Archives for April 2011

Gas Stations and Beggars

“Sometimes I would like to ask God why he allows poverty, suffering and injustice when he could do something about it.”

“Well, why don’t you ask Him”

“Because I am afraid that He would ask me the same question.”-Anonymous

                        ***

“Do you have any change? I ran out of gas and my kids and I are stranded,”

Startled, I backed up as the unfamiliar woman cornered me by my car as I filled it with gas.  It seemed like she had appeared out of nowhere and was now only inches from my face. 

“I’m so sorry, but I don’t have any money on me,” I explained, “Just my credit card.”

Sheepishly, she turned, and I started to breathe again when I realized she wasn’t going to rob me. She walked over to her car and my eyes followed her. She climbed in the front seat of a truck and I strained to see if there were kids in the vehicle with her. I didn’t see any, but I certainly wasn’t going to argue with her to cough up the kids before I gave her assistance.

I finished up at the pump and then started to frantically dig through my messy car to see if there were any quarters in the center console I could find for her.

My back was turned to the outside as I frantically looked for the coins, when I felt a light tap on my shoulder.  The hair on my neck rose as whipped around again.

In front of me stood a young blonde man, disheveled and in tattered clothes.  With a sad smile he asked me, “Do you have any money? I am trying to get to the beach.”

I shook my head no and climbed in my car and quickly shut the door.  Overwhelmed and feeling slightly hounded by all of the desperation, I started the car and drove off feeling conflicted and very much like Peter before the rooster crowed.  I suspiciously looked around for a third beggar.

“Ok God, I see them,” I muttered. “I see your people.”

I knew what God was up to. I had recently prayed a scary prayer.  Not the patience prayer (I am not that dumb) but the Bob Peirce prayer (the founder of World Vision). 

I had prayed with determined trepidation (like the great wuss I am) for my heart to be broken by the things that break the heart of God.

And now He was doing it.

Only the night before, I had shared with my husband how I felt God was stirring up in me compassion for the poor and needy.  I felt a sadness and burden for the oppressed that was rather foreign to my crusty and self-absorbed heart.  Every day, disturbing stories were coming across my path that brought me to my knees and a fire of righteous anger was beginning to slowly build inside my belly.

My husband asked me what my part was in this revelation.  I said there were two things.  I felt a tangible distance, almost desensitization from the magnitude of suffering in the world and secondly, I sensed God wanted me to write about it. 

The gas station, by the way, was in Anaheim, not some seedy part of Los Angeles or Santa Ana. Lately, I’ve been approached by beggars in the parking lot of Target in Mission Viejo, and repeatedly by a mother toting a little boy inside the Starbucks in Ladera Ranch.

The tentacles of poverty are spreading closer and closer to the insulated bubble communities we’ve built to keep it out. 

And suddenly, I can’t compartmentalize it all anymore; this mental box of poverty I’ve created that includes mission trips to Mexico and the sad little faces of children in Africa.  It’s not the separate place I make it out to be so I can sleep better at night.  Poverty is all around us and it’s too blatant for me to put it back on the shelf or cross off on a list of benevolent activities I do on a quarterly basis.

Honestly, poverty scares me. More than anything I think it’s the desperation.  Somehow, I’ve equated the poor with violence, and while they often do go together, I know they aren’t the same. Poverty seems to be more about limited options than aggression. But they get mixed up when I avoid the issue altogether.

I am afraid of changing and drawing close, but I am more afraid of doing nothing now that my eyes have been opened.

I wish I had some money with me in the car the other day. Although, reflecting on it later, it’s not like I couldn’t have bought the woman gas with my credit card.  My fear at times is paralyzing.

But next time, well…next time, I’ll be ready for the little tap on the shoulder.  In fact, I’ll be expecting it.

Image: dan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Vanity Fair

A woman models a corset in this 1898 photograph.

Image via Wikipedia

Why does irrationality seem to peak in the morning? Rarely do I bite off more than I can chew in the twilight hours. Somehow as the light grows dim, one generally recognizes inherent limitations and waning energy allotments.  But the morning on the other hand, oh the morning is a different animal.  It is new and fresh and all things are possible. 

All things- like running a few miles after a winter of relative lethargy, donning break-a leg high heels to compliment a gorgeous purple bridesmaid gown, and then subsequently roping in one’s waist with a stringent corset to epitomize a romantic heroine of days past. 

It seemed like a great idea at the time.  We gathered at the bride’s apartment, seven ladies in long flowing gowns that laced up the back.  We took turns pulling each other’s stays (corset lacing to those unfamiliar with historical lingo). 

The tightening was subtle.  “Is that snug enough?” lead to, “I think I can cinch it in a little more.”  And finally, “wow girl, look at your tiny waist.”

After a few rounds of pulling, there we stood,a bevy of lasses with reduced waists, exaggerated busts, hips, and of course, little room to breathe.  But vanity had stealthily crept in to our midst, and though I couldn’t bend over or even sit down for that matter, I felt like a beautiful damsel in distress. I’m pretty sure my voice took on a southern belle drawl.

I looked in the mirror and delighted in my pretty dress and va va voom curves.  I was Scarlett O’Hara, Marie Antoinette, and the infamous Gibson Girl of Bygone Days!

About an hour into the tight lacing, I tried to eat a snack, but my confining attire denied me any sustenance, not even a cracker.  Fortunately, I could drink and so a margarita on ice slid down nicely.

As the wedding hour approached, I noticed a stinging ache down my spine along with the growing compression of my now heaving bosom as the bottom of my lungs began to fill with fluid.  My legs throbbed from post-workout lactic acid pooling in my quads, and my hairpins felt like daggers stuck into my head.  My feet were so swollen I could barely walk.

As I lined up to walk down the aisle, I trembled at the length of what seemed like a never-ending runner.  My husband, the wedding pastor smiled at me like a warm beacon, and guided by his big goofy smile, I tottered towards him semi-delirious in pain but determined to appear graceful and elegant to the large crowd assembled.

After a lovely ceremony, more pictures, and millions of seconds of searing pain, I finally sat down at the dinner table in a heap.  But sitting proved even more restrictive.  An old song played in the background.  It was catchy dinner music tune and in my state of pain induced euphoria I swayed to the crooner’s voice.  Strangely enough, it sounded like the word salad was being repeated over and over. Then again, it could have been my starving belly crying out for food.

“I didn’t know they had such cute songs about salad,” I announced to the table.

My girlfriend Krista, also a corseted bridesmaid, but clearly retaining a few more brain cells than I, shouted, “Did you say salad?  It’s called Solid as a Rock.”

The table erupted in laughter; myself included at the erroneous error, but then along with my laughter came a blackish sort of envelopment.  The table, the guffaws…it all began to fade as I teetered on the edge of fainting.

Indeed, I was a damsel in distress. 

My friend Katherine recognizing my flushed face and dilated pupils quickly steered me towards the lady’s room where she tore at my laces and opened up my lungs for some much-needed air.

Returning to the table, I sheepishly sat down and inhaled my dinner.  Now moderately laced, I was able to eat, dance, laugh and enjoy a big piece of strawberry cream wedding cake without the restrictive garment of my own folly (It wasn’t too much later before Krista was begging me to let her loose too).

I learned an interesting lesson that day.  Vanity is subtly deceptive.  I believed the corset to be glamorous, romantic, and whimsical, but in truth, found it to be agonizing. 

I should know better by now than to be duped by another promise of pretty…but then again, The Lord knoweth the thoughts of man, and they are but pure vanity.(Psalm 94:11 WBT)

Jesus sure has got my number.

“Without vanity, without coquetry, without curiosity, in a word, without the fall, woman would not be woman.  Much of her grace is in her frailty.”-Victor Hugo.

Bye Bye Tori and Dean

Actress Tori Spelling, during an interview

Image via Wikipedia

  A group of mommies stood around chatting, impatiently waiting for our sons to wrap up baseball practice as we shivered in the twilight.  A little girl prancing around her mom’s feet found an unconventional treasure…a hole in the grass that was about a foot and a half deep and a foot wide.  It was the type of hole that was perfectly deceptive because it wasn’t big enough for a body to fall in but just the right size to miss, step in and twist an ankle.  The tiny girl stood at the very edge peering into the hole.  She was transfixed and couldn’t take her eyes off it. 

Her mother suggested she stay away from the hole.  So the little girl backed up but kept her gaze steady on it.  As her mom returned to yapping with her friends, I saw the little girl back up and start running towards the hole.  With a great leap she jumped over it and laughed in delight.  Her mother watched in chagrin as over and over she ran to the hole and launched her little body over it.  The little girl thought she had discovered a loophole; she could obey her mom and yet still be near the dangerous hole. 

I chuckled to myself as I watched her, then picked up my son and headed home.  But, the image of the child continued to play in my mind long after I left the baseball field.

And then I it hit me, all too often I am the little girl who pranced around the hole, maybe not falling in per se, but delicately dancing around the temptation. 

My husband recently cut back on some of our satellite cable channels to save a few bucks each month (strangely enough ESPN was not one of them).  But a few of my favorite channels have been axed-Bravo, WE and the E Channel.  All my favorite dishy shows, Tori and Dean, The Real Housewives and E News Daily have disappeared into the land of non-subscriber channel land. 

When I scroll through the viewer bar, I can even see what I am missing.  It’s there, but I can’t access it.  Painful! My vicarious addiction to reality TV viewing has been interrupted and I am truly bummed out. Even though I know I should be rejoicing in cutting off my hand that sins (or eyes in this case), my spirit is reluctant and indignant.

I am always surprised at this constant tension of fleshly desires and faith battling in my inner psyche: One moment I am convicted and the next the princess of justification.  I tell myself it’s important to understand culture, while secretly knowing the lives of celebrities offer nothing of value for me to emulate. 

I empathize with Tori Spelling, a working mom just like me, and look for any redeeming characteristic in the show to somehow make it alright. Of course the one and only time I got my pastor husband to watch the program with me; Tori invited a witch doctor over to do a spiritual cleansing involving a mud bath and Tori in a bikini.  That didn’t go over so well.

Despite the best of intentions, and my sincere desire to always do the right thing, I am still prone to obsessing on the tantalizing holes in my life.  And even though I might not succumb to the temptation, my thoughts wage an internal battle untill I submit to the Spirit.  Like Paul said, I do what I don’t want to do.  And sometimes, if it’s an itty-bitty thing (like Tori and Dean), I simply do the bad thing and make excuses.  

So, I am both happy and sad I can no longer watch Kimora, Tori and Tamara, I will miss my glitzy and superficial friends. But I am also strangely excited to relinquish my little vice and find shows more honoring to God.

And maybe, just maybe, I can find some shows that are a little more Holy than hole-y.

No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. (1 Cor. 10:13 NIV)

Words With Friends and Cheaters

A game of Scrabble in Tagalog.

Image via Wikipedia

My husband is over-the-top obsessed with Words with Friends.  For those of you living in the dark ages, it’s basically the game of Scrabble designed to allow users to engage in games with each other via their i-appendage (iPhone, iTouch, iPods, and iPad).  

At any given time, Tim has about five games simultaneously running.  He is playing his boss and his bosses ‘wife”, our football coach’s son, a dad from baseball, and some random guy he met in the Words with Friends cloud.  I thought about being jealous of all his new wordie friends and the enormous amount of time he dedicates to this hobby (for about a minute), but then decided it was too much fun watching him kick some serious Scrabble bootie to get mad at.  The truth is my sweetie-pie is a strategic word genius.  Give him a few letters and a board (even a mini one) and the man can make some magic.

Occasionally people accuse him of cheating.  Clearly, anyone who would suggest this ridiculous concept does not know my honest to a fault hubby very well.  In seminary, he once went to a professor and confessed he hadn’t done all the reading. He actually admitted his earnest and sincere effort to read every page and subsequent failure to complete the last few chapters of one of the thirty books assigned.  I still scratch my head at that one (Honey, I think the professors knew the reading load was a tad overwhelming…just saying).

Honest Abe has got nothing on Tim Keller.

But this whole concept of cheating brings up some rather interesting observations… because quite frankly, I know quite a few who do cheat! (No names of course)

What factors influence a person to be so competitive as to cheat on an itty bitty game played over the internet?  No money is involved, no status, nothing other than bragging rights to the one loser you just beat.  So why cheat?

I googled Scrabble Word Finder and about twenty cheater apps popped up.  It seems like we have a culture of cheaters that enable other cheaters. 

Too bad someone can’t morph a lie-detector test into an iPhone app.  But honestly, when a player types in argute or ascesis for a 110 point word, it’s pretty obvious Pinocchio is playing the game.  

So, fess up people…do you cheat or play fair?

Can’t Buy me Love

Without money

Image by Toban Black via Flickr

I was born with the blessing or possibly the curse of champagne taste. Either that or I read too many Jackie Collins novels at a young and impressionable age. Regardless, I like luxury, pampering and pricey elegance.  I am certain without the influence of God, money would be my master. 

And there were many years, as a follower of Christ, that I managed to justify materialism and consumption as markers of a successful and affluent life.  It was a large gaping blind spot in my faith. Acquiring wealth was my impetus to achieve, but when I married a pastor, my paradigm imploded when confronted with the idea of true financial stewardship and sacrifice, a concept far beyond the proverbial ten percent tip( tithe) to the Lord.

I remember the exact moment I let go of the American Dream.  It’s embarrassing to admit, but I was watching Oprah and The Secret (a new-age self-help book/movie) was the feature.  I sat there glued like a freight train.  I knew, theologically speaking, it was a bunch of baloney, but emotionally the message triggered an off the chart response in my heart. 

And it was this yearning for something more, for love so deep and raw, that I was willing to walk away from all the perceived security of money and risk my life for something better.  Something that felt right and something that whispered of God.

All my best laid plans to marry a rich man, my scheming and striving (for beauty which equals power which attracts…you guessed it-money), were put to rest, when I made the decision to open my heart to a man who cared more about people than things, hearts and not cash, and building a community  instead of building wealth. 

Simply put, I said yes when Jesus called.  And there was no going back.  The next day during church service, I leaned over and nuzzled Tim.  His eyes were wide with shock because I had been avoiding the conversation about our next step in the relationship.  “You can’t do that unless you are my girlfriend,” he exclaimed, ever the appropriate pastor with physical boundaries.

I whispered in his ear, “So ask me.”The smile on his face was from ear to ear, and less than a week later, he formally asked if he could court me and pursue marriage.

Ministry is a unique calling in that it requires the relinquishment of financial striving.  Pastors generally don’t have the newest, latest and greatest (unless it’s an iPad).  And if they do, eyebrows are raised and assumptions are made about misuse of offerings.  So playing it modest becomes de rigor and it was a huge relief to stop the comparisons.  It was if someone handed me a pass to not have to keep up with the Jones’. 

 And to my utter surprise, I (usually) enjoy being chic and a little shabby; wearing my clothes and shoes to threads, not feeling the pressure to be fashionable, and living simply without the need to find acceptance through my image in the material realm.  I like hand me downs, clothes from Target, and the less is more mentality.  Once I embraced simple abundance I couldn’t go back. 

But that being said, it’s hard to struggle financially.  Our family has two modest incomes and five mouths to feed and we honestly have a tough time juggling it all.  I catch myself feeling entitled to things like a gardener and bi-monthly housekeeping.  I can justify the expense because I devote all my extra time to ministry, but the truth is, cleaning the house makes me dang grumpy. 

I try to make these little bargains with God, “I’ll serve you some more if I can just get a little help around the house, please.”

 I can just imagine the Lord saying, “Sam, let me teach you to serve me by cleaning the house I gave you.”

 I just love those conversations

Then there are those moments of “if only I had…”  I am human after all and a woman.  I still love True Religion jeans, but I try to remember that true worship involves a sacrifice of obedience, and jeans that cost an arm and a leg could probably be better spent on saving someone’s arm and leg in Haiti.  So, when I am at the mall, it’s best to repeat “Haiti,” over and over until the temptation passes,

My bigger struggle is my desire to stay home with my kids.  This burden didn’t go away when I married Tim, though it became less important.  My income is necessary for our family’s very survival.  This is what draws me closer to the Lord because He hasn’t delivered me out of my deep longing.  The desire remains and I live in the tension between wanting and needing, knowing that God knows the difference and trusting him to make the call.

Materialism and financial discontent (always wanting more) are like a large glass of water with little leak.  You can’t see the water disappear, but your cup is never full.  I carried this discontent around with me for years without fully understanding the deeper desires of my heart; security and contentment.  But as I began to understand the greater meaning of living simply, putting my treasure where my heart is, it meant I had to reevaluate what I treasure. 

Do I really believe my treasure is relationship with God?  Do I serve and love my neighbor?  Does it radically affect my decision-making process?  Do I want what I have or do I always want more?  And if I choose to wear fancy jeans that are the dollar equivalent of supporting an impoverished child for a year, can I even sleep at night? 

I have to believe, even though the journey is hard and the road is fraught with diversions, that I am better off choosing to live counter-culturally, even though it’s tough to keep your eye on the prize when the Nordstrom’s half-yearly sale is fast approaching

So, don’t be surprised if I drool at expensive denim and make little squeaking noises when a Gucci purse passes by.  I’ll just be over here praying through my weakness and slight envy issues…(Haiti, Haiti, Haiti)

No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. Matthew 6:24

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