Saturday, January 31, 2015

A Tale of Two Churches (Part One of Two)

I remember the first time my husband and I set foot in that church. "The people here seem nice," he said. And he was right. All but a few welcomed us as if they themselves were the pastor, as if each one had some personal stake in our staying. The refreshments set up between services were "themed" to coincide with the holiday and an upcoming Music department event; they included sandwiches and fresh Panera bagels (oh my!). The spread was abundant and presented on colorful plastic plates with matching cups standing at attention around the beverage station. Most of the folks were dressed in their best pressed; orderly children were adorned with ties and tights, curls and bows, and what-have-you. You could sense that even outside the walls of this establishment these people were upstanding citizens, visible and vital members of their community and its local organizations, professionals: business owners, doctors, and so forth. The cars in the lot were washed and well maintained; sure some were sporty or top-of-the-line, but most were sensible with many displaying hybrid stickers. The building and its grounds were neat and more than adequate for all they hoped to do there. It's grand space accommodated meetings and activities for young and old alike: movie nights, fundraisers, dinners and games. The church was alive with weddings, booked solidly with funerals; its spire was lit through the night -- a beacon to those searching for warmth in a cold, dark world. The building was a formidable, historical and conspicuous body placed right in the center of that tiny town. Here we had reached home in safety and comfort.

Upon coming to that second little church, however, a new feeling overtook us completely. It's cramped little space on the corner of a back alley in the city almost caused us to determine right then and there that our first visit would be our last. The aging but brightly painted interior betrayed its story: this building had changed hands more than once, being rehabbed and repurposed to accommodate -- far from perfectly -- the needs of the present church. The alluring smell of coffee drew us to the hall where folks were gathered, eating a graciously offered but rudimentary breakfast from the cheapest of paper plates. "Please help yourself to one serving of each of the following items," the pastor announced; "Let's make sure everyone gets enough first." With that he approached, beaming and welcoming us warmly. He drew our attention to the line for food where he introduced us to a few of the hungry waiting there; they seemed friendly enough. Gazing around the room, we noticed that others consumed their meal as though it was to be their last, and did not even look up from their plates; those who did, eyed us suspiciously. Many of these people appeared poor, perhaps even homeless. Children in frayed jeans and threadbare sweatshirts ran around tables and no one chastised them. Some it seemed, had simply walked into the church on their own, hungry for physical sustenance and starving for light in a dark and lonely city. As we entered the sanctuary, there was no bespectacled or stately church Elder to greet us, but a young man in worn clothing who held "bulletins" in a withered hand. He smiled shyly and handed us the hand-written photocopy: a single sheet on which was written names of those requesting prayer -- a lengthy list -- and the reminders for an upcoming prayer meeting and two weekly Bible studies. No bake sales or mothers' groups; no Deacons meetings or transportation committee announcements. Here we had reached a place of some sort of discomfort, with people and a style of worship different from any we'd ever experienced.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Unveiling the Real You

What would you do if someone you loved found out who you really are? What if your husband found out that you pick your zits -- or worse, your nose? What if your mother found out that you steal -- just little things -- from the discount store when you're feeling especially alone? What if your girlfriend knew how you really feel about women? What if your pastor knew? What if your boss knew just how much stuff you really copy and fax on company time, with the company equipment?

Not many people today like the word "consequences." But like it or no, everything we do has consequences. Chances are, if you answered the questions above, you'd have already determined, maybe correctly some of the consequences involved: he'd think I was disgusting, she'd ground me for years, she'd break up with me, he'd tell me how wrong I was, I'd get fired. But not all consequences have to be so bleak. Suppose your answers went something like this: He'd hand me a tissue, she'd offer to keep me company, she'd give me the number of her pastor, he'd take me to breakfast and we'd talk, he'd let me pay for what I use and tell me I could do my personal stuff off the clock. Still consequences, right? But depending on the person you trust with "the real you," the outcome can be quite different.

I was always afraid someone would find out my deepest, darkest secrets. Was I afraid people wouldn't like me? Sure. But even more than that (and more disturbing than that), I think I didn't want anyone to find out my secrets because then they wouldn't be secrets anymore. You take the darkness out of the deed, you take some of the "rush" with it. (This is not a post advocating legalizing marijuana or lowering the drinking age, by the way.) But when you take someone who is a kleptomaniac and tell them, "I know what you've been doing; let's talk about it," now you've made a deception into a truth, a confidentiality into public knowledge, an unspoken offense into a treatable problem. Telling someone who really cares usually means you've got their help -- and who wants that?!

God knows -- literally -- all the stuff I've done. My entire childhood and for many years after, I tried to fix things myself. The rationale was twofold. First, there's no Father, heavenly or otherwise that would want me as His daughter, and who'd want the kind of Father that would? Secondly, if God starts meddling He won't do it without changing me into one of those people who are happy and smiling and talking about God and forgiveness all the time. And while the rationale was twofold, the results were always the same: I really didn't want to be happy; I was quite satisfied being dark and alone, wearing my damage like a badge and keeping everyone at a distance from which they couldn't "get" me.

But God cared. Enter Scott Murphy. He amazed me by his devotion to his children, and he was such a great friend. I didn't spend crazy amounts of time confessing to him my past deeds, but I wanted to be better for him from that point forward. I wanted to try this honest relationship thing with him, because he seemed worth it; I had to trust him enough to tell him who I really was.

Somewhere along the line God meddled. Through Scott He showed me that a true father loves no matter what, that a father has to allow his children to face the consequences now and then, but he never turns his heart away. God showed me that He wanted me just the way I was, and that knowing a Father and a Friend like that was worth it, too. And I have become one of those happy and smiling people who talk about God and forgiveness all the time.

And all of this is OK, because sometimes those are the consequences when you give someone who loves you, the real you.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Perfect Gift

For our fifth wedding anniversary, my husband gave me a $25,000 diamond pendant. That’s right, that’s with three zeroes. It is absolutely amazing! But I’m really not a flashy, diamond kinda gal. And it’s not like my lifestyle warrants wearing such an expensive piece of adornment: no galas or black tie affairs. The thought of losing it or having someone snatch it from my neck virtually paralyzes me with fear.  

“No one will even think it’s real! Only you and I will know its real value,” Scott tries to assure me.  

I’m not assured. I know how much he paid for it; I know how he worked and scrimped and saved – not a small feat for my husband, trust me.  

“The oils from your skin or parfum" -- it's parfum when it's made with oil and the word is spoken by a jeweler who deals in $25,000 pendants. "The oils from your skin or parfum will dull its shine, of course; some chemicals can cause permanent damage. Never wear it while spraying paint or caustic cleaners. A diamond of this quality needs to be properly cared for: examined and professionally cleaned frequently. And don’t forget to insure it.” The jeweler’s voice droned on. “This is crazy,” I thought; “I am not worth all this.” 

And so the amazing pendant sits. In a box. Except for the moment he first placed it on my neck, it has barely seen the light of day, and it has never known its full potential. Kind of sad, I guess, but who could risk something happening to it? 

We’ve recently added a family to our basement. That’s not a typo. Not a “family room;” I said “a family.” My son and his wife, and their daughter have taken up residence with us – something both Scott and I had always said we would never do. My stainless refrigerator doors are perpetually smudged, and sugar is usually sprinkled from one end of my island to the other. The water bill is likely going to be astronomical, and the electricity? Well, PECO will probably be inducting us into their hall of fame. Six months ago I would have been on heavy sedation, but when this opportunity came before us – yes, I did say “opportunity” – I asked God for the grace to walk in obedience through whatever plan He had.  

Scott hasn’t quite found that gear yet. “If you can’t find ‘em, grind ‘em!” So, he’s struggling. He’s trying to obey. He’s trying to keep things from getting to him. He’s trying to share his things, but he just can’t seem to be comfortable with it. 

So what does all of this have to do with that amazing anniversary gift? Well, I have a confession. There is no pendant. There is no desire for such an extravagance. There is no money for such insanity. But as I was using this analogy the other evening to describe to Scott how offended God is when we keep His gifts all to ourselves – no matter how honest our intentions -- the light bulb went on. 

The Gospel of Matthew (25:14-30) tells a story about a man who entrusted different increments of cash (talents) to his servants while he went out of town for a bit. Some invested and earned him more, but one, the one who’d been given the smallest amount, buried it “for safekeeping.” Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen the effects of gambling and failed enterprise on the American family; I am not an investor. This servant sounded like a pretty smart cookie to me. “How pleased the master must have been the servant didn’t risk losing his share,” I’d always thought.  

“’You wicked and slothful servant!’ the master said.” 

What?!! It seems what the master really wanted was for his servants to use their gift, to get the most work out of his money. To increase and accumulate more of that for which he was known – worth. Do you see that flicker? I think everybody knows it’s right to put something in the offering plate, or help set up for the church potluck now and again, or even use our musical talents to serve, but how many know why? If we don’t understand why, exactly, I think we miss the personal motivation for obedience, and we will certainly not want to give any more than is required.
So how would Scott feel if his gift remained unused? How does God feel when we keep our doors locked and our carpets spotless like some Better Homes & Gardens curator, rather than a servant? Where’d all this stuff come from anyway? If we bury the gift somewhere deep in the back of our closet or clutch it to our bosom that no one else could possibly enjoy the experience with us, who will ever know anything about the nature of The Giver? Who will ever know His goodness, His grace? And if we hoard, if we place His gifts under lock and key, aren’t we really claiming them solely ours rather than something entrusted to us? How will we fully appreciate His marvelous character if we obsess over preserving the gift like some rabid squirrel, rather than basking in the kindness of The Giver?

I used to enjoy sitting in my home, quietly thanking God for all His wonderful blessings. And that's fine, I guess. But even that became empty. The joy I experienced in "owning" faded with the upholstery on the furniture. Now I share. Be it jewelry or refrigerator doors, vehicles or pasta salad, experience or talent, I've found an even greater kind of joy in serving and sharing with others. I've begun to experience the fullness of My Father's gifts and spread the good news about the generous nature of The Giver.