Refuge for the Ragamuffins

Perhaps the greatest kindness God bestowed upon me in ministry thus far was sending me where no one else wanted to go.

My first youth pastorate was in a church nestled in an impoverished community. It came with no youth and no salary or hope of one.

Standing at the pulpit you could see out to a halfway house. A quick search of predators in the neighborhood surrounding the church house would leave your computer lit up like a Christmas tree. Evidence of gang activity abounded and drug deals were carried out in broad daylight.

At the end of the street were a couple of apartment buildings. If tenants called the cops on the dangers around them, they were evicted. If they didn’t make the ridiculously high rent the day it was due, chains were placed on their doors and all they had was gone.

I spent some time in one of these apartments with a single mom of two special needs kids. The entire apartment was smaller than most people’s living rooms. There she lived with her children and her parents. This mom found her way to our church after two other churches said they couldn’t handle her kids and asked her to leave. The myopic view of those churches was our good fortune as we gained this sweet family and heaven recorded a new soul when this struggling mama gave her heart to Jesus on her first Sunday with the words “I need a bath” (translation: I need Jesus to cleanse my sins.)

It was on a visit to this family that I heard the saddest thing in my personal recollection. The little girl, maybe 3 years old, unable to walk well, tried to chase after my husband when we left calling out “DADDY” because she had no concept of what a daddy was. This was the heartbreaking reality of this community.

Nobody wanted them.

Nobody was fighting me for the title of youth pastor here.

A lot of people wondered what I was doing there.

I sometimes wondered what I was doing there.

These were not the kind of young people I was accustomed to. Theirs were not the problems I knew how to give counsel on. I was raised in good schools, with two ever-present parents who loved me. And those were the kind of kids I spent most of my time talking with.

It’s funny, the kids like me spend a lot of time praying for direction on their future. That’s the number one thing I hear. They just can’t seem to get settled on where they will study or which career will fulfill them most.

These kids never prayed like that. I don’t think they saw a future for themselves at all.

Eventually, we started feeding the neighborhood. We went outside every Wednesday in the summer and played soccer and ate $5 pizzas and did the shortest devotion possible, trying to get a little Word in before the fights started breaking out.

I remembered complaints I used to hear in those “good churches” with the “good young people” back when I was younger. Members in those churches used to comment during outreach that those kids only come for free food. Those kids who track mud on the carpet and don’t know how to dress for church should know better. Those kids who only come if there’s a camp or trip coming up are detracting from the attention our kids deserve.

I thought about that attitude during one of these Wednesday night outreaches whenI realized why God sent me there.

I listened to some of the young people who had shown up “just for the free food” talking. They were comparing dads. The kids in churches I grew up in on the nice part of town did that, too. Except when we compared dads it was about their occupation, when these kids did it they compared their location-as in, which jail are they located in or do we know their location at all?

After the conversation was over and the pizza was gone, we packed up to head home, but these kids wanted to stay…in the dark parking lot…next to the halfway house…across the street from drug dealers. Where were their parents? Oh…that’s right. They were locked up…or maybe they were purchasers at the drug house…or maybe they were out trying to earn a decent living, but forced to leave their kids to fend for themselves in the meantime.

In waves, all those snarky comments I had heard, and at times, may have even said, about these ragamuffin types smacked me in the face.

Yes, they only came for the food…because they were hungry with no one to feed them.

Yes, they track mud in the church…because no one was home and they’ve been out in the elements for hours.

Yes, they show up for special trips and camp…because they want a family vacation, but they have no family.

Yes, they act out for attention…because they want a dad and mom and the only way they know to get adult attention is by acting out.

We were the refuge for the ragamuffins.

I thought I was really doing them a favor. I couldn’t have known the kindness God was showing me by sending me to them. He was breaking me of my pre-conceived notions of what ministry is. He was showing me the “least of these”. He was simultaneously showing me how blessed I am and how I’m no better than anyone else.

I’m begging you, don’t write off those kids or those teens or those adults. Even if you think they are taking advantage of you. Take them in. Teach them. And in the process, I assure you, they will teach you.

The Chicken Heart

My mom makes the most fantastic chicken soup on the planet. When I got married, I wanted to master this recipe because 1.) I wanted to show my husband I could cook like her and 2.) I figured it was impossible to mess up soup. I was wrong about that second one.

I called mom for the recipe and the first thing she says is, “you buy a whole chicken”. I had never cooked a “whole” anything. The closest I had gotten was a whole pizza (newlywed tip: always keep a frozen pizza around in case of dinner disasters. It’s a nice insurance policy). I get the chicken home before realizing I don’t know what to do with this thing next. So I call mom back. She proceeds to tell me there’s stuff inside it I have to get out. Say what???? I wasn’t looking for all this intimacy with my poultry. I may as well have gone out and rung its neck and plucked the feathers myself.

Gross.

So I did what she said, and a traumatizing 30 minutes and a few more ingredients later, I had my masterpiece.

Yeah, he better enjoy this after what I went through.

Needless to say, it was terrible and most certainly not like my mom made it. But, Andy chose to be kind. He said it was great and even insisted on seconds while I had personally moved on to “cook” that insurance policy pizza for myself.

Not only did he eat the awful soup when it was hot, he took more to eat the next day for lunch. It was so sweet. I knew he was going the extra mile to build my confidence.

After lunch, he called me to tell me a “funny” story. “Do you know what I found in the soup?” he asked. Not the question a new cook wants to hear. “What?” I asked with trembling voice. “THE HEART!” Yep. During that stomach turning sweep of the chicken’s cavity I left something behind. I was devastated, but he laughed and said he didn’t care. In hindsight, I guess it’s a good thing we had an extra heart around, since mine was broken. I wanted so badly to be what I envisioned as the perfect wife, and there was no way around being a great cook to fulfill that fantasy.

As I’ve gotten older and more experienced, I’ve learned that the idea of the “perfect wife” was a fallacy, but this dinner disaster showed me what real love is.

Love thinks about others before self. Love put my husband’s desire for a good meal before my desire to not disassemble the chicken. Love put my need to feel successful above Andy’s desire to push away the bowl. Love put that heart in the soup to show me that Andy didn’t love the idea of a perfect wife, he loved the imperfect wife he had.

I needed this experience to shatter the fear that I had to live up to stereotypes. I’m the woman God created me to be and my husband wants me to be. Nothing else matters.

P.S. After this debacle, mom informed me you could just use pre-packaged chicken breasts, thanks for the late info.

 

 

Stop Running Down My Wife

I’m a problem sometimes. I’m loud. I’m awkward. I’m probably annoying to many. Yet, through all this, my husband loves me. He knows everything about me and still chooses to spend his life with me.  When Andy and I married, he lost a few relationships because of me. He started finding that I was not welcome around some of the people he used to hang out with. Once we said our “I dos”, we became one, which means if I’m not welcome than neither is he. While he knows I’m far from perfect, he won’t allow anyone to “run me down” in conversation. If they do, it puts a wall between him and the other person.

This would also be the case if the situation were reversed, although, he’s pretty lovable and I’m almost always the problem!

When you run down a man’s wife, you are running him down. Eventually, your friend will realize that if you don’t have room for his wife in your life, then you don’t have room for him either.

And so it is with Jesus.

When we get into our little circles and bash EVERY. LITTLE. THING. about our churches, we aren’t just putting distance between us and the local church, we are putting distance between us and the Church’s Groom, Jesus. And before you say, “Lindsey the ‘Church’ referenced as His Bride isn’t the group, it’s the people who make it up”, I want to point out that these conversations we have are about THE PEOPLE in the Church.

We are flawed. We are at times unfocused. We sometimes get off course, but we are still HIS.

It’s popular to comment on how we want to be the “New Testament” church, but folks, they were a mess, too. The letters to the churches in the New Testament show us a group of people who were flawed, at times unfocused, sometimes off course, but still HIS.

Christ loved the Church so much, He died to make it holy. In fact, the Bible directs men to follow this example of the love Jesus has towards the Church in their relationships to their wife.

So what is so bad in your church that it’s worth making Christ feel, by extension, unwanted in your life? The music? The preaching? The teaching? We can’t really love Jesus if we don’t show love for His Bride.

You want to draw nearer to Christ? Stop running down his wife.

Shattered

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By the time my son was a year and a half old he was clearly a tech prodigy. He would steal my iPhone and face time or call his friends (his friends being my parents and our pastor, sometimes very early in the morning). At some point, after fighting a losing battle, I figured if he was that determined, at least I should fill my devices with educational apps so we can see something good come out of this obsession.

He loved the songs and the merriment and the games at his fingertips. He had access to the world, and it brought him great joy.

And seeing Kai experience joy gives me joy as well.

A couple of days ago, I let him use my iPad while I took an important phone call. About five minutes in, he started yelling, “mama, iPad!” “Yes, Kai, you have mama’s iPad” I replied, trying to get him to settle down. He was insistent on pointing out something, “MAMA, iPAD!” I drew near to make a very disappointing discovery-the screen was shattered. Kai had decided to pretend my hairbrush was a hammer and bashed it into the device repeatedly.

I quickly scooped him up and removed him from the area that now harbored countless glass shards hiding in the carpet. I turned on the tablet to see if would still work at all. The software was fine, but when my thumb slipped across the screen I knew it was unusable, as my skin was torn open by the destruction left behind. Kai continued crying for his, “pie-pad” and we had to have a conversation about how his actions broke it and it would never be the same.

I would be lying if I said it didn’t upset me. The funny part is that I wasn’t upset that he had broken my expensive electronic, I was upset that he wouldn’t have it for his enjoyment anymore.

A while later he came to me crying that his foot was hurt. Immediately, I figured out that a tiny piece of glass must have escaped the path of the vacuum cleaner. Just as I was about to point out that had he not destroyed the iPad he wouldn’t have gotten hurt, I looked into the pain in his eyes. It just wasn’t in me to belabor the point. I just checked his foot, kissed his “boo-boo”, and got down on my hands and knees searching for more rogue pieces. I swept my arms back and forth on the carpet for at least 5 minutes, determined that if any glass remained, it should pierce me and not him.

This has been the story of mankind’s relationship with God since the beginning. It’s a cycle dating back to Eden of God giving us a means of great joy, trusting us with it, watching as we carelessly destroy it, and then looking on us with undeserved compassion and affection.

My dad used to tell me something his parents said to him- “you will never understand how much I love you until you have a child of your own.” He was right. Not only has Kai shown me how my earthly father feels towards me, he has proven what my heavenly Father feels as well. When Kai came crying in pain that resulted from his poor choices, I couldn’t help but be moved to compassion for him. When we come crying out to our Father in pain resulting from our poor choices, He is moved as well. It doesn’t matter what our sinful decisions shattered-our relationships, jobs, bodies-when we cry out sincerely, He will come running to hold us.

As I looked at my hands at the end of the iPad ordeal, covered in cuts I chose to take in my son’s place, the Lord reminded me that’s what He did for me. Yes, I have to face earthly consequences for my poor decisions, but He bore the ultimate punishment so I wouldn’t have to-and so you wouldn’t have to either.

I know this may seem like a major leap to compare a broken iPad with the fall of humanity, but I’m a simple person with simple thoughts, and God spoke to me through the disaster area in my living room.

 

When Christmas is the Worst

As I’ve gotten older, the tone of the song, “silver bells” has changed for me. I used to envision those smiling faces and hear the children’s laughter its lyrics recall. I once heard those silver bells resounding deep and clear bringing in the excitement of the season. But now…now my mind can’t help but focus on those other words…words in the song like “busy” and “rush”. That’s what Christmas has become for most of us. While we bustle to meet the expectations set by seemingly effortless traditions before us and pinterest at our fingertips, we often fail to look around at those for whom Christmas is the worst.

Here is a list of a few groups for whom Christmas is often considered the least wonderful time of the year:

The grieving. Traditions are meant as a way to keep our families together. Whether it’s a special food or game or spoken word, traditions remind us  of where we came from. But for those who are mourning, they are a painful remind of how nothing will ever be the same. The pies won’t ever be a sweet as when mom made them. Monopoly won’t be as fun (or frustrating) as when dad used to cheat. The Christmas story won’t seem as sacred as when grandpa read it from the family Bible. Suddenly, the traditions that were supposed to keep our loved one’s memory alive leave us feeling hollow.

There is a specific subset of the grieving I want to remember: those mourning the loss of a child. I’ve had many friends lose a child this year. Some were gone before they were even born, while some perished in childhood and adolescence. For these heartbroken parents, they mourn not over traditions that will never be the same, but over those they never got to see. They won’t get to see their child wait up to catch Santa or find a new bike in the living room. They won’t get a photo of their grandchild on the jolly old man’s lap or hear their squeals of delight over ribbons and boxes instead of the gifts inside. Whether these parents lost their children last month or 20 years ago, nothing fills that void.

The outcasts. Nothing seems to make people feel more like an outcast like family gatherings. While people complain about “having” to go home and see their family, there are likely millions who have no home to return to. Whether they were cast out for one reason or another, or their family members have died, or they have moved away and have no way to keep that promise of being home for Christmas, it’s hard to view a holiday alone as anything but lonely. And then there are those who are surrounded by family and still feel all alone. The “black sheep” of the family often feel nothing but dread this time of year because they know their family’s fun will be at their expense. They know their portion of the family newsletter will be kept to a minimum. They know they’ll be judged for their lack of a spouse, or children, or an education, or a better job. They hold their breath and count down the minutes until they can leave, praying they can get through the landmine of Christmas conversation without being ripped to shreds.

The split-holiday children. Some separated parents do a phenomenal job of putting their kids before their anger, and those parents deserve to be commended. But, unfortunately, a large number of children are used as pawns in the battle of who can hurt the other party more. These kids are shuffled back and forth in an effort to give everyone a shot at making memories. For too many, those memories will include bashing the other household, before being rushed off somewhere else. Traditions are forced to change. New people come into the picture. A new environment must be learned. Soon, the idea of two Christmases sounds less like a fantasy and more like a nightmare.

The anxious. This group is probably the most forgotten in this season. Imagine for a moment that you struggle with crowds and sensory overload. Now put yourself in almost any location during the Christmas season. Malls, restaurants, churches, even your living room. Chances are, those places will be filled with people, loud noises, and flashing lights. It’s nothing short of tormenting. All these factors are multiplied by the constant demands that the anxious “be happy”. How can they experience the joy of the season if they can’t first feel its peace?

So what are we to do?

We need to slow ourselves down and remember the reason to celebrate. It’s not about presents or traditions or even family. It’s about God giving up His son, and Jesus giving up His throne. He came to be like us so that He could save us. If we really remembered that, would we honestly be so concerned about everything else? And more importantly, if we remembered why we celebrate, would we be so self-centered as to not notice those dying in our midst?

How can we serve these for whom Christmas is the worst?

For the grieving, offer a listening ear. Allow them to share stories of Christmas past. Let them know you share in their belief that their loved one was one in a million and worth remembering.  Find out what special things their loved one did for them and then find a way to fulfill that request yourself.

For the outcasts, offer a place to belong. Most families make way too much food anyway, one more place setting won’t hurt you and one more gift won’t break the bank. Some of my favorite holiday memories were created in the years we couldn’t get back to family so we welcomed those we knew were alone to join us. As a child, it was a great experience to hear how other families and cultures celebrated.

For those from broken homes. Be sensitive and exercise wisdom in conversations. Realize that they are in a situation they didn’t ask for. Listen when they want to talk, but don’t engage in the bashing of one side or another. These children are often forced to deal with adult situations, when they are around you, let them be little.

For the anxious. Stop forcing Christmas cheer. If they need a break, give them one. They are dealing with issues beyond their control. Understand, they aren’t rude or angry, they are being betrayed by their minds. They are probably even more frustrated than you at their actions.

May the Lord remind us of the wonderment of what He did, and may He make us mindful of those around us all year long.

 

 

Paper Bag Love

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My son Kai and I have found ourselves newly enthralled in an outreach of our local church. On Thursdays, some of the ladies visit local nursing homes. They have a devotion, sing, and allow the residents to share their thoughts. I had put off joining in because Kai is, well, “rambunctious”. He loves people, and he’s never met a stranger, but his high spirits can at times get him in trouble. I finally gave in last week and he did a great job! He walked around shaking hands and saying, “morning” and “[Merry] Christmas”.

This week the ladies of this ministry brought a special treat for the residents. After our service, we handed out bags with fruit and a few treats inside. I couldn’t help but think about my mom.

My mother grew up in extreme poverty. It would shock some of you to hear of the conditions she experienced in rural America. Christmas was always special for her, not because she got lots of toys or because she stayed up looking for Santa to shower her with gifts, because those were not realities in her world, but rather, she was excited because the local bank always did something special for their neighbors. The bank would open up and hand out bags with fruit inside. Every Christmas growing up mom would tell us about those bags. They contained an orange, an apple, a banana, and a candy bar. And that was the highlight of the season. Something so simple, but it stayed with her because it was an act of love in a paper bag.

Fast-forward 50-something years. That little girl, who somehow survived to adulthood, has thrived. She has traveled the world, worked hard, and built a fine life, but never forgot what it is to have nothing. Even in very lean years, she was always generous. Times growing up when we didn’t have much, she still made it a point to be a “giver”.

And what did all that giving “get” her?

It got her a grandson who happily spent his play time handing out love in a paper bag. It allowed her to see the embodiment of Psalm 100:5, “For the LORD is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations” because not only did she make it through by the Grace of God, she has seen her children’s children be blessed and bless others.

As Kai was “working the room” yesterday someone asked me how many generations of preachers are in my family. I proudly responded that I’m the third as far as I know. The inquiring lady smiled, pointed at my two year old, and said, “then he will be the fourth. I can already see it.” As a mother, I guess I’m supposed to hope he enters a more lucrative field, but what’s a more fertile field than the harvest before us? My heart leaped at the thought that my son would spend his life in joyful service to his Master.

I pray that my son always thinks of others before himself. I pray he always finds his deepest joy in serving those who need to borrow from his peace. I pray that he recognizes how blessed he is. I pray he possesses the generosity of his grandmother. And I pray that we all realize in this season of over-indulgence that love doesn’t have to come from the fanciest store or be wrapped in the most expensive packaging, it can be found at the bottom of a paper bag.

 

There’s Something About That Name

I just left practice for my church’s upcoming Christmas play. One of the featured songs isn’t what most would call a “Christmas song”, but it has a special place in my heart. “There’s Something About That Name” was the background music during what would be one of the most life changing days I’ve experienced.

It was an August morning a decade ago when I decided to take what some would call a “fateful” trip to Atlanta, Georgia to see my then-boyfriend. My mother protested my decision, but in the end, decided that if I was set on going I should at least take her car, which she believed to be safer.

For some time, I had been living a double life. I was deeply involved with my local church, but doing whatever I wanted when I was outside of its walls.

I was stubborn.

I was foolish.

I was disrespectful.

I was living for my own pleasure.

I was also driving down a frightfully busy interstate.

About an hour outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee my iPod shuffled to this old song. Having always loved the rhythm and power, I sang along,

“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus/There’s just something about that Name/Master, Savior, Jesus/Like the fragrance after the rain/Jesus, Jesus, Jesus/Let all heaven and earth proclaim/Kings and kingdoms shall all pass away/But there’s something about that Name.”

Just after reaching the chorus, I noticed the cars in front of me swerving. There was a portion of a tire in the road, I panicked and swerved like everyone else. But unlike everyone else, the SUV I was driving collided with a guardrail, first at the front fender, then the back bumper. Everything moved in slow motion at first, until the second hit shot my vehicle across several lanes of traffic. The force of the collision slammed my body against the driver’s door, ruining my shoulder girdle for years to come. Out of control and fearing these were my last moments on earth, I threw my hands up and screamed out for the Name I had just been singing.

Miraculously, and with no help from my own self, I made it to the shoulder of the road opposite the guardrail. It was as if a hand had picked up the car and placed it exactly parallel to the interstate, feet from a drop off, facing the correct direction. I sat in shock at what had just happened.Had it not been for a kind stranger stopping and calling the police, I’m not sure I would’ve had enough wits about me to know what to do next.

The impact broke the car’s axle nearly in half, totaling mom’s car. I called my parents, upset and embarrassed, partially over the wreck and partially at my earlier behavior. I just knew they would unload on me when they came to pick me up. But that’s not what happened. They held me, told me “it’s just a car” and thanked God I was okay.

They were thankful I was alive. Me. A selfish, mean girl who had only hours before told them I was going to do what I wanted, regardless of their feelings.

That trip wasn’t “fate” after all. It was God extending mercy. He allowed me to come within inches of death so that I could see grace personified through my parents.

I had taken them for granted…just as I had taken Him for granted.

I had disrespected them…just as I had disrespected His work on the cross by living how I wanted.

I had broken their hearts just as I had broken His.

But…

Their love was unconditional…just as His is.

They desired to hold me…just as He does.

They forgot all my hurtful words and decisions…just as He did.

That day, just as the song says, my kingdoms passed away. The life I thought I was building began to dismantle. Every time the weather turns cold or I over exert my shoulder, I’m reminded of that day and how good God was (and is) to me. I was spared for a destiny. I was spared to be the wife to a man I had not yet met. I was spared to be a mom to a child I didn’t even know I wanted. I was spared to share testimonies like this in the hopes that someone knows what it is to have kingdoms that must fall as well.

There is something special about that Name. When I called it out that day, I was crying out for exactly who the prophet said He would be-“Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6)

The Wonderful Counselor who has the answer to any question.

The Mighty God for whom nothing is impossible.

The Everlasting Father who loves me no matter what I do.

The Prince of Peace who would be there when my lifestyle finally caught up with me and chaos tried to swallow me whole.

When I thought I had arrived at the end, my lips cried out for the Name that had been engraved in my mind long ago. There truly is something about that Name, and there is NOTHING to compare to it.