Mission

The Group: a short story in a big world

Prologue

This little short story started out as a dream I had not long ago. In my dream, I was frustrated and then challenged by my Pastor as he seemingly refused to take charge of a group of people waiting for some meetings to begin. As the day went on, various groups of us just decided what we wanted to do and did it…all with the blessing of my Pastor. Our church has a motto: EveryOne EveryDay EveryWhere. Apparently my brain was working out what that meant in real life while I was sleeping.

In the morning, I shared my dream with my husband, who encouraged me to write this story down. I’ve changed the names and places — everyone from my past and present were mixed up and shifting about as people do in dreams — but this is essentially the story as I dreamed it.

Ken fingered the heavy cream envelope and felt its weight, mentally calculating its contents based on the subtle clues ingrained into his subconscious from years of society parties and invitations just like this one. The envelope was oversized, which meant its sender expected to be taken seriously. It was mailed first class, with a special edition Edward Hopper art print stamp. Not a wedding, then. And nothing institutional. The paper had a high linen content. He had always enjoyed the feel of a fine paper. Whoever had sent this envelope to Ken had taste, background, strength behind them.

All these thoughts flickered through Ken’s mind in the amount of time it took to toss the envelope on his pile of mail to be opened personally, before dropping the rest of the mail in the bin for his assistant to tend to later in the day. Without giving the envelope

another thought, Ken punched the button on his espresso machine and got down to the business of the day, checking his iphone for the day’s schedule and heading to the gym for his morning run.

Across town, Michael and Jen received an envelope just like Ken’s. Jen snatched it from the pile of advertisements, catalogs and bills before Michael had a chance to get there first.

“Let me!” she laughed. “You can deal with the tedious stuff. I want the fun stuff!” Michael smiled at his wife and paused to watch her opening the envelope, assuming another son or daughter of one of their friends was heading for matrimonial bliss. Not a bad state of being, Michael thought. He and Jen were thoroughly enjoying this phase of their married lives, the period of time after their children had struck out on their own and before grandchildren or ill health slowed them down. Jen was a beautiful woman, and after thirty years of marriage Michael was still smitten. He watched her now as her eyes scanned the heavy card she had slipped from the envelope. Her brow furrowed as she puzzled over the contents.

“What is it?” he finally asked, curiosity getting to him.

“I’m not sure,” Jen answered slowly. “It’s from Jonathan.”

“Pastor Jonathan?”

“Mmhmm. It’s an invitation to a two day retreat.” Jen handed the card to Michael and

he read its simple message:

You are invited to a two day experiential retreat.

We will be examining the role of generosity in the mission of the church.

This event will be held Friday and Saturday, May 25-26 from 9-5 PM each day.

Please come dressed casually. Everything you need will be provided.

This is a by-invitation-only event. You have been specially chosen for this retreat,

and its success depends on you being there. Please contact Nadia at Pastor Jonathan’s office if you cannot attend.

Dear friends, please join me for this gathering of special friends. The Kingdom is waiting for you.

It is time. Time to BE.

“Well that’s mysterious,” Michael finally replied. “I wonder what Jonathan is up to?” Michael and Jen had been friends with Jonathan for years, Usually any event at the church had been discussed at least once over coffee or a meal between Jonathan, his wife Sofie, Michael and Jen.

“No idea,” Jen chirped from the kitchen counter. “But we’re good to go, of course. I’ll call Nadia and RSVP.”

In the executive offices of the church, Jonathan stood looking out his window over the parking lot. It was a large church and growing larger every day. The parking lot alone looked like a sea of blacktop stretching on and on. Jonathan hated that parking lot. He felt like it separated the church from his town. If it had been his choice, the church building would have been built up against the sidewalk with parking hidden

around the back of the building. Jonathan wanted his church to be part of the community. The city council had other ideas on setbacks and landscaping, however, and so now Jonathan spent a good part of his day staring out over a barrier of handicapped parking spots, regulated trees and landscaping burms, all designed to completely disguise the church’s presence in the community.

Nadia bustled into the office, a stack of messages in her hand.

“OK, Boss, we’re hearing back from The Group.”

Jonathan turned his attention to his secretary, who had more energy than he had

ever imagined in a pint-sized woman in her late sixties. She’d been his secretary for the past 20 years, since he had come to the church as a young youth pastor fresh from college, and Jonathan honestly didn’t know who really made most of the decisions at the church. He and Sofie had literally sat at the feet of this woman for years, learning from Nadia and her husband Curtis, who had passed away last year.

“What’s the count looking like?” Jonathan asked.

“Looks good. We haven’t heard from the Dickinsons yet, and the Smiths will be out of town. I didn’t know if we should try to reschedule, or if you want to go ahead without them?” Nadia pulled out her iPad and got ready to take notes, sitting at a chair in front of the Pastor’s desk.

“We’ll stay on schedule, I think” Jonathan responded after a moment. “We prayed over this date. I’m going to believe God has a better plan than we do when it comes to who will be there.”

“OK then. So I’ll make sure Facilities has the room ready to go, and I’ll order lunch in. Do you know who you want to cater? Do you want to use the church staff for that, or order out?”

“You know what, Nadia, don’t order anything.”

Nadia raised one eyebrow.

“I know,” Jonathan continued.”Strange. But you will have to trust me on this one.

Also, don’t bother calling Facilities. I”ll take care of everything myself.”

Nadia snorted. “I don’t know what you’re up to, Boss, but are you sure about that?”

Jonathan was notorious for forgetting details, losing important papers handed to him, changing schedules and not notifying anyone. Jonathan could tell she was skeptical abut his abilities to pull this retreat off without her usual help.

“No I’m not sure about it. But I think we’ll all be surprised.”

The Friday of the retreat was a beautiful southern day, with soft clouds drifting across the sky and a pleasant breeze causing a banner outside the church entrance to flutter in the wind. The banner welcomed The Group and directed everyone to please return to their cars and drive to the Community Center the church had recently purchased across town.

Ken and his wife Jackie were confused as they entered the Center and found the meeting room designated on the banner. Opening the heavy swinging door to the room, they found many of their friends from church milling around inside, chatting happily with each other as they caught up on busy lives. There were plastic chairs scattered here

and there, but most people were standing holding cups of coffee or bottles of fresh water.

“Well hello, Ken, Jackie,” a voice greeted them from the side. Turning, Ken and Jackie saw Stan Lomand, an acquaintance from various church committees. Stan was standing next to the refreshment table, which had the coffee and waters displayed on it.

“Good to see you, Stan,” Ken answered. “So any clue what the agenda is today?” “None. Jonathan hasn’t said a word. I was hoping you might know.”

“Just got the same invitation you did, apparently.” The two men scanned the room

and began taking a mental inventory of the men and women gathered. “You know,” Ken continued, “This is a pretty heavy-hitting group.” He nodded with his head towards a cluster of men and two or three women on the other side of the room. Stan turned to look.

“You’re right, now that I think about it,” Stan said. “Michael and Jen are over there, Doc Phillips. And that guy…what’s his name? The one in the green golf shirt?”

“That’s Mitch Richards. He owns that car dealership in town.”

“Oh that’s right. Yep. And over there is Lee Kitson. He was on the building committee with me. An architect.”

“Yeah, but who are those people?” Ken gestured to a smaller group of men and women. “I don’t recognize any of them.”

“I know one of them. The guy in the striped shirt is Nick Swan. I think he’s a policeman? Not sure. He was in a class I took once.” Ken looked at the guy Stan had identified as Nick. He was in his thirties, clean cut, and seemed to be the center of the small group of unknown people.

Just then another acquaintance joined Ken and Stan, and the conversation turned back to community events. The room buzzed and hummed with men and women enjoying the unexpected free time. Before long, however, the doors swung open and Pastor Jonathan entered with his wife, Sofie, by his side and Nadia scurrying along behind him, several large plastic bags in her arms.

The room grew quiet as the Pastor made his way to the side of the room where a few tables were shoved up against the wall. Nadia placed a cup of coffee in his hand and Jonathan turned to greet his gathering.

“So I see we all made it!” Jonathan quipped to begin. “It’s good to see you all! I haven’t seen some of you since our trip to Israel!” There was a murmur as the group realized that indeed, some of them had been away traveling all summer.

Jonathan continued.

“I’m calling all of you The Group.” he said. “The Group. With capital letters. I’m wondering if any of you have figured out what you have in common yet?”

“We’d all rather be golfing?” Mitch Richards called out. There was a smattering of laughter.

“No way,” Jen called out from Michael’s side. “I’d rather be here!”

“Don’t get too excited,” Michael continued, draping an arm around her shoulders, “She hates golf.”

“Very funny,” Jonathan responded, taking control of the group, which numbered around twenty. “No, if you look around, you’ll notice people you’ve served with on committees, people you’ve sat with in church. Maybe you’ll see a few faces you don’t know. Everyone here is here because you have a heart for the Kingdom, and in one

way or another you’ve demonstrated a willingness to use what you’ve been given for the Kingdom.”

The Group began looking around at each other, processing Jonathan’s words. This retreat was growing stranger.

“Well when are we going to get started, Pastor?” This came from Ken, who was tired of standing and ready to sit down and get to work. Whatever that work was.

“Oh soon.” Jonathan replied easily. “In the meantime, why don’t you all have a look around the Center, take a break and meet back here in a few minutes.”

“Take a break from what?” Michael whispered to Jen.

A few minutes later, Michael and Jen were chatting with Jonathan at the back of the room. Stan stood nearby sipping on his coffee.

“This Center was a great idea, Jonathan,” Michael said. “The neighborhood needs something like this, a place for the kids and the old folks to gather. We’ll be able to make an impact with this place. What are the plans?”

“We’re still developing them,” Jonathan answered.

Stan jumped into the conversation.

“You know what this place needs?” he asked. The others looked at him. “It needs

skateboards. And bikes. Imagine if the kids could come here and ride bikes together like we all did when we were kids.”

Jen’s eyes sparkled. “Yes! Bikes would be great, Jonathan!” Jonathan smiled. “Great idea. Why don’t we do it?”

Stan, Michael and Jen stared at him.

“Do what?” Michael asked.

“Get bikes.” Jonathan answered. “Why don’t we go do it?”

“Now?”

“Why not?”

“Well, aren’t we having a retreat?” Michael was confused, and he could tell Jen and

Stan were as well. Jonathan just smiled.

“We are, but we can wait. There are enough of us in this room…Stan, why don’t you

go see if you can get money for bikes?”

Michael stared at Jonathan like he’d lost his mind, and then laughed. “Well ok, then.

Bikes. I guess I can give $1000 for some bikes for the center.”

“I’ll give you $500,” said Stan quickly. “Let me go ask Ken what he can do.”

In a matter of minutes, The Group had raised $5,000 for bikes for the community

center. Nick Swan had only been able to give $100 toward the effort, but he offered to use his pickup truck to go pick them up. Ken, who had chipped in $2,000, offered to go with him. The two men, who had met each other only moments before, left to find a bike shop who could outfit the center with bikes of various sizes.

While the two men were gone looking for bikes, Jackie and Jen were getting hungry. “Jonathan, is there any food around here?” Jackie asked.

“Not much. Why don’t you and Jen go get some?”

“Oh. OK. Why didn’t you tell us to bring food? We could have had a lunch prepared.”

Jen was looking around the room and counting how many mouths there were to feed. Jonathan patted her on the back. “I figured we would buy food in the neighborhood

somewhere. Kind of support the local economy, you know?” Jackie and Jen smiled. “We get it! Be right back!”

The women grabbed Sofie on their way out the door, and walked down the block toward the grocery store, chatting as they went. The walk brought them through the small cottages and houses that made up the neighborhood where the Center was located. As they walked, each woman noticed the kids playing and the women watching them from yards and porches.

“These kids are really going to enjoy those bikes,” Jen remarked.

“They are. I wish we could see them figure out they can come and play!” Jackie added.

Sofie was quiet for a few steps, then stopped the other two women with a hand on their arms.

“Do you think we should invite people we meet along the way back to the Center this afternoon to see the bikes?”

“I don’t know,” Jen responded slowly. “We’re supposed to be in the retreat by then. Would Jonathan be upset if all the kids show up?”

“Do we care?” Jackie giggled. “After all, he’s already turned everything upside down and sent us out shopping. Let’s do it!”

After that, the three women stopped and chatted whenever they saw kids playing. Careful not to scare their mothers and grandmothers and fathers who were watching them, the women invited the whole family to come to the Center later in the afternoon. By the time they reached the grocery store they were reasonably certain there was going to be a neighborhood bash later in the day.

“We should get enough food for snacks for everyone,” one of them said. And that settled it. Jackie, Jen and Sofie went into party planning mode and bought enough food

to feed everyone they had invited and a few more. By the time they were done, they needed to call for a ride back to the Center!

When Jackie, Jen and Sofie walked back into the meeting room, they found the place turned upside down. In one corner of the room a group of men were having a discussion on the economy, waiting for the retreat to start. Other groups of people were wandering around the center exploring the nooks and crannies. A group of young couples who’d been playing basketball outside quickly began setting up the lunch an snacks the women had brought. Sofie went to find Jonathan.

“Honey, what’s next?” she asked.

“Not sure!” he answered with a grin.

“Was this your great plan?” Sofie asked with a sideways look at her husband.

“You’ll have to wait and see like everyone else!”

Just then a little girl holding the hand of her momma walked through the front door of

the Center. The two of them looked around with skittish eyes.

“Is this the place with bikes?” the young mother finally managed to ask.

“It will be!” Jonathan beamed at her. “Come in! Come eat!” He led her off to the

meeting room to get a cookie or two. Just as he opened the doors to the room one of the men in the corner approached him. It was Mitch Richards, the car dealer.

“Pastor, the bathrooms in this place are deplorable. They are dirty, and broken. They need to be fixed.”

“OK.” Jonathan answered and turned back to the refreshment table.

“OK, what, Pastor?” the man continued, tapping Jonathan on the shoulders.

“OK, get them fixed.”

“How? Who does that?”

“I don’t know, to tell you the truth,” Jonathan answered slowly. “But I bet you can

figure it out, Mitch”

Mitch stared at the Pastor and stomped off.

“For Pete’s sake!” he muttered. Mitch wasn’t used to participating in events where no

one was in charge, and he was irritated. “Fine, then…” he said to no one in particular. Mitch grabbed his cellphone. “Yeah, Joe, I have kind of a plumbing emergency. No, no, not at the house. I’m at the Community Center downtown. I need you to come on down here and work this out for me. Yes, now, if you can. I know it’s a weekend.” Mitch listened to Joe on the other end of the phone for a moment more, and then told him to make sure the bill was put on his own account. “Problem solved,” Mitch muttered once more as he rejoined his group of friends in the corner. “Pastor’s gone off the deep end,” he said as he pulled up a chair to the circle.

Nick and Ken returned with a pickup truck full of bikes, followed by a delivery truck from the store loaded with more. A crowd quickly gathered around as the bikes were unloaded one by one and wheeled to the playground area of the community center.

“Hey Nick, what are these?” Jonathan asked as he began unloading larger, adult- sized bikes.

“Oh, yeah…about those, Pastor,” Nick answered sheepishly. “We were talking on the way to the store about the neighbors around here, and how most of them had only one car or none at all. And it occurred to us that maybe the Center could loan out bikes to

the neighbors. We could put big stickers on them so everyone would know who they belong to. And big baskets on them, so that the ladies could take them to the grocery store and back.”

Jonathan grinned.

“What an amazing idea!” he said.

“And don’t worry, Pastor,” Ken called from across the parking lot. “Jackie gave up

getting her nails done to pay for ‘em!” Everyone laughed as Jackie squealed and threw a pretend punch in Ken’s direction.

By the end of the first day of the retreat The Group realized they hadn’t spent any time together learning or praying or doing any of the usual activities. They pulled Pastor Jonathan aside.

“Pastor,” Ken began, acting as an unofficial spokesman. “This has been a great day, but are we going to get to our meetings?”

Jonathan looked at his happy, dirty, sweating church members and shook his head slowly. “Probably not.” he answered. “But we do have some more business to take care of tomorrow. See you at 9:00 AM sharp!”

“Pastor Jonathan, may I see you for a moment?”

Jonathan looked over at Mitch Richards, who was standing a little apart from the rest of the group. Mitch’s face looked like trouble. Jonathan groaned, wondering what Mitch was getting ready to say. The man was not the easiest to get along with.

“What can I do for you Mitch?”

“Well, Pastor, I appreciate what you tried to do today,” he began. “I see that you tricked us into an old fashioned work day, and I applaud that kind of industry. But you see, I think it was dishonest.”

Jonathan’s eyebrows shot up. “Dishonest? Mitch did I tell you what we would be doing, or coerce you into doing something you didn’t want to do?”

“Well, no, not exactly, but the invitation led us to believe this was a high end kind of deal. Working in the center may be ok for some of these guys — maybe that young Nick and his friends — but I’ve done my time already. I don’t do this kind of thing anymore. And frankly, I’m not very good at it.”

“I think you underestimate yourself Mitch.”

“Really? What did I do to help. Tell me that.”

Mitch looked older than his years as he watched the others in the group saying

goodbye to kids, packing up food and chatting here and there. Jonathan realized that Mitch looked lonely.

“Mitch,” he said gently, “you were able to fix all the bathrooms. I wouldn’t have been able to do that, you know. And not only that, you encouraged the other people who were making lunches and playing with the kids. I heard you complement Sofie on her choices of snacks. That made her happy. So even if you feel like you aren’t contributing, just being who you are — where you are — makes a difference. I meant it when I said that every one of you was important for this job!”

“Well that’s kind, Pastor. You’re a kind man. But I still think you’re just stringing me along. I don’t know if I’ll be back tomorrow. In the meantime, it was definitely a day to remember.”

“Well goodnight, then, Mitch. I hope to see you tomorrow.”

The next morning Michael and Jen were the first to arrive at the Center, followed by Ken and Jackie. Jackie had brought some curtains for the front windows, so the two women hung them on the rods they had noticed the day before. The men were chatting and preparing some coffee for themselves when Stan entered the room.

“Hey guys!” he called out.

“Stan! How was your night?” Jackie tossed over her shoulder as she finished arranging the last fold of the curtains and stood back to take a look.

“It was good. I ended up eating dinner with Nick Swan and his friends. Great guys. I had more fun last night than I have for a long time!”

Ken chimed in. “Jackie and I went to dinner with a colleague of mine and couldn’t stop talking about our day here,” he said. “I think he’s coming over later to see if there is anything he can do to help.”

Michael high-fived Ken. “Awesome! Is he a church-type guy?”

“Doubt it!” Ken laughed. “Wife number four, I think. But I didn’t realize we had to limit this to church folk?”

“Well remember that invitation was pretty specific,” Jen said slowly. “But we can ask Jonathan later.

“You know,’ Stan said, “I feel like I’ve accomplished more in the past day than with all the committees I’ve served on in the past year. It feels like…real work.”

“I know what you mean,” Ken answered. “That’s why I wanted to invite John over today, He really appreciated the authenticity of what we were doing.”

“You know what we need to do?” Jackie piped in, “We should all figure out if there are other things around here that need doing, and check to see if there are people we know who could help. For instance, I’m thinking that we need a little paint around here now that those curtains are up.”

The men groaned.

“Should we ask Pastor Jonathan first?” Jen asked. “You know what he would say,” Michael laughed. “Go for it!” they all answered together.

Later that day The Group gathered for an impromptu lunch on the back porch of the center. Scattered here and there in the group were kids from the neighborhood taking advantage of some hot dogs the men had grilled. Ken and Jackie sat with their friend John at a table with Stan and, surprisingly, Mitch. John was telling them about a small business in his neighborhood run by a young couple he’d met.

“You know what they need,” John said, “They just need a couple of businessmen — real businessmen — to take them under their wings an help them understand how to make the tough decisions. You know what I mean? They have a solid idea. They are just lacking a little street smarts.”

Stan and Ken looked at each other and smiled. “OK!” they said.

“OK what?” John asked.

“OK, go for it. Do it.”

“You mean me?” John asked with his mouth hanging open.

“Sure,” Ken answered. “Stan and I will do it with you. Go for it!”

Jonathan walked by just then and heard the men’s laughter as they realized they’d just stolen Jonathan’s now trademarked line. Jonathan walked over to the grill and got everyone’s attention.

“Group, can I talk to you for a few minutes?”

“It’s about time Pastor!” someone cracked from the back. There was a lot of laughter as The Group realized they still hadn’t held their retreat.

“So…” Jonathan began. “Our time together is almost complete. And as I’m walking around the room, I’m realizing that we have learned the lesson of our retreat.”

“We have?” Nick asked out loud. Others murmured the same question.

“We have.” Jonathan answered. “I invited you for an experiential retreat. The emphasis was always on the word experience. You all learned and demonstrated how the church is meant to live out its generosity. You did it. Look around you at the Center: repainted, filled with bikes and toys, lunch on the back patio, neighborhood kids coming and going.

The Church is not that amazing building we have across town, though that is our spiritual home base and has been used by God to form an amazing group of kindred spirits. No, the Church is this. What we have right here. People living in the community and doing what needs to be done. Without a committee to study it or a budget to fund it.

In fact, our church hasn’t spent one dime this weekend to get the Center operational. You have all used the talents and skills — and yes, the financial resources — that God gave you to do what you could clearly see needed to be done.

I told you it was time to BE, and that’s what you have done. You have been the Church. With capital letters.”

“But Pastor,” interrupted Stan, “How did you know we would do anything at all? Did you plan all this?”

“No, Stan, I didn’t. In fact, poor Nadia has been going crazy because I refused to plan this retreat.

You see, for years I’ve listened to you. Some of you are amazing at pinpointing what ‘needs’ to be done. At every gathering, every meeting, one or more of you will always tell me ‘You know Pastor, what we need to do is…’

If we could have done even a fraction of the ‘need to do’ items, we’d have changed this community for the Kingdom. And that’s when it hit me.

God never intended for my church and staff to be the only ones DOING things! Every time God planted one of those ‘what we need to do’ ideas in your head, maybe He wanted you to go ahead and DO it!

So I decided to gather all of you ‘idea people’ together and see what would happen if I just empowered you to go and DO whatever ideas you came up with. And you’re sitting in the middle of the results.”

“Pastor, how did you know we would choose to do…this?” Jen asked, gesturing around.

“I didn’t, Jen.” Jonathan answered. “You could have come up with other ideas completely. You could have said we needed to go sweep the neighborhood. Or hold a Bible study. Who knows? You might have scheduled another crazy trip to Israel! Or any number of things. Of course, by having you meet here I figured it would prompt you to

work within this neighborhood. But I was willing to do whatever God told you to do. I’m just so glad He prompted you to do…this.”

Jonathan sat down and grinned as his church, The Church, started jabbering to each other about the past two days. Across the room he saw Nadia slowly shake her head and begin to clear up the lunch mess. He heard Sofie telling a story to a little girl as she at a peanut butter sandwich. And he noticed Ken, Stan, Mitch and John get out their phones and put a meeting on the calendar. Apparently Mitch had found his niche after all. Jonathan was glad he’d come back for a second day with the Center.

It had been a risk, this strange retreat with no agenda and so much to accomplish. Jonathan was grateful. God had shown up and demonstrated the power of The Church. It was the power to run through a community and bring life in its wake. It was the power to take a man like John and plant the idea of mentoring businesses. Jonathan had a feeling John was taking his first few steps into the Kingdom without even knowing it. Together all of The Group had demonstrated that the Church was the power of community in a little girl’s life as she learned to ride a bike for the first time.

Jonathan grabbed a broom to sweep off the driveway where the kids were skateboarding with Nick. His mind was already reeling with the possibilities of other experiences to arrange for his church. So many of the church members shuffled through their days isolated and lonely. They wondered where the fellowship was, where the joy came from. Jonathan knew that if he could plug them into experiences like this one, not only would neighborhoods be transformed, but his church would be, too.

But he couldn’t do it alone. He knew that now.

In the end, it was the power of everyone doing what they knew they should do, everyday and everywhere.

When God is giving you a dream

God loves to surprise us, doesn’t he?

David and I love the concept of “First Fruits.” There’s a principle in the Bible that urges us to give to God the FIRST part, the first fruits of our harvest, the first part of our energy, the first of our worship. One of the ways I try to honor that — and I am not successful every time, by any means. I love sleeping in way too much — is by spending time with God as close to first thing in the morning as possible. And I really love doing that on Mondays, the first day of the week. FIrst Fruits.

Well today my planned reading was Deuteronomy 1-3. I will be honest with you, I groaned a little when I saw that. I was hoping for a lovely Psalm or a little time with the New Testament church (now those folk knew how to live radical life…they jumped all in). But no. Today I was hanging out with those masters of discouragement, the Israelites wandering in the wilderness.

That’s when God kind of chuckled and kicked my backside, not with discouragement or boredom, but with encouragement and a bunch of exclamation points!!!!! Moses is recounting for the people how God had brought them safely through the wilderness. He’s telling all the old stories and the people — a new generation from the original wanderers by now — are eating it up. So Moses is acting as motivational coach to this generation, and he reminds them of what God had to tell them in earlier days.

I only got to verse 6 before it hit me.

Deuteronomy 1:6 (God speaking) “You’ve stayed long enough at this mountain!”

Ahhhh! That was it!

Get off the mountain!

The mountain…

  • The place God had SPOKEN and RECORDED his plan for the people.
  • The holiest of places in the wilderness!
  • It was also, by the way, the place that Moses blew the deal with the Lord and lost his chance to go to the promised land, so the mountain was also a place of FAILURE.

That mountain represented so much to the people, and God told them to get off it.

I started thinking about the mountains in our lives, both the times of incredible blessing and intimacy with God and also the times of failure. God doesn’t plan for us to dwell in either one of them for the rest of our lives. He intends for us to go out and conquer, go do the things he shows us. You see, the Israelites had a whole land to inhabit, and it wouldn’t get done if they stayed on the mountain.

Moses also reminds the Israelites of how afraid they were when they saw the land God had planned for them. In fact, Moses points out that God led them right up to the edge of the land, pointed at it and said “Go get it, kids!” What did the Israelites do? Acted like good church members and formed a feasibility study. They sent that advanced team into the land, and then listened to 10 out of 12 of them who said the job couldn’t be done. That moment of murmuring and fear cost them 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. An 11 day journey turned into 40 years. Wow. Somehow the people had forgotten that the same God who was with them on the mountain would also be with them in the land.

I forget that, too.

What hit me this morning was that God didn’t just march them straight into the Promised Land and then announce “We’re here! This is it!” No, he brought them to the edge of the Land and said to go get it. But it was a limited time offer: I’ll subdue your enemies if you go now. Murmur and pull back? Offer withdrawn for the moment.

  • God brings us to the edge of our dreams, points them out, and tells us to “Go.”
  • Dreams come with an expiration date: they are time sensitive!
  • When God says “Go!” he will also walk ahead of you.
  • If you’ve missed the opportunity, keep dreaming. God is a God of second and twenty second and forty second chances. He has a new dream for you.

Take a minute today to stop and notice what you are looking at. Are you looking at a dream? Is God pointing you there? Then it’s time to get off the mountain! Be strong, take courage, and go inhabit the land God is showing you.

PS I was searching for my illustration today and came across this quote from novelist Terry Pratchett: “Multiple exclamation points are a sure sign of someone who wears their underpants on their head.” Oh dear. Can they not also be a sign of a very excited blogger who has no underpants of any type on her head? My sincerest apologies to the punctuation offended among you. I shall confine myself to no exclamation points whatsoever in the next post!

I suppose a smiley face is out, too. Sigh.

The Man Next Door: trafficking in your own neighborhood

Sad girl, human trafficking, sex trafficking

Who will befriend her today?

About a year ago I spent a day learning strategies to combat human trafficking from a guy named Brad Dennis. Brad works with the Klaas Kids, the search and rescue arm of the Polly Klaas Foundation. It was one of those days I can’t forget.

Brad told story after story of information he had gained form talking to pimps, girls in the trafficking industry, or grieving families hoping against hope to find their daughter or son alive. Some of what he shared was just what we expected: brothels hiding in neighborhoods, psychological abuse, a few cases of restored lives, the shining beacon that drives all of us on.

I remember one particular thread of discussion, centering on girls who should know better landing in the middle of trafficking. How, we wondered, did these girls voluntarily end up working for these pimps? Brad’s answer was disheartening. A pimp he knew boasted he could go to a mall and within a week have a girl working for him. He’d watch for that one girl…the one whose friends subtly excluded her, walked ahead of her. She was the one who never heard anyone laugh at her jokes. The pimp would befriend her, acting the part of one of any number of quirky characters at the mall. Within a few days, this girl would completely trust him. He was just that nice guy at the mall, a kind of Paul Blart from Mall Cop, the movie. Then the pimp would escalate their contact, offering rides here or there, buying a dinner, eventually pretending to date the girl. It was predictable after that. And all during this time, the underage girl never thought it strange that a man in his mid-thirties would want to date her. She was just thrilled to have the attention, the gifts, the food, the man.

Sounds like a movie. But it was real life, and the plot line didn’t usually resolve well.

And yet, as I listened to Brad, it was still “over there.” Removed.

Read this article from the Palm Beach Post today.

It’s eerily familiar. An older man, living in Jupiter in a quiet suburban house like yours or mine, whose only defining characteristic in the neighborhood seemed to be a string of girlfriends that got younger and younger. True, one neighbor was creeped out by the way he approached her 13 year old daughter, but they were told just to stay away.

Wise advice, as it turns out. Read this:

The girl told a detective that her friend, identified as T.H., moved in with her family in August 2011. The girl said T.H. told her she worked for an escort service. T.H., about 15 at the time, introduced the girl to Smith, who was one of T.H.’s customers.

B.H. described the man to authorities as having a “big nose” and “slicked back hair” and positively identified him out of a lineup, according to the federal complaint. She also identified the Misty Lake Drive home as the home where the sex acts happened.

B.H. then told detectives that Smith would pick her and T.H. up in his white four-door Mercedes and drive them from their West Palm Beach home to his Jupiter home. He’d take them to the beach, out to dinner and on vacations to Daytona Beach. He’d let them get drunk on alcohol and high on pot and Xanax. He’d pay them between $100 and $200 to have sex with him, the complaint stated.

For about seven months, the girls answered to his demands and would do what he said while he taped it in exchange for cash

Right here. And the method was shockingly similar to Brad’s pimp story.

I don’t know what to tell you about this story. There’s no lovely red bow to tie it up with. This man was able to befriend young women (more than these two, according to the story) and use them. It hurts. It should hurt. Like God, we should be weeping when we think of B.H. and T.H.

A few years ago I had my “defining moment” when it comes to this issue. Sitting outside of our local PF Chang’s I heard two young girls being prepped by their “handler” to begin hooking down in City Place. I heard this adult woman tell the girls what to do if policemen approached them, where to park, where to return at the end of the night, what to do with their cash. I saw two girls dressed as if they were gong on dates — kind of trashy, not so upscale dates — smiling and giggling. “I’m so nervous, but I can’t wait,” said one.

I didn’t know what to do. I prayed. And hurt.

In every fiction novel and movie plot there is what is called the “inciting incident.” It’s the event that catapults the rest of the novel into action. Without an inciting incident the book is never published and the movie is incredibly boring.

What will your inciting incident be when it comes to trafficking?  All of us can do something. Together we can change things. Watch this video made by my sixteen year old friend Alexx Duvall. It was her response to seeing life through God’s eyes for “just one second.” Then stop to think about what it is you can do. Even if all you ever do is write a check to an anti-trafficking minstry (Hope for Freedom is a great one!), you can do something. Alexx did.

Love Moves: Human Trafficking Is from Alexx Duvall on Vimeo.

CrowdSourcing: whose agenda do you follow?

The crowd usually gets it wrong.

The sooner I learn this, the better off I will be.

John 5 tells me the story of the man sitting by the pool of Bethesda, hoping to be healed when the heavenly messenger stirs the water and offers the opportunity. “Here it is! Your healing! Come!”

In verse 7 this man says, “Without a helping hand, someone else beats me to the water’s edge every time it is stirred.”

A helping hand. That’s all it would take to help this man get to the healing. Now I don’t know the reasons he hadn’t found that helping hand yet. Maybe he was stubborn, and refused to ask his family to sit with him, help him to the water’s edge. Maybe he was a grouchy, mean old man and no one ever wanted to help him. Perhaps he felt entitled. But it doesn’t really matter, does it. All he needed was a helping hand to get to the source of healing.

Eventually, Jesus stepped into his life and brought the healing he needed, whether he was prepared for it or not.

And what does the crowd do? Grumble because Jesus healed on the wrong day of the week. That healing didn’t fit the crowd’s agenda. And as soon as the grumbling started, the enemy stepped in to win the battle. You see, the healing was forgotten in the great “Carrying your mat on the Sabbath” controversy.

The crowd was wrong and the miracle went unnoticed.

Later, on a hillside by a lake, the crowd got a chance to be fed. Jesus was getting ready to teach about the true Bread of Life, the true source of life and healing and hope and purpose. But the crowd was hungry for the wrong thing. They were hungry for bread.

So Jesus gave them bread. Then he taught them some amazing words, taught them how to come to the source of healing.

And the crowd got it wrong again.

They wanted more bread.

“Oh, it would be so easy to believe if only we had never-ending bread,” they said. And I smirk at them, safely sitting in my kitchen thousands of years later. “Those people had God in front of them to eat, and all they could think about was getting a free meal or two or three. How could they?” Incomprehensible to me how they could be so concerned with what they were going to eat and miss the point that God was there, working, inviting them into the miraculous dance with him!

I smirk, but I should have wept.

One look at my prayer list tells me that 90% of the items there are about bread in one form or another. My bread may look different than theirs, but it is all about making sure my family and I have the things we think we need, when we want them, packaged nicely.

Some of these things are even necessary, but they aren’t the point.

The point is that Jesus came to invite us to join him in the work his Father is doing. Stop focusing on bread and think about focusing on the Bread of Heaven, the true source of life. He says, “And here’s the reason: I have come down from heaven not to pursue my own agenda, but to do what He desires. I am here on behalf of the Father who sent me. He sent me to care for all he has given me, so that nothing and no one will perish.” (John 6:38,39 The Voice Translation)

And the crowd looks at him and says, “Who do you think you are?”

Oh, I know those voices, the ones that say “Who do you think you are?” I listen to them daily, and they keep me from dancing. Who am I, indeed. I don’t write, because really, who am I? I don’t stoop down and help someone to the water’s edge because I’m too small, too insignificant, or the day is all wrong and might cause a controversy. Who do I think I am? I listen to the lies.

Some of the disciples listened to those lies, too. The Bible says that from that day on, a lot of the disciples walked away from Jesus because what he taught was too hard. Some of the saddest words written, I think.

But there were others who stayed. “Lord, if we were to go, who would we follow?” Simon Peter declared.

“I choose each one of you myself,” Jesus responds in John 6:70. Just imagine the power of those words…I CHOOSE YOU. It’s the answer to the crowd’s cry of “Who do you think you are?”

Who do I think I am? I’m chosen.

The crowd got it wrong, and went away unfed in the end. But the disciples stayed, accepted their identity as the chosen ones, and changed the world.

Run

My family is clamoring for attention.

“Check this out for me, please?”

“Before you go, can you just look at this…”

“I need you for just a moment.”

My mind can barely process the requests. They tumble one after the other in a hopeless pile of need.

Somewhere in the middle of the tasks and to-do’s my brain finds a clear spot and time stands still: I need to go for a run. Fortunately, we’re staying at a large hotel that has a pre-defined running path, so I slip my sneakers on and head out the door, ignoring one last demand for attention. I’m focused, and I’m going to run.

My run lasts for a strong two miles and I can hardly wait to look at my progress and stats. I’ve got a nifty little device that records the run, the time, the calories. It’s got all the charts ready to be uploaded to my computer, and even as I’m running the last few steps, my mind is anticipating the rewarding feeling of seeing this run add to my mileage. It’s the kick. It’s what I run for.

Before I can get my breathing back in control the family is there reaching out. One grabs my run tracker and resets it without thinking. My run is lost, drifting through oblivion. And before I put on my big girl panties and face life, I think “Well at least you can’t steal the run itself. I went. I did it. I’m good at it.”

Too bad it was all a dream.

I’ve had this dream over and over, and I think I’m finally beginning to understand it. On one level, I want to run. I always have. I’m working on it, slowly. I’ve never had a run like the one in the dream, a run where all systems are functioning and I’m running the way I was made, the way real runners run. But I’m working on it.

Today I realized there’s a second layer of meaning in this dream. Let running be the metaphor for being my true self, doing the things I know I can do and am called to do. Let running be my voice. My unique voice The one that God gave me. From there it’s easy, isn’t it.

I let life crowd out my voice.

I let that happen over and over and over.

But above the clamor, in the midst of it, there is a space of clarity. It’s a calling to my real self, my real voice.

It’s time to run.

God in a Brothel by Daniel Walker: Book Review

I’ve been drifting at the edges of the human trafficking issue for a year or two now, joining my church in the Hope for Freedom cause, reading, talking, networking. I have sat with prostitutes who were trafficked into the trade by relatives and “safe” friends. I’ve heard their stories and seen their redemption. I’ve seen homes for restoring the souls of young girls. And I’ve read. I’ve read news reports of raids, successful and not. I’ve read books that were released, both secular and Christian. I’ve done what I could, within the confines of my suburban life, to engage in the fight for those with no voice, no justice.

Somehow, however, that deepest well of emotion that lives inside me has not been tapped. Maybe it’s the words we use: human trafficking, modern day abolitionist, modern day slavery. They are cold, distanced. Maybe it’s the size of the numbers: 27 million in slavery. It’s too big a number, and it seems unreal. Maybe it’s just my own selfishness and blindness, living in my insulated life. I have cared about the issue. I have worked for it. I have prayed over it. But I haven’t really lived it.

Until now.

I just finished reading God in a Brothel, An Undercover Journey into Sex Trafficking and Rescue by Daniel Walker. Somehow this book has hit me harder than any of the others I’ve read. For one thing, the book is written in the first person. There are few dry statistics here: most of the book is first hand experience. Walker infiltrated the kinds of places we’ve only seen in movies, the dark and dangerous corners of the world. He put himself on the line to covertly photograph and record financial transactions. He looked into the eyes of the six year old girl offered to him for his own pleasure, and he lived with the grief when he couldn’t find her again to rescue her.

Somehow, I felt it. I felt it in the pit of my stomach.

This is a dangerous book. It will wreck you on many levels. And I need to warn you, it is not a pretty book. Walker doesn’t spare us. He shows us how the go-go bars in South East Asia operate. He lets us feel the fear of girls who refuse to talk about their captors. Perhaps most gut wrenching, he talks about the temptations for him, bombarded on every side by the moral perversion of the sex industry.

And oh yes, just about the time my American soul feels self-righteous about the standard of our country, Walker takes us to Las Vegas and Atlanta. Ouch. Worse, he tells us why investigations in those cities will never go anywhere.

It’s a complicated world we live in. Some of these girls are in their industry by choice, and so do not fall under the umbrella of trafficking. Some of them were deceived by friends, or kidnapped by strangers. Saving them isn’t always easy, and the right answers aren’t always the obvious ones. But the cause of justice — the cause God gave to all of us — demands that we try.

Walker actually went and did something about it.

Read this book, if you dare.

NVader is Daniel Walker’s startup ministry to combat individual cases of human trafficking.

I end with a card given to Walker following the rescue of 13 year old Melissa — a girl who now wants to be a lawyer to help fight the injustice of trafficking.

I wish that you will never be tired of helping such many children like me. I’m so lucky for the opportunity that you gave. Thank you for all the help and support that you have given and showed me. I promise I will try my best to achieve all my goals in life. I’ll reach for them, I’ll try my best to succeed. I will never forget you, never.

The Big Game: Superbowl 2012 and the Nuns

I heard a great story on Fox News yesterday morning while I was getting ready for my day. Since the story involved human trafficking, an issue that I care about deeply, I stopped what I was doing and watched.

I loved what I saw!

It seems that a group of nuns in Indiana is (rightly) concerned about the increased potential and reality of trafficking surrounding the Superbowl tomorrow. But these nuns didn’t hold a prayer meeting or a candlelight vigil. Ok, they might have, but that wasn’t the point of the story. The point was that they chose to get smart and creative in fighting evil. They used their investment funds (who knew?) to buy stock in the major hotel chains, and then used their leverage as investors to get the hotels to train their staff in spotting, repairing and stopping trafficking incidents this week.

Clever!

Is it possible we are too busy praying about the issues…and perhaps we need to get a little smarter?

I’m not saying don’t pray!!! In fact, I’d suspect thats where the nuns got their innovative idea in the first place. Watch the report below if you want. And kudos to the nuns who are savvy enough — and gutsy enough — to leverage their investments into an eternal investment. Well done!

The Circle Maker by Mark Batterson

I just finished reading Mark Batterson’s latest book, The Circle Maker. If you have followed Coffee Shop Journal at all, you know that Batterson is one of my favorite authors in the current Christian landscape. So I have been slowly savoring The Circle Maker, letting its message sink deep rather than skimming the surface of my mind.

The premise of The Circle Maker is simple: God honors the prayers we pray. Hardly ground-breaking! But Batterson frames The Circle Maker in an ancient Jewish tale that takes prayer to a new place. There was, once upon a time, a Jewish prophet named Honi. Honi lived at a time when drought was torturing Israel, and it was time for Honi to pray on his country’s behalf. So Honi literally drew a circle in the dry sand, stepped inside it, and pledged not to leave until God answered his prayer.

It sprinkled.

Honi prayed again.

It rained cats and dogs and threatened to flood the nation.

Honi prayed again until a gentle rain fell.

Using Honi’s story mixed with stories from Batterson’s National Community Church and his own life, Batterson encourages us to circle – metaphorically and often literally – the dreams we have for our own lives, the dreams God planted. Pray, think long term, let your prayers build your legacy: Batterson encourages us over and over to do the hard work of bringing ourselves and our lives into harmony with God’s plan for us.

I spent some time recently thinking about the “circles” in my life.

While Mark Batterson was walking circles around the city of Washington DC (and I say we need more people walking circles and praying in Washington DC!), I feel as if sometimes I’ve just been walking IN circles. May I be honest? Sometimes I’m not so sure that my prayers are much different than the “positive affirmations” that pop psych gurus like to peddle off on us. I pray them, regularly, but I sometimes forget that someone is LISTENING to them.

God honors our prayers.

But do our prayers honor God?

I pray — most of the time — wimpy little me-sized prayers instead of the kind that have me shaking in my boots. At church this weekend we called those kind of prayers audacious prayers. Batterson reminds us that God loves those kind of prayers, because everyone knows that only he could accomplish them. Only God could possibly have one such a thing.

I don’t want to live my life missing out on God-sized answers to prayer.

I need to be drawing audacious circles and then standing in them.

If you want to get more information about The Circle Maker and watch some cool trailers, go to TheCircleMaker.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=_fEcMtG7lxA

Wheaton College 25th Homecoming: going back to the beginning?

Blanchard Hall, the "heartbeat" of the Wheaton campus.

David and I are in the Chicago suburb of Wheaton for my…ahem…25th College Reunion. Today was the warm-up day, the day for us to sneak onto campus, register, wander around looking enviously at the new and improved bookstore, the new and improved dining room, the new and improved student center, the new and improved….well you get the idea. It seems that all is new and improved except, perhaps, the returning alumni! For us there is nothing new and not much improved!!

Or is that true?

Nothing makes you think about the person you have become like your college reunions. If you are prone to a mid-life crisis, a reunion is where you are likely to find it! But as I mingle with these friends who started out on life’s adult journey with me, I’ve realized that I could never have predicted or scripted the course of my crazy life.

In the words of a friend of mine, Bob Goff, my life is inexplicable.

My mind works like one big set of tinker toys, connecting one person to another I just met. I connect books to people, people to projects and to each other. I file information away to be connected to other information at some other time, some other place. I find trends in the challenges facing people who are trying to make a difference in this world, and try to encourage them. I love the people under my wings.

These are the things I do. And as I stand in this rich soil of Wheaton, the place where I started to be who I am, I am coming to appreciate who God has seen fit to make me. Make no mistake: it’s tempting. It’s tempting to look for the new and improved version of everything. It’s tempting to find a new job title that maybe describes me, places me in a category so others can easily figure me out. It’s tempting to wonder about paths not taken, twists and turns.

But I love my life. And I loved standing in the bookstore among all the books I have read and loved. I loved that a faculty member stopped to ask me about our iPads, and whether she should get one for her husband. I loved that I knew the answer to that, and to so many other questions she asked.

David and I agree that we would have LOVED to do college with the technology these kids are toting around in their backpacks. It’s an amazing moment in history to be engaged in learning.

On the other hand, it’s also an amazing moment in history to be out changing the world. And you can’t do that by being jealous of the “new and improved!”

However that salad bar was pretty awesome…and the ice cream machines…and the ice cream topping bar…

Can you ever escape your past?

If we could only hear God!

“And these are but the outer fringe of his works;

how faint the whisper we hear of him/

Who then can understand

the thunder of his power?

— Job 26:14

I’ve seen God do some amazing things in the past few weeks. Perhaps my favorite is God’s total transformation of our friend Bob. Bob was addicted to pain pills and alcohol for 15 years at least — the growing-up years of his two precious daughters. The girls gave up on the idea of ever having their own earthly father in the way they needed and deserved. And God, the father of the fatherless, stepped in to help fill that need.

But there were holes left behind. Only Bob could fulfill his God-given purpose.

A few weeks ago Bob hit the bottom, and ended up in places he never imagined. They were not pretty places, but they were where he needed to be.

God sent John to Bob. John wasn’t afraid of those places. In fact, he revels in meeting the broken-hearted, like Bob. And through John, Bob saw God. We nearly keeled over in shock recently when we encountered Bob hanging around the lobby after church, clear-eyed and delighting in life out in the world again.

“What are you doing here, Bob?”

“Oh, John and I have a connection. He came when I was pretty low. What a great day! I haven’t been able to think this clearly for 15 years!”

I watched Bob’s daughter get  a hug from her daddy and I wanted to weep. It was so good! And it’s just a whisper of what God is doing all around us. Just a whisper! If only we could hear the thunder!

I know that Bob has quite a journey ahead of him, and he may slide back a few times before he gets it straight. But I also know that God is after his heart, and won’t stop until he has it. I can trust God.

As we were leaving, Bob casually mentioned that he’d signed up to be baptized. It was a perfectly normal, logical decision for Bob. For the rest of us it was a miracle.