Sunday, December 28, 2008

Eager Young Minds

I was a surprise when my mom found out that she was expecting me.  My parents already had two, a girl and a boy two years apart, she was close to 40 and hadn't planned on any more.  But five years after my brother was born, lo and behold, here I came!  Of course because of their ages, my two older siblings were closer to each other than either one was to me, and I was (and still am) the baby of the family. 

With busy parents who had spent most of their energy raising the first two, I spent a lot of time playing by myself, and I was always eager to be a part of the forbidden "big kids" world.  Yet every once in a while my brother, 5 years older than I, would take it upon himself to explain the world to me. Just things in general, stuff I didn't particularly ask about. He'd get a notion that he wanted to teach me about what he was learning in history class, and he'd launch into this fascinating explanation of life in the 1700's.  Or sometimes he'd tell me all about the life of spies (as if he really knew).  And though I couldn't understand much, the fact that someone cared enough to talk to me meant the world.

"You know Evelyn," he said once, "back in the days of the wild west, people weren't so concerned about taking baths all the time.  They would just do it on Sunday mornings before church and the rest of the week just wipe themselves down with a cloth."  I was amazed. "Look at how wasteful we are these days with modern showers and all these shampoos.  We're ruining the environment because we're too obsessed with bathing every day." It was a revelation.  The heavens parted and I saw the light and the error of my ways.  I made a solemn vow right then and there that I would only bathe once a week.

I didn't enjoy this new vow and I really missed a good scrubbing in my daily shower, but because of the kindness of my "mentor" who took the time to enlighten his little tag-along sister with his wisdom, I willingly endured my suffering to know that somehow I was benefitting the planet.  How being grimy and smelly made the world a better place, I wasn't too sure, but if my brother said so, then it had to be.

Needless to say, this didn't last long when my mother discovered that my hair was a mess and I was roundly scolded for what she thought was laziness.  I went back to my old routine of a shower every night, but I never got upset with my brother for giving me bad advice.  The kindness of his attention meant everything to me, and for that I was eternally grateful.  I have always had a special spot in my heart for my brother even though we barely see each other any more and we both have our own lives and families.  He cared and valued me when I felt like no one else did.

There are kids around us, just waiting for someone to take them under their wing and give them some kindness, attention and guidance  Sure there are the kids that don't want to learn from anyone (or at least they act that way) but there are plenty who may go unnoticed.  There are things in this world that are confusing to them and to have someone take the time to make sense of it all for their young minds, could make all the difference for their futures. 

Just make sure they take their baths.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Life is so unfair

"It's so unfair, the owners of this company are so rich, they should give us all a raise and better benefits.  It's like we're their slaves," said Danielle, complaining about the huge mega-mart she worked for as a cashier.  Her argument sounded so reasonable:  rich bosses rolling in money taking advantage of the underpaid and overworked laborers.  Of course she and all her co-workers deserved a raise, more vacation time, better health benefits and free childcare, of course they ought to go on strike!  Down with the establishment!

Only thing is, I know Danielle.  I know that she chose to drop out of school because she thought it was boring, that she has been fired from various jobs for various reasons: coming to work drunk, coming to work late, losing track of her sales slips, not coming to work at all - those are just some of the reasons.  I also met some of her co-workers.  The girls enjoy trashing their supervisor in late night gossip sessions over a couple of beers, just because he's uptight and wears ugly clothes and gets ketchup stuck in his mustache.  

Danielle says she has dreams of owning her own business someday.  When I asked her what business, she doesn't know, but she's sure she'd be a much better boss than the "jerk" she works for.  Danielle has never pushed herself to complete her high school degree, even when her mother helped her sign up for the adult education classes.  She sees her job as demanding, her customers as uncaring, herself as a hard worker who goes above and beyond the call of duty when she takes an extra shift for one of her friends (even though she gets paid extra), and her boss, well, we already know what Danielle thinks of him...

The news reporters were covering the upcoming strike and one of Danielle's friends was on TV.  You would think she was giving her life-blood for the store the way she spoke.  You would think they were chained to their cash registers and forced to scan every item that slid by on the conveyor belt under penalty of death.  And the journalist ate it up like the juiciest bit of news. Shame on this mega-mart for the exploitation of its workers!  She reported as a dozen Danielles stood by with their picket signs, nodding in righteous indignation.

Danielle couldn't ride out the strike - the administration took too long in negotiations and she eventually quit before almost all of her union's demands were met seven months later.  It was just getting boring, walking around in a circle with her protest sign day after day.  Anyway she was running out of money to party on weekends.  

She hates her new job, says no one wants to give her a chance to get a better salary.  Society is so unfair.  Thank goodness for the politicians who promise to invest tax money on initiatives to help the poor Danielles of this world.  Poor Danielle, uneducated, unmotivated, untrustworthy, undisciplined, and oh yes, she's pregnant.  How can society be so cruel?  Maybe someday when the rich educated elite stop oppressing her she'll have a chance to be successful.  Just maybe... 

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Day of Sad Stories

It was around 2 in the afternoon yesterday, after the morning church service and a brief lunch.  I was answering the phone calls that came through the church helpline and preparing some church material with the paper cutter.  Some calls were coming in about the church van that was to pick them up at home for the afternoon service, as usual.  But then the phone rang and a very weak, slow voice began to speak to me.

"I just wanted to let you know...I just took a lot of pills...I don't want to live anymore...."

Her voice trailed off, and I could tell she was crying.  She sounded young, gentle, and hopeless.  I tried to sound upbeat and compassionate at the same time, "No, you don't need to do that, there is so much that God wants to do with your life, whatever problem you're going through isn't too big for you, or for God," I told her as I quickly wrote down her number that appeared on the caller ID screen.

She didn't answer me, just groaned.

"Could I have your name?"

Mumbled answer.

"I'm sorry, I couldn't hear that, what did you say your name was?"

"It doesn't matter..."

"Of course it matters, it matters to me, and it matters to God, He wants to help you, you believe in Him, right?  How did you find out about us?"

"I got your number off the TV."

And so I talked, encouraged, showed her I cared, told her how much God could do for her, and she listened, making hardly any sound at all.  I was about to pray for her over the phone and asked again what her name was, and then the phone went dead.

I called back right away, and it rang until the voicemail message came on.  Called again, and the same thing happened, then I called 911.  Perhaps the police could track down her number and find her and rescue her, but I knew that the only way she will survive is through God intervening and not allowing her to die.  That meant I had to pray, and cry out to Him with all my faith.  

After notifying the police, I didn't want to call her again since I knew that they would be trying to reach her while figuring out her location.  I prayed and knew without a doubt that this young woman did not want to die.  She wanted her suffering to end, she called because she wanted to reach out one last time.  There was some shred of hope in her and I was certain that God reminded her of our number just so that He could save her.  

After a half an hour I couldn't resist and called her once more.  The phone rang, and then stopped ringing - someone had answered the phone, and was listening silently.  So I began to talk, and prayed and talked and told her how much God loved her and she listened without saying a word for a long time...and then, she hung up.

The police stopped by an hour later saying that they couldn't trace her number and had not yet been able to find her, but thanked the church for its good work.  If they really wanted to, had it been a terror suspect or an important person, I have no doubt they would have pulled out all the stops to find them, but it was just a nameless woman - no one worth too much effort for the Houston Police Department to save.  Thank goodness we have God to call on in times like these, because unlike our most trusted authorities, He never tires, and is always ready to answer anything we ask for in true faith.  

I may never hear of this woman again or find out who she is, but one thing I am confident about is that her call was no coincidence, and that God heard my prayers. 

Around 4 o'clock I went downstairs for the afternoon service, and spoke to more women, some with a past of abuse in their family, passively watching the abuse continue in their children and grandchildren; the grandma whose little 6-year-old grandson has his fingers smashed every week with a hammer by his violent father, and forced to watch sexual acts by his father's friend,  the 15-year-old girl that's being pressured into doing drugs and joining a gang, and feels an evil presence living inside of her body, and other's whose problems I can't mention on this post. 

The stories of misery surround us every day, if we only knew what people were going through around us.  They need our help, they need us to care, to pray, to fight for them to be freed from their suffering.  The police, Child Protective Services, school counselors, they all fail.  Each of these women I spoke to, has tried them all.

If we're not aggressive in our faith, in standing up against the forces of darkness in this depraved world, who will?  God is waiting for us to put on His armor and get into the battle, through our faith, through our prayers, through our dedication to reaching out to all those who are slowly dying.  If you don't really believe that you together with God can actually make a difference, then this bleak look at the world can make you want to give up.  Stop wasting your time doubting God, there's so much He's eager to do, so many miracles waiting to happen, but He needs each one of us to be available to make them happen.  

I expect in a few months I'll have a few more great stories to tell about these same women, of the way their lives turned upside down by God's power.  In fact, I'm sure of it.  But the sad stories around you aren't going to change unless you take up the fight yourself.  Once you start using your faith and winning, you'll never want to stop.  



Monday, October 13, 2008

Rethinking Marriage: Girls, you're not as dumb as they say

What would you say is the reason that 50 years ago in the US it was acceptable for a girl of 18 to be preparing herself to become a wife in the near future, but now its considered almost scandalous? Girls used to have sweet 16 parties and debutante balls to officially announce that they have moved beyond childhood to an age ready to date and find a suitable husband. We view these sorts of events as sweetly funny, old fashioned and even carry the taste of oppression. After all in the 1950’s women were treated as inferior in the work place and were ostracized if they didn’t conform to the traditional wife and mother role.

I guess you would say that times have changed, women have been liberated from the constraints of a male-dominated society and now we have the freedom to choose our own destiny, our own path in life. And it seems that the path that everyone is pointing to is to be alone, build a career, and prove that we don’t need a man to be happy. As a side note, today some girls have resurrected the old sweet-sixteen party as an expensive bash with DJ’s, drinks and the hope that they’ll lose their virginity if they haven’t already. Very sweet.

Why is it that when news of Sarah Palin’s daughter (who, is pregnant with her boyfriend’s baby) is planning to marry at 18, the media went wild with accusations of a “shotgun wedding”? They deride her choice of marrying her high-school sweetheart as ridiculous, that somehow her rights are being violated. The poor girl, who had already made plans to marry before she even got pregnant, is a huge joke for all the late-night comedians.

It has become conventional wisdom that a young girl in her teens is incapable of making a rational decision about marriage – although many states believe she has the right to purchase birth control without her parents’ knowledge or permission. No problem if she conceives a child, aborts it, has multiple sexual partners, but MARRIAGE? Unthinkable!

Isn’t insisting that young women are too ignorant to marry, just as oppressive as saying that women don’t have a right to work? If women in the past were able to marry in their teens and have happy marriages and raise their children, well, what has happened with the advance of technology and a liberated society? Have we turned our teenage girls into immature air-heads? Watch E! TV and you’ll get your answer.

I dare to believe that women, young and old, are able to be more intelligent, resilient and competent than today’s society credits them for. Though unhappy marriages have existed from time immemorial - some that were huge mistakes - it doesn't mean that marriage is too scary to understand. It's possible for women to enjoy all the romance and thrill of marrying young, if they have the support and guidance of wiser women (and of course, if they listen to that advice!) While some women are still alone and trying to “find themselves” at 35, others are well grounded in a loving marriage and a blessing to everyone around them.

I know women from both of these camps, and I tell you, it’s a thrill to be around those that married young and have a maturity beyond their years, and yet are still fresh-faced and vibrant and ready to take on whatever life may throw at them. Really – a lot of my friends fall into this category. And conversely, it’s a very sad experience to be around those who may be well educated and established in their careers, but are lonely and unable to find a lasting relationship. They’ve never learned the joys of commitment and sacrifice and all the rewards that brings.

Let’s start another cultural revolution that celebrates the joy of the purity of marriage, for both young women and men. Maybe if older adults pulled their marriages together, we could be a better example for them. Want to know a good way to start? Check out the movie Fireproof, and buy the book, the Love Dare at your local Christian bookstore. Its just a start, but a pretty good one!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Blame Game

Jose Luiz Garza died of heart failure in Mexico yesterday.  He was 47 years old and weighed 990 pounds.  He had always struggled with his weight, but got much worse when he fell into a deep depression nine months ago when his parents died of old age.  He went on Mexican television, begging for help.  Emergency workers had to knock down a wall of his house and haul him off to the hospital on the back of a pick-up truck while gasping for breath, but was pronounced dead on arrival. His brother mournfully accused those who heard his pleas for help, that he would still be alive had they come to his rescue sooner.

Poor Jose Luiz.  I am truly sorry that he died, and the way that the Associated Press wrote the article, I'm sure many are shaking their heads and saying, "What is this world coming to that we would allow this poor man to suffer so?"  

But the question I want to ask is, why are "we" being blamed for his bad health choices, as if we represent all the evils of society?  Where was his brother all these years as he piled on the pounds?  It's not like this was some rare incurable disease, it was perfectly preventable. But when it all comes down to it, Jose Luiz Garza, chose to react to his problems and his losses in a way that cost him his life.  He swallowed all those tamales and burritos, and nobody else. Calling for help as he was going into cardiac arrest at 990 pounds was too little, too late. Sorry, but it's the cold hard truth.

This is something that I don't get.  It's always someone else's fault.  If a poor country is struggling with it's finances, it blames the richer ones for not giving it more financial aid.  If a richer country invests its businesses in a poorer one, it's blamed for interfering and taking advantage of the less fortunate.  If someone of a minority group (choose one) can't get a loan to buy a house, it's the fault of greedy banks who won't give them a chance to live in comfort like the rest of the country.  But if that same person goes bankrupt because they can't afford to pay their mortgage, its the fault of the greedy banks who should have known better than to give them the loan in the first place.  And if anyone points the finger at the irresponsible person, he or she screams "Racist!"

It's downright idiotic, but we all are guilty of this I'm ashamed to say.  If we think we can get away with blaming anyone - specific people or society in general, whatever works - we'll do it. It's so popular to hold ourselves up to be the poor victim, to gain the pity of others, that we'll gladly ignore facts so that we can continue on with our charade.  It feels so much better than admitting our own guilt, and people start doing stuff for us because we make them feel guilty instead.  

One thing I enjoy when I counsel people in our church is when I help them take responsibility for their own life and stop acting like victims.  They can finally leave their past behind and focus all their attention on fighting their problems and believing in their future.  It's amazing to see their transformation when they really do it.

The sad thing is that of all those I have counseled over the years, too few are willing and humble enough to take that step.  Many women have come to me with the saddest of stories of abuse or trauma, telling me that they want so desperately to be free.  But when they're challenged to forgive and to stop feeling sorry for themselves, only a fraction of them have proven that they really wanted to be free.  The rest slowly disappear with one excuse or another.  Maybe I couldn't understand their pain enough, maybe I was being too harsh.  Even after dedicating hours, being a shoulder to cry on and always giving them words of comfort and faith, they held onto their right to blame others for their suffering, like it was the only thing that kept them alive.  

I guess we shouldn't be surprised, Adam and Eve were the first to pull that trick (But he made me do it!)  We've got their nature, and as millennia have gone by, we've has just gotten more sophisticated in using it to our advantage.  Those women walked out of my life just as miserable as they came in; just more aware of the fact that they already had the power to change their lives if they chose to humble themselves.  But just like Mr. Garza, they preferred to cling to the very thing that was destroying them and in so doing they've chosen a long, slow painful death.  Sorry, but that's the cold hard truth.


Monday, September 29, 2008

Why am I not so worried?

Maybe it's because I am not an economic wiz-kid, maybe it's because I never bought a house at subprime rates, or any rate for that matter.  Maybe I'm callous and live on the fringes of society just looking in and watching all the newscasters blather about the way the country and the world is teetering on the brink of disaster, and I think, "Hmmm, that's too bad.  Now what was that new recipe I just saw on Food Network?"

I know, I must sound terribly irresponsible to care so little about the impending crisis, that we all may be lined up at soup kitchens begging for crusts of bread like in the Great Depression when the stock market crashed in 1929.  I actually do care very much about the future of my country, about people who may end up suffering terribly because of greedy financial institutions and politicians.  I care that our future is so unsure, especially with the upcoming elections that could cause the US to turn an even sharper corner into who knows what territory.

But there's a part of me that knows that no matter what, I have God as my security, even in tough times.  I can just see people rolling their eyes and thinking "Yeah, right, another religious cliche like all the other fanatics," but I tell you, it's a knowledge that's been tested through time and experience.  

Sometimes it takes extreme measures to bring out the best of our faith and the best of our character.  When we're stretched to our limits, we start to realize just what is important and what is not, and I know through the many ups and downs and twists of my own journey, I have learned to throw aside a lot of junk that I once thought I could never part with, only to be so graciously blessed beyond what I deserved afterwards. 

If you've ever gone through that phase of life where you had no choice but to sacrifice - either sacrifice doing what's right to do what's comfortable, or sacrifice what's comfortable for what's right - you'll know what I mean.  Making the sacrifice to do what's right hurts like crazy, and you feel like a part of you is dying.  And in fact it is dying: that part of you that loves yourself a little too  much.  But you let it go, and you understand that the pain is as necessary as lancing a boil.  The relief and joy that comes after the pain is amazing.  All of a sudden your life is lighter, simpler, clearer.  You are made acutely aware that life is more than what you want to have, but that it's about obedience to God.  And that is more empowering than any amount of possessions can buy. 

I have the audacity to believe that a financial meltdown can turn into a real spiritual awakening.  If that's what it takes to get people to surrender their lives to God, it's worth it - even with all the pain.  I grieve for the state of the US, and I'm not talking about Wall Street, but the way that God is rapidly disappearing from a land that was once a beacon of faith generations ago.  The security and strength of any country is directly linked to the strength of it's people's relationship to God and if we have to bleed a little, that's OK.  God is bigger than global markets, and when He is given a chance to bless, He blesses.  It's up to us to give Him that room.  After all, no sacrifice, no success.