Thoughts on Silence and Intimacy

As I neared the end of this past semester, I knew that I would soon say goodbye to my sweet friend Emily, who just left for Paris for a year (!!) and won’t be back until after I graduate. So reflecting back over the precious year and a half of our friendship, I remembered an experience that Emily and I shared together, which I had intended to blog about for quite some time. So I wrote this late one night when I should have been working on final papers, and am finally getting around to posting it.

Last semester, silence was a significant theme in my spiritual life. I was reading The Way of the Heart by Henri Nouwen. I found Nouwen’s thoughts on silence to be so profound that I began to practice it as a discipline, first in silent prayer. I wondered what it would be like to spend time with someone else in silence, but I imagined that it would be hideously awkward. Who in the world would I ask to do such a strange thing? Of course Emily was the first person who came to mind – Emily who is amazing at hospitality and quality time, who finds joy in simplicity and excitement in trying new things, whose enthusiasm is contagious, who loves me in spite of my weirdness. So I asked Emily if she would be willing to spend some time with me in silence. Instead of balking at the strangeness of the request, she gladly agreed.

So we walked downtown together to get tea and breakfast, and we spoke only to order our food. Once we had finished eating, after perhaps an hour of quiet togetherness, we broke the silence to talk about our experience of it. Here are a few of the observations I made from our time together.

First, as I had anticipated, it made me pretty uncomfortable at first. Should I look at her, or at my feet? Was I walking too fast? Too slow? Once we got to the restaurant, I wondered if other people noticed us or found our silence strange. Did our waitress think we were mad at each other? Perhaps most uncomfortable of all, I found that eye contact felt painfully vulnerable. As time went on, though, it became easier. And the moments in which we caught the other’s gaze, smiled, and didn’t hurry to glance away – those were truly special moments. It happened almost exactly as Nouwen describes his own experience in his book Reaching Out: “Once in a while we looked at each other with the beginning of a smile pushing away the last remnants of fear and suspicion. It seemed that while the silence grew deeper around us we became more and more aware of a presence embracing both of us.” The world teaches us from a young age that vulnerability is exploited. Yet when we can open ourselves up to another – and perhaps silence can feel even more vulnerable than oversharing – when we feel as though our souls are laid bare to another and we are fully seen, fully known, and fully accepted – it may well be one of the most satisfying experiences of friendship one can have.

Second, I was able to appreciate Emily’s soul beauty in a way that I hadn’t before. Because I wasn’t focused on what either of us was saying, I was free to focus on her being – her grace, the warmth and hospitality of her smile, her sense of being completely at peace in her surroundings – all the things I love most about her. I was able to absorb all of this, savoring and thanking God for these details. Unashamedly appreciating someone in such depth, I think, is in itself a prayer.

Third, as we sat together in silence, time seemed rich and unhurried. It felt like we had all the time in the world, and it was deeper somehow, as if it changed the focus of our togetherness from “catching up” – which in itself seems to imply a hurriedness, a deficit of time. Instead, we were making space just to be with one another.

Finally, the moment that stayed with me the most was our silent gesture of sharing food with one another. I broke a piece off of my strawberry muffin to share with her, and we made eye contact as she accepted it and we ate together. She began to cut a piece off of her egg and avocado sandwich. Recognizing that it was for me, my typical reaction would have been to say “Oh no, that’s ok” and then to say “thank you” when she gave it to me anyway, thus devaluing the gift. This time, I said neither. As she had just done, I accepted it silently, gratefully, and we smiled at each other in mutual acknowledgement of the exchange. Nouwen explains that words are important only insofar as they convey a concept, but in our society we tend to elevate the importance of the words themselves. There is a depth that is lost when we shorthand relational exchanges with phrases that can so easily become trite – “I love you,” “thank you,” et cetera. Slowing down enough to communicate wordlessly deepens our appreciation of the other, creates intimacy, and conveys with greater sincerity what it is that we feel. Often we try to use words as a shortcut to intimacy, but maybe they actually distract us from what it is we are looking for.

Because the discomfort of silence forces us to confront our own insecurities, anxieties, and doubts, we often miss out on what it offers us in return. Maybe it is the solution to our hurriedness. Maybe it is a hidden door to intimacy with God and with others. Maybe if we spent time in silence, we would better know ourselves and our place in this world in which we live.

And perhaps, we might receive an unexpected gift.

Published in: on August 19, 2016 at 10:09 am  Leave a Comment  
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Lament and Resurrection

To be a minister is to be a witness to suffering, and to walk with those who suffer. Alongside doctors and social workers, I feel as though it has to be one of the more painful vocations.

To be a minister is to hold the pain of the world in your heart as you groan for its redemption, longing for new creation.

To be a minister is to have the responsibility of comforting the weeping while myself silently asking, “Why, God? Have you forgotten us?” To offer up my strength to the weary, while myself feeling utterly broken and burdened, letting the tears come only when no one can see.

To be a minister is to be a witness to the brokenness and sorrow and death all around me, to cry out on behalf of humanity that things should not be this way.

Yet…to be a minister is also to be a witness to the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Christ.

To cry out with conviction that things will not always be this way.

It is to preach and sing and live and proclaim forgiveness and reconciliation and healing and hope.

To witness to the story of resurrection in the dawning of each new day, in the first blooms of spring, in the redemption of a troubled past, in reconciliation after separation, in love after loss, in an empty tomb on Easter morning.

It is to know and proclaim with certainty that death cannot take our loved ones from us, because from their conception to eternity, they live and are safe in the arms of the Good Shepherd.

To be a minister is to be given the gift of proclamation – Hope springs eternal. Christ is all, and in all, and through all. The dwelling of God will be with his people, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. All shall be well, and all shall be well…and all manner of things shall be well.

Praise God.

 

Published in: on February 29, 2016 at 10:15 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Wedding Day: Letting Go of the Magical to See the Sacred

I wanted a strapless, A-line, sweetheart neckline wedding dress, so I wasn’t sure why the fitting room attendant brought me an ornate 3/4-sleeve trumpet gown. But when I stepped out of the fitting room and saw myself in all the mirrors, it happened just like they say it’s supposed to: my eyes spontaneously filled up with tears as I started laughing with pure delight. I felt like a bride, in a way I hadn’t in the other dresses. This was the dress…my dress. It fit me perfectly and wouldn’t even need any alterations, so I figured it was okay to spend a little more than I was planning on.

When my dress came in three weeks later, I reverently lifted it from the box and my mama helped me into it. We sighed happily and dreamily as she buttoned up the back, and – OH. Something was terribly wrong – the top of the dress was standing out about 3 inches from my bust. Like it was 2 sizes too big. My heart sank. “My dress is an impostor!” I wailed. I had been so ready to love it, and now I…didn’t. This wasn’t my dress. This wasn’t The One.

We asked if we could exchange it for the floor model, since we knew that it fit perfectly. They assured us they would clean and repair any damage and ship it to my parents’ house. When it came in, Mama and I took a look at it together. What we saw was a gray-ish train, torn beading, and a spot of pink makeup right on the front. We took it back, and the manager told us it was beyond fixing. It must have been a fluke that the first one we ordered didn’t fit, she assured me. So we ordered another one.

When I got that one, I was hardly even excited anymore. My mindset was more like, “Hmm, I wonder if this one fits. Maybe third time’s the charm?” No. It wasn’t. This one was too big as well. I had the alterations specialists assess the fit, and they quoted me a price of $160 to fix it. I asked the store manager if they could do the alterations for free, since it had been such an ordeal. She said no, because there was no guarantee that dresses would be manufactured the same. I whined and said nobody told me that when I ordered it either time, so she said she would see what she could do.

“It all just feels stupid!” I wailed into JP’s lap as he patted my head patiently and, I’m sure, wearily. “Like I don’t even want to wear it if they get away with this, it’s like the Dress of Deceit and Evil Corporate America! I don’t want to be thinking as I walk down the aisle, ‘I can’t believe they soaked me for $160.’ They’ve completely ruined the magic of the whole experience!”

In the in between days, while waiting for the manager to call me back, I had to do a lot of thinking. I really couldn’t – and didn’t want to – pay for their inconsistency, so what could I do if they said ‘no’ once and for all? The whole negative experience had already made the dress less special. I had been so sure it was The One, but I’d gotten three impostors now. Maybe The One didn’t even exist. With the wedding just six weeks away, I didn’t even have time to order a new dress. I toyed with the idea of exchanging the dress – just walking into the store and saying, “Okay, pull all the size 4 dresses off the rack, and I’ll get whatever actually fits.” Hey, if I could save $500, why not? Maybe I would bond with an Honest, Friendly, Down-to-Earth Dress in a way that I never did with the (as I now thought of it) Untrustworthy, Arrogant Impostor Dress.

For me, the whole process of planning the wedding has been letting go of one “important” thing after another. A lot of little girls grow up thinking their wedding day will be perfect and magical, and when we actually start planning, that translates into obsessing over every single detail. I wasn’t super controlling about everything, but there were a few things that I was set on. A white church in Nashville, for one thing. Gray suits. Save-the-dates. Wedding favors.  The Perfect Dress. One by one, I had to compromise, to let these things go. What had once seemed so important, I learned to shrug off. The Dress was the last thing I was holding onto for dear life – and now the magic of The Dress had been disillusioned too. I felt like sad Cinderella, standing in the middle of the road staring at a giant pumpkin.

My friends were kind enough to mourn with me, but the kindest thing they did was to remind me of the sacredness of the wedding event.

“If you go a little over-budget for food, don’t stress over it,” Samantha reminded me. “It’s not like you’re spending thousands on decorations to impress everyone or make your friends jealous – you’re feeding people, inviting them to the table. It’s Eucharistic. Think of your reception as your first act of hospitality as a married couple.”

Mama found a book at the thrift store called A Wedding with Spirit and sent it to me in a care package. It couldn’t have come at a better time; it was all about remembering the sacredness and the symbolism of a wedding rather than following the hype of the wedding industry.

And I came to understand something. I had wanted my wedding to be magical, forgetting that to be sacred is a higher transcendence. Magic is…well, shallow, really. The magic is gone in an instant when something goes wrong – as it always does. The flower girl will refuse to walk down the aisle, or someone will make an awkward toast, or maybe your Perfect Dress will tear or catch on fire or fall in the toilet (yes, I’ve heard all three from friends!). The reality is, we cannot make anything perfect or magical, because as humans we are limited by our finitude and imperfection.

The sacredness of an event, however, does not depend upon us but upon the work of the Spirit in that moment, sanctifying us and making us new, infusing us with the beautiful mystery of grace. I realized that whatever dress I happened to wear on the day of our wedding – whether second-hand, second-choice, A-line, trumpet, or one that cost me extra for the company’s mistakes – would become a sacred symbol of love and covenant and our new life together. No dress inherently possessed the qualities that made it The One – rather, whatever dress I chose would become The One. There would be nothing magical about it – but in years to come, when I lovingly pack up the memories for our next adventure together, or one day give my dress to a daughter or granddaughter to wear – it will have been steeped in love and excitement and joy and thanksgiving, christened with the blessings of a God-ordained marriage. Because of what it represents, the dress will be sacred just as the sacrament of marriage is sacred.

It is common advice for brides to live in the magic of the moment – this is your big day, your time to shine, your time to feel pampered and beautiful and be the center of attention. But to my fellow brides-to-be, let me urge you to live instead in the sacredness of the moment, orienting yourself not to the material details or the extravagance or the attention, but rather to the presence of the Divine, those thin places where you can see God crafting something beautiful. Your guests are not there to be entertained or impressed – they are there to witness a holy union. Receive the sacredness of their gifts and attention with humility and grace, rather than taking advantage of this magical “once-in-a-lifetime chance to shine.” Don’t look for ways to get the most out of your wedding day; look for opportunities to give, even as you receive the undeserved, unconditional blessings of God. Embrace the moments where you can say “thank you,” not presumptuously or hastily or with obligation, but with complete wonder and disbelief. Those are the sacred moments.

In case you’re wondering, I got a call yesterday saying that because of the inconvenience of multiple transactions, the company had decided to refund 20% of the original purchase price of the dress – which more than covers the cost of alterations. As I mentioned, I had become okay with – even excited about – the thought of starting over with a different dress. But as I sat on my bed, looking with wonder at the humble cardboard box on my closet shelf, I knew that this would be my dress after all. And suddenly, for the first time since trying it on, I loved it again – simply because this dress will be the one to usher me into a new name, a new family, a new life.

Published in: on April 24, 2015 at 1:09 pm  Comments (3)  
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Remember It Always: Reclaiming Humanity Through Memory in Elie Wiesel’s Night

My favorite class this semester has been Spiritual Autobiography with Dr. Yolanda Pierce. Stories are our means of processing our lives and relating to one another; stories make up what it means to be human, and as such I believe that every story, no matter how ‘secular,’ is also deeply sacred. I recently read a quote by Mary Pellauer which I found thought-provoking; she writes, “If there’s anything worth calling theology, it is listening to people’s stories – listening to them and honoring them and cherishing them, and asking them to become even more brightly beautiful than they already are.” Listening to others’ stories may be the best way to broaden our understanding of the Spirit’s work in the world. Stories are never just stories; they are a gift of God to which we should listen with reverent attention.

In this brief paper, written for my Spiritual Autobiography class, I explore the ways in which Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, uses memory to reclaim humanity, specifically in his autobiography Night. Building off the irony of an SS officer’s command to “remember it always,” I argue that Wiesel does this in three ways: first, by telling stories, he validates a crucial part of the identity of the Jewish people. Second, Wiesel makes an effort to memorialize the dead – as he writes, “To forget them would be akin to killing them a second time.” I focus on four specific passages which are a eulogy of sorts. Third and finally, Wiesel uses memory as a form of resistance against God, death, oppression, and trauma.

Writing this paper was a deeply moving experience for me, and I did a lot of sitting in reverent silence before I could even begin to put pen to paper. In the future, if I ever have a spare moment, I would love to expand on this paper, incorporating Dr. Pierce’s questions about the women in Wiesel’s life, and exploring Wiesel’s other works and more secondary sources. Until then, here’s the short version.

Remember it Always- Reclaiming Humanity Through Memory in Elie Wiesel’s Night

Published in: on April 13, 2015 at 10:34 pm  Comments (1)  
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Foot Washing as Youth Ministry: Trading Success and Self-Image for Selfless Community

In my final paper for Theological Foundations of Youth Ministry with Kenda Creasy Dean (attached below as a PDF file), I explore a theology of foot washing, arising from the John 13 Passover text, and its implications for youth ministry.  I begin by briefly sketching the current landscape of youth ministry before I introduce the concept of foot washing as my theological foundation for youth ministry, its history in my church tradition, and the ways in which a theology of foot washing addresses the cultural and developmental needs of adolescents without sacrificing the counter-cultural nature of the gospel and a God who kneels to serve. Although limited by length constraints, I conclude with practical implications for creating a youth ministry environment rooted in a theology of foot washing.

Thanks to Kenda for an incredible semester of soaking up her wisdom and experience, my mom and JP for their constant help in revising and editing, and my dear friend Samantha Slaubaugh, whose heart for service continually inspires me to live out this ideal.

Foot Washing as Youth Ministry

Quinoa and the Problem of Sin

A few weeks ago, I read a thought-provoking blog article by David Calvin on trading the language of ‘sin’ for the language of ‘brokenness.’ To read it in full, click here. The point of the article is that we minimize our own responsibility for sin by passing the buck to a nameless third party. Hurt people hurt people, the saying goes; can we really be held responsible for sin when we are born into a broken world and are ourselves victims? David says yes, we must be held responsible; otherwise, excusing ourselves from our culpability, we allow injustice to run rampant.

What he writes is true; however, it is only one facet of the enormous — and in many ways, ambiguous and undefinable — problem of sin and evil.

What is sin? Is it an affront to God’s honor, as Anselm of Canterbury suggested? Or is it disobedience of God’s law, as John Calvin believed? Is it estrangement from God, or is it broken relationship, or is it deliberate rebellion? Is sin simply a way to describe our own actions, or is it a third party agent that acts upon us, such as Satan? Is sin a personal issue or a systemic one? Throughout history, both trained and lay theologians have offered ideas of the ‘fundamental sin of humanity,’ ranging from pride to ignorance, all of which depict an aspect of sin but seem fundamentally inadequate to describe it. Throughout Scripture, sin seems to be such a broad, sweeping category that we hardly know where to begin in defining it. We understand it only in terms of abstractions: it leads to death, it consists in the absence of God, it goes against the created order.  But what exactly is it? And how can we fight an enemy which we cannot see or name? The truth is, sin seems to encompass all of these explanations yet still transcends the limitations of our understanding. Derek Nelson, in his book Sin: A Guide for the Perplexed, outlines and addresses many of these different positions on sin, but it seems that we can only nail down a vague idea of what it means: “Sin implies something not being right in the complex relationships of oneself to God, oneself to one’s neighbor, and oneself to oneself” (Nelson, Sin, p. 17).

Something not being right.

Something is about as vague as we can get. Not being right seems fully subjective. This leads to ambiguity and disagreement regarding the nature of sin, something else which Nelson addresses. For instance, some Christians believe homosexuality to be a sin, to be against the created order, and thus something not right towards God. At the same time, however, many same-sex couples consider that Christians try to oppress them and deny them their rights, which would seem to be something not right in relationship to one’s neighbor. Is none of it sin? Is all of it sin? How do we begin to grapple with such an overwhelming topic?

I will admit now that I have precious few answers. To claim otherwise, I would have to claim to be a greater theologian than Calvin or Augustine or even the Apostle Paul. Clearly, as a first-year seminarian, I am not. All I can offer are my own fumbling attempts to understand this massive and complex issue, and while offering no definitive answers, I can offer simply the hope which Scripture gives. Understanding that sin can be explained in many different ways, I nonetheless turn to the social manifestation of sin — systemic injustice — to show why brokenness is indeed a legitimate understanding of this not-right-ness that surrounds us.

To do this, I will use a seemingly innocuous example: quinoa. Some of you may not even know what quinoa is; some of you have jumped on the bandwagon of health food and devour as much quinoa as you can get your hands on; still others mock those who succumb to the latest dietary fads. Wherever you fall on the spectrum, whether or not you consume quinoa matters very little in your everyday life and seems to bear even less relevance to this discussion of sin. Yet when we buy a processed and packaged ingredient such as quinoa, we think very little of where it comes from – and although it makes no difference to us, it may have far-reaching consequences for others.

Quinoa is grown in the Andean highlands, in parts of Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru; and before the quinoa fad hit the U.S., it was part of the diet of those who grew and harvested it. The invisible hand of economics – and ecosystems – is often beyond my power to grasp. But whatever the reason, quinoa suddenly became all the rage, increasing the demand for the popular gluten-free grain and driving up the prices. Farmers are trying to grow as much quinoa as fast as possible to meet the rising demand, which is beginning to abuse and overwork the land. Because of the way ecological factors come into play, quinoa is an unsustainable fad. In addition, quinoa is becoming an outsourced commodity rather than a cultural staple; it is worth more sold internationally than consumed domestically. The farmers who grow the quinoa can no longer afford to eat it.

This is an example of systemic injustice; here, the root cause of sin is ignorance. It is not pride or rebellion that makes an unknowing Christian buy quinoa; it is a far bigger problem than that, and one which we are nearly helpless to fix. If we all agree to stop buying quinoa, then what will happen? Farmers will have thousands of tons of unsellable quinoa, which will cause a severe blow to the economy. Yet I found myself cringing the other night to see multiple pounds of uneaten quinoa cakes in the cafeteria waste bin.

Here is a situation in which ‘brokenness’ seems to be the only way to describe sin. I am not intentionally causing harm to my neighbor in Ecuador; the economy is broken, the ecosystem is broken, the whole societal structure is broken by sin. I am broken by sin, and beyond fixing myself.

Brett Dennen, in his powerful song Ain’t No Reason, poetically describes the hopeless state of humanity:

“There ain’t no reason things are this way; it’s how they’ve always been and they intend to stay. I can’t explain why we live this way, but we do it every day.”

The first time I heard this song, one line seared itself into my memory: “Slavery is stitched into the fabric of my clothes.” In one phrase, this sums up the brokenness of systemic sin. When you touch your iPhone, think of the hands that put it together, worn down by poverty and the unceasing demands of a greedy world. You didn’t know as you stood in line for it that you were the cause of suffering. Are we held responsible for this ignorance? Are we condemned by every bite of quinoa?

When we examine the social effects of sin and the systemic repercussions of it, we are no longer discussing individual responsibility. We can look at an individual person and call out their infidelity, their lies, their theft. But when we zoom out and look at injustices such as racism and sexism, it becomes a victim/victimizer issue – whites against blacks, or men against women. When we zoom out even farther to look at the even larger picture of ignorance in the face of social injustice, the lines become even more blurred. Thus the greater the scale, the more it becomes about brokenness rather than individual sins. To say that we must take responsibility only for our personal sinful acts is to greatly oversimplify this massive disease in our world.

The whole creation groans. This is Paul’s attempt to grasp the enormity of our world’s not-right-ness and somehow address it in a meaningful way. Yet we hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay.

While we try to navigate the murky waters of right and wrong, we must take responsibility for our own contribution to systemic brokenness, seeking both to address the not-right-ness within us and to advocate for the not-right-ness of the world. Yet there is only so much we can do. I encourage fair trade, thrift shopping, gardening, and paying a little more to support small businesses rather than large corporations. Yet in the end, we all contribute to brokenness in ways that we simply cannot help. We will all, at some point, buy the metaphorical bag of quinoa out of ignorance. And so we repent of our individual sins, but we also cry out to God for the redemption of brokenness too big for us to fix.

Scripture does not and cannot tell us what sin is, for it is too great for us even to comprehend. Yet it does tell us of redemption and hope that is also greater than we can comprehend. We do our best to live in the Kingdom, yet in the end all we can do is hope for an infinite, unfathomable grace that can cover the sins of the world, known and unknown, confessed and unconfessed, repented and unrepented. Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do.

And in times when the hopelessness of sin and brokenness overwhelm us, I find myself comforted by this beautiful quote from Chris Wright:

“We need a holistic gospel because the world is in a holistic mess. And by God’s incredible grace we have a gospel big enough to redeem all that sin and evil have touched.”

I don’t have answers.

But I have hope.

Young Love: The Backstory

When I first published my observations of enduring and sacrificial love from an elderly couple (which you can read here), I had little idea that it would be shared and re-posted enough that it would eventually get back to the man about whom I wrote it. 

I came in the door after a tiring 2-day surf trip with the youth group this summer and had a letter waiting for me. I dropped my suitcase, keys, and sunglasses in the floor and opened it eagerly. And with tears rolling down my cheeks, I read a carefully typed 2-page account of their love story. Jim later told me, “I’ve never written anything like that before.” And he gave me permission to share it with you. So here are the main excerpts from his letter:

Lauren,

That you would observe and write such a beautiful article about us is humbling. I am especially grateful that you see our situation in a positive light, since I do not wish that our ‘nonconventional’ appearance be a negative factor… I don’t wish to bore you, but I would like to make a couple of comments related to the subjects about which you wrote:

…I don’t consider my efforts to be anything outside of normal behavior… I do not [consider it an] obligation…I don’t do what I do ‘because I have to.’ To understand, I need to take you through a little history.

We started dating in high school in 1942 when we were both 15; she was a sophomore and I was a junior. We did all the ‘school things’ and Saturday night movies with hamburgers and cokes (I was a real big spender). We dated as much as we could after my graduation while I worked for a year…then I was in the Navy for 17 months. After the Navy I started my freshman year at [college]…. At the end of my freshman year (August 1947) we married. I will not bore you with a lot of subsequent history; although it is pertinent, it is not necessary to make the point that I am trying to make.

Take a look at our situation when we got married. We were almost 21, she had a steady job… and things were going pretty well for her. To marry me she would have to move away from her family, change jobs, live she-didn’t-know-where, and work for 3 more years so we wouldn’t starve. I, on the other hand, had just finished one year of college, had spent what savings I had on that, and didn’t even have a bicycle for transportation. Even more, with my background of having graduated from only a small 100-student county school in Tennessee, having worked as a mechanic, spent time in the Navy and one year in a junior college, why would she even think I had what it takes to graduate from a prestigious engineering college like Georgia Tech? You would think that such a smart, pretty, employed girl who had so much going for her would have had far better offers than I could make. However, she did agree and we hitched our wagons to my star of becoming an engineer.

During college, money was pretty tight, and I remember once we had a serious discussion about whether we could afford for her to have a 5 cent coke with her sack lunch each day. [We agreed] that when I got out of college, she would keep the home and care for any children we might have, and I would be responsible for providing the income. That would mean we would adjust our standard of living to my salary. That was not to say that everything was easy or always one way. We made most decisions together, and a number were made differently than if I had been single; she could say the same.

So what is the point I am trying to make? In addition to all the above-mentioned reasons for my desire to care for her, there is the matter that she very early-on gave up her independence and put her faith and trust in me to see that she, and a family, were taken care of. I made a covenant with her before God and a few people to do that, ‘in sickness and in health.’ So, am I now obligated to meet her needs for 24/7 care, and do I do it for that reason?…No — I do it because I want to, and even though she does not know it, I want to express my appreciation for the love and confidence that she, as a smart, beautiful, rosy-cheeked, auburn-haired young lady expressed in me 67 years ago, and has continued to do so ever since! I suspect the time will come when I will not be physically able to personally meet her needs and other arrangement will be necessary. Until such time, I will continue to care for her and nothing else will even be considered.

I hope that you will meet and marry a Christian with whom you can have the same love and commitment that [we] had/have, to jointly ‘hitch your wagons to a common star,’ with God’s Word guiding you along the path. You may find that while someone may have to temporarily give up that 5 cent daily coke, it will not matter since 67 years later, despite the circumstances, you can say, “I would do it again.”

Published in: on August 26, 2014 at 11:28 pm  Comments (2)  
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17 Creative Ways to Give on a Budget

As I mentioned in my last couple of posts, this summer the Sunset youth group worked through the book I Like Giving by Brad Formsma.  Each week I had the teens write down creative ways to give, and I was constantly amazed by the ideas they came up with.

There were several ideas that overlapped, and I found that the majority of them had to do with listening, encouraging, and spending time with lonely people. Maybe that reflects what our teenagers — and the rest of us, for that matter — need the most.

Here are some of my favorite ideas from the past few weeks — and most of them you can try for less than $5!

1. Take the time every once in a while to write a note to someone, just to show that you appreciate them or are thinking of them.

2. Pack ziplock bags full of snacks and goodies for the homeless and pass them out at stop lights.

3. Give your time to someone.  Just spend some time talking one-on-one with someone about anything and everything.  Listening to what someone has to say is a gift in itself.

4. Make someone a goodie bag filled with all their favorite candy and give it to them when you think they most need it.

5. Burn a CD of some of your favorite songs that you think a friend would enjoy, and give it to them.  Let them know they were on your mind.

6. Buy used copies of your favorite books to give to a friend who is going on vacation, or even to a random stranger.

7. Bake something for someone you know, but who wouldn’t expect you to think of them.

8. Pay attention to your facebook/instagram/twitter to see if your friends post about wanting or needing something, and then surprise them with it. Basically, really listen to people and their needs and you will find ways to help them out.

9. Buy coffee/lunch/pay the toll for the person behind you.

10. If you see someone who seems lonely or sad, invite them over and cook a meal with them. Then try encouraging them as you eat together.

11. Give flowers to an old lady and thanks [sic] them for everything.

12. Sit and listen to what your friend or another person has to say. Sometimes there are no perfect words, just perfect silences.

13. Donate a variety of school supplies for underprivileged kids.

14. Prepare an unexpected meal for someone who is very caring. For example: a parent.

15. Hold the door open for someone.

16. If a friend needs more than you can give, use social media to ask others to help. Sometimes people want to help but don’t know how.

17. Pay favors forward, and ask the next person to do the same.

Published in: on August 15, 2014 at 11:28 am  Leave a Comment  
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“This is for you, Paulo”

In my last post, I wrote about a book that my youth group is studying this summer called “I Like Giving.”  In keeping with the theme of generosity and creative (not random, because they’re intentional!) acts of kindness, yesterday some of my students and I spent the afternoon giving to others.

First, we paid for the person behind us in line at Subway.  Then we purchased a $5 Starbucks card for each of them to decide how they wanted to give it away.  Our next stop was Walgreens, to develop a happy selfie of all us to tape to a church member’s door (captioned: “We’re all excited because we think you’re awesome!”).

As we stood in Walgreens waiting for the picture to be printed, one of the girls decided that the young man working behind the photo counter needed a Starbucks card.  She felt a little awkward and wasn’t sure how to go about it, so I told her to glance at his nametag.  “His name is Paulo!” she stage-whispered to me, grinning.  So I told her to write his name on the card so that he knew we didn’t leave it by mistake.  She borrowed a pen and carefully wrote on the little brown envelope, “This is for you, Paulo!”  And then she added a smiley face.

“Do I just…hand it to him?” she asked.  Trying not to be obvious, I shushed her and responded quietly, “No, just wait until we’re walking out and leave it on the counter.”

Paulo handed us the printed selfie, and I paid for it, and as we turned to walk away, I nudged my youth group girl to let her know that it was time.  Paulo picked up the gift card as we were walking out, and he shouted to us, “I love Starbucks!!” We turned around, and his ear-to-ear grin was worth far more than $5.

I think all of my youth group kids thought so, too.

Once we got back to the church building, we talked about how it had felt to give, and then I asked them to remember a time when someone gave to them and write a note to that person.  One girl mentioned an elderly woman at church who sends birthday cards to everyone.  One of the guys talked about a time when someone took him out to dinner.  And some of them — well, I didn’t know what they wrote in their notes until later.

Because perhaps my favorite moment of the day — when all was said and done and students were dropped off and I was back in the office sorting papers — was when one of the other ministers stopped by my office door.

“It’s crazy what sticks in a person’s mind,” he said.  “Did you read the note Juan left me?”

I shook my head no.

“Well,” he continued, “he thanked me for taking him home when his mom was sick.  I don’t even remember that.  Must’ve been when she had surgery two years ago.”  He shook his head.  “Sometimes you wonder if what you do makes any difference…”

A small act of kindness goes a long way.  I think about the times people have given to me without knowing how much it meant or how it shaped my life, and I think it does make a difference.  More than we know.

And I think that what my student wrote on that Starbucks card is a concise reminder of the attitude with which we should give.  It’s not about us or any attention or praise that might result.  It’s a simple way to say that they are worth noticing, that they are worth our time and money and emotional investment.

“This is for you.”

It’s a way to let someone know that your gift is not a ‘random’ act of kindness, that it’s not an accident. That they’re not an accident.

“This is for you.”

Keep your eyes open today to see how you can make a difference for someone — how your life can be a gift that is intentionally, uniquely, just for them.

Published in: on July 26, 2014 at 10:34 am  Comments (2)  
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Every Time You Give, a Story Begins

This summer, the Sunset youth ministry team is teaching a class based on the book I Like Giving by Brad Formsma. It’s not a super deep book. It’s made up mostly of stories and random thoughts on giving, and I LOVE IT. Reading the book and preparing lessons has made me so excited about all the possibilities that come with a lifestyle of giving. Often we think of giving as a compartmentalized part of our lives, and we do it in the most routine and boring ways, setting aside a percentage of our income and thinking that the check we write is the gift.

But what happens when we start to see our lives as a gift to other people? Then we open our eyes for opportunities to give in all kinds of different ways, and creative giving simply becomes an expression of who we are.

There’s a line towards the end of the book that I have made my theme for this summer:

Every time you give, a story begins.

And it’s true. Most of the time, you never know the ripple effect that begins when you give. You can change someone’s life and not even know it. Even the smallest gifts become a story that both giver and receiver remember for years to come.

Over the last few weeks of teaching this class, I’ve been reminded of all the times people have given to me in creative ways, and as I think about them, I can’t help but smile. There are too many to list, but here are a few that have been on my mind.

I Like Pumpkins

One fun fact about me is that I love seasonal decorations. I’m not a fan of roses on Valentine’s Day, but pumpkins and chrysanthemums in the fall and poinsettias in the winter just make me happy. This past fall I had just moved into my first off-campus house, and when September came, I couldn’t wait to get a pumpkin to grace my front steps. My first pumpkin was big and round and absolutely perfect, and every time I came home and saw it on the porch, my heart was all aflutter with autumn happiness.

But one morning I opened the door and my pumpkin was gone. Someone had come and stolen it in the night. (Side note: who does that?!) At first I thought maybe it was a joke, but my pumpkin never came back. Every time I came home, I just felt sad and missed my beautiful pumpkin. In a depressed heap of pumpkin-less misery, I posted a pitiful status on facebook about my missing pumpkin.

The next night, I was out all evening and came home at about 11pm. As I walked up the sidewalk, something round and orange caught my eye. There was a pumpkin on my front steps!! I was absolutely elated. I couldn’t believe someone had been thoughtful enough to go out and buy me a new pumpkin, but there was no note and no one to thank. I posted on facebook, “To whoever bought me a new pumpkin and left it on my porch for me to come home to tonight — you are wonderful. There is good in the world. THANK YOU!!!” I hoped that whoever bought the pumpkin would see it. Turns out he did — and he took a screenshot of it. And he later became my boyfriend.

I Like Scotland

In March of 2013, I went on a mission trip to Scotland for the first time. It was a bit of a last-minute decision to go, and I had 3 weeks in which to raise $1400. A couple days into my fundraising campaign, I had this dream that someone financed my entire trip. I woke up thinking, “Well man, I thought that dream was real. This is super disappointing.”

I opened my computer to check facebook, and I had a message from a guy I hadn’t seen or talked to since I was about 13 years old. He asked how the fundraising was going and how much I still lacked. I told him I had just started, so, like…all of it. He responded, “Good, because after paying my bills this month that was exactly the amount that I had left in my account, and I felt like God was telling me to give it to you.”

It was one of those moments where it’s such an extravagant gift that you feel almost embarrassed. I tried to tell him no, I could write him a check back for whatever amount I raised over $1400, but he would have none it, saying that if I raised more than that, it could go to other people on the trip. Talk about a humbling experience — I hadn’t even planned on paying that much for my own mission trip! His gift taught me more about faith and giving than any book or sermon.

And Scotland was amazing.

I Like Cookie Monster

A couple of years ago, I worked as a summer camp counselor.  At the beginning of one week, I met this little guy with a cookie monster T-shirt that said “Keep calm and eat cookies.” I nearly choked on my excitement as I told him how amazing it was. Later that week, I was in charge of extended care for the afternoon, so I was sitting by the volleyball court watching a couple of kids make sand angels when the Cookie Monster guy’s mom came up and sat with me. We talked about faith and about relationships and she asked me what my plans were for the future, and I remember telling her how much I had needed some good adult conversation.

That week of camp ended on Friday afternoon. I was standing around holding a blue flag and a clipboard and trying to keep 9 kids together until their parents came to pick them up, when Cookie Monster guy’s mom came up to me and handed me a gift bag. Inside was a sweet note along with the same Cookie Monster t-shirt her son had. I’m not sure where the card is, and I’ve forgotten her name, but I always wear that soft blue shirt to sleep in, and I will never forget it.

Someone who overhears a comment like that and thinks to act on it for a complete stranger — that is someone who sees their life as a gift.

To each of these special people — thank you!! You gave, and a story began, and the world became a bit brighter.

Take the time to remember your own stories. Write them down and share them. Be inspired. Then keep your eyes open for opportunities and start a story for someone else.

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