrace. The main title and the content’s poetic form kept calling out to me, so I relented and purchased it. Boy, am I glad I did! First of all it is a marvelous book, not just for the curious and skeptical, but also for those who, like me, out of the sheer daily living of our Christian faith can become blind to the beauty and significance of it.

In its pages, I was reminded of why I became a Christian— a follower of Christ. I didn’t buy into the Christian “religion” or a particular set of religious rules nor was I hedging my bets with some sort of eternal insurance policy. But rather I met Jesus and responded to his request to “Follow Me” by dropping everything and doing my best to place my feet in his footsteps. I follow Jesus because he showed and shows me unconditional love and lavishes me with grace and forgiveness. I am with Jesus because he gave up everything to be in relationship with me. He gave up his throne and his life to redeem me. He belittled himself to encase himself in human flesh to speak to me and show me how to live a happy, full life of godly obedience and self-sacrifice. He promises to be with me always and stands by his promise in the presence of the Holy Spirit in my heart and in my life. He healed my brokenness and taught me joy. He encourages me and helps me up when I stumble. He finds me when I not sure where I am and sustains me every minute of every day. That’s why I am a follower of Christ—a Christian.

Why did you become a Christian, a follower of Christ?

Monday, June 9, 2014

A Day at the Zoo REVISITED

The church I work at is all geared up for the start of Vacation Bible School today. As I was sitting here thinking about all the children and volunteers that will be swarming over the campus in a few hours, that tired old cliche, "It's going to be a zoo around here" came to mind. This brought to mind a blog I wrote five years ago about the resemblance between life as a Christian and the Pittsburgh Zoo. So I thought I'd re-post it here today just for fun. Enjoy!

Last weekend, I went to the zoo. While looking through the pictures I took there, it occurred to me that there are many similarities between the zoo and my life as a Christian. At the zoo, the animals are in their own engineered environment that looks and feels a lot like their native habitat even though that might be thousands of miles away. These habitats will never match the beauty or afford the freedom to the animals of their native habitats. Still, these animals have adapted to their environment and go about daily life as if they were in Africa or China, or the North Pole. While they may seem to be self-sufficient in their habitats, the animals must ultimately rely on zookeepers and veterinarians to care for them and provide for their needs. Throughout the day, the animals are constantly being looked at and watched by hundreds of curious people who are on the other side of a protective wall wanting to learn more about these strange and exotic creatures.

As a Christian, I too am a stranger in a strange land. I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, but my home is heaven. However, there is love and generosity, kindness, empathy and respect to be found here on earth just as in heaven. God is God and Jesus is the Savior anywhere on this planet as in heaven. His Spirit in my heart and his presence in my life enables me to adapt to this earthly residence and live my everyday life as if I were home. I can love God and love those around me here, as I will in heaven. But someday when I go home, I will know a freedom that I cannot experience here and now.

I work to earn money to buy food and clothing and secure shelter and transportation, but I rely on God to provide for my needs. It's because of God that I have a job (literally - I'm a church secretary) and that there is food to buy, and so on. I rely on God to care for me. When I feel lonely, I know that I am not alone because he is always with me. I turn to him when I am sick or when my world turns upside down. He teaches and guides me. He loves and nurtures me.

There are many non-Christians that I encounter in my daily living who pay attention to my actions trying to learn more about how and why I do things. This relationship with God that I have is unfamiliar and foreign to them and they want to learn, so they observe how my relationship with God makes my life different from theirs. Some are mildly curious and just gawk at the differences without trying to understand them. Others are very interested and, trying to understand, ask questions.

Many of them do this from behind an invisible protective wall that they've erected (This God-stuff is okay for you, but it's not for me. All religions are the same. If God is so good...). Sometimes the wall is put there by me (I don't have time. I don't want to get hurt. That's not my spiritual gift.). The Bible says that we are not to be of the world, but we are to be in the world. So I guess that means that the walls need to come down. Can you imagine that at the zoo? Complete chaos and fear. And in that scenario, Christians are the dangerous animals. That might explain the hostility we see toward Christians in many parts of the world.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Holy Spirit Word Study - Roman 15:19

 I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done— by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit of God. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. Romans 15:18-19

I’ve been looking at the passage above for some time now as part of my Holy Spirit word study. So often I’ve felt inadequate when it comes to the concepts of evangelism and mission. I’m not certified in any way, shape, or form to “lead a person to Christ.” I don’t know the Roman Road, haven’t memorized scripture, and I don’t have the “plan of salvation” written out in neat little brochures to hand out to people. And as far as mission is concerned…My health issues make me unsuitable for rebuilding roofs, painting kitchens or traveling in third world foreign countries. So it is easy to see how I feel unqualified and unable when it comes to evangelism and mission.

But what Paul is saying here is that none of that matters. He had been the model Pharisee until Christ called him on the road to Damascus—going to church every Sabbath, giving a tenth of everything he had (even the spices in his kitchen), and making sure he removed himself from the company of sinners so as to remain righteous. Because of this, he had great knowledge, was trained extensively in the God’s Word and had committed it to memory. He was capable and unhindered when it came to traveling throughout the world and was handy with tools. He had everything I feel I lack, but none of this was of value to him when it came to” leading the Gentiles to obey God.”

Instead, he relied on the Holy Spirit to open the eyes and ears and hearts of those Paul encountered. The Spirit used Paul’s life as the testament of God’s love. Paul’s witness to God’s grace in his life was, by the Spirit’s power, evident in Paul’s faith and in his sacrificial love for the people he met.  Saul’s redemption and new life as Paul was a signpost to all – You too can have the healing and hope you see in me.

So of course I started to look at my own life looking for the signposts and the first thing I had to realize is that the signposts of my life are not there for me, but for others. So what is the Spirit saying to people through the example of my life? There have been many miracles of healing in my life and what I learned from them is that I am loved, I am not alone, and I have value. My past, as painful as it was, is not a wretched memorial of a time gone by, but a living breathing symbol of the hope of Christ in a sinful world.

This is the message the Spirit speaks to you through my writing and my living:
You are loved!
You are not alone!
You have value!