Monday, July 27, 2009

They're Back

This is an account of my efforts to put into action what I learn while reading the Bible, an account of my journey to become closer to God.

Yep, that’s me proving that old white men can jump, but one could debate whether the demonstration was a necessary addition to the knowledgebase. That’s Meagan cracking up alongside me.

So I’m back in the saddle again, or at the very minimum, behind my desk. Funky, ugly stomach bug has moved on to more fertile pastures and Jill and I are eating solid foods again. Not so sure that is a good thing though because after not having a normal appetite for a week even a leather shoe looks edible!

In spite of the bug, somehow we managed to rally and enjoy ourselves at the beach with family (we didn’t pass the bug around, told all my kissin’ cousins they had to wait ‘til Thanksgiving). Twenty-one people in four condos for eight days! Highlights: Got to spend a few days with Meagan, Linley feeding stingrays and a giraffe at the Jacksonville Zoo, 1125 miles and no speeding tickets, I accomplished obtaining five photos for the new book (that means I took nearly 400 to find these five perfect ones), finished a good first draft that I’ll show to Jill later today, one great discussion in the shade between a Baptist, Presbyterian and an Episcopalian, and I managed to hack each of the girls off only once. A new world record!

Ministry updates: We are sponsoring a back-to-school drive for the homeless children of Atlanta (estimated population: 3600 children) and our neighbors have been dropping off backpacks, notebooks, calculators and all the rest for a few days now. We are collecting through Friday and I hope to have an SUV full of goodies to take to the collection center. Thank you neighbors!

Remember the Project Kids Eat ministry I featured a few weeks ago? They mentioned they were in need of books so I made a few calls to my publishers and made the ask. When we arrived home from the beach I found a huge box of books on our front porch. Can’t wait to deliver them! Thanks Sourcebooks!

It has been a year since I had sudden hearing loss in one ear. Yes, I’m left eared. So I go see a new ENT later this week so make sure the good ear is still working as it should, and to inquire about new developments that might restore a bit of hearing in the right ear. Fingers crossed.

Still reading Psalm. With my writing deadlines looming, I’ve read a little less each day than usual, but I’m still plugging along.

Well that’s about all I can say this morning. Now on to tackle the stack of mail on my desk, pay the bills and attend to all the rest that old, fat white jumping men attend to each day.

Thanks so much for visiting my blog, and please pray for me and my family. Now go out and hug somebody!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Between Barely Living and Nearly Dead

And that’s just about how we all feel in my household. Linley came home from camp a week early with a bad bug, and within 24 hours Jill and I got it. No energy, can’t eat, and worse, nothing good to watch on television (our cable box blew up in a storm and I haven’t had the strength to pull the cabinet away from the wall to remove it). I haven’t even written a word this week until now.

But I have been busy doing service, although a bit slower than usual. Jill and I are sponsoring a book bag/school supply drive in our neighborhood for the children in Atlanta’s homeless shelters (school resumes in just two weeks!), I’m talking with potential sponsors for the Good Samaritan Annual Banquet, and have spent time with Cameron, albeit at a safe distance.

I’ve also spent a little time each day helping our new neighbors from Vietnam. I didn’t realize how difficult it is to get anything done without a social security number. Even though they are here on Visas it has been nearly impossible to get utilities turned on in their new home. Can you imagine taking a cold shower every morning for two weeks? But we cleared that hurdle this morning so hopefully their gas will be turned on very soon.

It’s been a little comical, helping the Ngo family, I must say. Try explaining central air cooling and thermostats to someone who speaks broken English, or lawn sprinklers and water restrictions, or chirping smoke detectors in need of new batteries, or automatic ice makers. But they keep smiling and saying thank you with such appreciation that I’m sure I’ll be over their again one balmy morning to tell them again, “No you don’t turn it off, you just raise the temperature….”

Assuming we survive our medical condition, we are all going to the beach next week. If we have Wi-Fi in the condo I’ll write to tell you about the trip. If not, then I’ll chat with you again on the 27th!

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Garden Project

Wow, this is post number 650!

Looking for something substantive to do with C., the young boy I mentor, I spied the Willis House Garden Project in the bulletin one Sunday. Reasoning all boys like playing in the dirt, I made arrangements to meet Claire Dees at the garden one recent afternoon. C. and I were to help weed the garden and hopefully harvest a few ripe tomatoes.

It turns out C. was excited about my plans for us and even asked if he could bring along a friend. The three of us made our way to the Willis House, a personal care home operated by Hi-Hope, an organization providing employment and residential services to adults with developmental disabilities. Pulling onto the driveway of the home off Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road, we immediately saw the garden in a far corner of the backyard. The tomato bushes bore so much fruit they nearly doubled over to the ground.

We were climbing out of the car at the same time a minivan was unloading; two moms and six young children gathered in the parking lot and were greeted by Dave, a resident of the Willis House. After hugging each of the children he made his way over to us and quickly offered to show us the garden. “I don’t know what everything is, but it sure is growing,” he said.

Moments later Dave, the two young men with me, and I stood on the edge of the garden admiring the tomatoes, squash and cucumber plants. About then Claire, Perimeter’s liaison to the Disabilities Outreach Ministry, appeared and put us to work. The younger children, who had been to the garden before, quickly dropped to their knees and began pulling weeds from the soil. Cameron and I pulled weeds, tied tomato plants back, and drove a few stakes in the ground to help support the taller plants.

Eventually five residents were outside mingling among the volunteers and talking about current events, music, gardening, and asking questions in an effort to get to know C. and his friend. It turns out Dave, the gentlemen who initially greeted us, owns a Wii, and C., intrigued, asked to see it. It was then that I had the chance to talk with Claire and learn more about the Garden Project.

“It began as a Compassion In Action project five years ago,” she explained her history with the Willis House. “What was meant to be a one-time landscaping project turned into two annual landscaping projects, then several seasonal projects, to this,” she pointed to the garden. “And now we are here once a week most of the summer.” As she spoke the small children weaved between and around us, carrying handfuls of weeds to toss away. “The garden was my husband’s idea, and it has been a great way to get the little ones involved and teach them about serving others.”

I then remembered an email I received from Nicole, one of the moms working in the garden that day. She wrote:

“Little did I know when my children and I planted seeds in little pots this spring that we would end up being blessed beyond just harvesting vegetables. Our intentions had been to put our seeds in pots on our back patio and have a small garden of our own this summer. When we heard about the creation of a garden at the Willis House, we decided that would be where we could donate our plants, help the residents and still enjoy a garden experience.

I have been amazed at how much this experience has blessed our family. Our kids look forward to going each week and leave telling me how much fun they’ve had. They have grown out of their shells as they have begun to get to know each of the residents by name. We have had many discussions on the way home that centered on God's love for us and for others, how He has uniquely created each individual for His purposes, and why we are called to serve others. These discussions are what I have treasured most. Not only are they seeing the value of a garden, they are taking to heart the value of serving others for the cause of Christ.”

Unexpectedly, a storm suddenly blew in. Thunder and lightning loomed over us; we cut our gardening chores short and went inside the Willis House to continue our conversation. There Claire’s husband, Mark, stood over the sink washing a cucumber. In short order he peeled and sliced it, and passed it around on a plate. “Our first harvest,” he said. I had a bite and remembered that the food you grow with your own hands always tastes so much better than that you can buy in a store.

“He comes over all the time,” Claire pointed to her husband, “just to spend time with the guys. They love company.” As we talked further I learned that Claire and Mark have virtually adopted the Willis House residents, introducing not only landscaping and gardening, but movie nights and dinners out in the community, as well as a small team of other volunteers who bring their own interests and talents into the Willis House. The Dees have indeed brought a meaningful social life to these men where before they interacted mostly with their caregivers and an occasional visiting family member.

To my delight, C. wandered up and listened to my conversation with Claire. He even asked a few of his own questions about the residents and Claire and Mark’s work. Claire smiled at him and told him everything he wanted to know, as well as shared with him why she has chosen the Disabilities Outreach Ministry as her venue for serving Christ. She concluded with inviting us back whenever we wanted to visit, and especially if we wanted to help in the garden.

C., his friend and I washed the earth from our hands and soon made our departure. The young men shamelessly begged for pizza before going home, and I’m a sucker at heart so we found a place to eat, ran through the rain and piled inside a booth. As we were waiting for our pizza to come to the table, C.’s friend remarked that he felt bad for the Willis House residents. He thought that their lives were so limited in contrast to others. That was when C. elbowed him and told him to shut up.

Before I could scold C., he admonished his friend further. “Don’t you see,” he said, “their lives are filled with so much love. In a lot of ways they are luckier than a lot of people.”

The tomatoes were too green for picking that day so we left the Willis House empty-handed. But not really. C., I think, had an abundant harvest. Like Nicole, I, too, was blessed to see the young boy in my life leave the garden with an understanding not only of why we serve others, but also of the joy from doing so.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Joseph was a carpenter...

Something I just completed for Touched By Service:

Joseph was a carpenter; on this fact there is no dispute. We are less certain if Jesus was also a carpenter, but one can image that when in his youth he might have worked alongside his father helping to build a table or two.

I’ve always liked woodworking. I’m not skilled at the craft by any means, but I like to be around people who are. There is nothing quite like the smell of fresh cedar shavings just fallen from the planer or the way mahogany reacts to a good hand-rubbing of furniture wax.

My grandfather was a carpenter, and when I was a child he was also my hero. He could build anything from a stack of wood. He framed houses, built kitchen cabinets and created the finest heart of pine dining tables you’ve ever seen. The one in my home is over forty years old and I still give it a good coating of orange oil every now and then, just like he told me to. I count one of his hammers and handsaws among my most valued possessions.

Perhaps it is because of my love for my grandfather that I have so much respect for carpenters. It was with my grandfather in mind that I approached Harvey Anderson to ask him about the Home Repair Ministry.

Greg: Please tell me about the history of the Home Repair Ministry.

Harvey: It goes back to a time when I was working with a group that found homes which had been condemned by public construction projects and then moved them to new foundations and made them available to low-income urban families. Out of that effort grew the awareness of the need for repair work on existing homes in the neighborhoods where we were moving the condemned homes. The Home Repair Ministry (HRM) was founded to meet those and similar home repair needs. The ministry began in 2002 at Perimeter and since then we have formed home repair teams within many of the Unite churches in the northern arc of Atlanta.

Greg: So HRM doesn’t provide the labor to complete the repairs, but identifies the need, coordinates teams to meet those needs, and supervises the more complicated repair projects?

Harvey: Yes. A good example is a home in Roswell that was significantly damaged by a tornado. A number of trees had fallen on it and one went through the floor and into the basement. It was owned by a Palestinian Muslim widow from Jerusalem, and she was uninsured. Four church teams converged on her property and three months later we had completely rebuilt her home. In less complicated situations we simply point the nearest church team toward the project we have identified.

Greg: That must have been an interesting dynamic, a Muslim woman being taken care of by a group of Christian volunteers. How did she respond?

Harvey: She was overwhelmed by what we were willing to do for her. In spite of our cultural and religious differences, we had many meaningful exchanges. We were able to help her see why we minister, and that is to bring the Gospel. It was a good exercise for us too because the last thing we want to do is to minister only to Christians. We prayed for her and her family and were willing to take the conversation as far as she would permit it to go.

Greg: How many projects do you have in the works at the same time?

Harvey: Four or five, which sounds like a lot but actually I have to turn down an average of eight requests a week because the homes are in an area where we do not have church teams. That breaks my heart, to have to say no to a family that is inviting Christians to come to their homes. That’s why I spend so much time networking with the ministry leaders of other churches; we want to expand our reach into Atlanta proper.

Greg: And who exactly are you serving?

Harvey: For the most part we work with the poor, elderly and disabled, but if we get a referral from a church we don’t ask any questions. When Meals on Wheels calls and tells us about a home in disrepair, that’s all we need to hear. Having said that, though, we do exercise some discretion. We want to focus on serving the needy. We don’t want to deny our volunteers the opportunity to walk away from a job knowing they helped someone who truly needed to be helped.

Greg: Must one be a skilled craftsman to become a HRM volunteer?

Harvey: There is enough to do on most projects that we can keep unskilled people very busy. It also gives our skilled volunteers a chance to teach someone the trade and they enjoy doing that. We do, however, always have a need for volunteer electrical, heating and air, and plumbing professionals.

Greg: What about materials?

Harvey: We need both relationships with vendors who will give us the necessary materials and donors who will bless us with the money to acquire what hasn’t been donated. We do not have warehouse space so we don’t keep inventory; we have to get materials as we need them. What we need the most right now is shingles. We are hoping someone will volunteer to contact all the shingle manufacturers to ask if we can have their damaged bundles.

Greg: Tell me about one of the more memorable projects you’ve worked on.

Harvey: There was a family in north Georgia that fostered profoundly disabled children. For eighteen years they cared for a girl who was bedridden and dependent on a respirator. When she became an adult the state was going to place her in a nursing home but this family wouldn’t hear of it. However, the state wouldn’t let the girl stay because they had decided the home needed a fire escape. We became aware of the situation and were able to get several church teams and vendors together to build a second story deck, exit door and ramp so that the girl could be wheeled out if necessary. The state relented and she still lives with the only family she has ever known.

Greg: I’m sure working for HRM is a moving and rewarding experience for your volunteers.

Harvey: We have devotions before beginning work on every project because we want our volunteers to realize it’s not about getting God’s favor, it’s about responding to God’s favor. We are exposing people to need. So often we think there is no need in our nearby communities but when your eyes are opened to it, you want to help where you can. Finally, HRM is a great ministry for people who want to serve with their hands.

Greg: Do you have any prayer requests for HRM?

Harvey: We really want a volunteer in Atlanta to come forward and help us expand HRM into the urban churches. Also, we are going to build eight houses in Griffin in October and we need approximately $15,000 to purchase the lumber for each one. As you can image, this is a difficult time to be raising money. We are asking for God’s favor as we gear up for that large project.

At the end of our conversation and with the recorder turned off, I told Harvey about my grandfather and the dining table I’m so proud of. He smiled and then produced a photograph. It was of a baby bed. “My daughter sent me a picture of a bed and asked if I could make it,” he explained. “It’s for my ninth grandchild.” I looked and saw a beautiful piece of handcrafted furniture, made with love by a skilled craftsman.

There’s one thing I think I can say about all carpenters: when they work with their hands, they are doing something they love. And in the case of HRM volunteers, they are also sharing the love of Jesus Christ, one home at a time.

Catching My Breath

And that's just what I'm doing, catching my breath. I've been blessed with two new book contracts but both manuscripts are due in six weeks (and we're on vacation for ten of those days) so I've been writing and photogin' like crazy, and then there was the annual 4th celebration in our park (Jill, Meagan and I shown above in between BBQ and peach cobbler, we think sixty people attended but who's counting), Cameron is bored to death on summer break so he's keeping me busy at least twice a week, our new neighbors moved here from Spain and are needing a little handholding figurin' out the American way, AND I have a photo show opening this coming Friday and I'm not finished framing all the prints. On the one hand I see too much to do, but on the other, I remember that throughout it all I'm burning calories! Stay tuned, journey updates coming soon (yep, still readin the Good Book and doing the Work).

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

For Jill

This is an account of my efforts to put into action what I learn while reading the Bible, an account of my journey to become closer to God.

The morning came when I was to volunteer for Rainbow Village. They were moving their offices from the original location in Norcross to a new address in Duluth, and I had offered to help with the move. As I prepared to leave home I was pleasantly surprised by my wife’s offer to go along with me.

I was excited to have my wife accompany me. I wanted Jill to experience the same joy I feel when working with any one of the ministries I’ve come to know through Community Outreach. As we drove away from our home I imagined how she, a middle school teacher, would enjoy spending time talking with the children who call Rainbow Village home.

I have to admit that I was a little disappointed upon our arrival. There were no families in sight, no children eager to have an adult read to them or play a board game with them. The children arrive in the afternoon, we learned. Nevertheless Jill willingly worked alongside me, lugging out and stuffing large packed boxes with unknown contents into our SUV. We were to take them to the temporary storage unit a few miles away.

As we worked we repeatedly walked past empty classrooms and children’s art that decorated the walls, reminders of what I thought we were missing that day. I watched my wife smile as she began to sweat in the mounting heat and I was grateful she was there with me, even if she wouldn’t receive the same payoff I do when someone I’ve helped smiles at me and says “Thank you.” Another time, I thought, and grabbed another bulky box.

It was on our second trip to the storage unit when something unexpected happened. As we were unloading the boxes from the SUV and stacking them onto the rolling cart, we noticed for the first time what was within the boxes. “Gifts for Boys,” “Gifts for Girls,” “Board Games,” and the like, read the labels on the boxes. Suddenly we weren’t just shuttling office supplies from Point A to Point B; we were moving items intended for the children I had hoped we would encounter in the first place.

That was when the teacher and the mother in Jill took charge of the situation. The boxes I had heretofore placed on the storage shelves in random fashion were turned, labels facing outward, and grouped together according to their contents. In the case of boxes on which the labels had been placed on the top, Jill found a marker and relabeled those boxes, the contents clearly marked on the sides. She wouldn’t let us leave until she was satisfied that the boxes were shelved as neatly and orderly as possible.

We drove home a few hours later, a little dirty and a lot sweaty, and glad to have helped Rainbow Village – especially Jill.

I learned an important lesson that morning. So often the reason we make our choices about how and where to serve others is because we hope to gain something from the experience, be it recognition, personal satisfaction, warm smiles or warm cookies. And so less frequently, I suspect, do we serve where our efforts are unsung, when there is no one to hug you when you’re through, and no witness to your good deed.

That morning Jill worked tirelessly and with determination beneath the dim glow of an overhead bulb in an otherwise dark storage unit with only me to cheer her on. And the truth is I was rolling my eyes about how long she was taking to get the job done.

When she finally finished, she stood back, smiled, and admired her work. “Now they will know where to find what they’re looking for,” she said proudly.

It was then that my wife taught me that sometimes you serve simply because something needs to be done. It was then that my wife taught me that serving is never about being rewarded, but instead it’s about giving, even if the receiver isn’t within arm’s reach, or may never know what you’ve done.

Well, I guess that’s enough for today. Thanks so much for visiting my blog, and please pray for me and my family. Now go out and hug somebody!