faith

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.

Alzheimer’s: Scared of the Dark

Some days I feel as if I accomplish nothing. Absolutely nothing. I am bombarded by the  mountains of details in life: my closet needs to be cleaned out, my kid needs to be moved across the country, my businesses kind of need to be managed. But in the words of Rhett Butler, “Frankly my dear…” This is one of those days, so if that scares you, hit the “back” button on your browser and move along.

I’m too tired to put a glossy veneer on my life.

If, on the other hand, your life is piling up into great big snowdrifts that will never melt and are freezing you to your core, you might want to keep reading, if for no other reason than to realize you have company.

My mother is dying, and I don’t really know how to process that. She isn’t dying quickly and neatly, either. That would be too easy. Honestly, Mom never made anything too easy on me so I don’t know why I expected any different out of her death. She is dying one brain cell at a time. Planning for her death amounts to estimating how many brain cells she has left before she starts killing off ones required for functions like eating and breathing. It really stinks. And some days I can’t wait for it to be over.

Last night she forgot how to open the door of her bedroom, so she stood in her room in the dark. She was afraid and had no way to escape from her room. Can you imagine that? She began banging her head on the door, over and over until her caregiver came running and, without even one conscious thought, opened the door and let the light pour in. Such a simple thing: open the door. By then Mom’s head was swelling, even though she couldn’t have hit her head more than a few times. It must have felt like eternity to Mom, those 30 seconds before the caregiver was able to move from the living room to the bedroom door.

An 80 year old woman standing trapped in the dark.

Most of last week was a little like that. Mom has intermittent attacks of something we can only call “non-responsive moments.” She goes to sleep and won’t or can’t wake up. The doctors don’t know why it happens, or why she spontaneously comes back after a time to begin living her horribly difficult life again. Last week she nearly didn’t come back, and as hard as it would have been, that would have been a blessing. Every time she wakes back up she awakens to a life that is a little more confusing than before, a little smaller and a lot scarier. David and I made some hard decisions on what “heroic measures” mean to a doctor and caregivers. We found double-sided locks and put them on her doors so she can’t wander out into streets. We even spent one really icky “observation day” in an Alzheimer’s ward with Mom, during which she wandered the ward and cleaned everyone else’s room. She ended that day by climbing, Goldilocks-like, into a comfy bed and falling asleep from sheer exhaustion. I wouldn’t wish her life on anyone right now, let alone my own mother.

Now is the time when I usually bring my thoughts back to what I know is true. I know that God loves her and his heart hurts for her too. I know that he loves me, and is using all of this for some grand purpose. I know that my days do accomplish things, even ones like today that seem to be filled with pointless moments and steps backwards in the race to life in the Kingdom. I know – though I do not feel – that all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to his purpose. I know these things.

So on another day I might be able to share an insight from this day, or encourage you on your own pathway. I might be able to see how the Kingdom is being brought a little closer by my day. Knowing those things, seeing those things, sharing those things might make sense of all this.

But not today.

Seasons

The first blush of Autumn

From a walk to Lexington Center last week

It’s that time of year again…the time when everyone ELSE in the country begins to talk about seasons! I love fall, and this New England girl always feels a twinge in her soul when the leaves up north start turning and I’m not there to see it. Obviously these days I’ve been pretty mobile, and David and I did get to see the first signs of the coming fall last week when we were in Lexington, MA.

I’ve been thinking about seasons for another reason, too. You see, we were cleaning out the nooks and crannies of my mom’s condo in Lexington in preparation for selling it. Mom is quite happy in Florida these days. Her Alzheimer’s is narrowing her world down to the happy routines that take her from morning to night with people who care about her and a toy or two to entertain her.

But sorting through her things…well that was a new season in both of our lives. Thank the Lord she and Dad were never pack rats! It was such an easy job, relatively speaking. I enjoyed looking at her college notebook, baby pictures of all of us, 1950′s books on the modern girl’s guide to entertaining. By the time we were done and I’d packed a box or two of memories, all the seasons of Mom’s life were on display.

Vintage mixer

Don't you love this vintage mixer?

It struck me how very varied they were, those seasons. Young girl (yes…I found her actual pony tail, meticulously saved all these years) to young mom, to empty-nester and widow. Through each season mom was focusing on the most important things: husband, baby, kids, church. Her faith was on display everywhere. In fact now that I think of it, what a good question to ask ourselves: would our trash and donate heap show our faith? Mom’s did.

Donation pile

Not pretty...but that's an impressive donation pile!

Anyway, it also struck me that I’ve passed through several of those seasons myself, and am now entering a new one. It can make you think, the passing of the seasons. Even though we get to bury our head in the sand, so to speak, in Florida…the seasons are passing.

I read a great passage in II Chronicles during that time, too. In it, a king is told by God not to go to war. That Judah and Israel should not fight each other right now. Instead, the king was to go home to Judah and begin strengthening his kingdom. And — amazingly — he did. He tore down high places, instituted right worship, built up his stockpiles of food and animals and weapons. In short, he prepared for the battles that began breaking out a chapter or two later.

God has some great seasons for us. Some of them are designed for resting, building, storing. Some of them are designed for fighting, spiritual warfare, triumphing through the storms. The secret is knowing what the purpose of each season is. Rest during the resting season and stop looking for a fight to pick. Fight during a time of warfare and don’t make plans to go on vacation! Spend some time reading and praying to find out what season you are really in. You may be surprised.

Last ride of the summer

This is the last ride of every summer.

I love the change of seasons. There are moments I regret having to stow away the wave runners and say goodbye to sleepy summer afternoons on the deck (ok, a lot of those moments). But in general I’ve learned that one good thing follows another. The lazy summer days get supplanted by pumpkin spice muffins and honey crisp apples. The fall leaves get replaced by peppermint mocha latte’s in red cups. Then come Christmas lights, followed by the cleaning house of January. Seasons are good for us. They nourish our souls and keep us ready for new challenges.

And honestly, I can’t wait to see what comes next!

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.

Inexplicable

Inexplicable

Inexplicable.

One medium sized word that inspired the entire direction of the second half of our lives.

It is a great word, if you think about it. Life is inexplicable. It is filled with inexplicable moments of beauty followed immediately by inexplicable moments of sorrow. There is inexplicable illness, inexplicabe death. We see inexplicable fame (especially on YouTube!) and inexplicable years spent in obscurity. Once in awhile we thrill to inexplicable healing, provision, or direction. We cry at inexplicable beauty in a baby, a puppy, a sunset. We laugh at the unexpected and inexplicable joke. We puzzle over the inexplicable turns of the economy, our finances, or our teenager’s random choices. And in our human frailty we sit down and try to explain the inexplicable.

We try to impose order on the events of our lives, and so we go on a quest to find our purpose. David and I did this, and I am willing to bet you have, too. There is a reason Purpose Driven Life rocketed to the top of the best seller list. Secular or faith-based, the bookshelves are filled with advice on living up to our potential and carving out our niche in the world. Good stuff, actually. I’ve spent literally thousands of hours reading and learning. Each new perspective helps me tweak our approach to this crazy life.

But even after all if that, much about my life remains unexplained. Am I sure that my one purpose is this, or that? Should I put my energy into writing, teaching, relationships or finding a paycheck? Who am I, really?

One day about a year ago a conversation with a new friend changed the entire lens through which David and I viewed our life. I will tell you more about that conversation another time, but here is the important bit. “In your life,” he said, “why don’t you strive to be inexplicable. Let God out of the box you think you have created for him and allow room for the unexpected, inexplicable twists and turns. After all, life is really inexplicable anyway, isn’t it? It is how God works!”

Inexplicable.

It settled over our perspective like a perfect pair of sunglasses.

Life in God is inexplicable. The most momentous opportunities often depend on the tiniest of circumstances, changes in direction that just don’t make sense without the inexplicable whimsy of God. You scan the radio stations and hear a comment that leads to reading a book that inspires a career. A turn down the aisle at a grocery store reunites you with a friend who had slipped out of your daily life. You choose a church, which leads to a ministry, which in turn leads to a passion that won’t let go.

These are the inexplicable hinges on which the doors of our lives swing open and closed.

Embracing the inexplicable leads to lives filled with possibility. We find inexplicable joys, quiet moments of utter content knowing we are loved and led and safe. We find unexpected tragedy, the events that shape our character and produce the unique fingerprints of our one life to live. And in the process we find our influence. We find the strange, twisted and convoluted life that only we could have lived.

That’s how God works. It is a mystery and a marvel.

I love the inexplicable. I love people whose lives could never have been plotted by the most masterful of storytellers. I find purpose In watching God the redeemer use even the tiniest of events to fulfill His plan on earth through us. He never wastes anything, you know. There really is no such thing as a random happening.

It’s just inexplicable.

Note: For those of you who have persevered this far into the blog post, this is a potential prologue to a book I’m working on. I would love to hear what you think…did you find yourself intrigued enough to turn the potential page onto chapter 1?

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

There’s still shampoo left in the bottle

A year or two ago I bought some amazing organic shampoo from my stylist. It was the same product she used in the salon, and I loved what it did for my hair! So optimistically, I shelled out the price for the lovely product and brought it home.

You know this part of the story: I used the shampoo and loved the smells, the feel. I loved the shine in my hair, even though I couldn’t quite make my hair do what my stylist could do. Great — expensive — shampoo.

On the second day I looked at my new shampoo and conditioner and thought “Wow…I paid a lot for that. Today I will use my regular stuff, and make sure I don’t run through the shampoo too fast.” So I did. And my hair looked pretty much the same…like my hair.

Fast forward a year or so. There I am standing in my shower reaching for my normal shampoo when I saw “The Expensive Shampoo.” By now those words were written in capital letters. I rarely used it. But this was an important day of some sort (can’t remember now), so I reached for my organic shampoo.

It had died. The cream had separated into components. The lovely organic ingredients didn’t smell happy anymore. In fact, it was such an icky experience just getting that stuff out of the bottle that I rinsed it down the drain and threw out the whole bottle. I hated watching that bottle go away. I had never even used it! All that potential was left to rot in the bottle.

Not long ago I bought some other, different expensive shampoo, this time recommended by my sister-in-law. And on that second or third day, when I was tempted to skip over the bottle in order to save it, I remembered my lesson. I remembered the nearly full bottles in the trash. Shampoo has only one purpose: to clean your hair. If you don’t use it, there’s no reason to keep it. I vowed to use every last drop of that expensive stuff, and so far I have.

Life is pretty much the same way, isn’t it? God gives us talents. He gives us creativity, insights, stamina, relationships, love. And he gives it all to us so that we will use it. But sometimes it’s easy to hold some back, to want to save for a rainy day. Like the Israelites trying to hoard daily manna, we don’t allow ourselves to be emptied.

We stay in the bottle.

Lately I’m trying to remember that my true life is outside the shampoo bottle. I don’t want to hold back what can’t be kept. I don’t want a container of moldy manna or ugly shampoo. I believe that God is able to refill that jar, able to refill me.

I believe it. Now it’s time to act on it.

So I guess today I raise my theoretical glass in a toast to those who venture outside the bottle with me!