Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Birthday Remembrance

My first car was a black Acura Integra. I inherited the car by default, as not giving me the car would have resulted in several trips back and forth from Arkansas to Illinois for my folks as they shuttled me to and fro college. They opted to just give the car. And it was a hot car. Not hot, as in stolen, but H.O.T. My dad brought it home brand new one day in 1993 while we were still living in Houston, and it became my definition of a mid-life crisis. I supported it. Black leather interior, moon roof, rear spoiler, manual transmission. Loved that car.

It went from Houston to Little Rock, to Decatur, Illinois. I inherited it in 1995 as I cruised off to my first year of college. Ahhh, the stories that it could have told. So I took it from Decatur, Illinois, back to a small city called Conway, Arkansas, where I was attending college. That car took us on many camping trips in the Ozarks, many beer runs in wet counties, music festivals in Memphis, concerts in Little Rock, and summer adventures in New Hampshire. It got me through a blizzard in Illinois on my way to school one year. It carried instruments for band gigs. It carried many, many friends.

It used to have a sticker in the back window that simply said: SHUVIT. Haha. Loved that sticker. My definition of cool was a bit different back then. I won't even describe the other stickers back there; think green, leafy. There were cigarette burns in the leather seats and permanent stains on the carpets. It was well used.

That car came with me to the desert as I was attempting to restart my life. The air conditioner died a few summers after I moved here, but the car kept going. Man, I loved that car, and the day I traded it in was so bittersweet. I had owned that car for years by the time I had traded it in. It had been driven cross-country and had resided in four different states. It had been with me through many a rough day, and many a joyous celebration. It had been egged, wrecked, rear-ended, hydroplaned, and well-driven through the years.

Tonight I saw a car that could have been my old car, and I was just flooded with emotion over how far God has brought me. How He has healed me, restored me, and chosen to use me. The days of that old Acura seemed so far away, almost forgotten, and yet just a mere glance at it tonight reminded me of so much. An old college roommate whom I still love dearly, a band formed out of a group of friends wanting to do something fun for an "open mic night," a camping trip with about 15 friends to sing and dance and howl at the moon all night. It's amazing the things that we forget, and how easily they come back to mind.

Today is my birthday. I am now 33. Mercy, that sounds older than I feel. I was 18 years old when I inherited that car, and somehow, back then, I thought that a person in her 30's must surely feel like an adult. And yet I don't still. I keep wondering when I will ever grow up. Now I'm in this place where I have to deal with pimples, wrinkles, and grey hair all at the same time, and I keep wondering who had the grand idea of putting me in charge of three other precious little lives? Really, was that the best idea?

And yet, here I am. Sitting in an adult body, that time and babies have taken their toll on, with a mind that still struggles with insecurities and doubts, wondering if the day will ever come that I might, just might, have a clue. And as much as I struggle to be a good parent and example to my girls, I love them more than my own life. Isn't life interesting? It always seems to me that the more I learn and the more I explore, the more I realize I do not know. The older I get, the smaller I feel in the grand scheme of it all. And yet I am known by the Creator of it all.

15 years ago, when I inherited that sweet little car, I was a mess of a human being, reeling in the aftermath of a rape, drowning myself in booze and any drug that would numb the pain. I had no idea of the love of Christ, as I was pretty sure He has abandoned me altogether. But God had plans. And He pursued me as only the hound of Heaven could. And the year that I drove that hot, little black car to the desert, I knew things were to bound to change, but I had no idea how drastically. Y'all, He is just so good.

It was fun to see that car tonight. It was like a slide show flashed through my mind of all the memories that the car carried. And how far God has carried me since.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Sign of the Times

The day is coming, good Christian, and has already come in many parts of the world, when it will be illegal to profess a love for Christ. This ad campaign is being launched by an organization called the American Humanist Association. Their aim to change the thoughts and attitudes towards religions. The campaign was launched in major transit systems in Europe last year, supposedly with very positive responses. It will be launched this holiday season in major metropolitan transit systems across the US. The day is coming, Church of the west, when great persecution will come upon us, and the faith of all will be tested. Who will stand and give all, and who will fall to the pressures of this world? A time is coming, Church, and has begun already.

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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Back to the Early Church

So for the past several days, I was recounting an experience and the amazing power of forgiveness that was shown to me while in South Africa. Where to go from there? Back to the early church, of course. My mind is consumed by it these days. I can't seem to get away from it, and more over I am left with the unyielding question of "What do I do with this?"

It is interesting that right now the church body that I fellowship with is in the midst of series about finances and resources and stewardship. It seems to me that the question always seems to come back around to "how much is too much and what is ok for me to keep?" Is it ok for me to have this or is it ok for me to hold on to that?

So last night at our small group, we were discussing the Lord's prayer, and specifically the Matthew 6:11. "Give us today our daily bread." So, here's the do you ask for that which you already have? And yes, I know that some will reply that we give thanks everyday for all that God has provided, but seriously, when was the last time that you prayed that, really needing God to provide you with bread that day? When did you pray that and not already have bread in your well-stocked kitchen? Or even meagerly-stocked kitchen? When did you have to plead of God to truly come through for you? When were you left with no other option than to depend on God?

When is the last time that you were unsure where your next meal was coming from? When was the last time that your pantry was bare and your refrigerator was just empty? When was the last time you swung through Starbucks because you just had to have some coffee? Or pulled through the drive-through or take out for a quick bite? Did you even give it a thought? Maybe you wondered whether you had cash on you or if you should just whip out the debit card? When was the last time that you seriously had no idea where your next meal was coming from? When was the last time that you just resigned that you weren't going to eat that day, and prayed and hoped for a better day tomorrow? And know that I ask these questions simply because they are being asked of me. I am certainly not innocent in these manners.

Here is what I struggle with these days: how joined are we with the rest of the Church? Do we struggle with the rest of the body of Christ, or is the global disconnect so great that we rarely even give the sufferings of our brothers and sisters a thought? Here's what I love about the early Church. Distance did not disconnect them. Nor did nationalities or boundary lines. They were united by their love for Christ. It superseded all other allegiances or patriotic notions. Look at the letters that Paul wrote to the Church at Philippi, thanking and encouraging their giving and supporting him in Rome. Look at the letter to the Hebrews, who are being encouraged in their giving and support of the Christ followers who are being persecuted in Jerusalem. Look at the letter to the Church in Corinth, as well as the Church at Galatia. They are challenged to continue in the collection for the Church in Jerusalem.

So, going back to Acts 4, where Scripture says that all the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. And then I am drawn back to Matthew 6:11, where we are instructed to ask God for our daily bread. Everyday, ask Him for our provision. And this isn't the first time in Scripture that we have been instructed to ask and receive just enough to get us through the day. Think back to the Exodus story while the Israelites were wandering in the desert. God provided manna from the sky for them, but they were instructed to take just enough to get through the day, and then trust and believe that God was going to come through for them again tomorrow.

So, what is it that we are supposed to hang on to? Just our daily bread? Just enough for today? Are we not to be vessels through whom blessings flow? Are your blessings flowing, or are the landing on you and coming to a full stop? What if your next door neighbor were going hungry? Would you not allow your blessings to flow readily through your hands to see that your neighbor was properly taken care of? And what about your family? Even if your family were in another city, would you not go out of your way to see that your family is properly cared for?

So now Scripture tells us that we are born into the family of God, as we are bound together by the blood of Christ and we all have been adopted in as family. But truly, are we taking care of our family? Anyone can look at the world situation and see that the family is a bit (read a lot) out of balance. While our brothers and sisters around the world are daily pleading for even a piece of bread, we drop too much money on an over-priced coffee drink without even giving it a thought.

It's time to start thinking about it...

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Friday, November 20, 2009

A Long Night's Journey Into Day

**These were the words that were born out of my healing experience in South Africa. If you are just coming in, the story started back here.**

A Long Night’s Journey Into Day

It’s been a long night’s journey into day and my feet are growing weary from the travel. Just on the horizon a fire grows brighter, but I’ve traveled so long in darkness that my body recoils from the light. As much as the flesh draws back, though, the heart pushes on closer to the rays of sunshine coming up over the land. This journey began long ago, long before my feet ever touched the ground, but this very day was known in all its splendor and detail to the One who pieced me together. The sun is now coming up.

The night was so long as I ran from sun’s outstretched rays. Around the world I went just to outrun that fire in the sky that consumes all darkness, revealing what is hidden and dragging out into the open that which is well concealed. Through turning my back on God, through the rape, through the drugs and alcohol, through the hatred and rage, through the violence and lawlessness that became normal life, watch me run. “This is the verdict: light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil1.”

But running without rest leaves the soul tired and dry, cracked on the heels, blistered on the toes, and parched at the lips. The heart resents the consistently fast pace and the body wearies of the pounding. It all begins to fall apart.

There is no depth too deep that God’s arms cannot reach you.

There is just no depth too deep.

“In Him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness but the darkness has not understood it2.” What I could not understand was the mercy that was being offered to me. What I could not understand was the forgiveness being given to me. What I could not understand was how a King could take my punishment upon himself. What I could not understand was a love so unconditional that even the darkness within me was covered by the blood He shed. What I could not understand was that no matter how far or how fast I ran, the Light was still waiting to shine on the horizon of my heart.

“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there. If I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me, and the light become night around me,’ even the darkness will not be dark to you, the night will shine like day, for darkness is as light to you3.”

So the running stops, and in the wee hours of the morning, the light of the Almighty begins to pierce the bitter obscurity that had become my existence. One by one, my sin, my hurt, my brokenness, my rage, my violence, my irreverence, and my hatred began to take shape, their forms revealed slowly by the long-awaited day. Just as sunshine pours through the tiny window of an unlit prison cell, revealing the cobwebs and dust of a stagnant, stale life, so the Light began to illuminate my life, causing my eyes to squint and turn away, and my heart to break for all the atrocities it harbored for so long.

Africa surrounds me now,

where the rays of the mighty fire dance on the mountains just over the waters of the deep blue.

I am the acacia tree that sways as the Spirit blows.

I am the lion who stretches out in the warm air.

I am the hospitality that was so generously given to God’s servants.

I am the colors woven into the old woman’s dress.

I am the church bell chiming to the people.

I am the drum beating to the sound of a new life.

I am the rock crying out in the silence.

I am the child lifting her hands up to her daddy to be held.

I am the broken man sitting in the cold prison cell.

I am the babe living with the fatal disease.

I am the prostitute weeping at the feet of the great Teacher.

I am the dirty kid begging in the streets for a piece of bread.

I am the guitar that belts out melodies of thanksgiving and

I am the voice that cannot sing loud enough.

I am the mountain that can be moved by His mere voice.

I am the imperfect broken vessel that is being used by the Perfect Creator,

and I am the immovable cold prison walls that do not give way.

I am a small reflection of the immeasurable grace

that was so easily poured out to me.

I am the tear that rolls down the cheek of the hardened criminal.

I am the hardened criminal.

I am the forgiveness offered to the rapist behind bars,

and I am the victim turned survivor of that very rape.

I am a picture of all that is wrong, and I am picture of all that is right.

Africa surrounds me and has enveloped my heart.

The incredible sun now hangs just above the mountains that dump into the oceans where my sin is buried. The Light now touches all that was once hidden, the cobwebs are torn down, the dust is brushed off, and what was once stagnant and stale is being moved out, stirred up, and stretched beyond all comfort for the glory of God. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made His light to shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ4.” So it has been a long night’s journey into day, and it will now be a long day’s journey Home.

1 John 3:19; 2 John 1:4-5; 3 Psalm 139:7-12; 4 2 Corinthians 4:6

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

To Make a Long Story Short...

**This is a continuation of yesterday's post, which was a continuation of the previous day's post, which a get the point. This story started here, if you want to take a look back.**

Over the course of the next several days, every one of the men sitting in that half circle around me asked for forgiveness for the wrong that they had done. God's math is interesting sometimes (read: all the time), as I had demanded, in my anger and hatred, the humble act of three men. I held on to this grudge in my heart, wanting three guilty men to beg for forgiveness from me. Instead, God sent 8 men, all carrying around a burden too great for them to bare, in the roughest of situations, who sought forgiveness from some who simply represented their sin. They didn't hurt me. They were not my offenders. But God showed me what it looked like to release someone from their pain.

The simple act of forgiveness.

But the strangest part of it was that it was more cathartic for me than I imagine it was for them. Each time I spoke the words, a chunk of black rot fell away from my heart, revealing the vibrant red lifeblood flowing beneath it. Each time I said, "You are forgiven," my burden got lighter as well. It's as if the weight of hatred and anger and bitterness had actually caused my back to hunch over, forcing me to face the ground, always looking down. The bitterness was so heavy that it forced me to walk hunched over, never able to lift my shoulders nor my eyes to even see what has in front of me. All I could see was the ground below me, and the hunched over shadow that was cast on it.

But as I gave out forgiveness, some of that burden fell away, and I could stand a little taller. As I spoke it again, my shoulders moved a little more. And as the weight became lighter, it became easier to shake it off, easier to forgive as I realized that it was blessing me just as much, if not more. By the time most of the black, rotten hatred had fallen away, I could lift my head up and actually look around, even look up toward the One who had forgiven me.

All that time, I had thought that forgiving meant letting someone off the hook. But it turns out that they're not on my hook to begin with. Forgiving doesn't release them, it releases me to stand tall again. It releases my heart to love again, to laugh again, to even trust again. It releases me to truly share in the sufferings of Christ, enduring that which was not deserved, but saying, "Forgive them Father. They know not what they do." All that time, I didn't know that forgiving them would release me back to freedom, and had nothing to do with them, other than blessing them.
Remember the violet? That precious flower released the sweetest perfume only after being crushed, after feeling the full weight of hatred. The sweetest part of the bloom was given up as a blessing for the one that crushed it. And that blessing is carried on to others. Because Christ forgave me, passing the blessing on to me allowed me to pass it on to others. And as that sweetness was released onto others, my heart experienced great freedom and unshakable joy.

What about you? Are you walking in the freedom that was intended for you? Or are you holding on to a grudge that is not yours to carry? Is it time to forgive? Blessings to you all.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

What Do You See Now?

This rough man sat, nay, slouched in his chair across from me, his right arm dangling across his thigh, the other arm thrown back casually over the back of the seat. There was silence among the other men, as this tattooed, dark thug began to tell his story.

"I am serving a life sentence for the rape and murder of my girlfriend. A few years back, I spent some time with this prison ministry team and gave my life to Jesus. I have repented of my crimes, I have sought forgiveness from those whom I have hurt. But there is this thing that I can't seek forgiveness for. I killed my girlfriend. It was wrong, but she's gone and cannot forgive me. But then the pastors here tell me that it's done and God has forgiven me. So what I want to know is this: what do you see when you look at me?"

Oh my goodness. Lord. Have. Mercy. Did I mention the tattoos? Did I mention that I was terrified in his presence? Did I mention the big arms and RIP on his neck? What did I see when I looked at him?

Up to this point, I had been sitting on the edge of my seat, back erect, feet planted lightly under me, as if ready to bolt like an anxious cat. At hearing his question, the weight of conviction became so heavy in my heart, pushing me back in the chair with an exhaustive exhalation. What did I see when I looked at him? As my body hit the back of the chair, the voice of the Lord began rushing through my ears:
He was made in My image. He's been redeemed by My blood.
He was made in My image and has been redeemed by My blood.
I took in a long, slow, deep breath, as I prayed inwardly, "You said You would give me the words to speak. You said You would tell me what to say. I need You now, as all words fail me."

I sat deep in the chair for what felt like an eternity before I could move my mouth to even form a word. As the words began to approach my tongue, I slowly leaned forward, toward this brother of mine, till my arms were resting on my legs and my sole focus was on his face alone.

I opened my mouth by the grace of the Spirit alone and said, "You call yourself a Christian. I claim the same. You have surrendered your life to the power of Christ. I have done the same. There is no crime you have committed that is any worse than anything I have ever done. In the eyes of God, I am no better nor worse than you. So what do I see when I look at you? I see the blood of Christ covering over my brother, washing you of your sins, making you white as snow. And what I can tell you, with all confidence, is this: by the promise of the Word of God, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the authority of Jesus Christ, You. Are. Forgiven."

Breathe deep. Pause for another eternal moment.

Have you ever seen a soul released? Have you ever seen a burden lifted? Have you ever seen a heart restored? It looks a lot like a grown man, covered in scary tattooes, with sad eyes full of gory life stories, hanging his head low as a single tear rolls down his life-stained cheek, too ashamed to make eye contact, too humbled to say another word. It looks a lot like a brutal, hardened criminal softening at the simple words of a foreign girl sitting across him.

Ah sweet forgiveness. How quickly and simply you release your beauty to the most undeserving, unsuspecting souls. The very boot that crushes you receives the absolute best that you have to offer. Your essence clings to it, travels with it, becomes part of it, and rubs off on others.

Ah sweet forgiveness. There is no limit to your giving. And it didn't stop there...

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Work Has Just Begun

As I sat there in the dark that night, debating whether or not to go back the next day, a few things were revealed in my heart. Somehow, I thought that once I became a Christian, my heart would be free from the things of the past. I don't know where I got that notion. Maybe it was the "health and wealth" gospel: Come to Jesus and life will be grand! But as I sat there arguing with God about returning to prison the next day, I realized that my heart was so full of anger and hatred that I could barely see straight. Oh, how painful that conversation was, how enlightening and revealing that conversation was. And how far reaching my anger had become.

You see, I had been hurt, violated in the highest form. And the ramifications of it all nearly ruined my life entirely. And I had heard about forgiving those who persecute you, blah blah blah. But in the deep, dark recesses of my heart, I harbored such bitterness and hatred for the men who had so horribly violated me that forgiveness was not an option.

I wanted an apology. Nay, I wanted them to beg for forgiveness of me. I wanted to see those scumbags hit their knees before me and beg to be released from this evil that they had done. Somehow, in all of this, I thought I deserved that. To be able to have that sort of control over them, after the control that they had over my life for so long, seemed like a reasonable craving. I wanted them to know and experience the destruction they caused and the depth of the evil they did. My heart was black with anger.

And the pathetic truth of it all was that they probably never gave another thought to me again after that night. It rotted me from the inside out, and they went on gleefully with their lives. The crime took place in Ecuador, South America, so the odds of me ever running into these people again, ever in my life, were absolutely slim to none, at best. It was a lost cause of hatred leading to my own destruction. And I stewed in it.

And yet God remained: "Go back. A work has just begun."

And so the night passed, and my puffy, tear-stained eyes opened to welcome a new day. I prayed throughout the morning, questioning myself and questioning God. And in the end, I loaded up in the van with the rest of my team, and headed back to prison. As large group time dispersed and folks were congregating into their small groups, I found myself surrounded by the same group of men who had barraged me with questions the day before. I braced myself for the worst, just hoping to not cry and not vomit. I had high hopes indeed.

The men were sitting in a half circle in front of me, with my chair in the center facing them. The man sitting dead center, directly in front of me scared the hell out of me. He was of average height, his muscular arms showing through the dirty white t-shirt he wore. His distinguishing features were his tattoos. He had a small guillotine tattooed in the middle of his forehead and large capital letters RIP tattooed across the front of his neck. His very presence terrified me, leaving me uncomfortable of where to even land my eyes. It was this man who spoke first.

"I am serving a life sentence for the rape and murder of my girlfriend."

Wow. Seriously? That's what we're going to start with? Seriously...

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Monday, November 16, 2009

And Then It Got Real...Scary

**Continued from yesterday's post**

Coasting on the wave of having seen a soul come to glory only lasted a short while, as God began to whisper gently to my heart. His whisper is so gentle, though the message itself is not always so soft.

"Tell your story."

I'm sorry, what? Maybe You have forgotten where we are, and what I've been through (because You are so forgetful, right?). I argued with God, because that's productive and effective. I was sure that He was wrong, or maybe I just heard Him wrong. But He continued to press.

"Tell your story."

After surrendering to the fact that God's perseverance is much stronger than my own, and with great fear and trembling, I consented to share my testimony with the large group of prisoners. Now, this wasn't just a sweet story about growing up in church and coming to a realization that I needed a Savior. Nope. My story is a bit different. It's laced with a rape when I was 18, which led to years of alcoholism and various drug addictions. If it was out there and could numb my pain, I gave it a go, and then some, until I was completely incapable of being sober and absolutely loathed who I had become. Addictions like that will lead a person to do things that she never thought she would ever even consider, let alone be capable of doing. And yet she did them. I did them. Yep, this was the story that I got to share with that large group of prisoners, locked up for every crime under the sun, including what I had done, and what had been done to me.

When the large group time finished and everyone dispersed into their small groups, my group of one became a group of 8 men, unknown to me up to that point. They had questions for me. They had questions about how I felt about being raped. WHAT? Seriously? And over the course of the conversation that ensued, I discovered that every single one of them had been incarcerated for rape. They had been the cause of such deep pain and humiliation to someone else. They had questions, and so they asked, and I did my best to not vomit on them, or melt down in a puddle of tears.

By the time I left that day, I was pretty sure that I couldn't return. I was pretty sure that God had made a mistake, or that I had misunderstood Him and I had made a tremendous mistake. How could I have been so transparent? How could I have been so naive as to tell my story? I was so angry, so disgusted by what I had just experienced. I felt like all that I had buried for years under alcohol, drugs, and then church life, had just been resurfaced and was laid bare for all the world to see. All my wounds, all my hurts, all my disappointments and failures had just been violently ripped open into a gaping wound for these people, these prisoners, these criminals to see.

As I sat weeping on the floor that night, I could hear that whisper yet again.

"Go back."

Hmmm, maybe You missed what happened today. Maybe you missed the questions they were asking me. Maybe You missed the pain I was in at this moment. Maybe you missed the uncontrollable tears that have been pouring down for the past several hours. I think that I will not be going back.

"Go back. My work has just begun."

Oh, mercy. Just begun, really? That means it could get a lot worse before it gets any better.

On some level, it did get worse. But on other levels, it got so much better. Forgiveness was about to happen....

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

God's on the move! Either go with, or get out of the way!

But the next day came. The sun rose over the Indian ocean in all its splendor announcing the new mercies of God. And off to prison we went.

We had our large group time in which one of my team members spoke a message to the whole, which I was more than happy to have nothing to do with. If you know me at all, I am quite the introvert. That is probably why I am much happier sitting on this side of the keyboard, knowing that anyone whose eyes may come across my words will actually be fairly removed from me in person. Somehow that's much more comfortable for me. I know, I'm a coward. But God is merciful and patient, and so I hung out at the back waiting for large group to disperse.

When the large group broke up, the young man who had demanded conversation the day before approached me once again. I sat down with him, with great fear and trembling. What would I say today? How would I pass the time until we could get out of there? How would it go?

He began: "You gave me a story to read yesterday."

Me: "Yes, I did." (Hear great trembling in the tiny voice that came out, maybe even some cracks in it.)

Man: "Well, I read it. Over and over again last night."

Me: "Oh, wow." (searching brain frantically. what do I say??? what do I say now??)

Man: "The story was about Zacchaeus. He was a thief. And Jesus called him out and wanted to sit with him, break bread with him. Jesus forgave him all his sins."

Me: "Yes, that's true." (seriously grasping here for SOMETHING to say. nothing comes to mind or tongue)

Man: "I'm a thief. I'm serving time for robbery and assault."

Me: "Oohh. Ok..." (ahhh!! what do I say? what do I do? scanning courtyard for closest exit!)

Man: "So, what I was wondering is this: if Jesus was able to sit with Zacchaeus and forgive him all his sins, do you think He would do the same for me?"

Me: "Huh?" (did I miss something? because it sounds a whole lot like there's some salvation taking place here, and I might have missed it in my fear and unbelief!)

Man: "Do you think that Jesus would forgive me too?"

Me: "Well, yes. Yes, I do think that He would forgive you."

Man: "That's what I thought too, so last night I asked Jesus to save me from my sins."

Me: "Huh?" (what just happened here? did a man just get saved?!?! and I got to be there for his harvest???!?!?!)

As my body began to relax in my seat a bit, and the realization of what had just happened truly sunk in, I began to smile, which then turned to outright laughter. I did nothing. In fact, I just barely showed up. With much grumbling and disbelief, I displayed a tiny (teeny tiny!) amount of obedience to at least show up, and was able to witness an incredible harvest that had been planted and tended to for years. Imagine!

Over the next few days, I kind of sat back, breathing deeply, thinking that I had done what God had taken me there to do. I was coasting until our time was up there.

Silly girl, God had just begun. He was moving and that was my warning shot. Get moving with Him, or get out of the way. He was about to blow my socks off. At least I got a warning shot.

Hang with me...I'm coming to a point...

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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Going to Prison

**This is a continuation from yesterday's post. I left off beginning to share the story of my time in Cape Town, South Africa working with a prison ministry team. **

I spent a couple of months in Cape Town, South Africa in the summer of 2003 with some of the most amazing people I have ever met. We had the unique opportunity to work alongside of a prison ministry team there, and much to my surprise, God used that time more to heal my own heart than anything else at all. He's funny like that.

My first day in the prison was so much harder than I imagined it would be. We walked through the corridors where men spent their days and nights, witnessed the overcrowding and deplorable circumstances. We met with the ministry staff who worked there full-time and heard copious stories of the inmates, their backgrounds, and the crimes that landed them in their cells. We heard of everything from petty theft, to grand larceny, drug trafficking, to rape and murder, with everything in between. At the end of the day, we were given some free time to meditate on all that we had seen and cry out to God about what we would have us do there.

I can recall vividly hitting my knees at the end of that day, weeping before my God, asking over and over again, "Why am I here? Why did you bring me here?" I was no better than any of the people I had met that day, and somehow, I managed to escape the punishment of my crimes. I could think of all the times that I broke the law, I could picture the depravity of my life before Christ saved me, and I knew that I deserved the sentence that some of them were living out. So now, what could I possibly say? What could I possibly bring to this place, all the while knowing that at the end of the day, these men would was back into their tiny prison cells to pass the night, and I would leave the walls that confined them behind me and return to a soft bed and warm meal. I wept for the mercy that God had so freely offered, the forgiveness outweighing the heinous crime itself.

God is so faithful, though, and His plan is so perfectly divine.

As we began to spend our days at the prison, we as a team fell into a rhythm of sorts. We would spend the first part of our morning with the prisoners in a large group, and then from there we would break up into smaller groups, each of us on the team meeting with only a few prisoners at a time. My first day there, after the large group time, a young muslim man made a b-line for me and abruptly and curtly said, "Do you want to talk to me?"

My terrified response was, "Of course I do." So he pulled up two chairs facing each other and invited me to sit, which I promptly did. He then revealed a postcard that he carried around with him in his back pocket. That postcard had signatures on it from people all over the world. It was tattered and worn on the edges. Every signature was in a different color ink with a location, city and country, written below it. If I had to guess, there were well over 20 signatures littered across the card.

As he was proudly displaying his card, he began to tell me that the signatures were from missionaries whom had come from all over the world while he was there in prison. Each had met with him, shared the gospel with him, and then asked him for a decision for Christ. He goes on to tell me that he has grown up as a muslim, and islam is his very life. A decision for Christ would lead to death for him. So he wanted to know from me why He should make a decision that would land him dead.

Oh mercy, I assure you I am not smart enough for such questions as that. I was a babe in Christ myself, and certainly had never had to weigh out death with my decision to follow Christ. I was praising God that his question had come at the very end of our time together, as I had nothing to offer such a serious challenge. Just a few weeks prior to leaving for South Africa, I had taken a brief storytelling course that taught about letting the words of Scripture itself do the teaching to people, and I had taken away a list of possible application stories to share with people as particular needs arose. I'm sure that I completely missed the point of the training and was not using the list of stories in the manner that it had been intended, but I whipped out that list, scanned it quickly, and picked one in a seemingly random manner.

I offered to this young Muslim the story of Zacchaeus, the thief who waited in a tree for Jesus to pass. If you are not familiar that short story, you can find it here. I don't know why I chose that story, other than it was the only one I really recognized as I scanned the list in desperation. I asked him to read the story overnight and then we could talk about it the next day when we returned. Oh, did I ever want to scoot out of there quickly. I felt silly, useless, ill-equipped. I had been put on the spot and felt like a total failure. If I had a tail to tuck, it most definitely would have been between my legs as we walked out of there that day. I was dreading having to return the next day...

Stay tuned. I'm on a roll...

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Friday, November 13, 2009

The Divinity of Forgiveness

I read a quote today: “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet shed on the heel that crushed it.” Mark Twain said it. Very wise words. Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet shed on the heel that crushed it. I can see that violet being crushed, fragile and sensitive, soft purple, under the weight of an unyielding, cold boot. And as the delicate petals flatten out with gentle cruches, that small puff of fragrance mixed with pollen and pigment and dust splatters the edges of the heel, like water being thrown on a wall or paint on a canvas. The sweetness that comes from such a violent death is remarkable, more than my mind can really fathom right now. The violet, in all its innocence and beauty, left behind what could only be offered in death of self, the remnant itself sweeter than that which embodied it. There is power, though also pain, in death of self, blessing the crushing oppressor with that which he did not deserve. He did not deserve it. And yet received it anyway. And when the blow was dealt, forgiveness was not requested, but still given freely without hesitation, and in the same instant that the insult was received. The instant backlash resulting from the step of death. There is power, though painful it will be, in the death of self.

It is an obvious picture of what Christ did for all of us. Before the request for forgiveness was ever offered up, Christ received the crushing blow that splattered his fragrant blood on the hands that nailed him to the cross. On my hands. Before I ever cried out, while I was still stewing in my own dreadful brokenness, his blood splattered me, violently painting the sweetest essence my soul has ever known all over my disaster. The very moment my hands swung the hammer down, his forgiveness sprayed me from head to toe. I didn't ask for it. I certainly didn't deserve it. And yet his death was so sweetly offered for the power that it held.

Forgiveness is such a difficult topic. This intangible, often evasive, thing that contains such power. We often cling to unforgiveness because the other party has not repented or because they just don't deserve it. But the thing is, forgiveness has nothing to do with the other party, and everything to do with protecting one's own heart. You see, unforgiveness leads to bitterness. It leads to a hard and calloused heart. It leads to poisoned thinking and uncontrolled, unrighteous anger. Unforgiveness has so much less to do with the offending party than it does with one's own heart and relationship with Christ.

In 2003, I traveled to Cape Town, South Africa with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and was blessed to work with a prison ministry team. This was the most cathartic time of my life, when God revealed Himself to me as Healer, Forgiver, and Redeemer. My own heart had grown bitter and cold after years of unforgiveness. But God had plans for me there in South Africa. And in the midst of large group of men who were locked up in solitary confinement for every crime under the sun, I saw the power of forgiving....

I'll unpack that tomorrow. I promise.

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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

I long to see that community

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There was no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it al the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.
So goes the description of the early Church, conceived out of the crucifixion of Christ, birthed out of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, grown under the weight of the persecution of the surrounding Roman empire. In those days, the Romans presented a brute military presence, marching through territories claiming, "Peace through Victory!" crucifying those who resist. This young budding church, though, was a thorn in the flesh of the an otherwise dominating empire. This Church refused to pledge their allegiance to Caesar. They refused to shout out, "Caesar is Lord." They refused to contribute to the machine that had built up the most powerful world super-power at that point in history. They were underground. They were subversive. They were rebels. They were generous, forgiving, and welcoming.

Oh, how I long to see that community. In previous posts, I have talked about the idea of giving it all away for the sake of others, pouring ourselves out, hoarding nothing for our own sake, but giving it all away. I see here in Acts 4, it says, "No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had." That's powerful. Could you imagine seeing that fleshed out? Does that mean that everyone sold everything and gave it to the church? I would imagine not, as that would leave everyone homeless. Look further down that passage in verse 34:

"For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money form the sales and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need."

As needs arose, the body responded. If a widow needed medical attention but could not afford it, a field could be sold to provide for her need. If mouths were going unfed because the resources were not available, a house could be sold to provide resources. It was all community property.

But even if the field or house were not sold, no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, whether they sold it to give the profits to the church or remained with it. It was still not a possession to be claimed. It was all community property. It was all a gift that was given, and could easily be taken away.

My house...not my house, but community property.
My car...not my car, but community property.
God has provided these things, not for me to hoard, but to be used for His glory, for His name's sake, for His Kingdom work. Is that what I'm doing with them? Oh, how I hate questions like that. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is so selfish and weak.

That would change things a bit, wouldn't it. More later. My head is spinning in that tonight.

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Monday, November 2, 2009

Thoughts from an Apostle's Wife

So, I am the wife an apostle. Truly, a real, live, world-traveling, tongue speaking, persecution enduring, Christ following, obedient apostle. His calling is clear, and his heart is totally sold out. So proud of my husband.

I often think about Peter's wife. I wish I knew her name, other than Peter's wife. I imagine that she was an incredible, blessed, humble woman of God. I wish I could be like her. I wonder if she struggled when her man was away. He was gone for looooong stretches. I wonder if she ever asked him, "Peter, where ya been for the last three years, or so? Whatcha been doing? Don't you miss me?" I wonder if she ever wished Peter would return to the fishing boat and bring home the bacon. I wonder if she ever wished for a more "normal" life. But her husband was called, and he answered. He followed Jesus to his dying day, and became a great shepherd of the Church in the process.

I wish God had left more stories for us(me) about women such as Peter's wife. I love the stories of Peter and all that he did in obedience to Christ, but what about the ones supporting him?What about the ones who stayed behind? What were their lessons? How did they grow and move in faith? How did they avoid resentment and bitterness? Whom did their lives impact in their quiet obedience?

I remember a letter that I had sent to my husband when we were corresponding before we got married. It makes me laugh now to think of what I wrote then. I told him that I was not the sort of girl to stay behind taking care of the homefront. I was a goer too, just like him. That's to think about now, as I was getting letters from him at that point in time after being taken hostage by the LRA in northern Uganda, being robbed in Saudi Arabia, being caught in the war raids in Uganda. Although I could definitely do without the kidnapping, imprisonments, and torture, I was sure I was a goer. Just like him. And so he needed to know that once we got married, I was going to be traveling with him. It's all part of the adventure for Christ, right?

Silly, feminist. Turns out women can't do it all. We're not supposed to. I have a calling as well, and a place and seasons to live that out. Turns out for this season of my life, I'll be doing a little less traveling, and a whole lot more foundation laying in the lives of three gorgeous and vivacious girls. And it turns out that this is an incredible ministry too, teaching little ones what it looks like to be obedient in servanthood.

I wish I could talk to Peter's wife. I'm sure she would have some encouraging words for when I am feeling pent up, longing to dream under the expansive African sky, missing my man when he is away. I'm sure that she would remind me that it is, in fact, not about me, and it is all worth it in the end.

I am married to an apostle, and tonight he is home, asleep next to me. And so I will cherish the time before I proudly send him out again. Good night.

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