A Different Kind of Radical

IMG_5844 (2)Mass shootings have topped the news 11 times in the past few weeks, racking up a stunning list of casualties. Cops, gays, African-Americans and people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. So many, I can’t keep the details straight.

As a former journalist, I spent years keeping the details straight and practicing how to remain calm in the midst of tragic news events. Assemble the what, when, where, how and why of a story. Get it right. Get it fast. Move on. Observe, report, explain. Then do it again.

I remember sitting through six weeks of gruesome testimony during the trial of mass murderer John Wayne Gacy, the contractor and political precinct captain in Chicago who murdered 33 young men and buried most of them in the crawl space under his home. Several times a day I’d slip out of the courtroom, call the newsroom, pull together the latest what, when, where, how and why of the moment, then go back into the courtroom to do it again. Until the day I couldn’t.

I called the newsroom, began to read from my notes…and threw up.

Around that same time, former Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene wrote, “How many people have to die before our numbed-out sensibilities find it too much to bear?” That day, for me, 33 people was too many.

I’m still a news junkie. Instinctively, as I’ve watched dizzying events unfold lately on my TV screen, I note the what, when, where, how and why. But it no longer takes 33 deaths to make me want to throw up.

I am sick of trying to make sense of the latest tragedy before I’ve fully processed the last tragedy and before the news cycle has moved on to the next tragedy. Now, thanks to smartphones, horror sometimes even comes to us in real time and then gets replayed again and again, until the images stay in our brain long after the TV is turned off.

Don’t you wish we could declare a moratorium on senseless acts of violence? Don’t you wish we could say, “I’m sorry, the quota for evil has been used up for this month. However, we are taking applications for extravagant acts of kindness and excessive demonstrations of unity and mutual respect. Kindly submit your examples at your earliest opportunity, as our supply of hope is dangerously low and widespread despair is palpable.”

In times of crisis, when blood supplies are low, the call goes out and people line up to donate. And, except for those with medical conditions that prohibit their participation, it’s something we all can do. All human beings have blood. We don’t need a law passed, a politician to agree, or a lobbyist to apply pressure, to make it happen. We decide to act and people’s lives are saved.

Today, as Christians, we need to issue a different rallying cry. Let the call go out: We need  to see more extraordinary examples of grace extended to people who don’t deserve it. We need to flood our relationships with more forgiveness and mercy–the kind of mercy that holds no grudges and holds its tongue.

We need soccer moms and electricians and teachers and realtors and mechanics and geeks and sales clerks and kids on a playground to produce repeated “live shots” of racial harmony and ethnic diversity. We need to mount a massive counter-offensive against evil in the world.

Do you know anyone who’s hungry? Feed them. Know anyone who’s lonely? Don’t make them a project. Take them out for coffee or take them with you to the mall. Know anyone whose faith is different from yours…or any outsiders who aren’t your “type?” Surprise yourself. Strike up a conversation, listen, learn something.

Wherever you are, whoever you are, unleash a full-on assault of goodness in your corner of the world. Inch by inch, day after day. Refuse to cede any more territory to despair, hate and fear.

Will all these baby steps make any difference in the grand scheme of things? Well, the most famous Person who ever lived that way ended up on a cross. But, 3,000 years later, millions of people still follow him. He changed the world.

Maybe if we act more like Jesus, we can change the world, too. That’s why God left us here–to offer an alternative narrative to the world’s madness, before Christ returns to put a stop to it once and for all.

It’s what he’s been waiting for.

 

 

 

Posted in Christian Living, Courage, Living in a Violent World, Surviving in an Unkind World | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

“Are We Safe Yet?”

IMG_5844 (2)I sat down near the play area in a local mall a couple of days ago, waiting for a friend, and watched as two young boys fooled around on the jungle gym. Their grandmother kept a semi-watchful eye nearby, engrossed in her supermarket tabloid.

“Do you think we’ll die today,” one boy asked his friend.

“Die! I hope not,” the other boy said. “We’re supposed to go out for pizza tonight. That’s stupid! I’m not old enough to die. You have to have wrinkles first and walk funny, like Grandma.”

“Well, that kid died at Disney World. An alligator got him. And then there were all those people who died celebrating a rainbow or something. I didn’t get it. My mom says nowhere’s safe anymore. Maybe we’ll die right here in front of J.C.Penny’s!”

I stared at the boys in stunned silence. I don’t remember my child, at age seven or eight, ever wondering if she would die on a jungle gym in a shopping mall.

Living in America used to imply we were safer than 98% of the rest of the world. That was before  9/11 and mass shootings that are now so numerous we refer to them in a verbal shorthand–Columbine, Ft. Hood, Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, Orlando.

In the late ’80s I traveled with a small ministry team to South Africa to participate in a church-sponsored reconciliation conference. Apartheid had not ended. Nelson Mandela was still in prison. South Africa was a troubled place.

I got sick on the long transatlantic flight, so when we arrived at our modest hotel in the outskirts of Johannesburg, I went to bed, hoping to join the team a few hours later. They urged me to spend the day resting instead. They would pick me up that evening for dinner.

A few hours later, I felt markedly better and decided to walk to the conference location, which was supposed to be a short distance away. It wasn’t. The walk took me through a strange neighborhood of expensive homes with manicured yards and flowering Jacaranda trees. But each home had a brick-walled perimeter and rolled barbed wire across the top of the walls, like you see outside prisons.

Several minutes into my walk, a late-model Mercedes sedan pulled up alongside me and a well-dressed, middle-aged man rolled down the passenger-side window.

“Madam, what are you doing, walking alone along this road? It’s not safe! Are you a visitor?” He flung open the passenger door. “Where are you staying? Get in and I’ll drop you there.”

I laughed to myself. Oh sure…like I’m going to get into a car with a stranger in South Africa. Uh….no.

“Thanks for the offer,” I said politely, “But I don’t get into cars with people I don’t know. I hope you understand.” I smiled and kept walking.

“Oh, dear, you must be an American,” he said in frustration. He reached for his wallet. “Look. Here’s my photo I.D.. Here’s my business card. For God’s sake, please get in the car. I’m trying to help you.” I looked at him and his I.D., prayed a quick prayer, and climbed in. All those years of Stranger Danger training…out the window.

He returned me to my hotel and, as I turned to apologize for misjudging him, he chuckled and said patiently, “Well, in South Africa you learn that safety isn’t a place or a time of day or the way a certain person looks. It’s complicated. And we’re not doing a good job with safety at the moment. Have a nice day.” And off he went.

My long-ago memory was interrupted when the grandmother at the mall called to the two young boys, to say they were going for ice cream.  I sat in the play area, listening to the boring background music punctuated with the smell of caramel corn, and thought, America is a troubled country right now, too.

American is learning South Africa’s lesson–that a place or time of day or particular person cannot make us safe. Guns, people in uniform, and politicians also cannot make us safe.

Maybe “Are we safe?” isn’t the right question anymore. A better question might be, “Are we His?” The world is loud and shouts fear at every turn. Do we have a deep, thriving, intimate relationship with Christ, to siphon off the panic we breathe in every day?

Jesus doesn’t shout louder than the chaos, like a competing bully. Rather, he invites us into the quiet of his presence, away from the panic. He invites us to sit with him until the anxiety subsides. He gives us promises to hold in our hearts, when the world around us makes no sense. Words like:

“Have no fear of sudden disaster or of the ruin that overtakes the wicked, for the Lord will be your confidence.”  (Prov. 3:25)

He is a shield for all who take refuge in him.” (Psalm 18:30)

“Can a mother forget her nursing child? Can she feel no love for the child she has borne? But even if that were possible, I would not forget you!” (Isaiah 49:15 NLT)

He’s never off duty. He never gives up. He’s not afraid. In the end–regardless of what happens in between–he wins. And he settles all scores justly.

Are you his child? Then you’re safe.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Courage, Fear, Personal safety | Tagged , | 2 Comments

The Most Important Feature in My Home

Verla--head onI had lunch today with a good friend who shared her disappointment about losing a house she and her husband tried to buy. The home–priced right, in a good neighborhood–ended up in a bidding war, with multiple buyers offering crazy money to buy it. My friend and her husband lost out. Been there. It breaks your heart.

As she shared all the reasons the house would have been perfect, my mind ticked through the things that I have looked for in a home whenever we’ve moved. Of course, location, location, location. Lots of light, a floor plan that would fit our lifestyle, updated appliances, great kitchen, well-maintained yard.

However, there has always been one thing at the top of my list that doesn’t show up on most people’s list of “must haves.” A tree.

Not just any tree. A healthy, thriving tree, outside a good-sized window in whatever room will be my work space.

Some people need an ergonomic chair, a Keurig coffeemaker, or the perfect lamp to illuminate their work. I need a tree.

Trees have always been symbolic in my life. They tell me life will go on. That it’ll be alright. That whatever I’m facing will pass, but some things will always remain. Those things were here before my problems showed up and they’ll be here after the problems disappear or are replaced by others. They’re here because God put them here as part of his master plan. And I’m here for the same reason. So we’ll both be here until God says otherwise. It’s his story. He gets to decide.

When I turned 50, I took a 40-day trip alone on America’s back roads. Burned out from a corporate job, I took a sabbatical to re-evaluate at midlife.

When traveling through Tennessee, I decided to try to find the house where my family lived outside of Nashville. Unpleasant things happened in that house. I was only five, but I remembered. I guess I wanted to see the place and stare down the memories one last time, to be done with them.

One happy memory of the place was a small tree my dad planted in the front yard. Somewhere in a box of family photos, there’s a picture of me, with my Buster Brown haircut and Mary Jane shoes, watering the small new tree with a sprinkling can. I looked so earnest and the tree looked so small. I wondered if the tree had survived.

I rounded the corner onto Marengo Lane and there it was–a majestic, towering magnolia tree about 30 feet tall, exploding with fragrant blossoms. It was spectacular! I pulled over to the side of the road and just stared. Remarkable. We both had survived.

I thought of all that had happened in my life in the intervening decades and wondered what the tree must have witnessed and lived through in it’s long life.

No doubt there were years of drought, neglect, and rough pruning…but also years when the sun was plentiful and the earth rich, and someone tended to the tree’s needs, so it would thrive and offer its fragrance and beauty to new generations.

Sort of like our own lives. Whether our beginnings were treasured or traumatic, the odds are that in the intervening years, there have been both sunny days and dark ones, dry seasons and times of exhilarating growth, neglect and nurture. And yet we survive.

We survive because we’re all part of God’s story and his story isn’t over yet.

Posted in Christian Living, Perseverance, Suffering, Surviving in an Unkind World | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

The Story Behind “The Forgottens”

Verla--head onI’ve just completed a series of sculptures I call “The Forgottens.” I had never sculpted, despite a lifetime of creative interests. No time or money for it. But a birthday check a year ago sent me to an art center near my home. I signed up for sculpting because the painting classes were filled.

I didn’t realize I was supposed to come to class with a picture of a face I wanted to recreate. I hastily looked through some art books at the Center to pick a face I felt had a story to tell, even if I had to imagine the story.

I’ve always believed there would be a lot more love in the world if we knew each other’s story. Few people are who they seem to be at first glance. If you dig a little deeper, there’s always a more interesting backstory that helps compassion well up. Wisdom can show up, too, and help tame our harsh judgments.

I selected a picture of a middle-aged African woman. Just a picture in a book. No name, no story, but her eyes told me everything. Every day as I worked on her face, her eyes pierced my heart. They seemed to say, “Will you really do me justice? Will others care about my story?”

I named her “Ananda,” a Swahili name which means “worthy to be loved.” I knew the traditional head wrap was important. Though originally imposed by overlords as badge of enslavement, I’m told that today the head wraps are worn as a proud symbol of communal identity, of surviving a terrible history which, sadly, still lives on for women like Ananda.

"Ananda"A little research told me that life today for a woman in the Third World often means hunger, death in childbirth due to lack of access to healthcare, rape in civil wars, genital mutilation, and little opportunity for education. It wrecked me. I wasn’t expecting it.

It was just supposed to be an art project. I felt so lame, trying to tell her story in clay, with clumsy hands that didn’t know how to make eyes or lips or cheekbones. I just knew Ananda deserved to be loved and not forgotten.

And so “The Forgottens” was born as an idea, a way of getting past the heart-crushing statistics that make us turn away, overwhelmed. Her face became a way to simply look into another person’s eyes and feel her pain and maybe dare to ask, “Can I do something about this? What might be possible, if I was willing?”

"Gus"Then came “Gus”–another picture from a book, no name, no backstory until I named him “Gus,” and decided his gaunt face, vacant eyes, and severe demeanor suggested he might be homeless, hardened and bitter. His life wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. He worked hard, had a job and family. That was before his plant closed during the recession, depression drove him to too much alcohol, he lost his family, and didn’t know how to find his way home. I looked into his eyes and asked God to teach me how he must feel to be  homeless.

Again, the available statistics were wrenching. Not enough shelters, homelessness on the increase by 60% in some urban areas, due to lack of affordable housing and other factors. More families living in cars and woods and abandoned buildings. No wonder Gus is angry and depressed. It isn’t fair.

"Emil"Wars in the Middle East and Africa in the last year filled the news with pictures of displaced people. I saw a picture of a teen boy running for his life. He would become “Emil,” one of the more than 50 million refugees in the world now–half of whom are children, often traveling alone or in small packs to ward off the human traffickers who prey on them.

It’s not the childhood any mother wishes on her son. He didn’t choose this battle. It chose him.

As time passed, I kept trying to keep my distance. “It’s just a clay bust,” I told myself. “You don’t need to go postal over this. You’ve got a lot on our plate. Who’s going to see this thing anyway? And care? People have their own problems. Leave it alone.”

I couldn’t.

"Agnes"Finally, there was “Agnes,” whose nameless face appeared in a book on how to draw facial features of an older person. The sketchy picture reminded me of a woman I had just met in the nursing home where my mother briefly lived last spring before her death.

Agnes was probably beautiful in her prime. But now, past 90 and frail, she–like too many her age–was struggling with physical and mobility limitations, living alone and in dire financial circumstances. No, she was not an anomaly. Statistics suggest her age group will quadruple by 2050 and it’s more the norm than generally realized. It could be us someday.

And then the series was done.

“Now, what?,” I thought. Would I walk away and say, “Thanks, God, for sensitizing me about these issues. I needed that. Thanks for helping me bring the project across the finish line and teaching me how much I still need to learn to call myself a real sculptor. Can I go now?”

No, I can’t. The faces won’t let me. They are my family now.

More importantly, they are part of God’s family–the poor, the homeless, the orphaned, the outcasts, the aliens and refugees. He talked about them all the  time in scripture. Remember?  Why have I dismissed all those words so easily, assuming it was mostly his problem–with me throwing in an occasional magnanimous food pantry contribution or nursing home visit? Really? With more than 2,300 scriptures instructing believers how to care about these people, is that enough?

I don’t know what comes next. It was just supposed to be an art project. The busts have been selected to appear in an art exhibition at the Storyteller Creative Arts Conference  in Naples next month. Beyond that, who knows?

Funny, though, how God does that to you. Slips past your rational arguments and defenses, grabs you by the lapels, and says, “I’m not finished with you yet.”

Posted in Compassion, Judging Others, social justice, Suffering | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

The Perversity of Unanswered Prayer

Verla WallaceA new friend recently told me she had never prayed out loud–especially with other people. She was afraid she wouldn’t “do it right.”

I reassured her that it required no special language or training. It’s just talking to someone who knows everything about you, loves you anyway, and who’s eager to talk anytime you’re willing.

I told her I often have running snippets of conversation with God throughout the day. Nothing weird. I don’t go up to the grocery checkout lady and ask her if she wants to meet my invisible friend. Rather, it’s a silent (or verbal if I’m in the car) ongoing chat about this and that. I want to feel comfortable with him, especially for those times (and they always come) when I’m shedding sloppy tears and praying more desperate prayers.

I also try to have a more specific sit-down time with God each day, where we can get down to business on specific matters–his or mine. I often begin by saying, “Okay, here’s the truth about me.” God already knows the truth about me, so I don’t expect him to smack his forehead and say, “No. Really? I had no idea?” It’s just my way of stating the obvious–that I agree with him about mistakes I made that day, wrong attitudes, mixed motives, or whatever happens to be my Screwup of the Day and I need his forgiveness. No sense wasting time tap dancing about it. I want to deal with it and move on to other things.

Today, for instance. I wanted to talk about how ticked off I am with him

It’s a little risky getting ticked with God. He is God, after all, and I’m not. He doesn’t answer to me, his ways are higher than my ways…I know, I know.

I’m still ticked.

Today, I am surrounded by people I care about who are going through unspeakable pain and suffering. Two friends have adult children either on their way to jail or just coming out of jail. Three other people I know have family members dealing badly with serious drug problems. One long-time friend with end-stage breast cancer just learned on the eve of surgery that her coverage had changed and her surgery was cancelled.

Another professional colleague is going through his umpteenth round of chemo and is sicker than a dog. One couple continues to struggle with the loss of their adult son who left behind a young family with no father. Then there’s the woman I mentored through unbelievable challenges who is now on the verge of homelessness thanks to actions of a no-goodnik boyfriend.

I came to God with an attitude. Are you listening, God?

Ps. 34:18 promises he is listening, whether it feels that way or not. “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.”  That almost makes it worse. If he’s listening, why am I not seeing miraculous answers to prayer?

Coincidentally, today I’m in the middle of a Bible study of the life of the apostle Paul. (Are there really any coincidences with God?)  Paul is a poster child for suffering and unanswered prayer. In II Cor. 11:22-27 Paul says (and I’m paraphrasing), “You want to talk about suffering? I’ll tell you about suffering: I was imprisoned, repeatedly faced death, was beaten severely, stoned, shipwrecked three times, constantly on the move from danger and from my own countrymen, sleep deprived, often cold, naked and hungry. I was worried sick about the churches where I’ve been that are going in the wrong direction. I’ve felt constantly weak. I’ve been tempted.” Paul, ever the overachiever, even trumps the rest of us with his suffering.

In fact, Paul admits in II Cor. 12 that he, too, had prayed desperate prayers–especially about an ongoing unnamed issue he called his “thorn in the flesh,” which God never did take away. All that suffering gave Paul street cred with me. I was eager to read how he dealt with his pain.

In II Cor. 12 he says God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  So Paul decides from then on he will boast (Say, what?) about all his weaknesses and hardships and suffering. “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

(sigh) That wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear. I live in America. We’re not keen on suffering and we sure don’t brag about it.

I must admit, as my relationship with God has matured, I don’t like his timing when it comes to answering prayers. And I often don’t like his tactics. He’s confusing. He won’t hesitate to delay an answer if there’s something we need to learn or if he’s weaving multiple agendas into the solution. He just keeps acting like he’s….well….GOD!

In the end, when life bears down like a tsunami, I’m forced to cling more tightly to his Word (full of promises) and his unchanging character (faithful, loving, fair, peace-giver, comforter, counselor, provider, healer, friend).  Is there anybody else on earth to whom you would deny thanks, if they delivered the same benefits and never sent you a bill?

There are still reasons to be grateful in the midst of pain. But we’ll never see the blessings if we stay fixated on the awful spot where our feet now stand, instead of focusing on him.

Posted in Answers, Prayer, Suffering | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

It’s a Boy!

Christmas 2013Born: In Bethlehem, during the census

Lineage: the line of David

Weight:  8 lbs, 10 oz.

Length: 21 inches

Name: Jesus, Messiah, Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace, Savior 

Mary and the baby are doing fine, but both are exhausted. It was a tough delivery. We weren’t sure we’d make it to Bethlehem before the birth. The city was in chaos because of the census and she delivered in less than desirable facilities. Nevertheless, God made provision and we’re so grateful.

Jesus has Mary’s eyes and she says he has a carpenter’s hands. Although we won’t be home for a while, we can’t wait for you to meet him. 

Please know how grateful we are for the way you stood with us during this unexpected and remarkable pregnancy when many shunned us and did not understand. It meant a great deal.

No gifts, please. If you wish to celebrate our joy, go to the temple, give God your praise, and make a financial gift to the poor.  

I confess the magnitude of all this still hasn’t quite soaked in. Messiah is finally here! Thanks be to God.

With a grateful heart,

Joseph

Posted in Birth of Christ, Christmas | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Why God Loves Dogs

Verla Wallace

Today is a good day. I want to relish it because bad days are the ones we typically remember and rehash, even though both are a necessary part of the cycle of life.

King Solomon–once touted as the wisest man on earth–wrote often about life’s ups and downs. It drove him crazy until he made his peace with it. “There is a time for everything … a time to be born and a time to die … a time to weep and a time to laugh … time to mourn and a time to dance,” he wrote. (Ecclesiastes 3)

I was thinking about his words as I sat today on our patio in beautiful weather, watching our new puppy Toby snooze contentedly at my feet. Definitely a good day. But it unexpectedly triggered a sad day many years ago involving another dog.

The dog’s name was Tillie, a majestic Greater Swiss Mountain Dog and a 100 lb. hunk of burning love. When her master died of cancer much too young, Tillie came to live with me. We were both hurting. She, from the loss of her owner, and me, from the departure of my husband and the death of my previous marriage. She seemed almost relieved that she now had a new assignment. Me.

She set the ground rules right from the start. Her walk came first each day or there would be no peace. Her bark  resembled a herd of stampeding buffalo and caused grown men to jump. Friends often remarked no burglar would dare intrude. But, truth be told, if burglars came with treats in hand, she’d take a vow of silence and lead them to the jewelry.

Each day as I worked at my desk, she lay sleeping at my feet, just like Toby does.  The strategy allowed long naps without dereliction of duty, since any attempt to leave the room without her would draw immediate detection.  She shadowed me as earnestly as someone in the Witness Protection Program. It was, after all, her job. When she thought the hours at my desk had been sufficient, I’d feel an insistent pawing on the back of my chair, followed by a cold nose nudged under my armpit, demanding I pay more attention to her. Another walk was her preferred solution.

The hours at the river were the best. Walking its banks cleared my mind of the residue of too many deadlines and too little time. Tillie seemed to understand those walks were more for my sake than hers. We’d stop at a favorite spot and sit shoulder-to-shoulder, lost in thought, watching the water make its way downstream.

Then one day it was her turn to leave. It wasn’t her decision. Her body decided it was time to go.  Her legs went first, refusing to cooperate, and then her spirit took a hit. I saw it in her eyes: Who will do my job?

Her final night she couldn’t climb the stairs to take her post beside my bed. Tenderly, I moved her bed to the foot of the stairs and, after gentle reassurances, retired for the night.

Near dawn, I woke up to slip downstairs and check on the one who always checked on me.  But there she lay–alongside my bed as close as she could get–her body curled in the spot she’d warmed a thousand nights before. I don’t know how she did it—climbing the stairs that one last time.  I guess she didn’t want me to wake up and find myself alone. It was, after all, her job–to make sure I was always loved and protected.

That’s why I believe dogs are God’s secret ambassadors. Dogs are a visual reminder of how God is with us and for us, loving and protecting us until it is our “time to die.” Like dogs, God love us unconditionally and thinks more highly of us than we deserve. Like our dogs, God never lets us out of his sight, our partner for the journey as we weep and laugh, tear and mend, speak and stay silent, just as King Solomon wrote.

Solomon was having a bad day when he initially wrote those words about the capriciousness of life. But eventually he came to the conclusion, “…everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing can be taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him.” (Eccl. 3:14)

The good days and the bad. God is there for them all. It’s his job. Dogs are his reminder.

Posted in Change, Christian Living | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments