Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Stranger at McDonald's

Red and blue tube slides curved around the ceiling like sinuous snakes, and clubbed green helicopter blades whirled overhead. Kids scrambled up slippery slides, crawled through plastic tunnels, and emerged grinning on the floor, hair standing tall with static electricity.

Two brown-eyed children with curly black hair stepped apprehensively closer to the indoor playset, their curiosity drawing them nearer. They craned short faces to the ceiling, watching my son's hands bob and wave from various corners of the labyrinth.

"They're afraid," said a woman's voice behind me. "He was born premature, only five months old. He just slipped out of his mama, my daughter. He had a lot of health problems," she told me, long black hair falling straight around her shoulders and down her back. "His mind is like a three year old's and he can't see very well. No depth perception, so he's afraid. What to us is only a few feet looks like it's very far away, so the tunnels scare him."

Her grandchildren sidled closer to the steps leading up, and then pleaded for their grandma to join them. She grinned and padded up the winding stairs on her hands and knees. Fearful wails and shuffling sounds marked their path through the right side of the playset. Concerned for them and wanting to help, my seven year old Daniel called out cheerful hello's, waved his hands, and sent comforting messages echoing down the round hallways and intersections.

When the fear had loomed too large for too long, the three of them wedged around and made their descent, the grandma laughing gently and encouraging her grandson through his tears.

"Good job!" I cheered her as she emerged. "That's brave of you to enter the tunnels. Were they claustrophobic?"

"I'm Jennifer," I continued once she was settled on the ground again and her kids were busy playing.

"Pam," she smiled.

She shared hard things, and we talked of alcoholism's grip and the sadness of watching loved ones spiral deeper into fear and darkness.

"The ache is gone," she said in response to a question I asked. "It used to hurt a lot, but now I just pray for her and care for her kids, knowing God loves her too."

We talked, Pam and I, in the McDonald's playland, as a Hmong dad and kids entered and ate ice cream cones by the window. Five children ran through, past, up, and inside, and we talked about God's deep love, his ability to bring transformation and hope, and then we stopped and prayed.

Our smiles, as we parted, shared a sense of community and camaraderie, this stranger at McDonald's and me.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Verse that Can Carve New Meaning into You and Me

It was like tearing up a Rembrandt. Okay, not a Rembrandt, but still.
Painted by Rembrandt van Rijn, photographed by flikr user freeparking, Creative Commons, cc license
With several flicking hand waves, her eraser eradicated half her drawing. The intricately-sketched figure of a woman was now gone.

"It's all right, Mom," she laughed. "I can do it again." Bending her head, she worked intently, her penciled hand flitting, shading, and bringing to life people on the page.

A verse from Romans has held my attention this week, tangling in with a line from a song. The verse is a familiar one, but the last two words have sketched in meaning for me in a way I've never seen before. The first section of the verse rings in recognizable cadence: "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed..."

Suffering is a strong word that I won't lay claim to too quickly, but I insert "hard times, painful situations, hurts, losses, or struggles" into the verse for me and continue reading.

Those hard times are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed -- ah, yes, I'm familiar with this concept, I nodded. Growing up, I've been excited for heaven someday to see more of God's beauty and glory, looking forward to getting to know him more intimately, and seeing more clearly his plan and stories throughout creation's history. The glory of that over-arching plotline will be spectacular!

But the verse ended differently than I was used to seeing, and it halted me. Reading the last two words again and again, I saw "in us." The glory that will be revealed in us?

The song lyric that had caught my breath and tangled up into this verse unraveled: "There is healing in the pain." Healing doesn't need to wait until the pain is past. Healing happens in the hurt, during the pain.

"I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us," our Artist God inspired Paul to say about you and me. Yes, God's own glory and splendor can't be topped, but that he would say, "Your hard days and times, Jen, are not worth comparing to the beauty I am sculpting in you. There is healing in the pain. The beauty of me in you, of your spirit and will being shaped and molded into a work of art is worth it."

On the black leather couch downstairs, my daughter has already drafted another female form in grey lead. She was never worried with occasional erasures and re-writes because she had the final product in mind, and it was a work of art.

The woman on the page will be glorious art, to be revealed by the Artist in his time.

You are a work of art, my friend, and our Artist God gets all the credit. Pulling my Bible nearer and turning my heart and face to him, I'm trusting the process.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

When They Think They See Us, But It's Not

 They thought it was us, but it wasn't. It was him.

In a land where warm fresh bread was just a morning's walk away -- the long crusty-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside French baguettes-- and where buttery pain au chocolates "croissants" with inner chocolate streaks elicited moans every morning, everything was vivid. Our team of thirteen senior high students and adults savored the two weeks with our French friends. Partnering with a French church in northern France, we worked alongside them to reach out to and get to know the residents of Roubaix.

"Why are you here?" the shopkeepers and kebab sandwich vendors asked us, in warm wonder. "It's the poorest city in France," another one told us.

"We love Roubaix and the people of Roubaix," we told them. "God loves Roubaix and has given us his love for this city too."

Roubaix is a vibrant city full of Europeans, North African Algerians, Moroccans, Romano nomadic gypsies, and Middle Eastern peoples. Tall narrow rowhouses rub shoulder to shoulder down winding cobblestone sidewalks. Butcher shops display skinned lambs and chicken breasts; fruit venders corner the lanes, their apricots, peaches, and dusky purple grapes blushing out of slanted wooden crates. Bread shop boulangeries and patisserie pastry shops dot the avenues regularly, such a staple of a daily French person's life that they are more common than cathedrals and post offices combined.

We relished our time with old and new French friends, the two weeks passing entirely too quickly. They taught me about hospitality and generosity, their platters of chicken, garlic potatoes, and tuna fish appetizer salads brimming and spilling with food. They said our students' joy and love for God and one another encouraged them "like a breath of new life." I watched the ten American students run a three-day Bible Club for children, use mime sketches to share stories of God's plan from the Bible to rescue his creation from a broken world, and I smiled proudly at the hours of cheerful work the teens did again and again, often breaking into song while they worked. I saw the way they loved the kids around them, using broken French, English words, and lots of smiles. Love flowed out from them.

At the end of a beautiful evening at a friend's house, our host put his hand on his heart to thank us for coming. Overwhelmed by our host's gracious hospitality for us, we placed hands on our hearts and issued the grateful thanks right back. "No, no, it's our delight and joy to be here with you," we told them. "It's a pleasure to be with you," we said.

He demurred, touching his heart, and we saw it in his eyes. He thought it was us, but it wasn't.

He was seeing the beauty of Jesus in us, and it drew him.