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

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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

Jesus and Cereal

Verla WallaceIt had been an extremely difficult hour of discussion about fear, how we each felt about it, experiences we’ve had with fear, how we’ve coped and what God has to say about it. The voluntary participants were female residents of a halfway house/shelter, who were dealing with abuse, drugs, alcohol, homelessness.

I loved the group’s gut-wrenching honesty. They were women with nothing left to hide, so they didn’t hold back.

There were just two little challenges in the form of two strawberry blonde, angelic-looking  preschool-aged daughters of one of the group’s participants. There was no other place at the shelter where they were allowed to go unsupervised, so they were here. Together, they registered about 6.8 on the Richter Scale.

We’re not talking high-energy munchkins. We’re talking children who had lived through things most of us will never experience and we were watching the fallout. In the popular vernacular, we might say they had issues.

Frankly, all the adults there–including me–had issues. But, of course, we were not the ones shrieking, biting, wildly lurching from chair to floor to blackboards, flinging toys, and resisting all efforts at positive reinforcement, distraction, bribes and timeouts.

Their totally overwhelmed mother periodically jumped up to yell and perform various other unsuccessful interventions–some appropriate and some…not so much. In the midst of it all (with me sending up several silent “Help!” prayers), we tried to continue our discussion.

We talked about Elijah in I Kings 18-19 and how he was at the top of his game, coming off a major success–with God’s help–only to find himself running for his life, with a contract on his head. He was full of fear.

We read about how tired and depressed and spent he was and how God ministered to him–first with food and shelter and rest, then later speaking to him–not in some powerful dramatic encounter like a wind or earthquake or fire. Instead, God showed up quietly in a gentle whisper. In all the chaos and confusion and distractions, God still found Elijah and spoke just the words he needed.

I was sure that little of this great story had sunk in. Not in all the chaos.

As our discussion began to wrap up, the older child tugged on my arm to remind me I had promised she could have five minutes at the very end to “read” my Bible and summarize the story for all of us (which she wanted to do the whole hour, along with ripping out pages and coloring in my Bible, too). I was surprised she remembered. It was just one of many “bribes” we tried which seemed to have no effect.

She quickly jumped onto the sofa and snuggled in beside me, grabbed my Bible, opened it and began to tell her version in a confident, dramatic voice.

“A whole bunch of bad men were chasing this other guy who didn’t have a gun but he had a piece of God in his heart.” (pronounced “howt”). She then turned to me and said in a whisper, “Does God have enough pieces for everybody?”

Before I could answer, she jumped back into her story. “SO…God called the cops and told them to go get the bad guys. But they had already killed the good person, who was Jesus, and stuck him in a grave.” (There was a little theological confusion here. Just roll with it, for now.) 

The little girl continued, “But God said, ‘Oh no you don’t, Buster!’ And he yanked Jesus up out of that hole and said, ‘Get out of here, Jesus, and go home where you belong! Then he told everybody if they had one of those pieces of God, they could go home with him, too!”

Then she slammed the Bible shut, crossed her hands, let out a deep sigh, and said very matter-of factly, “So… we all went home with Jesus and had cereal. THE END.”

While I sat speechless, she jumped off the sofa and flew again into action mode.

I guess Jesus stopped by after all.  He wasn’t in the earthquake or the whirlwind. He spoke quietly through the storytelling of a doe-eyed little girl trying to make sense of her troubled life. It all came down to someday being able to eat cereal with Jesus.

Posted in Anger, Courage, Fear | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Getting in God’s Face

Verla WallaceUnanswered prayers wreck me. Sometimes I feel like saying, “God, would it kill you to let me in on what you’re doing here? It’s not like I’m asking for a Rolex watch. What I’m asking for falls under the header of things you care about, too!”

Silence.

Silence is not golden. Silence stinks. Especially from God.

Then there’s the well-meaning but annoying responses from people who want to help, but who make it worse with unhelpful comments like, “God never gives us more to handle than we’re able to bear.” Or “The only way out is through.” Or my personal favorite, “Just keep on keeping on.”

Do they really think I don’t KNOW all that? I’ve written and spoken exhaustively about God’s silence, about suffering, about waiting, about depending on God, about growing in compassion, about releasing others from our judgments. I get it. I also know that “No” and “Not yet” are answers. too.

Unanswered questions still stink. God’s selective silence still stinks.

I hate that God doesn’t put his arm around me and take me into his confidence and say, “Verla, you don’t have enough time for me to tell you everything, but let me share with you some of what’s ahead. Let’s clear up some of those pesky questions that trouble you.

“Now don’t get freaked out,” God might say, “when this particular thing happens that you’ve prayed about for so long. It needed to happen for that person you love to take responsibility for her own decisions. The relationship will be salvaged.

” And, true, that person you’ve been praying for so long WILL die, never having decided to join my family. Sadly, free will means some people you love won’t share eternity with you. It’s not my doing; it’s what they want and they will get it. I know that breaks your heart. That’s why I’m trying to prepare you for that day, even though you can’t imagine what it will look like.

“And when that hurricane damages your house in four years, you may be displaced for a while, but you will not be homeless. You will, however, be surprised at who is there for you and who is absent. I don’t want those relationships to end yet, though, because of how I’m using them to grow you both.

“Another thing. There’s a stroke coming and the E.R. doctors will be completely out of their depth. However, I have a nurse there who will be watching over you like a hawk. She hates Christians, but you two will hit it off and she’ll have a great suggestion she’ll make to another doctor. Plus, I have a miracle or two up my sleeve. Then, later down the road, you’ll have a chance to talk to her about your relationship with me. She’ll even teach you how to make souffles!

“Michael will be out of the country at the time on that new job he hasn’t gotten yet–the one he loves but which is outside his comfort zone. (The job will freak you out for a while, but that’s another issue.) Oh, and by the way, you’re going to love the trip you’ll take in 2015, but you’ll never make it to Africa. Does this help, Verla?”

“Lord, stop! This is freaking me out! I can’t keep track of it all in my head. It makes me excited and happy and scared and panicky all at the same time. Can’t you just tell me about the unanswered prayers part?

“No. You have to know these things if you’re going to insist on answers to your questions. Look, do you remember reading this week about Voyager, the first man-made object to exit the solar system? Well, your solar system is just a small part of one galaxy among innumerable other galaxies which are under my control. Everything affects something else. Life is complicated.

“Well, Lord, when you put it that way….”

“Frankly, child, my plans are none of your business, but I still let you know about some things even when I don’t have to. But I’m not toying with you. Don’t you get it? It’s not a punishment that you don’t get to know all the answers. It’s a gift!  You’ll know what you need to know, when you need to know it. To know more would crush you.

“Sorry, Lord. I guess I forgot who I am in the grand scheme of things.”

“No, child. You forgot who I am. Now….tell me about your day and leave the rest to me.”

Posted in Answers, Expectations, Waiting | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Judging Our “Truthiness”

IMG_2357As I was channel surfing recently, it struck me how many highly rated television shows today are contests with serious-as-a-heart-attack judging, winners and losers, and lots of drama.

There’s “American Idol,” “The Voice,” “Dancing with the Stars,” “The Biggest Loser,” “Celebrity Apprentice,” “Shark Tank,” “The Bachelorette,” not to mention all the shows on the Food Network where some aspiring chef is elevated to star status or crushed into oblivion because his use of ox tails or kumquats didn’t please some master chef who’s the designated Talent Crusher.

In a world where many people feel diminishing control over what’s happening in their lives and the world around them, watching a contest where some are crowned and some are crucified, apparently makes us glad it’s not us that’s losing, thus feeling oh so much better about ourselves.

Last week I spoke to about 100 people at a shelter where men and women in the most dire circumstances come as a last resort. They’re dealing with homelessness, unemployment, addictions, abusive relationships, and mental illness. One man sat in the audience with body language that signaled, “Mess with me and you’ll regret it.” He was scary.

Because of where we were and because of his appearance, I made an instant judgment that he was probably crazy, a felon, and an addict. He was none of those things. Afterwards, he came up to shake my hand, thank me for my talk, and to share just enough of his story for me to feel horribly ashamed at my rush to judgment. I was wrong.

It seemed like I was just exercising good judgment. But it went further. I took a giant leap from making a judgment about my personal safety to making a judgment about the man’s character, behavior, background, future, personal value, and more. It was pathetic.

Judging is necessary. Every day we decide what food we eat, who will be our friends, what is right and wrong in a given situation, how to spend our money and time. That’s not what I’m talking about.

Rather, it’s the way we think we’re judging others in the name of godly discernment, when we’re really making judgments about someone’s character or worth as a human being on the basis of one encounter or their appearance, behavior, politics, whatever. We call it wisdom…or speaking the truth in love…when it may only be a reflection of our own brokenness and need to feel better than someone.

Comedian Stephen Colbert famously made “truthiness” a part of our language (recognized by even the Merriam-Webster dictionary). It means preferring our own version of the facts or what we wished was true vs. facts that are true.

So…are your judgments true or just full of a lot of “truthiness?” How about a “truth or truthiness” self-audit?

Write down the ten people you interact with the most (family, friends, coworkers, neighbors).  Name judgments you’ve made about them. Not what you say about them or what you want others to think you believe about those people…but what you really think about them. Do you know for a fact that it’s “the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”

One way we exchange our “truthiness” for more truth is to plant God’s truth in us. He always speaks the truth. For example, he said none of us has been treated by him as our sins deserved (Ps. 103:10). Furthermore, God says the standard by which we judge others will be used to measure us (Luke 6:36-38), so we are encouraged to be merciful and full of grace.

Another way to think about being merciful is learning to empathize with others. The world-renowned Cleveland Clinic created this video to help their medical staff develop more empathy as caregivers.  We treat others differently when we know their story.

In the end, God says, choose the truth over your own “truthiness.” And even if you don’t know a person’s story, love them anyway. He’s got the judging part covered.

Posted in Compassion, Judging Others | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment