Monday, August 24, 2009

Christmas Comes Early

Here's a true story I wrote for the Christmas donation drive at our church that is already in its early planning stages.

Christmas was just around the corner, but not all were joyful.

While most families were busy writing letters to Santa, wrapping presents to place under a twinkling tree, and decorating homes with evergreen wreaths, candy canes and festive bows, Thomas and Shirley Brown were wondering where their four children would lie down to sleep on Christmas Eve.

The year had been a devastating one. He lost his job first and then she did. Every job search ended with the same polite rejection: Thanks but no thanks. The family savings account was soon depleted and all other resources became exhausted quickly thereafter. And then one day the couple’s worst fears were realized – news came that they had lost their home. They had only a short while left to vacate the house where they had hoped to share one more Christmas morning.

In a short span of only a few months, the Browns went from two gainfully employed parents of four to jobless, homeless, and practically hopeless.

The parents had already explained to their children, ages three to twelve years old, that Christmas morning was going to be very different this time around. All were prepared to find fewer gifts under the tree, if any. If there was even to be a tree. That couldn’t be decided until the family knew where they would wake up December 25th.

That question was faithfully answered one day when Thomas made his way to a Christian ministry seeking help for his family. Entering the Norcross Cooperative Ministry, he sat down and shared their story, he and his wife’s fears, and his tears.

The staff at the Ministry listened, and quickly, through them, the heart of Christ poured out onto the Brown family. They were provided with temporary housing, food, a means to purchase the basic necessities, and an abundance of love and support. That evening the Browns were overcome with relief and agreed that their prayers had been answered. Yet little did they know that more love was about to come their way.

As it turned out, the Ministry had been thinking about the children’s Christmas morning too. They set about finding others to sponsor the Brown family for Christmas, making sure the hardship the parents had endured until then would not crush the joy of Christmas for the children.

Soon people began to respond to the Ministry’s request, bringing gifts wrapped and labeled with the Brown’s children’s names. Some people brought one gift, others brought several. Some gifts were just what the children needed. Other gifts were just what most children their ages dreamed of owning.

Shirley had to make two trips in order to take home all the Christmas gifts that had been donated for her children.

As she hid the gifts from view, she thought not of the abundance of presents her children would eagerly tear open in a few days, but of the abundance of love and compassion that had been shown to them by the Ministry and the people who support it. When the last box had been put away, she thanked God for His blessings, and then thought of something she knew she must do Christmas morning. There was something she needed to tell her children.

On Christmas morning the children sprung out of bed and, wide-eyed with surprise when they saw what was beneath their tree, ripped through wrapping paper to find new clothing, books, toys and games. “A bike!” the youngest shrieked, “A new coat!” the only daughter marveled. Quickly the room was filled with the sounds of a train set, video games and cheerful words of disbelief about how wonderful Christmas had turned out after all.

That was when Shirley pulled her children near and told them of the generosity that others had bestowed upon them. She pointed to their gifts and explained that the spirit of Christmas isn’t about receiving, but about giving. She explained that giving at Christmas is a symbol of the love that Jesus Christ first extended to all of us through his work on the cross.

This year as the season approaches again the Brown family knows where they will wake up Christmas morning. And the children are already thinking about what gifts they will donate to others through the Norcross Cooperative Ministry.

In the Brown family, the Spirit of Christmas is alive and well.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Easy and Breezy

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.

OK, just finished reading Book II of Psalm last night, on to Book III later today. I’ve been surprised to see the range of emotion in Psalm; before now I’ve only know the verses as gentle praise poems but now I see they are so much more. My mind isn’t sharp enough to allow me to remember any more than Psalm 23, but at least I’ve dog-eared a number of pages in my Bible I can scan back over in case I need something else to suit an occasion.

Speaking of memorizing verses, I joined a men’s discipleship group Monday night and agreed to meet with seven other guys every Monday evening for two hours to talk about God. We are using a three (3!) year curriculum that was developed by our Lead Pastor. It requires homework, which includes memorizing a new verse each week. I’m hoping for a B in this class.

Cameron and I are going to a half-day retreat this coming Saturday. We are meeting all the other mentoring relationships in our church at a ropes course and will spend the day hanging upside down from a rappelling rope with our legs and delicates all cinched up and slowly dying from the lack of blood circulation. Should be lots of fun. Now that school is in session again I won’t be seeing him as much so we’ll just have to have quality time when we are together. To me that means more talking, to him it means more fried chicken and louder movies. Such is the man-boy relationship paradigm.

Almost finished with my two new books; the daughter book has been turned in and content for the son book has been completed and I have only three more photos to go. I hope to have those scheduled later today. Whew! It has been a whirlwind finding new families to pose, schedule the photos and get them to the publisher on time! But as always, God provides.

Speaking of books, I’ve been keeping a little secret. I’ve actually been working on three new manuscripts. I’ve completed my first distinctively Christian book and it is now on a desk of a reviewer of the largest Christian literature publisher in the world. At one time I prayed for the success of my new books. This time I’m simply praying that God will inspire me to write a book that someone cannot walk away from, a book that glorifies Him. If the publisher doesn’t want it, I’ll conclude it needs more work, that God wants me to improve the message. I’ll gladly do that work. Success or not, I just want the Father to know that I know that to Him goes all the credit; I am merely His scribe.

Oh my gosh, school is back in session isn’t it. I can tell because we attended the first lacrosse team meeting last night, an activity which immediately seized three afternoons of our weekly schedule, and Linley hasn’t even had a cheerleading meeting yet! It scares Jill that little bit will be driving in five months; I wish it were tomorrow.

I had a great interview with a family that has been generously and faithfully served by a Christian ministry during the last several months. Tune in tomorrow for their story.

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!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Servant Ryan

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.

I share the following with you with Ryan’s permission. This post is based on his candid interview for my other blog.

“I have to begin with my testimony. God, in His redeeming love, has taken my experiences and used my brokenness to help His Kingdom to come,” he says. “I was raised in a Christian home, in the church all the time and singing at the podium alongside my mother. But at an early age I became principally motivated by performance and approval, which soon led to lying, cheating and other bad behaviors designed to enhance my performance and win approval.

Over time I began to associate with people who praised me for acting wild and crazy, and inevitably I turned away from the Lord and began experimenting with drugs and alcohol. I was less interested in performing for God than I was for the people I had surrounded myself with.

Between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five I suffered numerous legal consequences for my conduct, yet I continued to do the things I was doing. My sin caught up with me in 2001 when I was sent to prison for five years. It was in prison that I met a fellow who was bringing the Gospel to the inmates. He looked at me and said ‘It is not an accident that you are here. God has been pursuing you, he disciplines those he loves.” I realized then God had been pursuing me all along and that only He could fill my emptiness. That prison ministry and a prison chaplain poured their love and discipleship into me, and when I was paroled two years after entering prison I eagerly returned to the church.”

A grin crossed Ryan’s face as he flexed. “You could say I went from rebellion to religion.”

But the pull of rebellion against God’s will can be strong, and within a year Ryan reacquainted himself with old friends and relapsed.

“I found myself doing everything I had vowed to God that I would never do again. But my small group and Celebrate Recovery helped me through that time and helped me to finally understand that I didn’t need to be burdened by the motives of performance and approval, that God’s love, mercy and grace were what would save me. It was then, with their help, that I began to free myself from all my secrets and shame.

My mother and other supporters urged me to find an opportunity to serve so I began volunteering for The Bricks. There I began to tell my story, and at every turn I was met with acceptance and affirmation. God began to call on me to use my experiences in positive ways. He had healed me and was then asking me to come alongside others who were broken to tell them about His redeeming love. I quit my job and came to work in an internship with The Bricks and eventually the Jr. High ministry.

Three years later, after much prayer and encouragement, I decided to form my own ministry. I wanted to share the Gospel with kids who were headed down the same destructive path I had traveled not once but twice.”

Ryan began to share with leadership at Perimeter his vision of a ministry targeting troubled and at risk youth. It took him only three months to raise enough funds to establish and operate Pathways for an entire year.

Ryan describes Pathways as a support group ministry for kids in crisis. The teens who turn to him and others at Pathways for acceptance and understanding include those engaged in a wide variety of self-destructive behaviors and/or who are tormented by the emotional challenges they face at that juncture in their lives.

“Our goal is to help them discover their relationship with God and then their unique purpose and calling,” he said.

I once enjoyed a healthcare career that lasted over twenty years, much of that spent in the fields of mental health and rehabilitation. Teens were my favorite population to work with. I was their favorite therapist – when I was young, gritty and believable when I said “I’ve been there too.” That was back when I looked a lot like Ryan.

Alas, I became less favored as the years passed, when in a teen’s eyes I began to look more like a fossil than an understanding soul.

It is from that perspective that I say Ryan is perfect in his role at Pathways. Just as God had foreseen all along.

How can you take your experiences, good and bad, and use them in God’s service? Ask, and He will help you find a way.

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!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Book News

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.

At the request of a blog fan, here’s the scoop on my two new books. They are parallel books, one written for daughters, one for sons, each similar to the other but with gender appropriate language to distinguish them. Although titles have not been finalized, they will be something close to “A Letter to My Daughter” and “A Letter to My Son.”

Unlike my other books which have been a list of reason explaining the title, e.g. “Why a Daughter Needs a Dad,” or chapters that are really short stories conveying a morale, “Daddy’s Little Girl,” the Letter books are just what you might think, a letter of love, hope and fond memories that any parent might write to his/her son or daughter. Each is accompanied by black and white photos of parents interacting with their sons or daughters.

Here’s a short sample from the introduction of the son book, which explains why even though I do not have a son, I was led to write such a book:

“And now all these years later, years of saving, watching, waiting and praying, I still have high hopes and big dreams for the children in my home. I am not unique on that aspect of parenting, I’m sure. But as I’ve mentioned, one aspect of my parenting is different from the experience of many other parents. I do not have a son.

I’ve wondered what my life might have been like if I had also had a hand in raising a boy. When I’ve written about parent-son relationships it has always been from my perspective as a son, never as a parent of a son. When I’ve wanted to put myself in the shoes of a father of a son, I’ve thought of my dad and his relationships with his four sons, or my male cousins and their sons. Yet I know that this exercise has its limits. I’ve never taught a boy how to throw a football, catch a fish, start a lawnmower, or to be a gentleman.

Until now.

I’ve recently been blessed with the companionship and admiration of a twelve year old boy named Cameron. I am his mentor and he is my young, very male, friend. We watch movies with more explosions than dialogue, discuss cars, technology and girls (in that order), repair bicycles, work in the yard, and yes, I’m schooling him in the ways of chivalry.

I’m loving our time together; he’s giving me something my life might have otherwise gone with out – the pleasure and challenge of helping to raise a boy into a man. And as is the case with my girls, I want nothing more than to bring my best to that effort. I want him to be happy, do well, go far, and to remember me.”

I haven’t heard from my editor yet on whether or not I will need to revise this, but I’m pretty sure the end result will be very close to what I’ve described here.

Thanks for asking Michelle!

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!

Monday, August 10, 2009

And Words Came

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.

You may remember that in the past I have written of my anxiety about praying out loud in front of others. I say in front of others because I don’t mind talking out loud to God when I am alone, even though I’m sure someone has sat in a car next to me at a red light convinced that they were watching a fool. Who knows how many times I’ve been the subject of a dinner conversation that began with “Today I saw this guy…”

Anyway, during the last six months I’ve had more and more opportunities to pray out loud in front of others and the task is coming more and more easily to me, especially in deciding on the spot just what to say. The irrational fear of my brain freezing is now gone and I’ve realized that not once in my lifetime have I ever heard anyone say “Dude, your prayer really sucked,” so I’ve been patting myself on the back with congratulations that I was now a pray out loud kind of guy.

But then I was thinking I’d be praying out loud only every once in a while.

As it turns out, that is not what God had in mind for me.

This past Saturday was another Movers and Shakers ministry day; Cameron and I worked five hours on a team delivering or picking up donated furniture. The day begins at the warehouse where we load the necessary items on a truck and then head out to make deliveries to needy families, then go from home to home picking up furniture someone has donated, and take it back to the warehouse for later distribution.

As always, the ministry leader prayed over us as we prepared to depart, and then reminded us that we were to pray with the families at each stop we were scheduled to make that day. That’d be seven stops on this particular Saturday.

It seems an unspoken rule has somehow evolved over time: the younger guys do most of the heavy lifting while the oldest guy says the prayers. Usually I am not the oldest volunteer on any given day; there has always been at least one volunteer somewhat older than me working on my team.

But this Saturday was different. I was the old fart.

We were at our first stop carrying a queen mattress up a flight of stairs, me walking backwards, when the guy on the other end of the mattress said, “Hey, why don’t you handle the prayers.” If I’d seen that coming I might have chosen to carry the small end table. It least I wouldn’t have had to climb a set of stairs backwards.

So I, duly appointed by tradition, prayed for the families, donors and volunteers at each stop. The first one came easy; as I’ve pointed out, I was well accustomed to talking with God out loud by then. It’s just that I’d never had so many conversations with Him in the same day, at least not outside the comforts of my own head.

I was worried that I’d run out of things to say, that my team would get tired of listening to me repeat myself, that Cameron would interrupt me in front of everyone and say “Dang, you’ve already said that three times bro!”

But to my surprise, a new prayer came to mind each time we bowed our heads. All I did was ask the person at each stop what they’d like me to pray about, and each time a specific prayer request was given. After that, words simply just came.

So what did I learn that day? That even at the age of forty-nine years, six months and one day, I can still walk backwards up a flight of stairs while carrying a mattress, Cameron never loses his appetite for Shrimp Fried Rice, and when you are willing to do the Lord’s work, he shows up and helps you get it done.

BTW, Cameron earned his Movers and Shakers tee-shirt! He’s worked alongside me for that ministry on two different weekend days. Not bad for a twelve year old!

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!

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Head almost above water...

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.

Wow, it feels like it has been forever ago since I last wrote on this blog. I can’t believe I’ve been so busy in recently. Let me recap:

As I suspected, the doctor said I'm still deaf in my right ear. Oh well, I'm sure how this fits in with His plan will one day become clear to me. In the meantime, I sure am grateful to have one ear in excellent condition.

Jill went back to work in her classroom yesterday at the end of a mad dash we made to do all the things we had hoped to do before summer closed. Among them, we saw the Monet and Henry Moore exhibits, rearranged a few rooms in the house, took a few same day trips to hike in the woods at different state parks, and managed to squeeze in watching a few foreign films while cuddled on the sofa.

We also got Meagan moved into the home she now shares with two other students at UGA, and toted Linley all over Atlanta attending to the research assignments she was supposed to complete for her AP History class before the first day of school. And a pat on the back for Linley – she has recruited a young teen living down the street to go to church with us this Sunday.

Jill and I also delivered a truck full of book bags and school supplies that we collected during a week from the generous neighbors in our ‘hood. Thank you residents of Sweet Bottom Plantation (that really is the name of our little corner of the world)!

I’ve completed two new ministry interviews and have a third tomorrow, all of which I need to write up and post on the church blog, and then I move on to writing copy for our Christmas giving guide.

Cameron and I were able to take a few field trips in the last few days of summer, and this weekend we are spending a day delivering donated furniture to the poor. I’m trying to spend as much time with him as I can before he returns to school next week. I also mentioned him in one of the new books. I hope he likes what I had to say.

An aside – did you hear the latest Politically Correct bunk on Fox news this morning? Apparently a gang of textbook publishers run amuck have decided to ban a few words from new editions of textbooks. For example, I can no longer say “I am a upper middle class, able-bodied white American delivering donated furniture to the poor.” Instead, according to the knuckleheads exposed on Fox, if I were writing a textbook I would say “I am a non-disabled person of the United States now living above the poverty line and representing a race historically in the majority who is sharing furniture with those who are currently living at or below the poverty line.” OMG, gag me with a spoon!

OK, back on track – I’ve been meeting weekly with my Stephen Ministry care-receiver and I’m hopeful for him that our prayers are on the verge of being answered.

I’ve completed the first rough drafts of the two new books I have due, and am now only eight photos away from completing the photography portion of those projects. Thanks, God, for giving me these two new opportunities to share my thoughts on paper with the public. You have blessed me abundantly.

My Vietnamese neighbors are, I believe, reasonably settled into their new home. I haven’t been called upon to explain thermostats, fire alarms, sprinkler systems or homeowners associations for some time now. As I learned from my friends at World Relief, while it was like helping refugees, I was fortunate that my neighbors spoke English reasonably well. Imagine what a challenge it would be if that were not the case.

I am still reading Psalm, admittedly at somewhat a slower pace than what I’d like but I can’t help it given the pace of recent weeks. As soon as I finish the books I’m sure I can catch up in my reading and be back on track to finish reading the Bible before the end of the year.

One last thing. Wearing my freelance journalist hat, I recently interviewed a widow about her recently deceased husband. A scholarship has been created in his name and the sponsor of that scholarship wanted a profile story on the gentleman. As our conversation became more personal, she told me of how in his last moments she laid her head on his chest and recited Psalm 23. We cried when we prayed together at the end of our talk. Wow, it is powerful when you witness the depth of someone else’s faith.

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!