Let’s Talk About My Sunday Miracle

Saturday night challenged me. I spent the evening with long time friends, and new friends who help lead a child rescue ministry in Thailand and the Philippines. The organization uses ex-pats and former special-forces guys to work undercover exposing slavery in brothels. They turn over video evidence to local law enforcement and then hope they move in. The rescued girls (and boys) are placed in a variety of aftercare programs, where many never recover.

Two hours of dark and heavy, and stories illustrating the immense scale of suffering, threatened to suck me under. And I know something about these issues; I’m not ignorant to the plight of human slavery. I guess I like my ministry served with a larger side of hope.

A cigar, a smooth single malt and heavy faith chat with my long time friends afterward failed to lift the malaise. Why even bother with hospice, or with anything at all for that matter when at this exact moment, tens of thousands of girls are being brutalized by so-called “sex tourists.”

A twinge of despair brought about thoughts of uniting an army of my Christian activist friends and my pissed off feminist friends: We’d storm the doors of brothels, grab the hands of girls, and burn the damn places down as we fled to safe houses. Regardless of worldview, politics and religious beliefs, we’d link arms on this one point of humanity. The Russian and Thai Mafia wouldn’t know what hit them.

(Alcohol, tobacco, profanity, and threats… read on, Christian friend)

I still felt low Sunday morning, and smelled like I had bedded down in an ashtray. But low in spirit or not, I had a recruiting gig at hospice at 11 a.m. Tired and void of my usual chit chat, I quickly took my seat in a line of six people at the front of the room. For the next hour we explained our particular area of outreach to 30 to 40 volunteers-in-training.

Three others came after me in the line-up, including a dog-therapy-man with a doll of a golden retriever camped at his feet. He boasted that as a former soldier he had gunned down and water boarded terrorists, and now he and his mercifully sweet dog sat with suffering people. He chocked up a few times. Everyone was moved, though like me, perhaps conflicted. I thought, “This isn’t really a water boarding crowd. You might want to lose that bit.”

The last guy, Kevin, mentioned he served in “home care.” These volunteers come alongside dying patients and their families within a home setting. In a sense, they become part of a family during their most vulnerable time. The volunteer coordinator sang Kevin’s praises: He took all sorts of one-time assignments, like driving patients to doctor’s appointments, helping them grocery shop, providing respite care for families.

Kevin also had a long-term gig providing companionship to a dying man whose children had shut him out. The man had no support systems. On Christmas Day, Kevin drove him to a distant relative’s home so he wouldn’t have to spend the holiday alone. As he recounted this experience, the six-foot-five, 300-pound Kevin put his hands over his face and wept. I peeked to my left thinking two things: One, I’m deeply moved and uncomfortable. Would he get a hold of his emotions? And two, I knew the sound of that sobbing, the voice, and the man… but from where?

Kevin told the group he began volunteering after his wife died of ALS (or Lou Gehrig’s disease) two years ago. ALS strikes the nerve cells in the brain and spinal chord that control muscle movement. The mind stays sharp; the physical body becomes immobile. The person is imprisoned in a useless shell. Eventually they die from respiratory failure.

“That’s it,” I said, and leaned forward to look at him: “I served as your home care volunteer!” The two of us locked eyes. I felt tingly.

Jill was in the last stages of ALS when I entered their tiny circle. I provided her with companionship, and Kevin with respite care. At the time Jill could only move her eyes. She used the latest in technology to communicate: A machine that tracked retina movement and enabled her to talk looking at one letter at a time, as well as surf the internet and change television channels.

Other than Kevin’s boss at work, and Jill’s sister four hours away, they had no family or friend support. During my visits, Kevin spent time catching up on paperwork in the other room. I held Jill’s hand and learned how to carry on a one-sided conversation. The two of us watched TV arm-in-arm. I swabbed her mouth with conditioning gel every 15 minutes. She’d chime in every so often with a thought. I could tell when she laughed. There were many moments of silence.

Two-three hours later, Kevin would join us and we’d go through photo albums and talk about their life together before the illness. Then I’d help him prepare Jill for bed. When I left he’d always ask me to give Jill a hug, even though I had already planned to. I brought him homemade cookies. And knowing he subsisted on frozen meals, I made yummy dinners. When I realized they’d be alone on Christmas Day, I adjusted my plans and brought shepherd’s pie and homemade biscuits. The three of us watched television.

Christmas Day stood out for another reason: For hours Jill kept saying the same phrase over and over using her eye gaze machine. Kevin said it must be a malfunction and needed resetting. I thought Jill might be angry or upset. That night he followed me into the outside hallway and put his hands over his face and wept. I listened to his anguish, and words of despair. I looked at the ground. I asked to pray for him. And then I left, legs shaking.

I was reading at my favorite downtown café when I learned Jill passed away on Christmas night. I felt sick thinking of them… at him, just having lost his best friend.

Hospice rules prevent a volunteer from continuing a relationship with a patient’s family after the death, so I left Kevin a voicemail with my sorries and promises of prayer. Yet he never left my mind. I knew he worked at a large insurance company I passed on my way to my office. Nearly every day for two years I prayed for him on my way to the office. I did the same when I passed by their apartment on Academy Boulevard.

On Sunday, I witnessed a miracle. I encountered a man who received tender care from strangers, and now gave back. We exchanged multiple hugs and phone numbers. And it did my heart good to look over and see him talking among a group of men about God and hospice and caring for people. He was not alone.  DSCN0035

A does not equal B in this blog, at least spiritually. I walked away from the training floating on clouds, and the heaviness had lifted, but it didn’t replace the burden of what I heard on Saturday night. It did remind me, however, that life is short and we live in a world of desperate need. It is my hope that the 10 people reading this piece will evaluate their situation and see if there’s a place where they can step out, even just a bit.

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My Rub with Borrowed Gifts

I am sheltered in the basement of friends. I’ve lived most of my adult life alone and now I am part of a family, a community, where there is mutual ministry. At night before bed, an eleven year-old little cutie named Hope draws me pictures while we listen to books on Audible through my Bose radio.

After my dad died this past fall, my mom rapidly declined. She has likely always had undiagnosed mental illness, but now, with worsening dementia, it was clear she couldn’t live on her own. After a few tries at assisted living and passes through psych units, she’s tucked in with my sister. She, too, is part of a family and a community where there is love and mutual ministry.

I grew up in a beautiful home with sturdy antiques generations old and gold and silver engraved jewelry likely worn at the turn of the century. Long before Etsy and online artisans, my parents had a knack for collecting one-of-a-kind pieces. When much of the Chicago meat packing industry shuttered its doors, my dad purchased a hardwood maple butcher-block counter for a hundred bucks. He had a woodworker cut the legs in half and restore it. It’s a breathtaking piece and stood in our family room for years. Eventually, it came to me, and has threatened to throw out more than a few backs during innumerable moves across country. My dad always asked, “How’s the butcher block? When’s the last time you conditioned it with linseed?” And he’d inspect it when he visited and polish it himself.

My parents built a unique, elegant home, and I was prohibited from touching anything. “Eye candy,” a friend once told me spying a stunning, brightly colored Murano vase on my parents’ glass shelf. The couches and chairs in the living room were off limits for our heads (grease) and for our bottoms (dirt)—and forget our feet. A slight tuck up under our knees was unheard of. But the beauty still danced around me growing up, and each time I visited. It shaped my taste, my respect for my parents’ eye, and my love of nice things.

The idea of an inheritance waved at my two siblings and me from time to time, but receiving such beauty collected over 60 years of marriage and generations back, seemed inconceivable, at least to me. These were my parents’ beloved possessions, items that were polished, dusted and lovingly cared for. Over the years instances would come up—painful ones I’d rather not recount—where I got the feeling they cherished these things more than me, more than my siblings.

So this fall, it happened. My dad died and my mom couldn’t live on her own. My sister and I flew out to Sarasota and sorted through their condo. I held Murano vases, my great grandfather’s Black, Starr and Frost pocket watch, and pewter beer steins from the mid 1800s. I slept on a prized couch (with a towel under my head…). And I leafed through ancient first edition books. It remains one of the saddest weekends of my life. What made my parents happiest in life had been abandoned. Thoughts of my last visit, of my dad polishing silver, while he was nearing death haunted me.

For 48-plus hours I leaked sorrow. I cried. I fought with my sister once. My deep love for my parents mingled with loss and their denial of the inevitable (death) made the abandonment more evident, more painful.

My two siblings and I haphazardly made choices of what we’d like in our homes. Then my sister and brother in law hired movers to make three deliveries: One to Ohio, one to Colorado, and one to North Carolina.

Furniture and assorted boxes were delivered without ceremony. I took a half day off from work. I unpacked while waves of joy, sorrow, and guilt washed over me. In subsequent days, I’ve enjoyed the antique writing desk with its little nooks, the hearty, comfortable bed, and a hand carved table that sat next to my dad’s end of the bed. For some reason, its elegance makes me feel grown up.

The odds and ends I received are gifts, maybe a loan, but there’s a hitch. First, these items don’t belong to me. My mom may be incapacitated but these are still her things. We borrow them, providing a place of storage where they can be enjoyed. Second, the rush of furniture and items of worth forced me to deal with life, my life, which suddenly feels incomplete.

I made choices over the years. I leapt from my heart. God guided me at times. The wind moved me here and there, from a city to a cause to a ministry. In the process I never married, never bought a home, never accumulated any material worth. I still fill out the 1040EZ. My sister and brother cultivated stable homes and families—my brother has a home that’s beyond museum worthy. I live in a basement room, albeit a cozy one.

A breathtaking vase now sits on my bookshelf as does a beer stein. The few bits of jewelry, two antique purses, my dad’s sterling silver track and field medals, and a badge the New York City police department gave my grandfather in the 1940s are all tucked away in the back of a drawer. They’re not mine. And frankly, I’m not sure what to do with them. Meanwhile, my dad’s worn, cheap every day watch sits on my dresser. Every time my eyes lock on it, I am stabbed with loss. I miss my dad. Oh my God, do I miss him.

This rabbling mess has no tidy ending. I can say that family and friends love me and have my back. They shelter me. I am engaged in tremendously fulfilling ministry. And I hope to someday spend a few months on the mission field in India doing hospice work among neglected and shunned populations. This is truly what matters in life. Gosh, I know that… but there will always be the rub.

A letter to my 20 year-old self

Dear Amy:

You just hit the big 2-0 and sadly, your mind is focused on the drinking age—a major world issue, babe. In one year, you’ll be legal. The fake ID with the Spanish surname will be a thing of the past. It’ll take some time, but you’ll realize you were never destined to be a cool cat. Sorry to break that piece of news.

You may feel rudderless at this moment, but prepare for huge life change. A path will become abundantly clear within the next 6 months. I’d say run fast in the other direction, but I don’t see another way forward. There is one visible choice mapped out.

(I’m considering what the Apostle Paul might write to his younger self.)

Along those lines, if I can offer any advice at this point, I’d say to ask someone about Jesus. This relationship would cast a different future, possibly freer, clearer, and less complicated. Though maybe not… honestly, it’s hard to say. Apologies for my squishiness on this front.

The doors you open and the choices you make will eventually be used for good. You’ll pay a steep price, but let’s not scare you with too many details… Know that the friends and colleagues you meet in the next two decades will sow into your life in ways unfathomable to you now. You’ll hit your 40s having worked in the extremes and for die-on-the-hill causes and be the better for it. You’ll realize you’ve marinated in the passions, ideas and the brilliance of dozens of people on all sides of the fence.

You’re just grasping there’s a world outside of yourself. You’re dipping your toe into issues related to justice and human rights, and this will fill empty spaces in your life. You’ll find purpose, meaning.

Soon you’ll graduate from school and get your dream job in Washington. You’ll grow wildly in gifts and talents you never knew existed. You’ll travel in well-schooled circles. You’ll feel deficient because you lack vast amounts of education, especially compared to colleagues from Ivy League schools. It’s the truth; you drifted in and out of high school and college without much thought. But here’s some advice, don’t be afraid of being found out and try not to feel inferior. People will love you. You’ll also rise to their level of smarts because it’s in you. You can only grow by surrounding yourself with talented people. Take advantage of it all!

My 21 year-old self. My first political fundraiser.

Fortunately, too, you’ll work for generous women and men who’ll mentor you in areas where you’re weak. This combined with your natural bravado and humor will provide a contrast to feelings of inferiority. Trust me on this!

In the near future you’ll long for something you can’t quite put your finger on. It will become clear that it’s the Christian God. You’ll look at those you face off against as an activist and be frightened by that prospect. Know that you should be frightened—stay away from those people! But also know that the vast majority of Christians are really good folks, and Jesus will change your life. Advice: Separate out the goodness you sense from God from the depravity of all human beings. They are not one in the same. I’m still trying to let that sink in.

Regarding your family: Be nice to your sister; one day she’ll be your best friend. Start writing down birthdays, because in 20 years it gets too awkward to ask the whens. And don’t pluck that one chin hair; it will eventually grow into a full beard.

Finally, you’re an idealist and you always will be– embrace that in yourself. However, you won’t change the world. Your destiny is much more personal, thoughtful and will alter the lives of individual people. Your heart will be soft for those hurting in our world.

But enough for now! In the coming days you’ll laugh a lot and accumulate scads of great stories. Write them down! And be good to yourself.

Prepare for a wild and rich journey, my young friend.

Love,
Your older and wiser self

 

So what about Christian unity?!

There is much to be said about Christianity unity, and the lack of it throughout Church history. In spite of the Apostle Paul’s best efforts, we do not strive for it among the brethren. To me, unity seems like a noble biblical principle, like loving one’s enemies: It’s a super, much-discussed exhortation, but rarely played out.images

This blog is not meant to be treatise on Church unity—certainly much can be said about it, particularly mass historical failures. That said, I thought I’d throw my cards on the table and see if anyone is interested in offering their thoughts.

I am a failure at bringing together polarized groups of Christians. Perhaps there’s too much water under my bridge. I did not like Christians before I became one, and I did not find a ton of reasons to like them en masse afterward. In fact, after 20 years of slogging through the culture war, I often see strife, and animosity simmering just below the surface of religion. I get easily annoyed. Call in the Holy Spirit brigade, this chick needs to be sanctified.

Several years ago, I took the mic during a town hall meeting at a conservative ministry I worked for and suggested we build bridges with Sojourners, a progressive Washington D.C. ministry. My argument seemed sound: We learn from them and they learn from us—and hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we could find common ground on an issue or two. I believed then as I do now, that God would be glorified through the relationship.

Well, this was not a popular suggestion. After I spoke, groans and eye-rolls came from all corners. Unity, what a dumb suggestion!

Looking back I realize that many of my colleagues did not consider Sojourners believers to be actual believers. Perhaps it’s their alternative views on war, the federal budget, approaches to poverty and the environment. They hold a different perspective on how the scriptures should play out in culture. I could imagine my colleagues rationalizing their beliefs with their own scriptural weapon: “Don’t team up with those who are unbelievers. How can righteousness be a partner with wickedness? How can light live with darkness?” 2 Corinthians 6:14.

Perhaps Sojourners would not have been open to dialogue either. I know Christians on the left who reach out and those who keep the door tightly shut. I praise my old boss Jim Daly at Focus on the Family for breaking through these barriers. He knows, as I know, that when you share a beer or a (veggie) burger with someone, it’s tougher to close down dialogue. I also praise my friend Jonathan Merritt, who in spite of his strong beliefs, often gives the “other side” equal air time on his popular blog.

I’ve been taken to the woodshed for my criticism of other believers on Facebook. It’s true, I can be a critical doo-bee. And it’s true, I harbor anger and lash out at those I believe cast my faith in a harmful light. However wrongly, I see them through the lens of someone who once desperately needed “living water” but was kept on dry land by believers exercising the worst kinds of evil. (See, there I am, building unity!)

I am a fan of transparency and honest dialogue. I will not forsake these virtues to keep the peace in the name of Christian unity. That mindset leads to damage. Transparency means that animosity is not cloaked in religion. Get it out there, with gentleness! Transparency means grievances, sin and brokenness are generally aired for the world to see, and for us to deal with biblically (and likely imperfectly).

The word “unity” is dismissed when it fails to subscribe to certain theological or political views. A pastor friend I have mad respect for, and would seriously follow to the ends of the earth, criticizes other Christian faith traditions. He is a so-called “wolf watcher.” I am quite sure he is a supporter of unity when others give a nod to his theological leanings. Otherwise, no dice…

Working in hospice with all stripes of Christians I tend to agree with Pastor Glenn Packiam when he says, “Let’s do each other the service of being more attentive and giving more weight to the best of each tradition/situation than to its caricature.” Amen.

So what to do? I believe unity requires us to sacrifice stridency and become authentically humble in our view of our selves, our faith, and our world. It does NOT mean lessoning deeply held beliefs… which I need to say, lest some believe I’m suggesting “soft” minded thinking. It does, however, mean admitting that you don’t have all the answers, that you see through a mirror dimly (1 Corinthians 13:12). I stand with you in that acknowledgment.

Being taught by the negative

As I age I become more aware of what drives my ministry. I realize a large part seems to be shaped by the negative… the offenses (real and perceived)… the ways I’ve seen others treated by those in power and those who should just know better… and a whole host of intangibles, hard memories nesting just below the surface.

The negatives drive me to reach out, to grasp others before they fall prey to the harsh, gracelessness of human beings, and to meet glaring needs among groups of people Jesus calls us love. I get that line smacks of criticism. But there you go; I’m feeling the sting tonight.

Looking back smoldering compassion drove me to take a ministry position working with male street prostitutes in Chicago. Weaving my life with a marginalized population—men seen as utter outcasts—and walking beside those stricken HIV/AIDS, set a calling on fire. It’s a calling that now bleeds into the lives of the dying, orphans in India, and those who’ve experienced little grace or kindness.

But the smoldering began from a negative experience at a high impact event in my early 20s.

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The AIDS Memorial Quilt (courtesy of the Washington Post)

The AIDS crisis in the U.S. reached tragic proportions in the early 90s and my partner worked as an educator in the field. This is how I got roped into being a “quilt angel” at a full display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt on the National Mall in Washington. Quilt angels dressed in white and fanned out along walkways in between miles of quilt panels. Each panel, loving woven, personalized the life of someone who died from the virus.

Like all angels, I carried a box of tissues and bore witness to my block of quilt. I recall it included a boy who died from a tainted blood transfusion—his portion had a soccer ball and trophies; and the panels of three men, one who spent his life in the theater. The mother and father of the boy, and the partner of one of the men, spent nearly all weekend by their swatch of quilt, sharing with visitors the lives of loved ones cut down way too early.

There were too many tears and hugs to count that weekend. It was somber and sacred and my naïve 20 year-old world was rocked by it.

And then it happened. On Sunday, on top of a hill adjacent to the quilt, a large group gathered. They had come to protest the quilt display and brought their bullhorns. For what seemed like hours they shouted that loved ones were in hell and if the living didn’t repent they would be as well. A burly looking man paced back and forth carrying a large wooden cross on his shoulder. Eventually they were pushed away.

I didn’t know much about Christianity at the time nor did I understand worldview or the nature of protests. But I did see wounded hearts singed by bizarre, hateful words. My heart bled for those guarding their loved ones patch of quilt and for those visiting. The juxtaposition of compassion and sorrow to hatred twisted up in my heart and took root. That evening my partner and I joined rally hosted by ACT UP. There were more tears, anger, and an electric kind of energy. I was hooked.

Today I sat under a teaching from someone I should see as a spiritual leader. From my perspective he tackled a sensitive, much-debated issue recklessly. In the wake of the service I realized I could never introduce many of my friends to the Christian faith through this church. Jesus would be obscured. The teaching would stumble, alienate. I felt alienated.

The negative today taught me something: The path I take in sharing my faith is sure. It avoids the potholes of unessentials within the Christian faith and focuses on what truly matters, that of relationship with God through Jesus, grace and eternity. Let God tackle the thorny questions.

But it’s not all negative right now. These past couple of years have been filled with ministry done right—and that has driven me to higher ground and caused my faith to grow.

Several years ago, a mentor dropped me from the rolls during an especially dark time spiritually (I was a tough customer)—and every effort to find discipleship was thwarted. Now I have both a terrific mentor and discipleship. Where once my persistent questions were met with bewilderment or indifference, I’m now treated with kindness and grace is extended more than I deserve. I also work alongside people who selflessly pour out their lives for others day after day. Watching ministry in the hands of these people has infused much-needed positive into something that has been largely driven by the negative. And because of this I am a more effective, balanced, and passionate witness for Jesus.

I do know this fact:  My heart has been broken over the years and like a quilt it has been patched together—only now it’s more expansive. It is a large, imperfect vessel for God’s compassion.

Have you thought about how much of your calling is birthed from pain or negative experiences? And how much is impacted by positive experiences and interactions. Maybe it’s all jumbled up. I trust wherever it comes from God uses it for His glory.

Storms

Last night I spent a few hours with Miriam, a razor sharp ninety-one year old Brit with perfect hearing. Her hospice chart didn’t offer much information. She lived with her son, but this week she was moving into assisted living. Her body was giving way to age and a two recent falls had rendered her virtually bed bound.

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