Thursday, April 30, 2015

You are welcome here

"I didn't bring a bag. It is my first time here. I didn't know...I-I forgot my bag." The woman's voice spoke at a racing clip, shaking from nervousness and apprehension.
I quickly reassured her that it was absolutely fine that she didn't have a bag. We had plenty of plastic bags at the food pantry and I'd be happy to get her some.
"I'll bring my bag with me next time."
"Even if you don't we'll be happy to provide a bag for you."
A calm seemed to come over my new guest. "I'll be happy to take whatever you have to offer."
For the rest of my time with my new guest I was repeatedly thanked for each item with a spirit of genuine gratefulness. She was thankful for the two boxes of noodles and surprised that she was able to choose her own bread from a variety of options fresh off the Giant Eagle donation truck. When we reached the last table I handed her a box of pancake mix and she gave me a heartfelt thanks. "Thank you so much. I'm new to this and...thank you."
Nothing out-of-the ordinary had been discussed in that woman's short time at the pantry. We didn't talk about her struggles, dreams, or even faith in Jesus Christ. All we did was fill some plastic bags with cans, boxes, fresh fruits and vegetables. But that was all that woman needed. The woman who entered the pantry anxious and filled with nerves left with a renewed calm and peace that was evident on her face. She didn't need me to provide a mini-sermon, she just needed to be accepted.
Isn't that what we are all longing for deep down inside? We are all yearning to be taken in and loved just as we are. When we come to Christ we often come with the same worries that my new friend at the food pantry held in her heart this morning. She came without a bag to hold her food; we come to Christ with more sin than we can carry and we wonder, "Will He take me in this way? Will He love me even though I have a dark past and a troubled present?" Yes, He will take us in. Just as easily I gave that woman a few plastic bags, God will take away our sins and forgive us. It is no trouble for Him, He is happy to relieve us of our guilt and shame when we willingly come before Him seeking repentance, forgiveness and a new way forward.
John 6:37 quotes Jesus as saying, "All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away." Receiving what Jesus has to offer - grace, mercy and new life - is as simple as coming to Him. He won't turn us away because we are too old, too lost or too broken. If we come He will always take us in and begin His redemptive work in our lives.
The transformation that God has in mind for each one of His wayward sheep begins when we walk through the door and into His presence. Just like a first-timer at the food pantry the gift can't be received until the person makes the decision to come into the building. Once they are inside they will find that they didn't need to come prepared to be served. They don't even need to know how the system works. They will learn. All that person needs to do is show up and they will be provided food to eat.
Entering God's presence we are offered the greatest food of all, the bread of life. It is free to all who seek to partake because the debt has been paid and the door is open. We simply must take the first step as a newcomer and cross that threshold. When we do we will enter into the presence of God and be accepted, taken in and loved on by our Heavenly Father and Provider who never turns a single one of His beloved children away.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

What is in a name?

Shakespeare famously penned the words, "What is in a name?" His question wasn't looking for an answer but if it were I would argue that there is a magnitude of importance in a name.
Just ask Teresa. I met Teresa at the food pantry on a sub-zero, frigid Erie, PA morning in January. The streets were coated in ice and the turnout at the food pantry was a reflection of the brutal weather conditions. Not even the hungry were venturing out to receive free food. The streets were treacherous and the wind was whipping. Walking even just a few blocks could put even the hardiest of souls at risk for frostbite.
Despite the terrible conditions some tough spirited men and women made their way to the food pantry. I was heartbroken to see some people shivering in flimsy jackets and threadbare gloves. There was pain on the faces of so many that came through the line that day. The winter took its toll not just on the body but on the soul, too. Every time the door to the food pantry opened, letting in a blast of frigid air, I was reminded that out in those conditions at that very moment someone was treading on foot through the bitter cold to reach the pantry. My entire morning was spent in a silent prayer for protection for the homeless and destitute just trying to survive this winter.
There was despair hanging over the food pantry like a gray storm cloud. That is until a woman in a black fuzzy hat and huge puffy coat made her way to the front of the line. I looked up to take her number and was greeted with a beaming smile and bright eyes. "Good morning, sweetheart!" she said. Her voice was full of joy and her spirit was one of praise and thanksgiving. She was a light shining in the dark, a warm breeze on that freezing cold morning.
That is how I came to know Teresa. For the rest of her time at the food pantry Teresa and I talked about her grandsons, both of whom she is raising. She told me about how they love "Cheese-Its" and are ravenous snackers. By the time we had completed our circle around the food pantry Teresa felt like an old friend. I waved goodbye as she ventured back out into the frozen Erie streets.
The following week the temperatures were up and so was the line at the food pantry. I was busy all morning taking visitors through the line and restocking cans and boxes. As I was kneeling on the floor replacing rolls of toilet paper I heard a familiar voice. It was Teresa. A smile came to my face as I looked up and waved saying, "Good morning, Teresa!"
"She remembered my name!" Teresa said in a stunned yet excited voice.
"Of course I did!"
"I can't believe she remembered my name."
Our exchange that morning was just that brief but in that moment I learned the answer to the question, "What is in a name?"

In a name is value. A name says, "You are special." A name conveys worth. When someone calls out your name it is a reminder that you are one-of-a-kind. You are known. You are precious. You have significance.
I haven't remembered every person's name at the food pantry. There are some I am embarrassed to say I have forgotten but there is One who never forgets a name. Our Heavenly Father knows each one of us by our unique and special name. We are precious and valuable to Him, so much so that He knows us by name and calls us by name. Our name is so special and significant to God that when we come to know Him He writes it in His Book of Life.
Isaiah 43:1 tells us just how special each and every name is on the lips of God. "Thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: 'Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.'"
Our name reminds us to whom we belong. God. Our Abba, Father who longs to be with us in eternity and loves us conditionally is calling us to Himself, calling each of us by name. Do you hear Him? 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Number 31

The line at the food pantry had been endless all morning long. By two o'clock over four hundred families would be represented in that sea of people bearing beat up reusable grocery bags and noisy metal carts. I had been moving as quickly as I could all morning to try and get the line down but the people kept coming and the line kept growing.
"Number 31?" I called out, looking for the next in line to receive the food pantry's daily offering of boxed foods, canned goods and almost over-ripe fruit. At the front of the line stood a frail woman, hunched over and stiff, the crown of her head facing me with a mess of unkempt silvery white hair. She stepped away from the crowd and toward me handing over her disc bearing the number "31" on top. This is how order is kept in the food pantry line. Each person is given a disc when they check-in. The discs start at 1 and go to 100, then the numbers begin again at 1. By 10:00 we had already been through our first 100. With so many faces streaming through the doors I was becoming numb and robotic until I reached forward to take disc number 31. Suddenly I was met with a stench that pierced my nose. My next in line, number 31, wreaked of clothes that hadn't been washed in weeks and hair that hadn't been touched by hot water or shampoo for just as long. The stench of the homeless is not an unfamiliar scent in the food pantry but this was more severe and intense than anything I had ever encountered before. I immediately held my breath in an attempt to cut off the odor and, hopefully, disguise any facial expression that would have given away the assault on my nostrils. 
I gave myself a quick pep talk as number 31 and I walked over to the canned foods. "Don't let on that she stinks!" I told myself. Slowly my food pantry guest and I walked down the line of food offerings. Every step was laborious. The woman's movement was arthritic and she appeared to be in great discomfort. As we moved down the line she started to move at an even slower pace but I didn't really notice. I was so focused on keeping my nose pointed in the other direction that I didn't realize how much she was suffering.
Finally she spoke up. "Can you take this bag for me?" she asked. Humiliated, I realized the great anguish in this woman's face. She was crippled to begin with and the bags loaded with heavy cans and cumbersome boxes were causing her more pain. I quickly lifted the bags off her frail arms and apologized for failing to do so earlier. Of course I couldn't tell her why I had been so negligent. I couldn't tell her that her odor was so off-putting that I wanted to be as far away from her as possible. Inside I felt horrible. In a lame attempt to make myself more comfortable I had allowed this poor woman to be more uncomfortable.
Number 31 and I made our way to the end of the food pantry offerings. She was winded from the short stroll (and unnecessary carrying of heavy bags).
"How are you getting your groceries home?" I asked.
"My car... I have a car. It's just a few spaces down the road." She told me.
"Let me carry them out for you."
I couldn't undo my selfishness and thoughtlessness of just a few minutes ago but I could try to redeem myself and show this woman that she was special, cared for and valued. She accepted my offer and the two of us walked toward the door. As we were walking over the threshold, about to take the single step down onto the pavement she looked up at me. She was practically in tears and her voice choked on her words. "I had such a terrible day yesterday and'm not doing much better."
"I think you're doing great." I told her. I didn't know what else to say. I didn't know what was causing her body such distress but I just knew that something was physically ailing her. I couldn't make it better but I could encourage her that she was an over-comer. 
The woman looked up and gave me a faint smile. Somehow in that moment number 31 didn't stink any longer. The odor that had struck me so forcibly was gone. All I saw and smelled was a sweet child of God, precious and loved.
We made it to the car and I placed her bags inside. She gave me a heartfelt, genuine "thank you" and that was it. She got in her car; I went back to the food pantry and we both went on with our days. I wish I would have asked for her name or introduced myself but in that brief encounter the thought didn't even cross my mind. I went from being consumed with a smell to being overwhelmingly convicted by my lack of consideration.

As I made my way through the line with more visitors to the food pantry I realized the magnitude of what had happened with number 31. In that brief encounter God revealed to me a priceless truth of His character. God - perfect, spotless and smelling of sweet roses - looks upon you and me and loves us dearly. Even when we wreaked of sin and were clothed in filthy rags of rebellion, God loved us. You and I are valuable to God and He cherishes us. Each one of us is of precious value to Him. God doesn't look at us and see a terrible sinner or our past transgressions. He looks at us and sees who we are in Christ - redeemed, saved, made new, reborn.
Before we ever loved God, He loved us. It is that truth written in 1 John 4:19 that makes it possible for me to stand in the presence of number 31 and not smell her unwashed clothes. It is because God loved me first that I can love others. God loved me before I acknowledged Him, knew Him and repented of my sin against Him. God loved me so much that He gave up His Son's life to save me. Why? Because I am precious in His sight and so is His beloved number 31.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The purpose of true patience

The traffic light never gave me a green arrow to make a right hand turn.
In the checkout line at the grocery store I happened to pick the slowest moving line.
The hot water for my morning shower failed to heat up.
A girl in the gym kept snatching away the machines I was using in-between sets.
The dog pooped on the floor...again.

Today just seems to be one of those days. At every turn my patience has been put to the test. It is on days such as these that a private island sounds mighty fine.

I will admit to suffering from a shortage of patience. Please tell me I'm not alone in this ailment? I want to be patient. I long to be patient. I know patience is a virtue - and a delightful virtue at that! Who doesn't love a patient, slow-to-anger person? I see the value in patience and yet I am slow to master the principle. Be it in the grocery store line or in waiting for physical healing, my patience is often in too short a supply. Sure, I stick it out in the grocery line and wait my turn to purchase my items. I've waited for years for healing that has yet to come. But the simple act of waiting doesn't equal patience. Patience isn't just sticking it out. Patience is waiting with joy.

In my experience patience is an easily misunderstood word. If you've put up with any situation at all you are deemed "patient." I believe the standard for patience is much higher than getting through the annoyances, difficulties and long lines of life. The characteristic of patience is appropriately used when it is describing a person who exhibits peace, rest and contentment in the midst of the wait, long before the light at the end of the tunnel (or checkout) is even visible.
Patience is on full display in the life of a woman battling an incurable illness while wearing a smile and sharing kind, uplifting words to friends and family.
Patience is on display in the congested traffic while a driver sits, idle behind the wheel of their car singing to their favorite tune and dancing in their seat instead of counting the minutes tick by on the clock.
Patience is seen in the teacher who lovingly encourages the one student in the class who keeps struggling to understand the basic math principles that all the other students have already mastered.
Patience can be as simple as choosing to flip through a magazine in a long check-out line instead of staring down the conveyer belt, tapping your (my) foot and checking the time every thirty-two seconds.
Patience isn't a virtue that is magically attained. It is a decision, an act of obedience. You and I can choose to be impatient or we can choose to be patient. We can choose to be filled with joy or we can choose to let annoyances and life's disturbances get the better of us.
If we are going to follow the directive given in the Bible then we will choose to be patient out of obedience to God. The scriptures make it quite clear, "be patient in tribulation." (Romans 12:12). When anything - be it physical, emotional or spiritual - comes upon us that causes us to grow weary and antsy our go-to attitude, if we are obeying Christ, is to be patience and wait it out with hope and joy.
The great promise of patience is that it produces character. We are made stronger in faith when our patience is cultivated. It is in the waiting that our foundation built on Christ is made firmer and more stable. During the wait is when our hope is increased and made manifest.
Some days patience is going to feel like a struggle but it is worth the effort to overcome the struggle. Patience is a display of love and unity with Christ that pleases God and brings Him glory. When we are patient we are more like Christ and are united with Him more intimately. There is always a purpose in the pursuit of patience. God is using the tests of patience to mold us, shape us and make us more like Christ and less like the foot-tapping, heavy-sighing impatient woman (or man) in the grocery store checkout line.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Silver Birthday

Twenty five. That's how many years I've been alive as of today. Yes, that's right. Today is my silver anniversary of birth. I know that precious metal celebrations are usually reserved for wedding anniversaries but I'm not married and might never be so I'm instituting precious metal symbolism into the anniversary of my birth.
Most birthdays, at least most birthdays since I've been over the age of fifteen, haven't felt like that big of deal. I wake up feeling the same as I did when I went to sleep. Aside from a cake and family get together I've never wanted to make a big fuss over my birthday. Nor have I gotten emotional over being a year older.
I don't intend to come across as a scrooge who doesn't enjoy merriment and celebration. I love to bake cakes for family birthday parties and I'm the loudest "happy birthday" singer in the crowd, I just don't make much of my own birthday. I don't require a special hat with the words "birthday girl" inscribed along the brim or a special sash made of bright colors and an abundance of sparkles and feathers. I'm more of a low-key type birthday girl.
Given my uneventful adult birthday past you may be surprised to find that my twenty fifth birthday has felt monumental. Surprised? Me too. I didn't expect to feel much of anything when I woke up this morning but somehow, for some reason the number "twenty five" hit me and gave me pause. Twenty five years is a quarter of a century. Twenty five years is the silver anniversary. Twenty five years is a big deal! Married couples celebrate with parties or special trips. They give each other gifts made of this precious metal. They receive cards displaying the sentiment, "Like silver, may your marriage continue to shine in splendor and radiance all of your days as you grow old together." Clearly, twenty five is a big deal. It is precious, just like silver.
Of course, every birthday and each day lived is precious. God doesn't make "throw away days" or "throw away birthdays" that are meaningless or unimportant. Yet, in all honesty, how many of us treat each day as if it were precious and worthy of celebration? I know I don't. But today on this twenty fifth birthday I stopped and took an account of my life and here's what I determined : It is precious. It is worth celebrating. Not because of anything I've done but because of what God has done and continues to do each day.
Over the past year God has proven to me just how precious I am by sustaining my body. At this very time last year I was slipping further into a flare up of multiple sclerosis. That flare up would last nearly eight months, stripping me of strength and even jeopardizing my ability to see. But God protected me and saw me through that ordeal. During nights when I thought my body was giving out in the middle of severe hot flashes and extreme muscle spasms, God preserved me. He did not carry me through all that pain and suffering for nothing. I was spared for a purpose. I was spared because I am precious to God.
Like silver, God has been polishing me. He has spent the last twenty five years polishing me and getting me ready for...only He knows what. That is the great mystery of being in the care of God. He has plans for you and me but He doesn't reveal them while He is preparing us for them. We simply must trust that all the uncomfortable rubbing, the years of being set apart in a drawer, the time spent in preparation, has a purpose.
God is getting me ready for the plans He has for me. Good, perfect, amazing plans. I'm twenty five years into that plan and every year it just gets more interesting and more unexpected. Every year there is a new layer to the cake, a new piece to the puzzle and new evidence that I am precious to God. Some days this polishing process is uncomfortable but in the end I know it is for my good because I am a treasured piece of silver in the hands of God and He is making me beautiful in His time.

Monday, April 6, 2015

My low, His High

I believe that it is when we are at our lowest that God can display His highest. This is a truth I am abundantly thankful for and one that I am holding onto with a death grip this morning.
Low is a kind word for my current state of physical being. As has been my dilemma for the past five years, my body's ability to understand what to do with food, how to digest and process it and most importantly, use it, is at one of its all-time lows. For the past week I have been in a state of severe malabsorption and the affects are taking a toll on my already tiny body. It doesn't take many days of malabsorption to start stripping away at the little cushion I have left. Already I have seen the gains I made disappear and the bones on my back reappear. It is beyond discouraging to have no control over such fundamental processes of the body like digestion, absorption and weight. One day my body will be processing food at least semi-normally and then, as if a switch goes off, the whole system is thrown into a state of fritz and my body has no idea how to handle its energy source. My body takes a nose dive as a result.
For me, this is what low feels like. Not everyone will experience low in this form. Having low be a low number on the scale, low energy level and low vibrancy of health is a very visible, physical low. I used to lament that this was my case of "low" because it is so unpredictable. I never know when the next shoe is going to drop, so to speak, and so I live with a perpetual question mark following me around like a shadow.
When the lows do hit I become a former shell of myself. I lose my energy and will to be active and involved in life. I go from wanting to volunteer, serve and be out around people, to wanting nothing more than alone time and separation from the outside world. Even the idea of being out mingling with people is enough to give me anxiety. I just don't have the energy to put on a smile and be the lively, spunky Stephanie that my friends and family once knew. When I'm low, I'm too low to pull that girl out of me. So instead I retreat into a shell like a hermit and wait out the storm.
And wait I do. Wait I have. Wait I will. Because waiting seems to be the name of this high-low game.
But back to what I said - I "used" to lament this low. I don't lament it anymore. At least, I don't wish it away or beg God to replace it with a low of a different color. I've learned that God uses my low to show His height. When I become this weak He always shows up to show me how strong He is. As difficult as these times of life are they have turned out to be seasons of deep intimacy with God and beautiful insights into who He is. He has used my lows to show up and show Himself and remind me that I am not wasting away into nothing, that He has me in the palm of His hand and somehow, miraculously, He will sustain me. And He has. He has this whole time.
If you were to have me step on a scale my weight would shock you. I'd even bet that you'd be trying to get me into the nearest car, bound for the nearest hospital. But I would use what little weight I have to fight back against any such transportation to any such destination. Because I am already under the care of the Great Physician. I know that to the outside world that might sound crazy and I must admit that sometimes it sounds crazy to me, too. How can this be care when I'm suffering? Maybe Paul asked the same question of God when he had a thorn in his flesh. But did that mean God wasn't protecting and sustaining Paul? Of course not. God carried Paul through hostile territories and saved him from prison and dictators who wanted him dead. And God did it all while Paul had a thorn in his flesh.
Far be it from me to tell God what I can and cannot handle. He knows me better than I know myself. I would have never in my wildest dreams (or nightmares) imagined that I could be alive and even somewhat active at this weight. If someone would have told me six years ago that this would be my weight today and that I would be able to run and help prepare Easter dinner for my family and volunteer at the City Mission every week I would have told them they were crazy. "At that weight I'd be dead!" I'm sure that would have been one of the forms of my response. But I'm not dead. I'm alive. I'm alive because God is sustaining me for a purpose. He has not brought me this far for nothing. He has not kept this tiny little being going for kicks! I was created with love and with a reason for being. God has a big plan for this little woman. The smaller I get, the bigger the plan because there will be more glory for God.
What glory is there for God if man never needed God's help? If I weren't dependent on God what testimony would that be to His greatness? To be of use to God I must be in great, dire need of God. And Heaven knows I am. For my every breath I am in great need. I am in dire need of God to show up every morning or else I don't believe I will be getting up. Apart from God I am literally nothing. Even when I am in these states of low I am being made stronger by being brought into a deeper dependence on God. I am learning how to lean entirely on Him. I have no where else to lean. I can't depend on myself. I can't even make my body absorb its food! I am helpless. But I am in the care of the Great Helper, Sustainer and Friend. God has taken care of me for almost twenty five years and He isn't done yet. These days I might be feeling low but I am resting in the peace of the Most High God.