Embracing the Grey

I knew Shelly before she went to jail and stayed in contact with her during the 18 months she was locked up.  She never talked much about her spirituality but the one thing she wanted me to bring her when she got arrested was her recovery Bible.  When she was finally released, I helped her find housing and hired her to help me at Embrace.

When Shelly proudly showed me her new, very large tattoo of a cross on her forearm with the word “embrace” in scroll curving over the cross, I know it was meant as a profession of faith and a token of gratitude for the relationship we had built over the years.  I later learned that as she battled her heroin addiction, she also craved the feeling of the needles piercing her skin.  The tattoo parlor became both her new drug of choice and her temporary path to sobriety.  The tattoo symbolized her faith in Christ and her continued bondage to the demon of addiction at the same time.  She had crossed from the black night of addiction, into the grey morning of early sobriety.

Within six months of this unorthodox profession, she attempted to take her own life. As we rushed her to the emergency room and sat with her as they treated her, I realized just how broken she was.  I had prayed countless prayers, shared with her in every way she was open to receiving it, the love of Christ and yet she remained a tortured soul.  She was slipping from grey to black, from the early light of morning to the darkness of night.

Upon her exit from the hospital, I took her into my home, welcomed her into my family, and loved her like a sister.  I poured myself into her but there was a depth of despair that I could not touch. While she did regain her will to live, the darkness had reclaimed her spirit.  When she ultimately slipped back into the dark world of addiction, I felt like a part of me went with her. I felt like I had failed her, not loved her enough, not prayed for her enough.  I other words, I had not been able to save her.  There is a secular song by The Fray called “How to Save a Life” and every time I hear it, I think of Shelly – the girl who taught me about the grey.

Prior to having Shelly for a friend, I thought the Christian faith was pretty black and white.  You either had Jesus in your life or you didn’t.  If you did, you automatically had triumph over the forces of darkness because “greater is the one in us.”  I had been taught “once saved” always “saved.”  Backsliders, I was taught, never fully embraced Jesus and so their profession really did not count.  But that was before I walked with Shelly in the grey.  Her relationship with Jesus though unorthodox was real, she embraced the light and begged it to overtake the darkness, yet the darkness triumphed.

As Shelly swallowed a bottle of pills seeking to end her life, Charles lay on the floor across town saying to himself, “if I have to live this way, I might as well be dead.”  As he contemplated suicide, the spirit of God directed him to The Healing Place, a residential recovery program based on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.  There Charles met the “god of his understanding” and it was that nameless God that helped him overcome his 33 year drug addiction.  The AA big book became the only bible Charles has ever read, the fellowship of AA the only church he will ever be a member of.   My traditional church training would tell me that Charles does not know Jesus, but my spirit has told me otherwise.  Every morning Charles gets up at 5:30 to read his AA devotional book, greets the God who freed him from the darkness and sustains him in the light.  Every day I watch as he is being transformed into the likeness of Jesus by that same God who is daily transforming me.

Shelly and Charles helped me let go of my black and white, in or out, saved or unsaved way of thinking.  I think we all exist in the “now” and “not yet” of God’s redemptive grace.  Some have never been touched by the light, some have been touched but get drawn back into darkness, others follow a mysterious spirit into the light, while others of us follow the traditional path of being introduced to Jesus as the light. We all exist along a continuum of darkness to pure light with the majority of us existing in various stages of grey.  We are both a new person and being transformed at the same time.  We are saved from our sin and being saved.  We are all under construction and none of us have fully arrived.

When I let go of a dualistic, right or wrong, in or out, black and white way of thinking and began to see the things in varying stages of grey, I was freed of the need to be right, and the need to judge others as wrong.   I began to see God at work in unusual places using unorthodox approaches and speaking to me through unexpected people.  When I stopped judging or dictating how, when and through whom God could speak, I entered into a mystery where God was the only judge, the only truth, and the pure light.  I was free to follow God in ways my former black and white thinking would not have allowed.  I was free to love people without judgment in a way my right and wrong thinking would have rejected. I was free to embrace the light of Christ in people, places and situations that my former state of being would not have seen.  I have learned to admit that I simply do not have all the answers and this truth has set me free.

This post is part of a synchroblog about some of the things we’ve let go of along the way in our spiritual journeys and what we’re learning in the process.

What have you let go of in your spiritual journey and what have you learned in the process?

Read how others have answered this question:



Filed under Spirituality

Ode to “Abnormal” Mothers – Revisited

A few years ago I wrote this ode to honor my mother.  At that time, I think I only had 4 people reading my blog, so I decided to repost with a few modifications.

Several years ago my youngest daughter said to me, “Mom why aren’t you a normal mom?”  I asked her to define “normal mom.” She said, “You know, the kind of mom that is always at the bus stop, eats lunch at school with her kids, and who puts notes in my lunch box.”  In other words, she wanted the culturally constructed image of the “perfect” mother.  What child would not want that kind of mom?

I can remember as a child having similar feelings though I was never bold enough to say such things to my mother.  I did, however, think them.  When Caroline said those words to me, I felt like I had been socked in the stomach.  Was I doing this mommy thing all wrong?  Or, was there perhaps another image of a mom that, while not the cultural norm, could be equally as healthy?

I am thankful that I was raised by a woman who refused to become who society wanted her to be.  A woman who has lived every day of her life striving to be the unique, amazing, sometimes odd woman God created her to be.  She is not your typical mother, and all I can do is praise God for that. Without her lively spirit and her zest for life, I would not be who I am.  I pray someday my daughter will come to appreciate my uniqueness as I have come to appreciate my mother’s.  This mother’s day, I want to celebrate my favorite “abnormal mother” – a woman I hope my daughters will seek to emulate.  She is a woman who simply wanted to be true to who God created her to be, in all her uniqueness.

My mom had grown up in the military and had seen the world but found herself living in a community where few had ever ventured beyond the county line.  My mom had strange taste in friends. I think it was because she never really fit in to small town culture.   I asked her once why her friends were all so weird and she replied, “Because, I like interesting people.”

She had a special knack for attracting people in crisis.  She even moved several of them in with us! There were the two teenage boys who had taken to the road to “find themselves”, several alcoholics whose wives had kicked them out, and family members who were just down on their luck.  Those she did not move into the house she spent hours at the kitchen table counseling.

Everyone knew that if you needed help, Sissy Miiller would listen without judgment and when necessary, take in the weary traveler.  I really hated having house guests growing up.  Especially the type of guest my mom invited in.  I was embarrassed to have my friends over because no other family I knew was running a homeless shelter out of their house.

Once my sister and I reached grade school, my mom closed up the shelter and we settled into a more “normal” life with my mother deciding to join the workforce.  She got her GED and in a matter of a few short years, she climbed the ranks in the local bank and was the Vice President of mortgage lending.  From there, she started her own mortgage company which she then sold many years later to start raising emu and ostrich on the ranch of her business partner.  From there she started her own embroidery company and to this day, she is continually dreaming of new adventures.  My mom is anything but boring.

I think my mom’s decision to take in people in crisis and to befriend social outcasts was one of the hardest things for me to deal with growing up.  However, I now realize that though I did not like her choices, somewhere deep inside me, my mom planted a seed of compassion that I know would not exist without her living such a compassionate life.  I think the gift of compassion is worth 1000 school lunches and countless love notes.  I never doubted she loved me because she loved everyone so freely and genuinely.  I always knew I could talk to her about anything because she never judged anyone.

I know I will not win the “Suzy Homemaker” award.  My children will not remember me for my cooking, my spotless house, or my attentiveness to all their needs.  But I do hope they will remember me as one who loved much and who sought to live a compassionate life.   I don’t know if my daughters will every fully understand my choices, but I know I am grateful that my mom choose to be a bit odd and fought against the cultural tide of conformity to claim the life God created for her.  That is what I want for my girls.  I don’t care if they grow up to be successful or wealthy.  All I can hope for is that they become fully who God created them to be and continue the tradition started by my mom.

I pray our society discovers a new definition of the “normal” mom.  I have a few suggestions as to how we might think of redefining “normal”:

  • What if the “normal “ mom looked a little more like Mother Theresa and a little less like Martha Stewart?
  • What if instead of hanging out at the mall, she hung out at the soup kitchen?
  • What if instead of spending her money and time on having the perfect hair, nails, and outfit, she invested in disadvantaged children?
  • What if instead of defining family as “biological” she saw herself as part of the larger “human” family?

So Happy Mother’s Day to my mom and all the “abnormal” moms out there.  Thanks for helping redefine “normal” and for being so weird!

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From Believers to Followers

My friend Lee made a good point on my blog about Christian Unity.  He quoted Jesus story of the Good Samaritan as an example of Christ call to live our faith, not just believe or say the right words.  I think if Christians put more emphasis on “following Jesus” and less on “believing in Jesus” there would far greater Christian Unity.

The fourth Thursday of every month, our Hillside team hosts a community fellowship event.  It is generally some sort of pot luck with Embrace providing the main course.  We celebrate birthdays, play games and just have fun with the team of Hillside residents who volunteer with us throughout the month.  However, the highlight of these fellowship events is always welcoming new leaders onto our leadership team.  In February, it was Windell’s turn to be inducted onto the team.  I have never seen anyone smile as big as Windell did when Janie pulled his official Embrace Richmond t-shirt over his head and he got a big embrace from both Janie and I.  He then went to his neighbor Debra, and gave her a big hug and said, “Thank you for telling me about Embrace Richmond.  This has been such a blessing to me!”

I sat and listened as Debra sang Windell’s praises.  She shared how she had been ill recently and how Windell came to her house every day to check on her.  How he went to the pharmacy and got her some medicine and went to the grocery store for her and how he came by regularly to lift her spirits.  She also shared that Windell did this for many people in the community.  In a community where most residents have been taught to stay to themselves, Windell is going against the cultural tide and breaking down walls of isolation that separate neighbors from one another.

While most people have images of gun wielding thugs when they think about Hillside Court, I have images of all the Windell’s who are just trying to make their community the best it can be.  In the nearly two years we have been walking the streets of Hillside, praying for the community, gathering the residents, and helping them tackle some of the challenges they face as a community, I have met a number of people like Windell.  They are people who choose to do the right thing, not for money, not for fame or glory, but just because it is the right thing to do.  They are people who simply want to be a “good neighbor.”

When asked, “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

We spend a lot of time in the church talking about and learning practices to help us live the first part of Jesus reply, “loving God.”  However, we spend very little time learning how to be good neighbors.  You might recall that Jesus was asked in Luke 10:29, “Who is my neighbor?”  Rather than give a simple answer to this question, Jesus replied

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denariiand gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’”

The part of this story that always speaks to me is that it was not the religious leaders who actually lived the religious teachings, but someone who was not even a part of the Jewish faith.  When I look at Windell, I see the good Samaritan.  I have no idea what Windell’s religious beliefs are, but he obviously lives out the second half of the Great Commandment better than most of us.

This month, Patrice officially joined the team.  Patrice is featured in the picture above standing next to me.  You may remember Patrice’s name from my post a few months back.  She is the one who stepped up during our listening meeting on safety to lead a team dedicated to supporting Hillside families.  Since that day, Patrice has worked hard to fulfill the commitment she made that day.  Like Windell, Patrice simply seeks to be a good neighbor and honestly she puts me to shame.

If asked, “What is the role of the suburban church when it comes to under-resourced urban communities?”  I think Jesus would answer, “to be a good neighbor.”  The Samaritan addressed the emergency need of the man on the road and then insured that he would be well cared for by the innkeeper.  In the same way, we are to help people in crisis but also to support the innkeepers who can provide ongoing care and support to those in need.  In other words, we are to help insure people like Patrice and Windell have what they need to be successful in caring for those who have been deeply wounded in their community.

Windell and Patrice both serve as “Care Leaders.”  Care Leader’s are kind of like “innkeepers.”  They look out for the people in their part of the Hillside community and they basically model for the rest of the community what it looks like to be a good neighbor.  We are honored to have such an amazing care team.

A few weeks ago, two more young people were gunned down in Hillside court.  For the first time, I actually knew the families of both the victims.  Among the first people to visit the families were members of the care team.  In a community with so much pain and heart break, there are these “Samaritans/innkeepers” in the mix and it makes my heart rejoice. I can’t wait to see who God raises up next!

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Filed under Community Development, Stories from the Street, Urban Ministry

I Found It – The Ultimate Heretic Detector System!

I woke up this morning intent on spending a peaceful day at our cabin with my dog.  I was looking forward to having the time to reflect on all that has happened this past month and there is a lot to reflect upon.  Unfortunately, I made the decision to post my comments for Rachel Held Evans “Rally to Restore Christian Unity” late Saturday night.  It was obvious that a couple of the folks who commented on my post were looking for the “Keep Fear Alive!” rally.  They opposed my opposition to calling people heretics who disagree with one’s theology.  One gentleman asked the questions, “ Does this mean there is no such thing as a heretic? Is so, how would we know? Or how would we warn others about them?”

As I was making the hour long drive out to my cabin this morning, I was composing a response to the heretic seekers question. It was titled, “The Second Coming of the Pharisee’s”, and I admit it did nothing to promote Christian Unity.  I was so lost in my debate with my invisible nemesis that I completely missed my turn.  I make this trip at least once a month and can navigate it with my eyes closed but I was so distracted by the temptation to debate this person I have never met, that I got completely off course.  I started to feel like something was wrong about five miles into going the wrong way, but it took almost 20 minutes before I was fully aware of just how far off course I was.

As I was doubling back, the Holy Spirit used my misdirection to remind me of something.  I don’t have to prove my faith in Christ to anyone.  I simply have to follow the one who called me and stay on course.  God has called me to a much higher purpose than debating theology with a total stranger.  While I love writing and enjoy the debates, they can become a distraction and can get us all totally off course.  Apostle Paul’s words to Timothy came to mind, “Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen.”

When I finally arrived at my cabin, I was struck by all the new growth since my last visit.  The trees are in full bloom, the butterflies have emerged, even the mushrooms and fungus have taken on brilliant colors.  For some reason this place always helps to ground me and to remind me of just how small I am.  I don’t know whose theology is right and whose is wrong.  All I know is that God called me to love people and to encourage others to love one another.

As I looked at all this new life, I thought of the new life I am seeing in our community.  I thought of the Facebook post from Joe who wrote to me yesterday, “You always believed in me and now I can believe in myself.”  I thought of Debra who shared on Thursday that for two years she sat on her porch and no one talked to her until we came into the community and now she makes a point of talking to her neighbors.  I thought of the young man who thanked Janie on Tuesday for making him help out at the food pantry.  New life comes in many forms, shapes and sizes.  However, it all comes from the same creator’s hand, birthed out of love and it produces in kind.

To my friend who asked how to detect a heretic, I would suggest you look for signs of new life birthed out of love that are producing loving relationships.  If someone’s ministry is producing people who are experiencing new life and who are learning to love like Jesus, then in my book that is more important than their doctrinal beliefs.  Those with sound doctrinal beliefs who bear no fruit are like the fig tree that Jesus cursed.

There is a ministry in our city that literally goes up to people on the street and asks them if they were to die tonight do they know where they will spend eternity.  I personally find this fear-based approach distasteful.  However, I cannot deny that this particular ministry is producing people who love God and who are seeking to love their neighbors.  I will never agree with their theology but I respect that God has called them to their particular way of doing ministry and I pray for their success.

I don’t think using one’s interpretation of scripture as the basis of determining their heretic status makes any sense.  There is no one way of interpreting the Bible and we are foolish to pretend that there is. Jesus said, “Watch out for false prophets…By their fruit you will recognize them.”  (Matthew 7:15, 16) The Apostle Paul taught us “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness and self-control. “(Galatians 5:22-23) Thus the ultimate Heretic Detection system is the fruit.

I have read criticisms of Bell that were based on his treatment of historical facts, his lack of support for his conclusions, and his biblical interpretation but I have yet to read any critique of him that focuses on his fruit.  From what I can see he appears to be producing Christ followers who appear to love the Lord and who appear to want to love their neighbors.  From what I can see he is doing this to a greater degree than his critics.

So, there you have it – the Jesus method of detecting heretics.  Can we now proceed with our quest to restore Christian Unity or at least civility?


Filed under Theology

I Have a Dream that John Piper and Rob Bell will one day walk side by side in the Kingdom of God both here on earth and in the age to come

Rob Bell’s newest book “Love Wins” has set off a fire storm of ridicule and name calling from the religious right.  In an effort to take the high road in this debate, Rachel Held Evans has invited bloggers to participate in a Synchroblog which she has titled “The Rally to Restore Christian Unity.”  This post is a part of that effort.

If you have been reading my blog for any period of time, you know that Christian unity is something that I have struggled with a lot over the past year and have written on frequently.  As I shared in my post “Ouch that Hurts”, for a season I gave up on this thing called Christian unity.   I have defined unity in a number of ways through the years, all with equally disastrous results.

Early on I naively thought that if we all just believed in the Bible, we would achieve Christian unity.  That was way back when I thought there was only one way to read the Bible and thought that everyone who read it interpreted it the same way.  I know – I was really green back then.

After many painful theological debates with those whose bibles emphasized different passages than mine did, I gave up on theological unity.  I decided missional unity was the way to go.  This approach yielded some success, such as a diverse group of Christians agreeing that children should not sleep on the floor in our city and working together to address this issue.  But, this perceived unity was very shallow.  As we got into the deeper issues of how to solve the systemic issues causing poverty in our city, some advocated focusing on “personal salvation” while others focused on “community transformation.”  Ultimately this debate resulted in one friend labeling me a socialist and another accusing me of not being “Christian” enough.  So, I have abandoned “missional” unity as pathway to Christian unity.  I do however applaud Rachel Held Evans for using this rally to promote missional unity through her clean water emphasis and encourage you all to participate.

The personal attacks on my character have died down.  Basically, we have an agreement.  Those who oppose my views will not attack me personally on my Facebook page or blog and I will not blog about their attacks.  We have agreed to disagree or basically ignore each other.  While that is far more peaceful for all of us, is that really we mean by Christian “unity?”

As I have prayed about this issue this week, images of another form of unity keep coming to my mind.  In my context, racial unity has been a significant challenge and a blessing.  Christians today would never define racial unity as simply co-existing, nor would we ever seek unity that eliminates the diversity of cultural heritage.  No, the unity we seek is one of mutual respect, equal voice, a place at the table for all.

In order for that kind of “unity” to be achieved, those in power had to relinquish control and those with no voice had to be elevated.  In our nations struggle toward racial unity there was a season of tremendous strife, fighting, name calling and discontent.  Things got really ugly before the beauty of a new season of unity could be realized. We still have a long way to go and I know this analogy is limited.

However, I think there is a very real parallel to what we are seeing today in the Christian dialog.  Those who have traditionally controlled the telling of the Christian narrative are being challenged by those who emphasize different elements of our mutual story.  As Jimmy Spencer Jr. noted, both sides love Jesus too much to simply remain silent.

While I hate the name calling, judgment and fighting as much as anyone, Christian unity is NOT “just getting along.” It is not pretending we all agree.  It is not ignoring each other. It is not pretending our differences are minor.  It is not the absence of diversity of thought.  It is not easy.  It does not require we sell out or give up our own beliefs.   It is messy.  It is painful.  It does require we respect one another.  It will require more voice be given to those historically excluded from the conversation.  It may require a shift in the power structures that currently control the Christian dialog. It is a mystery.   It is spiritual in nature.  It is worth the pain.  It is God’s desire.  It is achievable through Christ spirit.

To achieve racial unity, Dr. King called on the nation to envision a world different than the one they lived in.  The powerful imagery found in his “I Have a Dream” speech, inspired a nation to advance toward that vision.   So here is my dream, “I have a dream that one day Christians will be free to express their ideas about God without being called heretics. I have a dream that Christians of every theological position will one day seek unity of the spirit while allowing diversity in theology.  I have a dream that one day men, women, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, conservative, moderate, and progressive will gather at the same table without throwing food at each other.  I have a dream that one day Brian McLaren, Al Mohler, Rob Bell and John Piper will be joined by female and minority voices in debates that impact us all.  I have a dream that the Lion of Judah will lie down with the Lamb of God and God’s justice will be served through God’s lavish love of us all.”


Filed under Spirituality, Theology

The Virus is Spreading and I Hope You Catch it

masque anti virusphoto © 2009 ZYG_ZAG | more info (via: Wylio)The one thing I brought back from my cruise that I would have liked to leave on the boat is a nasty little virus that has left me with a sore throat, runny nose and overall yucky feeling.   My husband caught it on Friday, I came down with it on Saturday and then the girls got it on Sunday.  I probably infected my entire staff on Monday and all of Hillside court on Tuesday.  If you are one of my victims, please forgive me!

Viruses are rather amazing organisms.  You can’t see them because they are so tiny but they can infect grown healthy men and bring them to their knees.

Today, I witnessed another type of virus.  It started during our morning meditation when Antionette shared that she had been dreaming of this day for two years.  You see today, we launched our first mobile food pantry.  For those of you who do not know, the mobile food pantry is basically a food pantry on wheels.  For two years, we have been working with the Hillside tenant council, RRHA and local churches to try to address food scarcity in Hillside Court, but a lack of secure space and a lack of funds prevented us from moving forward.  The cool thing about the mobile food pantry is that you don’t need space.  The truck rolls in, you distribute the food on the sidewalk and the truck takes everything that is left over away.  It is an amazing site to see.  The other cool thing is that it is fully funded by the Central Virginia Food Bank which is such a gift to a community like Hillside court where there are no organizations who could afford that much food.

The virus then spread from Antionette to our  volunteer team as we reflected on the story of Jesus feeding the multitude in John 6 with the lunch of one small boy.  We got to be the disciples and distribute this gift which was truly direct from the hand of God.  As we reflected upon how this miracle arrived in our community and all the prayers we had prayed for food resources over the years, Vanessa helped us see that miracles are times like this.  No one on the outside would see the miracle but we all knew that is what we were witnessing.  I believe it was that time of praising God for this miraculous gift that infected the team with an attitude of gratitude.

It was then the team who infected everyone who walked in the door.  As Antionette greeted our guest with a smile and instructions, they felt welcomed and invited into the joy of the day.  As Sylvia and Vanessa processed applications and verified ID’s they extended dignity to our guests. As Chinary entertained those who were waiting with a game of charades, they could feel her positive energy and their frustration with having to wait in line turned into joy.  As Ann took their vouchers and John helped load their bags, they did so with a smile and cheerfulness.  All the way down that line, the spirit of joy translated into a spirit of gratitude from those who received.

By some miracle, we served every family and had a small amount left over to meet emergency food needs between now and the 1st of the month.

One of my favorite stories from today came from Janie.  There was a young single mom with a newborn baby and a toddler.  She was trying to hold the baby, the toddler, and two bags of groceries at the same time. There was a healthy, young man just standing around watching her struggle.  Janie went up to him and asked him to help her with her food.  He smugly said, “It will cost you .50 cents a bag.”  Janie looked him in the eye and said “You mean to tell me that you are not willing to help this woman and these kids out?  I am very disappointed that a young man as healthy and strong as you are would refuse to help this poor woman.”  Ashamed he grudgingly said “Oh, ok…I will help her.”  After he took the bags to her home, he returned to the food pantry, found Janie and said, “Thanks lady, that felt great.  Thanks for setting me straight and for making me help someone else.”  Janie then asked him if he had been through the line and he said, “No, I don’t live in Hillside.”  She said, “We have enough for everyone, grab a bag.”  He smiled at her and said, “Isn’t that just like God.  I finally help someone else and God has a blessing waiting for me.”

Viruses can infect grown men and turn them into grateful servants.

Throughout the day, the greatest blessing to me was the number of folks who came up to me and asked how they could get involved at Embrace.  They saw that the person greeting them was a resident of Hillside, the people behind the tables were residents of Hillside, the people unloading the trucks were residents of Hillside.  So many groups come into this community and “do for” the community but no one ever invites this community to “do for” themselves.  That spirit of gratitude quickly became a spirit of giving when they realized they could be on the other side of that table.  In a neighborhood where a culture of “taking” rules the streets, I know it was nothing short of a miracle that this virus of gratitude and giving is taking root.

On the applications for the mobile food bank, we asked folks if they would be willing to serve in the community and roughly 100 individuals said “yes.”  Watching people go from recipient to giver is one of the greatest joys in the world.  I can’t wait to see what God does with all these newly “infected” folks.  It is getting very exciting in Hillside Court!

Are you smiling?  Is your heart filled with joy?  I guess I should have warned you, I infected this post with the virus.  Now go and infect someone else!


Filed under Community Development, Stories from the Street

A Feast, A Dance and A Party: Lessons Learned from Little Things

For spring break my family took a five day Caribbean cruise.  One of our stops was a private island off the coast of Haiti owned by Royal Caribbean.  As we basked in the sun, sipped on tropical drinks and feasted at the all you could eat buffet, I felt a deep sense of guilt thinking about all the people in Haiti who were suffering from a lack of food, clean water and the lasting devastation of last year’s earthquake.  If I could have, I would have taken all that food to the people who really needed it.

As we were standing in line on the Island to get back on the boat, there was a band made up of five men playing your traditional island music.  As I looked at them, I realized they were the closest I would come on this trip to the people in Haiti.  I only had $20 cash on me so I gave it to my daughter and had her put it in their hat.  The lead singer of the band, stopped singing and with the most joyful voice, said “Thank you my lady for you generosity!”  Well, what happened next kind of surprised me.  The little boy in front of us tugged on his mother’s dress and asked for money to give the men and his mother complied.  The same gracious thanks followed his gift.  A man in the line behind us followed suit, then a lady in the front of the line and children throughout the line.  There was a wave of generosity that swept through that line.  It literally brought tears to my eyes.  We had all been standing in that line for at least 15 minutes and not a soul had even acknowledged the band. They were back ground noise, a part of the scenery, there for our entertainment.  Then suddenly, they represented an entire country of suffering, starving people.  God’s spirit swept through that line and gave us eyes to see and it all started with one small gift.

I had a similar experience later that evening.  It was 80’s and 90’s night at the night club called The Dungeon.  When we arrived not a soul was dancing.  This went on for many songs.  Great 80’s music with lots of women dancing in their seats and men tapping their toes, but no one was on the dance floor.  I finally had had enough and grabbed my husband and drug him onto the dance floor.  Well, the only dancing we felt comfortable doing in front of all those people with video camera’s projecting us up on the screen and a spot light on us was the jitterbug.  Not exactly fitting for Prince’s song “When Doves Cry” but we made it work.  I thought for sure, someone would come rescue us from the spotlight but not a soul joined us.

When we returned somewhat embarrassed to our table, the man at the table in front of us began clapping for us.  I went up to him and his wife and said, “Your turn.”  He took me up on my challenge, grabbed his wife and said “you have to come to” looking right at me and my husband.  So, the four of us entered the dance floor.  By the end of the song, the floor was packed and for the next three hours remained that way until my husband and I finally ran out of steam.  Everyone wanted to dance but no one wanted to dance alone.  Someone had to go first and then invite others to join in.  My husband and I were among the worst dancers in that club, but we had not been dancing since college.  Eventually, my fear of missing out on this once in a decade opportunity outweighed my fear of looking stupid and I found the courage to go for it.  God’s spirit swept through that room and we all overcame our fear of looking foolish and danced our hearts out.  But, it all started with one little jitterbug.

I have a seventeen year old daughter.  She is beautiful, smart, funny and an all-around joy to be around.  However, she is a bit shy.  For the first four days of the cruise, I observed as she watched the young men come and go from the piano bar where my family camped out during the sing-a-long time.  The same young man came with his family every night, stared at my daughter, looked anxious when she was not with us but never gained the courage to say a word to her.  I tried and tried to get her to say something but she wouldn’t.

On the last night of the cruise, the chatty 18 year old across the hall asked me how my cruise was going.  I shared with him how much fun we were having and then my lament that my eldest daughter had not met anyone her age.  He then extended an invitation to her to join him and the friends he had met on the cruise at the hot tub later that evening.  It took a lot of coaxing but she did finally take him up on his offer and had a great time.  Without the hospitality of that young stranger, my daughter would have sat in her cabin while the rest of the youth enjoyed a party.  It took a lot of courage for that young man to speak to a total stranger and a lot of courage for my daughter to climb into a hot tub filled with people she did not know.  However, a spirit of adventure and fun had swept across that ship and everyone wanted to go home having meet new friends and were willing to take a few risks.  It all started with a simple act of hospitality.

Mother Teresa said “We can do not great things, only small things with great love.”  To the men in Haiti who lovingly shared their musical talents with us, to the people in the line who generously shared their financial resources, to my husband who graciously danced with me, to the people in the night club who shared our love of 80’s music, to the red headed boy who invited my daughter to a party and to all those aboard the Royal Caribbean Navigator who made this past week so special, I just want to say THANK YOU for all the little things!

While I still feel a bit guilty for spending a week in total luxury while so many in our world are suffering, the greater sin would have been not to dance at the party.  I think if Jesus would have been on that ship, he would have been the first on the dance floor, the loudest one singing at the piano bar and the one turning water into wine at the party.  I am truly blessed to have had this time with my family and thank God for providing us with the means to do so.

May God Bless you all through the little things this Easter.

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