Friday, July 23, 2010

Coming Into Focus

I’d like to think that I’m quite good at giving people advice about their own lives. I offer a different perspective on their situations, and I can only assume that it’s because I’m not in the middle of them, they most likely don’t impact me, and it’s easier for me to speak the truth to somebody about their life than it is to actually speak the truth to myself about mine. Are you the same?

I was at a concert not too long ago and in between songs the lead singer starting talking about our life as a canvas. And how sometimes we are way too close to the canvas, and when we are that close, things are blurry and the picture isn’t clear. He said that we need to remember to step back every now and then to get a view of the big picture that is our life, not just the particular view that we are looking at with a big zoom lens. And when we do that, the picture – our life – starts becoming clearer; it starts coming into focus.

I have recently begun indulging in a long-time interest of mine – amateur photography. I bought a digital SLR camera a couple of years ago, but never really invested the time or energy into learning about it until a few months ago. One of my new favorite things to do is to go to the zoo and take pictures of the animals at various times of the day. It’s amazing how different their personalities are depending on what time of day you catch them. My favorite time of day is early morning, when they are active, playful, and entering the world again with curious eyes.

I’ve noticed that with my big zoom lens, I can capture some great moments. I can really zoom in on their personalities, but I can also control what I see, or what someone looking at my pictures will ultimately see. I contrast this with a standard lens that captures more of the view. It provides the panoramic background and setting for the photo, rather than focusing on one particular piece of the photographic puzzle. It’s like stepping back for a more complete view.

For example, I can snap a great photo of Baylor the baby elephant, zoomed in to see his adorable face and the little hairs on the top of his head. It’ll be a great photo that reflects him and perhaps even his playfulness that day. But, if I zoom out, I am then able to capture the fact that he is standing there under the protection of his mom Shanti and aunt Methai, and next to his “brother” Tucker. It tells a different story, a bigger story, a more complete story; one that is not seen when I’m zoomed in. It tells of a family, their cohesiveness, their love and protection for one another; and it’s an entirely different perspective.

Isn’t this the same for our life as a canvas? I think sometimes we are too zoomed in; standing too close to the picture of our lives. Being that close means that we are not able to focus and things that are happening in our life may not be clear. We are consuming ourselves with the small, minute details, and not paying attention to, or appreciating, the big picture. Sometimes we don’t know what this big picture looks like, so it’s hard to step back, to zoom out, and really see it for what is really is. We may miss out on something because we are too close.

God has written each one of our lives. He has written our story, or in this case, painted our picture. Sure we can make choices that deviate from that story (we do it all the time, actually), but ultimately He knows us and our lives. He is zoomed out and sees each life, each canvas, for what it really is. He has everything in focus while we are trying to control what everyone else sees and we struggle to focus on anything but the here and now.

I think that maybe we need to put just a little more faith in God. I know it seems like a no-brainer, but I really think that consciously giving up control of our lens, zooming out of our own lives to try and get a little of God’s perspective, would be healthy for us. We may see our lives differently and pieces of our own puzzle may start to make sense. Things may start coming into focus. You know, like when you’re right up next to a painting and can’t focus on anything, but when you step back, you can see everything clearly?

So how do we do this in our own lives?

I don’t know. Applying this is the tricky part, but at least thinking about it is a good start. I rest in the fact that God uses everything in my life for my own good. It may be a tough lesson learned, or a sad experience to go through, but each experience helps to mold me into the person that God created me to be. So instead of zooming in on the canvas of our lives, perhaps we should zoom in on God instead. He already knows the big picture. He’s already focused.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

They're My Neighbors

This past week, I participated in my church’s annual mission “trip” in our own city. The Houston Project enables us to love on the people of Houston and hopefully introduce them to Jesus Christ and give Him the chance to shine through us during our time spent with each of them. I have not been with this church for very long, but when I heard about the Houston Project, I just assumed that everyone signed up, and therefore, I did so without hesitation! There were over 1,500 people signed up altogether, spread out between thirteen sites in Houston and the surrounding suburbs.

I quickly began to understand what I was getting myself into. I’m an accountant. I was going to be a VBS teacher for 8-9 year olds. Huh?!? Was God playing a practical joke on me? Don’t these kids need somebody more qualified than me?

Most everyone, including our Pastor, kept saying that while the people of Houston will be very blessed by our involvement in their communities, the people who will end up being blessed the most are those who serve. I was signed up to be a faithful servant. I couldn’t have been more excited, or nervous. How was I going to know what to say? How was I going to bring up Jesus Christ to these wee ones? How was I going to hold their attention when their minds are in a thousand other places? What if they ignored me?

Let me set the scene for you:

Houston’s Third Ward: one of the poorest urban areas in the country. It’s 95 degrees outside. The children range from age 3 up to age 11. There are plenty of mosquitoes around. We feed them and play with them outside, then round them up to go inside. We sing and dance with them, then do Bible stories and a craft. One day they make t-shirts; the next, picture frames; and yet another, a salvation bracelet. Then we treat them to some snow cones for a little break, perhaps a balloon animal or two, and then we take them back inside for “good behavior” prizes and the wrap up session. This happens like clockwork for four nights. And hopefully in the middle of all of this, we are sharing the good news of Jesus Christ and they are listening.

It’s backdrop is an envy of all real estate developers in the area. It is the downtown skyline of Houston. It’s right there, within reach. People would pay a super-duper-ultra premium to live in this location. I turn around while playing with the kids, and it’s practically staring me in the face. The heartbeat of the 4th largest city in the country is right there, and yet that heart is not beating for these people of the Third Ward.

Some more statistics:

4.0 miles – the distance from my office in downtown Houston to Houston’s Third Ward. A short distance from seven figure salaries to absolute poverty.

5.4 miles – the distance from my house to Houston’s Third Ward. Not far from what now seems like a little bubble that I live in. I was previously ignorant to what was going on so near to me.

A vast majority of the population in the Third Ward is African-American. It is a small pocket of Houston that is bordered by two universities and a major highway. Thousands of people drive right by it every single day and don’t even know that it’s there. They don’t even blink an eye. Thousands of people, just like me, who have never even set foot in the Third Ward, not to mention would be able point it out on a map of Houston.

The houses are run down, everyone hangs out outside, and as you drive down the streets, you have to go extra slow to not hit kids playing or adults gathered together on a street corner. When it gets dark, it’s not a safe place to be for a thirty-something white gal who knows she does not inherently belong there. But when the sun was up, this is what I saw:

I saw faces of innocence, hope, and despair.
I saw children who clung to me as a figure that represents life, love, happiness, security, and protection.
I saw absolute bliss at the thought of a snow cone or balloon animal of their own.
I saw children who wanted to be obedient. They wanted discipline and structure.
I saw an eagerness to learn something new and to interact with new people.
I received neverending requests for piggy back rides, or simply to be held.

I saw them as real people. Human beings created by the same God who created me. They’re my neighbors. They live 5.4 miles from me. They’re practically in my backyard. God loves them just as much as He loves me. I am called to love them; they are His children. There are really no excuses to ignore them; I can’t use the excuse that ignorance is bliss any longer. I’ve met them. I know they’re there. They’re my neighbors.

So what next?

They need teachers, mentors, and friends. They need to be taught and shown that Jesus Christ is the way, and the truth, and the life. They need to be loved on; not just for a day, or a week, or a month, or once a year, but for a lifetime. They never once asked what my background was and what I did for a living; they don’t care. To them, I was someone to cling to, talk to, listen to them, hug them, high five them, teach them, dance and sing with them, show off to, and love on them. That’s really their only desire. All the credentials in the world mean nothing to them.

I ask one of my sweet girls Jasmine: “How was your day? What did you do all day?” She responds: “Nothing. My mom talked on the phone all day and was screaming”. Sweet girl. You’re my neighbor. Come with me and I’ll love on you.

I ask another young boy, Tyreese, why he is misbehaving that particular day. I never get a straight answer, but I have a feeling that the fifteen minutes that I spent alone talking with him were really what he was after. I tell him that God loves him no matter what. That God is happy when we are good, and sad when we are bad, but that He loves us ALWAYS. And then I ask him if he wants to make God sad. “No ma’am”. Precious, impressionable boy. Come give me a hug. I’ll love on you. You’re my neighbor.

Then there are the two sisters, Miracle and Erin. They show up late every night, missing out on the Bible stories and the crafts. But they seem to always get there in time for snow cones and walk away with huge amounts of takeaway containers with leftover food. The first night it irritates me. They are getting food, but not spending any time with the group or participating in any activities. The second night, it irritates me more. Then the third night, I soften up. I realize that they are just trying to provide for their family. They have no choice over what time they get there. They are doing what they can to make everyone happy. I tell them that we are having pizza the last night, and that if they want some, they better come on time because it will be all gone. And guess what? They came on time, got hot pizza, and stayed to enjoy the rest of the evening. They got to be kids. I will not judge them. I’m not in their situation. And they’re my neighbors.

They are protective of each other. Big and little brothers and sisters, friends, neighbors. They have each other’s back. I pray that I don’t become desensitized to them, EVER. I need to expose myself to them over and over again so that I don’t forget their sweet little faces. I’m not asking for a pity party, or for someone to come in and save the day, but why aren’t we better at loving them? Showing a little bit of ourselves to them? Introducing them to the hope that is found in Jesus? And maybe preparing them, just a little, for the great big world out there that has so much to offer them.

Too many of us live in ignorance. We don’t do what we are supposed to. We make excuses for why we can’t help out others: we’re too busy, our work schedules don’t allow, we need “me” time, we have errands to run. Oh really? Is that what we’re going to tell God? Is that our excuse?

From the lyrics of Casting Crowns:
But if we are the body
Why aren't His arms reaching?
Why aren't His hands healing?
Why aren't His words teaching?
And if we are the bodyWhy aren't His feet going?
Why is His love not showing them there is a way?

We are His arms, His hands, His mouth, His feet. The Bible clearly tells us that believers are members of the Body of Christ. We are all important members of His Body and serve a purpose. All of the members of the Body of Christ work together to glorify Him. You are Christ’s body- that’s who you are! You must never forget this. Only as you accept your part of that body does your “part” mean anything – 1 Corinthians 12:27 (MSG).

So after this week with the little ones, an exhausting week spent in Houston’s Third Ward, I have a passion for them. I want so badly to do something for them. To be someone for them. I want to find out what part of the body of Christ I am, and how I am to reach out to them, and then go after them.

We leave on the last night (and the kids don’t realize this is our last night), and I tell each of them how much fun I had with them that week. I dread the question, “Will I see you tomorrow Lisa?”, and it came, more often than I had hoped. And I was honest with them. But I also told them that I would be back someday. And I will. After all, they’re my neighbors.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Sheep or Horse?

I’ve been meaning to write this blog for a while; a few weeks in fact. But I never could muster up the energy to think hard enough to do it, beyond the initial inspiration that I had to write it. I’m still not sure if I have the energy as I sit and type this. We’ll see. It may be piecemeal, or I may get on a roll and it’ll end up being ten pages long.

I think the other reason that I’ve been putting this off, is because it kind of scares me. It scares me because I know the answer to the question I’m about to ask, and I don’t like it. Because I felt inspired to write this blog, I’m facing kind of a harsh reality. I’m not perfect. God loves me anyway. But why am I not obedient to Him as I should be? Why do I fight so much and stand so strongly on my own two legs?

Would you rather be a sheep or a horse?

Umm, duh! Have you seen a sheep and a horse? Have you compared the physique, the strength, the nobility, the temperament, and the wide range of ability residing within each animal? I would soooooo rather be horse. That’s a no brainer. A horse is majestic, noble, strong, steady, energetic, compassionate, feisty, beautiful, capable, loving, strong-willed, and able to bond with its riders. How does it get any better than that? You never grow up as a little kid saying, “Mommy mommy, I want a sheep!” You grow up begging mom and dad for the horse that you can ride around your pretend pasture, and on which you can be whisked away by your knight in shining armor (at least for the ladies, of course!).

Horses for centuries have been the strong, powerful animals that are an integral part of society. They are good for hard manual labor, able to be prim and proper in equestrian events, provide human beings with the ability to be quick and agile while performing tasks around the farm, and are great companions.

Let’s contrast them with sheep. Sheep are flock animals. They don’t typically think for themselves; they follow a leader. They are reserved, calm, tend to stay with their flock, and get stressed out when separated from other flock members. In short, they are not majestic, powerful, beautiful creatures; they provide wool to keep people warm and (unfortunately for them) are served up very nicely as “lamb chops”, medium rare, with a nice accompanying side. (At which point my stomach begins to growl as if I’m starving it).

So, sheep vs, horse? Horse. 100 % all the way. If I’m a horse, I don’t (generally) get eaten and nobody really preys on me. If I’m a sheep, I’m lucky if I make it to my third birthday, get sheared several times up until that point, and generally lead a follower lifestyle.

(Insert God’s voice) "Really, Lisa? You really want to be a horse?"

Okay, now this is getting tricky. Let’s look at this from a different perspective. I’m reading a book right now called Passion and Purity by Elisabeth Elliott. This was my inspiration for this blog. There is a chapter in there called “Unfailing Love”. Simply put: He is our Sheperd. We are to be His sheep.

Psalm 32:8-11 (NIV)
I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;

I will counsel you and watch over you.

Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you.

Many are the woes of the wicked, but the LORD's unfailing love

surrounds the man who trusts in him.

Rejoice in the LORD and be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are upright in heart!

So, You really want me to be a sheep, huh? Not a strong, powerful, majestic horse? Okay, I’ll play along. What’s in it for me? Why would I choose a sheep over a horse?

I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lay down his life for his sheep. – John 10:11 (NIV)

And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory
that will never fade away. – 1 Peter 5:4 (NIV)
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me down paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort met. – Psalm 23:1-4 (NIV)

The bottom line

The Bible does not say that God is a cowboy who cares for and directs his horses in life. Cowboys must use bits and bridles (and sometimes whips!) to control their horses. The horses do not willingly go without all of this “encouragement”. Horses may be noble and majestic, powerful and strong, but I’m starting to think that being a sheep just might be the better option.

He is our Shepherd. We are His flock and He looks over us, provides for us, keeps us safe. We are lost without Him. We need a leader.

As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after
my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on
a day of clouds and darkness. – Ezekiel 34:12 (NIV)

Do you see? We are not horses. We should not want to be horses. We are not strong, powerful, majestic beings, no matter how hard we try. In this life, we are sheep. His flock. We need Him. Nothing else promises us what He promises us if we follow Him. And the sooner we realize that, the closer we walk with Him, the more we will glorify Him, the happier we will be.

So assuming that we are now choosing to happily don the woolly white, the challenge becomes actually following Him. This is not always as easy as it seems. I find myself constantly challenged to do this. When we live in a society that provides us with everything that we need, with endless opportunities, and with tangible rewards for our accomplishments, it’s easy to be led astray. But thankfully, if we truly believe that God is our Shepherd, we can rest easy that He will come after us and bring us back to Him. He cares about us that much. And we need to always seek Him and keep Him in our sight.

So would I rather be a sheep or a horse? Ummm, duh! I would soooo much rather be a sheep. His sheep. That’s a no brainer.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Drive-Thru Nation

If I was to pick a word that aptly described our nation, it might very well be convenience. America is all about convenience. We want everything fast, now, according to our schedule and timetable, and to require the least amount of effort for us. We’re regimented in our routines, determine how are days should play out in our heads, and then don’t handle it very well when they don’t. But can you blame us? I feel like I hear in the news that we work more now than ever and spend less time doing the things that America has provided us with the freedom to do. I think this has a clear impact on how we spend our free time.

I was in the drive-thru line at the bank yesterday morning to get cash out of the ATM. Unfortunately for me, the ATM line doubles as a normal drive-thru teller line. Unbeknownst to me, I was behind a problem customer who took way longer than she should have. And I caught myself thinking: Why doesn’t she just go inside? It’s a lot easier to get help face to face with a human being. But then I realized, why was I not inside? Why were the six other cars in line not inside?

A similar scene unfolds at one of my favorite fast food restaurants, Chick-Fil-A. Chick-Fil-A is heaven in a red and white bag. Unfortunately, this is common knowledge! I have rarely been to a Chick-Fil-A when there has not been a horrendous line at the drive-thru. For that reason, I almost always go inside, where surprisingly, there is little to no wait and a wall of cashiers waiting with smiling faces to help me. The Chick-Fil-A nearest my house is a busy one. Probably busier than the typical Chick-Fil-A. It has two drive-thru lanes, and not only that, but employees actually walk to your car to take your order! So let me get this straight: 1) there are two drive-thru lanes and 2) someone else has to walk to my car to take my order because it makes the line go quicker, because there are so many people in their cars who are too lazy to get out and go inside. Got it?

Other common drive-thru establishments include coffee shops, dry cleaners, liquor stores, pharmacies, mail boxes, and probably many others that I can’t remember right now. Heck, I think Vegas even has drive-thru wedding chapels.

I can only guess that the drive-thru establishment was created because there was an unmet need. Otherwise, they would not have been successful. But who created this need? Who decided that driving through someplace, never having to get out of your car, would be good for society? Convenience. It’s kind of a bad word. For one, it encourages laziness, which America has enough of a problem with. But more disturbing to me is the fact that we lose the human element of so many aspects of our daily lives. Instead of walking inside somewhere, quite possibly interacting with a number of people, we talk to a speaker, have a brief exchange with someone wearing a headset, or we punch numbers into a machine and get what we need.

Does this bother anyone else? Why is it that we have programmed ourselves to think its ok to avoid dealing with people? Isn’t that really what makes us human? One of the things that separates us from animals is our interaction with each other, our intelligence, emotions, the ability to feel and make conscious choices, moral or immoral. I’m not saying drive-thrus are immoral, I’m just saying that this country has chosen to take such a vital part of our existence, the human element, out of our lives.

When I lived in Australia, there were very few drive-thru establishments. Perhaps a few McDonalds and some local fast food chains, and that’s about it. No drive-thru banks, no drive-up ATMs, certainly no drive-thru dry cleaners or liquor stores (“bottle shops”). And guess what? The Australians are the most lovely people I have ever met. They are friendly, they are cheerful, and they interact so well with each other. I’m certainly not suggesting that drive-thrus in America have caused us to be such a bitter nation (I can think of a million other reasons for that), but I do think that the expectation of having to actually deal with a human being, in general, puts Americans in a bad mood. The Aussies don’t have a choice, so they embrace the human interaction. When this interaction happens, you hear stories about people, get involved in conversations that you can’t carry out through a speaker, and perhaps meet people who may be a part of your life forever!

At my dry cleaner, every time I go in to drop off or pick up my clothes, I have a conversation with the owner or the clerk who happens to be working. They both know me and I know them. I ask how their kids are, how their weekend was, what their plans are for the summer, and they ask similar questions of me. That can’t happen in a drive-thru. Well, I guess it typically can, but you’d be irritating the heck out of the people waiting in line behind you.

And there is something that I love about walking into a Starbucks or similar coffee shop: the buzz of the place, the smell of it, and the endless options of yummy treats and ever-changing drinks up for grabs. You see, I don’t think that coffee shops were ever intended to have drive-thru windows. A drive-thru window cannot replace the conversation with a good friend that happens over coffee and a scone, or the chance for you to relax and chill out while hearing the easy listening vibes playing over the speakers. Heck, if you go inside, you get to make your coffee exactly how you want it! What a novel idea! Instead, most people today take the chance to have someone else with a headset try to make their coffee just right, and that conversation over coffee and a scone? Well, it happens over text message now.

I fully understand that there are some times and places where drive-thrus are really justifiable. Take for instance a mother or father with three young kids in the car who is just quickly picking something up to take home. Rather than drag three young kids out of the car for a quick errand, perhaps a drive-thru makes sense. And honestly, if I’m the person in line inside, I probably think that the drive-thru makes sense for that parent too :-)

Or if it’s raining in Houston and you just have to have something from Chick-Fil-A, then a drive-thru window makes perfect sense. You can stay dry and get your little piece of heaven in a red and white bag! BUT, I’m sad that America has defaulted to this as the norm. I’m sad for everyone who embarks on daily journeys through endless drive-thru windows.

I, for one, rarely go through a drive-thru. I do use the ATM option (generally because that’s all the banks have to offer if you’re there after hours), and I will continue to do that. For me, it’s not really a high and mighty conscious decision to do this. It boils down to: a) I burn more calories getting out of my car and walking in, b) generally the line is shorter inside, c) you don’t have to deal with annoying impatient people and the technical difficulties that they are experiencing with the machine, and d) I actually LIKE the human interaction that I get from going inside. Call me crazy.

America thrives on convenience. And I love convenience, or at least the fact that it is available to me in almost everything that I do. But I wish that America would thrive a little less on convenience and a little more on human interaction; that element that makes us who we are as creatures of God. If we learned to deal with people throughout our lives on a daily basis, I think we would all get along better and value each other a little bit more then we currently do. I encourage you as you make your next round of errands or a trip for food, to consider going inside and partaking in some human interaction. Maybe slowly, we can whittle away at the idea of convenience and get back to how it used to be, before we were a drive-thru nation.