Monday, January 26, 2015

A kindness remembered

Long ago, as a graduate student, I was interning at a news service in downtown Washington DC.  I was a hunter and gatherer of stories to be published in small town newspapers.  It required a lot of lonely tasks, attending congressional committee meetings and news conferences, meeting deadlines and typing up articles late at night after everyone else had gone home.  I felt like a lone swimmer in a winter ocean.

And adding to my isolation, I was living in the YWCA, an inexpensive destination for sojourners and the down and out.  For my three months there, it was a place I could afford, an austere collection of cell-like rooms.  It was all I needed.  But there were lives of clear hardship staying on those floors.  I once heard a young woman weeping by the hallway pay phone.  She did not have even the dime she needed to make a collect call home to her mother to say she wanted to come home.

Downtown Washington at that time was not the clean slick metropolis as it is today, but still ravaged and not yet restored from the rioting and burning of buildings during the turbulent 1960s.  I passed skeletons of structures every day.  And as a young single woman, I had to walk blocks out of my way to avoid blatantly unsafe areas.  At the end of my day, I scurried back through the early winter darkness back to my room at the Y.

I was hungry for fellowship.  Through some friends back home, I connected with a young woman who lived across town and had a car.  She offered to take me to church one Sunday.

I stood that day in a huge cathedral-like church among God's people.  It was just what I needed.

After the service as we were putting on our coats, an older couple behind us leaned over and asked, "Would you girls like to go to lunch with us?"  It was a kind gesture, and my driver quickly agreed.

Standing in line at the crowded cafeteria, I was a little nervous.  On a very strict budget, this was not something I could afford.  I had been eating in my room to save expenses, heating up water in a little electric pot for soup, tea and oatmeal.  And now, I was in a really awkward place.  The other girl was loading up her tray.  I slid my empty tray along, thinking perhaps I could feign that I was not hungry and just get by with a cup of coffee.

The sweet older woman sidled up to me and whispered in my ear, "Oh my dear, you choose absolutely anything you want.  This meal is on us.  You are our guest."

In the Bible, hospitality is defined as a love of strangers.  I experienced that face to face that day, a kindness not quickly forgotten.

That old couple never knew how much that meal meant to me.

They were sensitive to a stranger who was just sitting in front of them that day.  And responsive not just to God but to an invisible need.  I am sure it was not the first time they responded that way, nor the last.  They had set their hearts in that direction.  And practiced the extraordinary.

The Scriptures instruct us.

Practice hospitality.

          Romans 12.13

Practice hospitality,
every which way you can,
every which way He leads.

A single kindness in His name
              changes the world.
In the movie Four Feathers, the main character asks the tribesman who had sacrificed so much for him, "But why did you help me?"

"Because God put you on my path," he replied with a chuckle.

Who has God placed on my heart today?

Saturday, January 24, 2015

What can I do with THAT?

The Wall Street Journal reported this week significant layoffs at the film company Dreamworks because its feature division has "fallen short on the creative side."  And as a result, fewer movies will be made.

When I read that news, I thought of my grandmother.  She would have laughed at even the thought of a decline in creativity.  

Being creative was a daily reality for her.  She inherited her parents' legacy of faith and a strong resolution in the face of dire need.  She did not recognize what she did not have, she did not waste any time even thinking about it.  Her mind and her heart shifted immediately from the need at hand to "what can I do with that?

She lived out the feeding of the 4000.

And the disciples said to Him,
"Where are we to get bread enough
                in the desert
to feed so great a crowd?"
And Jesus said to them,
"How many loaves have you?"

                     Matthew 15. 33-34

Bread enough?  My widowed grandmother would have just added another "s" to the desert and thought of a way to make a dessert as well.

She did not have much materially to give, but she knew how.  She had a little secret and a lot of hardcore experience.  God does not add.  He multiplies.  He does not just make it enough, but even provides leftovers for another meal.

And He uses His people to do it.
God uses His people to bless others.

The modern dictionary defines the word "create" as to cause to exist or bring into being, such as "She pieced together a quilt."

But my father's old dictionary from the 1920's paints a bigger picture:  "that which is made, produced, brought into existence, specifically the universe."

And the Bible?  God calls into existence the things that do not exist. (Romans 4.17)

Limitations did not restrict my grandmother in any way.  Indeed, that which appeared impossible created only a jumping off place.  "What can I do with that?"   As I grew up, I watched that first hand.  An old dress was hand-tailored into another outfit or made into a quilt.  A near-empty cupboard somehow served not only our family but unexpected guests who appeared suddenly on our doorstep.  She had a box of loose unwanted items that always found a new use.

Creativity to her was a type of generosity.  It was a mindset and a heart condition.  She gave hilariously.  Indeed, she was energized by it.

Let's see what God does with that!

Being faithful is not just laying it before Him,
   but following Him into His purposes.

And watching Him multiply.

Now to Him who by
the power at work within us
                    is able
to do far more abundantly
than all that we ask
                   or imagine,
to Him be glory...

              Ephesians 3.20-21

Friday, January 23, 2015

Exhibit A: There are no words

The heavens are telling
      the glory of God,
and the firmament
      proclaims His handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night
         declares knowledge.
There is no speech,
    nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
    their voice goes out
           through all the earth,
and their words
           to the end of the world.

                     Psalm 19. 1-4

When we were looking for a place to live last summer in yet another city new to us, no one ever told me what would become my favorite place in the house where we now live.  I discovered it suddenly late one afternoon when I was working in the single bedroom on the upper floor.  As I glanced up from my work, a masterpiece unfolded before me, a brilliant sky hand painted by God.  I was speechless.  The pools of color faded quickly with the promise to come again the next day and the next.  That is what hope looks like, I thought.

In a court of law, the prosecutors and defense carefully craft their verbal arguments. For days and sometimes weeks, words fill the courtroom, the jury cast about by currents of opinion like so many beach goers wading amidst turbulent waves.

But when the physical evidence is produced, often no words are necessary to proclaim what is truth.  Proof is right there before everyone in the courtroom.

What I viewed outside my window was not a once in a lifetime event, subject to explanation and dismissal, but that which occurs every morning and every evening, nothing short of splendor, inherently speechless and right on time.  Accurate sunrise, sunset, twilight times and moon information such as tides can be calculated precisely for any location in the world past, present, and future.

But even beyond the exactness of mathematical calculations, there is the incredible element of wonder.  G. K. Chesterton said it best in his 1908 classic book Orthodoxy:

"It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore. "

One's very breath is replaced by awe.  No words necessary.  Except to praise.  And to know the LORD is God, creator of heaven and earth.

Ever since the creation of the world
His invisible nature,
   His eternal power and deity,
has been clearly perceived
in the things that have been made.

                    Romans 1. 20 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Something hidden from view, unexplained and sacred

As a college student majoring in history, I scrimped and saved and sacrificed to travel one summer with a study group to Eastern Europe and Russia, yes, both still at the time behind the Iron Curtain.  I was attending a fiercely secular university at the time.  The trip was offered by a Christian college, led by professors who were Christ-followers.  I wanted to see first-hand the integration of faith and academics, and to grasp the spiritual dimension of history, those facts and incidents somehow conveniently omitted from textbooks.

It became evident from the onset of the trip that this was no luxury tour.  We had been forewarned that we would be staying in urban hostels and rural campgrounds for the duration of the journey, traveling in a caravan of three very rattly Volkswagen vans.  The details had been somewhat muted.  We ate peanut butter and jelly at least twice a day and rested in sleeping bags everywhere from partitioned gymnasiums to rustic wooden shelters, and once, in a parking area alongside a highway in the middle of the night, our sleeping bags lined up on the grass in the shadow of the moon.  We awoke at dawn with dew in our hair and Polish truck drivers looking quizzically at what appeared to them as a disheveled group of lost refugees.

In a particular campground in the middle of Russia, conditions were primitive at best.  Rural was an understatement.  We were quite literally in the middle of nowhere, studying the relics of magnificent cathedrals which stood like a reminder of an ancient culture. We pulled into our designated campground late one evening, a makeshift collection of unadorned huts so crudely constructed that the cold night wind whispered through the cracks and electricity had not yet been discovered.  I wondered about the history of this place, and those whose hard lives had been written on these dilapidated walls.

The other people staying at the campground stared at us as if we were aliens from another planet, and yet as young people facing unknown futures, we too were transients in time and season.  This was a place of nomadic people, some who stayed only a night, and others as long as they were able.  It appeared we were dwelling not in a campground but traipsing page by page through a decades-old issue of National Geographic magazine, complete with unidentifiable smells, dialects and the sounds of cooking over wood collected from the forest around us. 

I loved the aroma of the pine needles as we searched for firewood, the idyllic outdoors spread out underneath a canopy of stars.  But there was another side to living in this place.  The bathrooms were violent in odor.  The toilets consisted of two cinder blocks and a hole in the floor.  A few dirty sinks provided a flow of cold water, for drinking, doing dishes, and the closest thing to a bath we would see for a week.  One did not linger.  I could barely breathe the noxious air. The floor was adhesive with something I dare not think about.  Toilet paper had not yet been invented here.  We rationed what we had brought by ourselves, square by square.

Early one morning, I dashed through the door of the bathhouse only for necessity.  As I washed my hands in the ice cold water, my toothbrush fell out of my pocket.  The world came to a standstill as my fellow travelers stared.  You would have thought an heirloom vase had been shattered on the concrete floor.  We were at least a hundred miles and several scheduled days from a store.  I didn't even want to pick it up, let alone ever use it again.

A chuckle broke the silence.  "Oh, so that's why," one of my friends laughed.  "Follow me," she said.  From her duffel bag, she pulled out a brand-new toothbrush, still packaged.

"My mom insisted that I bring this with me in case I needed it.  This has been taking up space in my bag now for seven weeks.  I had been wondering why I was carrying this unnecessary toothbrush through Europe.  I thought that I would finally prove my mom to be wrong.  I didn't need it.

"But you did."

This incident occurred a lifetime ago, but God still reminds me from time to time what I am carrying, what I am experiencing, what I have been given, may not be about me at all.  God may have placed it in my life for someone else.  And most likely He did.

I need not know the reason
        for how God can use it. 
But He does.

Not an unnecessary experience,
nor a mystery after all,
        but His divine purposes taking root.

God will redeem.

And God is able
to provide you
with every blessing in abundance,
          so that
you may always have
enough of everything
and may provide in abundance
    for every good work.
As it is written,
"He scatters abroad,
He gives to the poor;
His righteousness endures

          2 Corinthians 9. 8-9

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A Living Mystery

"To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery.  It means to live in such a way that one's life would not make sense if God did not exist."

These words were penned at a time when even the slightest suspicion put one's life at risk.  And for so many, indeed, it did.  The writer was Cardinal Emmanuel Celestin Suhard who had the privilege of serving God as the archbishop of Paris from 1940 until his death in 1949.  That period of time included the German invasion and the Occupation of France when nearly 76,000 Jews were sent by trainloads to the German death camps.

The Christians in the small village of Le Chambon-Sur-Lignon chose to live such a mystery as that.  From December 1940 to September 1944, this village of 3500 residents provided refuge for an estimated 7000 Jews, sheltering them in their homes and farms.  They quite literally put their own lives on the line.

Years ago, I came upon an interview with some of those surviving residents.  When asked why they would sacrifice their lives for strangers, they looked at the interviewer, as if not understanding his question.  "Why would we not?" one woman answered.  "It was the right thing to do."  The entire story of this remarkable group of people is chronicled in the book Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed by Philip Hallie.

To the world, their actions did not make sense.  Indeed, it did not even make sense to those who sought refuge.  "Nobody asked who was Jewish and who was not.  Nobody asked where you were from.  Nobody asked who your father was or if you could pay.  They just accepted each of us, taking us in with warmth, sheltering children, often without their parents -- children who cried in the night from nightmares," stated one of the refugee children, now an adult, as quoted at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

What stands out so clearly to me is that these courageous people did not just suddenly in life-threatening difficulty begin to live that way.  "If we do not do the running steadily in the little ways, we shall do nothing in the crisis," says Oswald Chambers in My Utmost for His Highest.  

Who or what one worships is revealed in the crisis.  Not just what motivates you, but who is at the core?  That which is true, that which is real, that which you value, is all manifest in behavior.  And it all comes to the surface not just in dangerous moments but in the every days of life.

May everyone around you recognize God's redemptive work in you.  He is all about who you are.  He is all over what you do. 

What am I doing today -- this week -- this year -- that would not make sense unless God exists? that they were astonished,
and said,
"Where did this man get this wisdom
and these mighty works?"

                    Matthew 13.54

Live in such a way that those around you
are compelled to ask