- I want to spend as much time with my four children as they’ll allow. I’m aiming for a melange of Carol Brady, Claire Huxtable, Maria von Trap, Mother Mary, and Olivia Pope – praying that even a sliver of good in me can be majorly multiplied in them growing them into good, kind, compassionate, hard-working, self-less givers who are musical, wickedly smart, and forceful world changers.
- I want to be spending unhurried time over long lunches with friends who feel like they’re being trampled from the hurried masses, beaten down by the world’s injustices, or crushed by the pressures of a culture run amok – and simply listen. We’ve all got crap we’re dealing with – but we don’t often find good listeners with whom we can safely spew our crap. Dear Lord, make me a big crap loader.
- I want to walk Buddy, my Holy Spirit she-dog, through the trailer park and let all the children (some who, I fear, are bearing physical and emotional wounds from their tired, over-worked, and underpaid daddies) pet her and play with her and forget their troubles for just a few moments.
- I want to spend unsolicited coffee-time with my sweet and self-less mother-in-law who is slipping away slowly and barely remembers my name these days.
- I’m going to be all about letting my 12 year-old daughter climb up on my lap even though she is entirely too old to be doing that sort of thing, but entirely able because she is from Guatemala – a country where they just make smaller people.
- I want to drink wine with our friends until we’re giddy and foolish and we let some buried things bubble-forth and then we laugh and cry together as we realize this was the very therapy we needed.
- I want to take longer showers (My husband must be thinking: is that possible?) – but like most people, that’s where I get my best revelations. Often, I feel God reveals to me random people from my past which feels like a prompting to reconnect: Kathy Henderson from nursing school, Diane Marker from Davenport, Stephanie Saumon from Aix-en-Provence, Julie Jones and Stacey Johnson from Casablanca and countless others – where are you now, my sweet friends? And do you randomly think of me as often as I randomly think of you?
- I want to keep visiting our poorest of poor friends in Morocco and just sit with them, accepting their extravagant generosity, while we wrestle with the pain of how much we have and how much they have not. And loving them deeply, without necessarily fixing their problems.
- I’m going to keep a large bag of Snickers in my car at all times so I always have something to give a pan-handler. Since I am running out of time, it doesn’t look as if I’ll be able to solve the problem of poverty and homelessness in America – or for the rest of the world for that matter. And that beats the hell out of me because I so wish I could. But possibly, for this moment, on this day, for this one person, I can at least hope to spread a flicker of sunshine. Besides, who doesn’t love Snickers?
- I’m going to work hard at forgiving those who wounded me unintentionally. Harder yet – forgiving those who hurt me intentionally. And why stop there? I want to bless them, too.
- I’d like numerous fireside chats with our neighbors making time for sharing stories. But also watering their flowers, feeding their dogs, eating their cherry tomatoes, giving their kids popsicles – so they are much more than “the people with the white car”, but they are fellow sojourners whom we actually share life with on our little cul-de-sac in Hudsonville.
- I think I’ll watch more comedians. Brian Regan, Jim Gaffigan, Stephen Colbert (don’t judge) and Tim Hawkins – these will be some of my new friends. I just want to laugh, in a room full of people I love, because I think laughter is music to God’s ears. And bonus, I’ve heard a good hard belly-laugh can burn upwards of 100 calories.
- I’d like to keep working at my job at a psychiatric hospital – because I believe I have been called to serve the marginalized in society. I feel so honored and privileged to care for these misunderstood people – I’d even be willing to work there for free. And I now see how the soul begins to die when we stop serving others – which is a much worse death than the physical one.
- Because of that last one, I think I’ll return to the homeless shelter where I interned last year and start volunteering. I’ve never felt more alive than when I walked through those doors and breathed in deep the aroma of desperate need colliding with God’s love in action.
- I want to spend countless afternoons watching the sparkles accumulate on the lake as the sun descends in the sky, and then, because we’re too ensconced to get up and cook a proper meal, we’ll just throw all the food from both of our refrigerators onto the picnic table and feed all the kids left-over chicken wings, string cheese, a head of lettuce and a can of baked beans. I want to laugh and eat s’mores and drink wine around the campfire until our sides hurt too much from laughing and the mosquitos chase us away.
- I want to have ice cream for dinner – repeatedly throughout my remaining summers – buying about 20 gallons too many so that we can take all the extra gallons to the trailer-park to spread smiles.
- I want to spend time at my local nursing home and find out which residents never get any visitors. And I want to sit with those lovelies and let them talk endlessly about their childhoods, their children and grandchildren, their careers, their legacies – until they run out of stories or break into song with “How Great Thou Art”. I used to work there – I know how it goes.
- I want to pull out my memorabilia from high school and college and spend a whole day, or perhaps a whole week-end, with my high-school sweetheart, who both miraculously and graciously married me, and together read through all of our old hand-written love-letters to each other. And I want to revel in the beauty of 27 shared years. Twenty-seven. That’s a pretty big number when you’re talking years.
- I want to read a ridiculous amount of books. I know that seems contrary to what I said earlier about investing in others and not myself – but I also believe this truth: When we live out the life that God destined us to live and we become who He created us to be, He is glorified. He made me a reader and a writer. And when I read, I feel His pleasure.
- I want to plant trees. Is it just me or have others noticed that the trees are dying? When we returned from living in Morocco, I was hyper-aware of dead trees everywhere – way more than when we had left 4 years prior. I think it’s continuing to get worse. I think I’ll plant at least one tree for every year God gifts me here. At first, I felt like this one wasn’t an investment into people, but now I think it is.
- I want to hand-write cards expressing: “Thank-you”, “Way-to-go!”, “Congratulations!”, “Thinking of you”, “Praying for you”, “Sorry for your loss”, “Wish you were here”, ‘til my carpal-tunnel screams “No more!”
- If my lungs will allow, I want to take several trips to Guatemala or Honduras – two countries that are home to many people we know and love. And on these trips I want to take bunches of people who have never left the USA before, and introduce them to the “real world” and hope and pray that they get it, absorb it, and live differently because of it. That’s what changed us, anyway, and I’d love to keep paying that forward. Even though it wrecks you for good.
- I hope I’ll never watch another reality TV show – perhaps any TV show for that matter. I don’t find the point in it at all. Unless, of course, it is “24” with my husband and our two sons and we’re all death-gripping each other’s hands on the couch, or “Downton Abbey” with my two daughters curled up under the same blanket with me.
- I don’t know, but I think with only 10 years left, I’m going to give up dusting and vacuuming. Those two things seem equally pointless and just time-suckers – time better spent with people. I need to be about making a point. I bet they don’t dust and vacuum in the Congo. I’m contemplating throwing out cleaning toilets as well – but more undecided on that one. I still have nightmares about the toilets at Paul’s college residence after just ONE year with no cleaning… I swear I got bit in the butt once by some kind of toilet vermin.
- And I’m going to write that stinkin’ book. It doesn’t matter if it is ever published or even gets read for that matter, it just matters that our story gets told. We all have a story and they are all too good to not be told. The five reasons this bucket list entry is for others and not for me are named: Paul, Andy, Josiah, Grace and Yulisa.
- In fact, I’m going to write everything down on this journey. And I’m going to share it openly not caring what some negative people may say anymore. I’m done with letting words hurt me, and I just don’t have time for that anymore. The only way I can be hurt now is if someone would steal the set of lungs that I might need for a transplant.
- And then, hopefully, if I still have energy left after all that, I want to devote serious time, money, and creativity in bringing awareness to LAM. Because it’s so rare, it doesn’t receive the research monies a terminal illness deserves. It still has no cure, and it is silently killing many women in the prime of their lives with average age of diagnosis around 35. I cannot possibly understand the mercies of our God – but mercifully, He has allowed me to live this long, well into my 40’s; and hopefully, He grants me another 10 years. But many other women with LAM do not live long enough to even see their first grey hair or their children graduate from high school. I want to tell everyone I know about LAM, and trust that somehow, somewhere, someone out there exists who will discover the cure.
It has been a year since I was diagnosed with Lymphangioleiomyomatosis (LAM) a helluva stupid lung disease that is slowly consuming my lung tissue and sucking the life from me. There is no cure. It has been a hard year – and my disease has progressed even though I specifically, repeatedly, desperately asked God to not let that happen – and I feel constantly compelled to reexamine my life and it’s meaning. Last year, on Christmas Eve, I wrote a blog entitled “If I Only had 10 More Years to Live” – and how having a potentially terminal illness changed my life’s goals almost immediately. Living with this diagnosis for a year and letting that reality sink in has taught me even more – and I felt compelled to update that “bucket list”.
It’s like my own constitutional amendments…
1) Contrary to what I wrote a year ago, I will NOT be keeping Snickers in my car 100% of the time to have on hand for panhandlers.
I piloted this program for several months and after single-handedly eating SIX bags of snack-size Snickers, gaining FOUR pounds, and only passing out ONE candy bar – I’ve decided I MUST come up with another plan or I won’t die of LAM, but Snickers toxicity! Because poverty and homelessness literally keep me awake at night, I’ve got to DO something. Ignoring the issue is not an option for me. I’ve decided I’m going to have Degage vouchers with me at all times to give out to panhandlers. They are coupons from our local inner-city mission that can be redeemed for a meal, bus fare, haircut, or hats and gloves. Even BETTER than a Snickers. Check out your own city mission and see what they offer – because every city has some (that is, homeless people AND helpful solutions).
2) I will watch less volleyball.
I adore my daughter and want to fully support every endeavor that is important to her (and all five of my kids). However, the amount of time that sports are sucking from the life of our generation is sickening and I don’t want to be a part of that madness anymore.
Our culture has dictated societal “norms” for sports involvement that simply require more from our family that we’re willing to give. There is a great quote by Krishnamurti that made me realize I was succumbing to a dangerous trend: “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted in a profoundly sick society.”
This lifestyle of dinner-in-the-car, homework-on-the-sidelines, texting-conversations, weekends-at-the-tournament, no-time-for-church, and washing-the-uniform-at-midnight, CANNOT be the best distribution of time that God had in mind when He planned for Christians to be His hands and feet! When we attend every stinkin’ thing our children participate in – in this world that has run amok with children’s athletics and child-focused activities – we are actually giving our children TOO much attention and thus making them our false god. Our children need our love and support, not our worship. Maybe if we took our children off the throne, we’d have more time for all the things Jesus told us to be about: the poor, the oppressed, the hungry, the hurting, the marginalized, each other.
If I really do only have 9 years left to live, I want to have time for friends with cancer, widowed neighbors, young moms with screaming toddlers, teens from the inner-city, the stranger in the backed-up check-out line who looks like he’s ready to cry, AND my kids! I love my kids profoundly – and by saying I want to give them a little less side-line attention does not mean I love them any less. I just want to try to make the remaining distribution of my limited time a reflection of a heart that breaks for the things that breaks God’s heart. My WHOLE world is not my children.
3) Maybe if I watch less volleyball, I’ll have more time for the things that I didn’t get around to (but really MEANT to!) from last year’s bucket list: ICE CREAM dinners at the trailer park and time with nursing home residents who don’t get any visitors. Or maybe I’ll combine the two and load up my car with kids from the trailer park and together bring 20 gallons of ice cream to the nursing home! To me, that sounds like a taste of heaven.
4) And this whole Ferguson mess taught me something: I need to make some black friends.
One of the richest experiences of our lives has been living in Morocco and making true, deep, lasting friendships with Muslims. When Islam has a name, a face, an address, a friendship, it changes your perspective on all things “Islamic”. I love these people in Morocco. And they love me. And so I’m extremely cautious before deriving any kind of conclusion about what is really happening is the Muslim world.
During the Ferguson debacle, I realized I don’t understand racism in America hardly at all. While in America, I have largely lived in an all-white, middle-class, Christian bubble. I didn’t mean to do that – it just kind of happened. I certainly don’t know enough black people deeply enough to say I can understand their life or our differences. That fact made me so sad. I tried to keep my mouth shut through all of the debates going on over that mess in Ferguson. Maybe I’ll weigh in when I have a bunch of black friends and feel I understand their hearts better. I’m not talking about exploiting some fake friendships. I really do want some black friends – and I just want to acknowledge that right now I’m ignorant. And ignorant people should keep quiet
5) This past year has taught me I need to spend LESS time with my mother-in-law…
This is one of the hardest for me because I was wrongly believing that I was the only one who could help her and meet her needs. But what I’ve been failing to do was accept dementia. Dark. Unfair. Cruel. Relentless. And I can’t fix it or make it go away and going to visit her every day was only leaving both of us exhausted. I have to let it go and accept that we are losing her slowly to this ugly disease. I can give her only what I can give her – no more, but never any less either. This has helped me in other areas of my life, too. I’ve learned I’m a fixer and I hate it when I can’t solve problems or make them go away. But accepting that OUR SAVIOR came, specifically, to carry all our burdens, means that all we have to do is show up. We don’t have to fix them or carry them or worry about them, we just need to be fully present in the midst of them. He really DID come to set us FREE!
6) A year later, and I’m STILL not gonna watch any Reality TV (Sorry all you DWTS fans – but I just don’t get it) Apparently, however, we as a family are going to occasionally curl up in blankets and absorb five seasons of Parenthood and try to solve issues like autism, teen sex, affairs and cancer with the family Braverman.
7) And on the no dusting and vacuuming vow I made last year… WELLLLLLLL, the truth is really two-fold. One, I’ve learned that a house full of dust and pollen and dog hair is REALLY bad for my failing lungs and I really do want to make those two suckers last as long as possible. And two, when I can write words in the dust on my coffee table, it distracts me so much I can’t even think. So, truth be known, I’ve started dusting again. But not washing windows. And don’t even ASK me what my closets and drawers and laundry room look like. Housework? Paring it down to the necessities – and it feels so right.
In fact, THAT’S IT! – That’s what you do when you feel you’ve been given your expiration date…. You pare it all down to the necessities – discovering what it is that you truly need and what truly makes you feel most alive!!! Thank-you, Jesus, for coming to earth a baby, living to know all pain and suffering, dying to conquer death, and being ALL that I would truly ever need.
“For lo, I bring you good news of great joy that shall be for all people. For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2: 10, 11
There is a spiritual heaviness in our upstairs back porch and all the praying people who walk through the place can feel it.
Our college-aged sons who have done their share of watching “Breaking Bad” and have lived in plenty of sketchy neighborhoods quickly identified the telltale signs of a crack room: excessive amounts of electrical outlets, burn marks and beaker shaped cut-outs on the long built-in counter, and an oddly located, poorly constructed, pad-locked closet. Our next door neighbor says the porch was actually a meth lab. The probation officer who keeps stopping by to find the former renters won’t tell us exactly what went on this house, but obviously, some of it was criminal. So we can’t be sure if it was meth or crack or both – but we’ve affectionately dubbed the porch: the “crack room.”
So now we know what to look for when questioning if a home is being used as a drug dispenser – which is not exactly a resume-building skill…
But even better than learning a few things about the drug trade, buying a crack house in the city, surprisingly, gave us a new appreciation for crack and we, too, are now addicted. Here’s how:
- At the “crack” of dawn, the Catholic church around the corner rings it’s bell nearly 20 times. It is to remind Christians to pray the Lord’s prayer. And this is done three times a day, all over the world, at most Catholic churches. It reminds our family of Morocco’s call to prayer – and because Morocco still feels like “home”, the church bells help to make us feel more at home here in Grand Rapids. Sadly, there were no Catholic churches in the very-Protestant suburbia we left behind and we never heard church bells.
- I “crack-up” whenever I hear the lion’s roar from the zoo across the street. Some people get to have horses and hot tubs on their properties. Others have tennis courts, swimming pools, and lake-front beaches. We get to have lions.
- Renovating this old house proved to me that plumber’s “crack” is no joke. Neither is electrician’s “crack”, carpenter’s “crack”, dry-wall guy’s “crack” or floor-guy’s “crack”. I mused at the fact that men love to look at the “crack” formed between women’s breasts, yet I found myself totally grossed out by the simple rear-crack of man’s anatomy. I still decided to take a peek every time anyway – purely for retribution…
- There is a large “crack” in the plaster in our living room that we chose to not fix, but just painted over instead. It’s an every day reminder of my dear friend, Kathy, who painted that wall. And the day she selflessly came and helped me paint was such a beautiful picture of the body of Christ. We were NOT going to make our goal and get the house done before moving in, so all sorts of people with different talents stepped in and helped us and it totally saved the day and our sanity. We were never meant to do this life alone, folks. We are all just parts of the whole – and we really do need each other.
- We share a driveway with our neighbors. In the “crack” dividing our two lanes, weeds are growing rampant – some nearly knee-high – but neither of us care. And I love it that there is no pressure here in the city to “keep up with the Joneses’”. Seasonal flowers and manicured lawns and fancy cars and new furniture and vacations are all luxuries – and here, we don’t freak out so much if those things don’t happen. We don’t feel judged. It’s very different here than in the burbs – and it simply suits us better.
- When I sit on my porch and watch people walk by from every race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic background, I “crack” a smile. Something about being surrounded by great diversity draws Paul and I closer to God. We see HIM bigger when we are reminded of how BIG his heart is for ALL people.
- When I drive anywhere from here, I usually encounter at least one beggar – and my heart “cracks”. But it was our choice to live in that tension. We want to be reminded every day of our blessings – and also to daily ask ourselves what our responsibility is to serve the poor and oppressed.
- And lastly, renovating this house nearly “cracked” the foundation of our marriage. When things were at an all-time low, when we had spent so much time on the crazy-cycle – you know, the disrespecting, cutting, jabbing, eye-rolling, shouting – that it had somehow become our norm, when we had both reached a point where we wondered if our marriage was going to survive, there was this day – this ONE day…. Paul came home from work and I just happened to be going out the door as he came in, and he “cracked” a little smile, and there was something about the little creases that form in the corner of his eyes when he smiles that reminded me of the 18-year-old that I fell in love with over 34 years ago. That little “crack” of a smile reminded me that life is a journey – and he and I have been on a great one. It reminded me that every great journey requires challenges. Every great story must have obstacles for the heroes and heroines to overcome. Every great life is precipitated by lessons learned through hard times – for it’s only through the hard things that we can be sharpened to greatness. It reminded me that, just like the sun after a storm, or birthing a child after 12 hours of labor, or forgiveness after being wronged, or Jesus Christ’s resurrection after death, a light always shines brighter against a backdrop of darkness.
His “crack” of a smile was the subtlest of reminders that everything was going to be okay. We will shine bright again.
Testing our marriage to the very brink of breaking has been the most powerful lesson the “crack house” taught us – because in spite of satan’s attempts to destroy us, we still found God faithful. We still knew, that anchored IN HIM, we were gonna be okay. And just like our marriage, the “crack house” doesn’t look too shabby anymore:
So now we wake up every day thankful for this new (to us) home, this new beginning, and new challenges.
In the words of the wise Helen Keller, “Life is a daring adventure, or nothing at all.”
The pit in my stomach grew with each pound of the hammer as my husband drove the “For Sale” sign into the ground of our front yard. I wasn’t handling this well – yet he seemed to be strong. But when he stood up and wiped a tear away from his eyes, I became unhinged.
What in the world were we thinking? Why, oh why, are we doing this again? Nobody knows the voice of God for sure anyway, do they? Afterall, it’s not like we HAVE to move to the inner-city – we can afford this beautiful house on this perfect cul-de-sac, in this highly-desirable neighborhood, in this exemplary school district. So why should we move? Nobody does this. Are we just crazy?
Hoping to outsmart my tears, I ran inside and sat down to write through the pain. Writing’s my jam. My catharsis. But there were no words. I was hollow, empty, hurting, and mad at God.
For no particular reason, I opened up an unfamiliar file on my computer. I didn’t recall writing this piece entitled, “Must we suffer?” – but there it was. I had completely forgotten that about 4 or 5 months ago I had a dream that shook me to the core. I totally believe God sometimes speaks to us in dreams. It’s only happened to me a couple of times before. Only this time it took 5 months for me to receive the application.
My Lice Dream
In my dream, we had already made to move to Grand Rapids, the city our family has been preparing to relocate to for the last year. There was some kind of huge community event taking place in our new neighborhood. It was like a rock concert-meets-carnival-meets-church-picnic event. Everyone was happy, roaming around, eating and socializing. There was a young Hispanic girl – maybe 3 or 4 years old – who had taken to me after I smiled at her and offered her a sucker. She didn’t speak any English. And since I only know 10 words of Spanish, we bonded through smiles. Hand-in-hand, we took in music, kiddie rides, and wonderful ethnic food. After a while, she grew weary and I picked her up and carried her. She nestled her head into my shoulder.
A white woman came up to me and whispered in my ear, “You might want to keep a little more distance from that girl. Their family has a chronic problem with head-lice and with your long-hair on your shoulders, you’re just asking for it!”
I looked down at the little girl. She didn’t understand what had just been said about her. She just looked up into my eyes, smiled, and pointed towards a cotton-candy machine. She was so happy. And she was happiest when I was enjoying her happiness.
HOWEVER, I inwardly cringed. In our six years of life overseas both of our daughters had had several bouts with head lice. I had spent countless nights painstakingly removing those repulsive insects and their nits from the girls’ long hair. It is disgusting and a total pain in the ass. I really did NOT want to get head lice. But even more – I didn’t want to let go of this sweet little girl or disappoint her in any way.
I continued to let her cling to me.
The next scene in my dream I am standing in front of a mirror and I pull back some of my hair to see the scalp and hopefully discover the source of my itching. And there they were – four or five little bugs, about the size of a sesame seed, scurrying off to find another hiding place on my scalp. I almost gagged.
I went to find the head-lice treatment kit. Since we had just moved into our new-to-us very old home in Grand Rapids, there were boxes everywhere, piles of crap in every corner, and mounds of clothing that would never find a home with these diminutive ancient closets. I went to the hall cupboard hoping to find some lice shampoo and the door fell off the hinges when I opened it. I tried to open the drawers below but one did not have runners and was jammed in a cock-eyed position; the other was painted shut. I felt the bugs running around on my scalp.
I went downstairs to the kitchen because I read somewhere that covering your head in mayonnaise can drown the lice. I had to skip over steps 4 and 9 because they were missing. In the kitchen, I was horrified to discover we hadn’t purchased a refrigerator yet. Apparently, in my dream, we had run out of money before we could finish the renovations. I looked into the family room where strips of 100 yr-old- wall-paper were still hanging from the walls and the ceiling (yes, the idiot owners before us had wall-papered THE CEILING!) I saw several windows that were still broken, huge cracks in the plastered walls, and the front door that didn’t shut properly had let rain seep in all night long. A large pile of rain-worms were soaking in a puddle two feet in front of me.
“This is squalor!” I ranted to myself. “I didn’t agree to live in squalor! I told Jesus we would follow Him to the inner-city and we would just love on people who are different from us. We just wanted diversity in a challenged neighborhood. That’s all! I told Jesus we were willing to leave Hudsonville and family and friends and just do our best to try to live like him in the city. So why does our house have to be nearly condemned and why do I have to have HEAD LICE???”
THEN I KIND OF WOKE UP, AND KIND OF KEPT DREAMING…. I WISH I KNEW FOR SURE IF I WAS AWAKE OR ASLEEP – BECAUSE I HEARD A MESSAGE FROM GOD AND KNEW FOR CERTAIN IT WAS HE WHO SPOKE TO ME. HE SAID:
“CINDY. DID YOU SERIOUSLY THINK YOU COULD FOLLOW ME AND NOT SUFFER? DID YOU SERIOUSLY THINK YOU COULD PRAY TO ME AND ASK TO LIVE LIKE ME AND BE LIKE ME, THE SACRIFICIAL LAMB, YET NEVER HAVE TO SACRIFICE ANYTHING YOURSELF? IT DOESN’T WORK LIKE THAT, CINDY. WHEN YOU COME AND FOLLOW ME AND JOIN ME IN MY WORK, YOU COME TO THE PLACE OF SUFFERING. I NEVER PROMISED ANYTHING DIFFERENT. YET, THE BEAUTY OF FOLLOWING ME IS THAT I WILL CARRY THE BURDEN.”
*He was 5 years old when his mother’s boyfriend sodomized him. When he was 7, the people that lived in his house threw a party where everyone got stoned – so stoned, in fact, that they passed the boy around as their sex toy. A year later, he started smoking weed, too, just to escape the pain. When he was 10, he raped an 8 year-old girl because he thought that was normal behavior. When he was 11, his mom’s latest fling prostituted him for drug money. At 12, the boy sold his first Ziploc baggie of marijuana. The money kept him from being pimped-out that weekend. It also offered him a way to escape the pain of his beatings from the boyfriend – by remaining high himself. It wasn’t long and cocaine became the drug of choice. Because he knew of no other way to get through a day, he was soon addicted. He ran away from home at 14. He was incarcerated at 15. His repeated drug offenses combined with his tendency to steal money for drugs were more than any of his extended family or friends could take. He had burned every familial bridge and lost every friend he’d ever made by the time he was 16.
By the age of 18, he was a homeless, drug-addicted, high-school dropout with a record of two felonies and five misdemeanors. He couldn’t find a job to save his life.
At 19, after a failed suicide attempt, he was admitted to the psych-hospital where I work. It was his third attempt in three weeks. He was diagnosed with “Severe Depressive Disorder, Drug Abuse Associated.” He was done. He wanted out of this hell-hole that many of the rest of us like to call “the good life.”*
After he was discharged from the psych-hospital, I saw him begging on the corner of US-131 and Wealthy Street on a frigid, snowy Saturday. I was pretty sure if I gave him money, he’d use it for drugs. Drug-abuse is the only effective coping skill he’s ever known. It’s what keeps him from attempting suicide EVERY day. I knew that seeing him alive meant he was numbing his pain with drugs – otherwise he’d surely be dead.
I gave him money.
But it didn’t make me feel good about myself. I felt a pit in my stomach. It’s such a cheap way out of helping the poor, the needy, or hurting. It’s so freakin’ easy to roll down the window and throw someone some cash, isn’t it? Or maybe we’ll opt to take the even easier path and keep the window rolled up tightly, lock the doors, and tell the kids in the backseat, “You see those beggars? They’re scammers. They just use that money for drugs and alcohol. You shouldn’t give money to beggars because they never use it for food or rent. I even read somewhere that sometimes beggars make more per year than daddy does!”
We are a busy people – we American Christians – with a million things to do just today. So instead of parking the car, walking over to him, shaking his dirty hand, and offering the beginning of a nurturing relationship by taking him out for lunch – we either snub him or flip him a few quarters.
Getting out of the car and hearing his story will take time. It will take energy. It will take enormous emotional capital. And it will probably take a hellava lot of money (more than a few quarters) to help this guy. Investing in him may take years. Maybe the rest of your life. You will get dirty, tired and frustrated. It’s not going to be easy. But it’s probably the ONLY way you’ll make a difference in this boy’s life and – I’m just guessing here – it’s probably what Jesus would do.
One life at a time. That’s how we can make a difference. Just one at a time. We get out of the car and make a difference.
There is simply NO POSSIBLE WAY that we can know a beggars situation simply by observing them on the street corner. There is NO WAY we can know what hell their life has been to bring them to this place. Why is it so easy to assume they are taking advantage of us (we who are sitting in our warm cars) instead of assuming life has beat them into this state of desperation? And when we drive by and refuse them any help at all because of the possibility they are taking advantage of us, we are passing sweeping judgments on all beggars.
But today, as I see my friend begging on the overpass, I’m in too much of a hurry. I don’t have time to park my car and chat with him. I wish I did. Because THAT is the only way to truly know and understand his circumstances. It’s the only way to have any hope of offering real, practical, and sustainable help.
So on this day, if I refuse to park my car and go talk to the young man, I must choose between the two lesser options: do nothing and drive on by risking that without drugs or alcohol to numb his pain he’ll try to take his life again, or give him money that I know he will use to buy drugs.
I’m going to choose to support his drug habit today. And I pray that I will continue simplifying my life to free up time, money and energy so I can actually INVEST in hurting people. I want to be the kind of person that doesn’t put a band-aid on problems (giving money), but chooses to dig deep, work hard, and sacrifice much in order to find lasting solutions.
I want to be the one who parks the car and strolls on over for a conversation.
*This is a fictitious person – made from a composite of people’s stories I’ve heard over the years. Any resemblance to an actual person is entirely coincidental. But people just like this boy really do exist in my city, in your city, in every city. And they frequently show up at my psych hospital as suicidal. Sadly, I’ve even heard more horrendous stories than this one. Last Saturday, however, I really did give money to a beggar I personally knew at the highway overpass in Grand Rapids.
A few years back our family of six spent four years living in Morocco. In a country that is nearly 100% Islam, we made many Muslim friends. A couple weeks ago, one of those friends decided to visit our family here in Michigan. She traveled with her 18 yr. old daughter who was coming to America for the first time.
Although we were virtually surrounded by Muslims while living in Morocco, it was an entirely new twist to have Muslims living with us – experiencing every-day life with us. This was far more up-close and personal.
What I learned made me uncomfortable. But probably not in the way you’re thinking.
My friend came bearing gifts – for me, my husband, the kids – even for our sons who no longer live home. She got up early and made coffee. She stayed up late and made Moroccan fried bread. Whenever I wasn’t looking, she did the dishes. She listened for hours and gave me counsel on life’s hard stuff. She would sneak off when we were at restaurants and secretly pay the bill before I even had a chance to object. She sat and listened to our kids rattle on about silly things she knew nothing about: American football, homecoming festivities, travel sports, and Tim Allen. While in Chicago, we were walking back to our hotel late in the evening and we encountered at least 5 beggars in the streets. She stopped to give money and/or food to each one. She even went into a market and bought a fresh loaf of bread for one beggar.
We watched TV, You-Tube, and American sports together. And she made me laugh ‘til I nearly peed my pants.
Three times throughout the week (although I know there were many more) I found her kneeling, facing East toward Mecca, head bowed low to the ground in prayer. Every time it stopped me in my tracks. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d prayed in earnest. Life in America is busy, you know….
And, perhaps most remarkably, both my friend and her daughter went to church with us. They were not concerned in the least that our church might rattle their faith – they simply wanted, out of respect to our family, to fully experience our culture, our lives and our religion. They understand Christianity (at times, I fear, better than I do…) and they didn’t have questions about it. They just wanted to honor us by attending church.
My friend and her daughter oozed love for me and my family and our community – as well as the strangers in their midst – throughout their weeklong visit. Then, even after returning home, they mailed us beautiful Christmas gifts to thank us. Muslims, who don’t celebrate Christmas in the least, sent gifts to US just to bless US on our holy holiday.
Friends, I don’t know about you, but I call that love.
I am being haunted by an old Sunday School song. “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
Really? Will they know we are Christians by our love? Will our behavior be so exemplary, so unique, and so incredibly loving that people will unequivocally be able to recognize what faith we ascribe to simply by our actions?
What haunts me is that, in many ways, my Muslim friends are better at loving than I am.
Which begs the question: Did WE know THEY were Muslim by their love???
If you’re jumping to defensive mode and screaming “HELLOooooo!!!! ISIS!!!!” as proof that “they” do not love – well, I get that. Undoubtedly, there are factions who are acting in the name of Islam and represent the antithesis of love. These people need to be stopped.
But something I learned in Morocco that is important for us to understand here, is that many Muslims in the East equate Christianity with ANYTHING and EVERYTHING coming out of America. They observe things such as: our greed and materialism, our divorce and abortion rates, the Kardashians, The Bold and the Beautiful, all-things Hollywood, our massive gun violence, or George W. Bush (whom they can only see as someone who indiscriminately blows up people and cities), and conclude: “See! That’s what Christians are like!” They are unable to separate the actions of our country from our dominant religion (Christianity) because in their home countries there is no separation of religion and state. To be Moroccan is to be Muslim. The king of Morocco is also the head religious leader. As is true in many Middle Eastern countries. So it is no wonder that, to them, everything coming out of America (and let’s be honest, most of it ain’t pretty….) must be Christian.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my Christian faith identified by the actions of Lamar Odom, Donald Trump or Miley Cyrus. Or how about the Unabomber, Ted Bundy, Timothy McVeigh? Or what about people that blow up abortion clinics out of religious conviction or priests that rape little boys?
Please, world, don’t equate me, a devout follower of Jesus, with these people!
Some may counter and argue that these people cannot possibly be true Christians anyway…. but that is entirely beside the point because again, in many Eastern Muslim minds, all American actions are Christian actions.
And yet, in some ways, that argument completely makes my point! Because, likewise, it is entirely unfair for Americans to judge the whole of Islam based on what our Westernized media chooses to report – which is only reporting the extreme actions of extremists.
But if you get to know the people, the regular, ordinary, every-day people that live and work and teach and heal and farm and shop and play soccer and have babies and read books and cook meals and go to school and watch movies and all the millions of other things that you and I do, well, these people are fully as good at loving as you and me. They are. I’m telling you, they are.
If you don’t agree, perhaps you’d be willing to ask yourself a few questions:
How many Muslims do I know personally?
How many Muslims have spent considerable time in my home?
Where do I get my information about Muslims?
How many Islamic countries have I visited? What was my experience there?
How many people do I hang out with regularly that practice a different faith than my own? Do they know how to love? How do they express love? Do any of them love better than me?
Will they KNOW we are Christians by our love??? Will the title “Christian” ever represent to the world “a distinctly caring, self-less, and sacrificially giving people who love regardless of race or religion?” And if it did, would my own loving actions, kindness, and generosity be so recognizable so as to set me apart from the “world” and allow them to quickly identify me as a Christian???
I’m afraid, that for me, the honest answer is “no.”
So, in response to the hate that is being spewed from the media, our Facebook feeds, and many people with big microphones, I think those of us professing a faith in the resurrected Christ should ask ourselves, “Will they know we are Christians by our love?” A chief yearning in my life is that my family, my church, my street, my community, my state and my nation exhibit a Christ-like love to our fellow mankind. I’m nearly to the point of despair at how miserably we’re all failing. And so, this is what I’ll do – which is really the only thing I can do – I’ll sing that great song of the season: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me!”
It may be true that snowstorms suck and this past February was the coldest Michigan has seen in over 100 years… but I think a February of solid rain in tropical countries is potentially worse. Here’s why:
We should have all died as we sloshed around, knee-deep, in Darrin and Julie’s sewage.
We were living in Morocco – a country that many would describe as “backwards.” Admittedly, it is confusing why the country still tolerates garbage everywhere – littering the streets, fields and beaches; or why buildings are left half-done for decades – sometimes with occupants; or why there are essentially no rules for driving: lane lines are entirely irrelevant and disregarded, traffic lights are merely suggestions, and many drivers don’t own a drivers license. Perhaps that does describe a “backwards” country. But to me, it was all beautiful. Morocco was our home and because the people were thoroughly loving and kind, it was actually quite easy to look right past the confusing, backward parts.
There was a serious lapse in logic when Moroccan builders built the low-cost cement row homes of which we rented. I’m no builder – the farthest thing from it, actually. But even I wonder what the heck they were thinking when they would first pour a HUGE cement sewage holding tank, and then construct the home directly over it.
There are many reasons this seems stupid to me. The biggest reason is the cockroach population that proliferated so rapidly in that sewage tank that within weeks of a new home construction, they would find their way up the drainage systems and into our HOMES to find more food and water. Cockroaches were a part of our everyday life in Morocco. I hate cockroaches – almost as much as the flying monkeys of OZ. Now, I know God is the Maker of all, but I still think cockroaches must somehow be the spawn of satan. But that’s another story.
Probably the second stupidest reason that one should not build their home directly over their sewage tank, is that in torrential rains (which occur November through March in non-drought years in Morocco) the tank overflows and can potentially back up into your home. Lovely, huh?
In an act of love and selfishness, when our friends Darrin and Julie decided to join us and work in Morocco, we found a house for them just down the street from ours. We were thrilled to have them be our neighbors. We were so excited to get to “do life” together in our little Muslim surfing village on the outskirts of Casablanca.
One thing we never anticipated was that to “do life” together would mean we’d be wading knee-deep through their sewage.
The second year in their home, Darrin and Julie (and kids Sawyer and McKenna) woke up one day to water swirling around their ankles. It was rainy season, and it was a wicked one, and the rains had not let up for days. The Jones’ septic tank beneath their home couldn’t handle the water. It bubbled into their home from every shower drain, toilet, and even cracks in the concrete. By the time we heard of their disaster in the late morning, the water had risen knee-high. A small army of loving, self-less people raced to their aid and set up a rescue mission. We created a bucket brigade passing buckets of sewage water up a set of stairs and out the door to the street. More people were dumping buckets of sewage into the backyard – which itself was flooded, but we had so few options. Glory be, but someone found a small electric water pump – probably the ONLY water pump in this nation that seems to just accept flooding – and we placed it precariously on a chair in the middle of the flooded dining room. Julie sat on a chair next to it, creating her own little island in a swirling brown sea – and with her feet in the air, she filled the water receptacle with sewage water – bucket after bucket after bucket – praying the little pump would keep up with the rising waters. The rest of us prayed it wouldn’t fall off the chair.
There were people in nearly every room of their home, helping in every way. In addition to the bucket brigade, there were people in the back yard attempting to unclog a sewage drain hoping we could start sending water out that way. There were people in the garage who brought food in for all the workers. There were people standing in the street, in the rain, just trying to figure out how to help.
And every person that entered their home that day should have died.
Every person who came to help entered Darrin and Julie’s home on the main level, and then descended their stairs to the lower level where the kitchen, living area and two bedrooms were located. As we saw the rising sewage water, we would toss off our shoes, rip off our socks and roll up our pant legs. We’d grab a bucket and walk right into the sewage and get busy. I don’t remember anyone mentioning the risk of electrocution. I do remember watching people race to unplug certain things like the TV, computers, and lamps and thinking “I’m pretty sure standing knee deep in water and pulling on electrical cords is something Bill Nye the Science Guy said to never do.” I do remember somebody mentioning that the water level had risen as high as the wall outlets. Outlets which carry 220volts, not the 120v we use in the USA. Outlets which were wired by electricians who are not required to be licensed in this country. Outlets which have delivered enough voltage into a full-grown man to launch him right off his feet (that would be Darrin as well, but, again…. another story).
Looking back, I do not know how, for the love of God, no one was electrocuted that day. We were standing in water that was soaking in electricity. And even more unbelievable – no one got sick. Not a single case of gastroenteritis, or salmonellosis, or shigellosis, or hepatitis, or giardiasis. Not even a rash or a fever or a fungus. Nothing.
And this, I believe, is the reason: There are angels in the sewers.
I believe we are entertaining angels unaware – everywhere and all the time. But what I have discovered to be true so often in my own life is that in the darkest, dankest, most stinky, ugly and disgusting moments – the angels are really felt. They are known. We feel protected and safe. And we feel kept.
Sometimes you have to roll up your pants and just step into the sewage of life. You have to risk electrocution and hepatitis. You have to be brave and just do it because it is the right thing to do. And so GO DO IT, my friends. Be brave and GO DO IT because angels will keep you. You will be kept.
Sometimes you don’t ask for it. You don’t even have time to rip off your socks and shoes or roll up your pants – you simply wake up one day and find yourself in the middle of swirling sewage.
This – this swirling sewage, is what my life feels like currently. I did not ask for this. I did not willingly choose to engage in this battle with crap. But still, I am noticing the angels. I am feeling held. I am feeling kept.
May you truly know, brothers and sisters, that there are angels among us. ESPECIALLY in the sewage.
Sheep are known to follow their leader – the CLEAR leader. Even blindly, without any understanding of where they are being led and why, sheep will follow their leader. Likewise, the most important goal in my life is to follow my leader, Jesus, wherever and into whatever He leads me. I want to have as much faith as my sheep-friends, so that I will follow Jesus blindly, even when I don’t understand where He is leading me.
Sheep have such incredibly strong peripheral vision, they can actually see behind themselves without turning their heads. If I am living my life as fully engaged as possible, I need to be able to learn from all that is behind me. I don’t want to live in the past, which would only weigh me down, but I just need to be able to seethe past to know how to navigate the future and prevent recurring mistakes. The ability to see behind ourselves – for both me and my sheep friends – could actually spare us all kinds of pain.
Sheep become stressed when isolated. When I first got my diagnosis, I began wallowing in self-pity and since I knew not a single soul with the same disease, I could not commiserate my misery with anyone. The more I isolated, the more stress and anxiety I experienced. Apparently, sheep have learned that which I still struggle with – we were not meant to do this life alone. We need community. We were created for community. Community is good. And once I reached out to family and friends – my people/my flock – I felt the stress just wash away.
Domestic sheep have a life expectancy of 10 – 12 years, but some live as long as 20. When I first got my LAM diagnosis, I raced to the internet and Googled it. Of course I did – it’s always our first move in the 21st century. I was devastated to discover that most literature cited LAM as having a 10 year prognosis. As I’ve investigated further, many people are currently suggesting the internet data is outdated, and that with earlier detection and possible lung transplant, LAM patients are now very capable of living 20 years or more – just like my sheep buddies. I don’t know how long I’ve already suffered from LAM, it could be I’ve had it for many years already. But because I’m definitely a domestic sheep and not a wild one, I am praying and choosing to believe I could live for at least 20 more years.
Sheep have been used, both in ancient times and in modern religious rituals, as sacrificial animals. Is there any possible way that God Almighty allowed me to get this disease in order to call attention to it, raise awareness, potentially leading someone to find a cure, so that ultimately other young women might live? Or bigger yet, is there any possible way that God Almighty allowed me to get this disease, asking me to glorify Him even in the midst of suffering, so that others might be drawn to HIM? Oh my, even the thought of that takes my breath away.