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On the Road to Prison

Like most Mondays, I met my friend Jeanette at Panera last week at 5:45 am. We picked up coffee, prayed for safe travel, and began our three-hour drive to prison, where we teach scripture.

We drove on I-355 and merged onto I-55 to head downstate. But as the car crossed the divider, it must have hit an icy patch. The car swung out of control and shot towards the right side of the highway, across three lanes. As Jeanette fought to swing the car back to the center, the car zigzagged left, right, left, and then a final right. . . To my horror, we were flying off the road, on two wheels! The front of the car, which was airborne, nose-dived into a deep ditch. We smacked the ground, hard. Now mired in a deep muddy ditch, we were facing oncoming traffic. Trucks and cars hurtled past us on the highway, just a few feet above us.

We were not hurt, but we were stuck. We tried to start the car and get it moving, but it was useless. The wheels were buried in mud. A car stopped by to check on us, and the driver told us to call the State Police and a tow truck. That wasn’t an option.We had to get out of that ditch in five minutes if we wanted to make it to the prison. The women were waiting for us, and we had a great lesson to share. Some of these inmates were hungry to learn more about scripture.

We prayed desperately and then started the car again, hoping for an answer. Instead, the wheels dug deeper into the mud. Then a huge truck stopped on the road and its driver called down to us. He told us he had a rope. He tied it onto a hook under the car, and in a minute, his truck was pulling us up on a 45-degree incline. He shouted for us to drive. I wondered which was worse: sliding backwards into the ditch, or charging forward into oncoming highway traffic. We climbed up and somehow, the car swung sharply until we straightened out, a few feet from the edge of the ditch. We emptied our purses and waved our helper over to offer him every dime we had, but he declined.

We thanked God and shakily drove to arrive at the prison at 9:01a.m. As soon as we entered the classroom, our students pointed to our mud-caked shoes and clothes. So we shared our morning with them. Our prison sisters expressed amazement. They were surprised that we would drive so far to teach them. They appreciated how desperately we wanted to show up.

We affirmed the theme of our class lessons: that we must always work as if for God. We also talked about what God had taught us that morning: That in life, we can often end up in trouble. In the ditch. Often it is our own sin and fault, but sometimes it is not. And if we are stuck and helpless, we can pray for God to deliver us. We asked for the wheels to move, but God’s ways were not our ways. Instead, he sent us a kind man and a rope. Our part is to pray to God and trust He has heard us.

The day ended as another great prison Monday. Thank God for allowing us to serve these sisters. I knew in coming to prison, we would often see God’s hand at work. I did not expect our first sighting to be when we were spinning out of control on the highway, flying on two wheels. Next Monday we are going to change lanes very early from the 355 to the I-55 and stay far away from the ditches. But should we end up in the ditch again, we know there will be a rope.

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Beyond the Weeds

I live on a quiet, cozy dead end road in the Chicago suburbs. It’s a beautiful place to live and escape from the bustle of the city, but sometimes it gets a bit too quiet. One summer, everyone on our road decided to liven up our annual block party with a tractor race.

When the day came, every family in the neighborhood showed up to cheer the fleet of noisy tractors and drivers. They all drew up to the line, eight tractors  ready to charge. From the distance, one late tractor came slowly chugging .The driver, sitting upright, white hair tied under a floral scarf, steered into the ninth position on the far left.

Murmurs of disbelief rippled through the spectators as everyone recognized her – the widow Doris Riser who was 85 years old, the one who lived alone in the corner house , with the lawn overrun by weeds. Lawn did seem like a generous term– it was a neglected muddy field pockmarked with ditches. At times we wouldn’t see her for months. In a block of young, family-raising professionals, Doris was a confusing, bizarre presence.

There was quite a bit of snickering as everyone got a close look at her with huge sunglasses, strings of beads and  multiple charm bracelets. It was an odd spectacle, the small old lady next to the bunch of competitive drivers who were stockbrokers, doctors, business executives and an ex Marine Corp.

And then the race took off, as the nine tractors bellowed and surged forward.

The tractors fought for position on the road, all eight. But the ninth, Ms. Riser’s, swerved sharply away from the road towards the lawn of the first home. She rode her tractor up the muddy embankment until the wheels clawed their way on to the lawn. Her white hair came loose from her scarf and she hunched her small figure on the orange tractor as she proceeded tearing through seven lawns. We all shouted in fear as she wove around the trees like a slalom skier going for gold.

She, however,  seemed young and fearless bouncing on her tractor, and it was evident her speed was outstripping the eight men bunched together on the road. Finally she swung back onto to the road and was now out in front waving her arms jubilantly as she made it first to the finish line five yards ahead of the ex-Marine.

“I have a good tractor,” she said modestly.

We looked at her flushed face, crooked huge sunglasses and flying white hair and we could barely take in the audacity of the embankment climbing, lawn tearing, tree weaving performance we just saw. Gone were our snickers.

But the part of the story not openly shared was that many of us, who laughed when we first caught sight of her at the tractor race probably felt very ashamed at how we wrote her off.  We saw her age and her odd appearance and felt instantly she did not belong in the tractor race.  We remembered her messy lawn and wondered what she had to offer. We felt she was no match for her younger, professionally-successful and confident competitors. She did not look like she could win anything.

So often what the Bible calls “ the least of these “ are judged by some trait we consider  undesirable and never given a chance to show what they can offer.  We saw the weeds and messy lawn and formulated our opinion of Ms. Riser long before the tractor race.

The poor, the destitute, the alien  and the formerly incarcerated are most vulnerable to this type of judgment. Our judgment attributes their circumstances to qualities that allow us to question how deserving they are of receiving our help. This kind of judgment stifles their potential to grow, contribute, rehabilitate and hardens us as people lacking in fairness and mercy. Grace will open our eyes to see our one-ness in our common humanity.  Pride, instead will  put us on a higher and less loving perch as their judge.

The widow Doris Riser passed away at 99. Her tractor race legend lives on as a testament to her grit and feistiness, and my personal lifelong reminder not to judge. So friends, if this little story resonates, let it swing us away from judging those who are different  and vulnerable. In the most cracked, muddiest of places, let us not point at the weeds but instead see beautiful opportunities to bear fruit.

With joy,
Choonie

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Life is Better With Jesus (By Kani Wagner)

A Note from Choonie: This testimonial of faith  is submitted by one of our readers, Kani Wagner. I have heard Kani often talk about white-knuckled faith, holding on to God in the hard and testing moments of life. Kani’s journey has brought her to a place of assurance that God indeed walks with us.

Jesus is the only thing that makes sense to me in this crazy world.  I have spent most of my life as a textbook, first-born, people pleaser which can create a lot of internal conflict for an adolescent growing up in a military family who moved every few years.  Many schools I attended were not used to military kids moving in and each school presented a new cultural challenge to fit in socially.  I often felt I was playing a game I didn’t know the rules to, always at a disadvantage, until God grabbed ahold of me at a Christian summer camp when I was 13.  Soon after, my mother gave me my first Bible.

I had never read the Bible before, but today as I look through the pages of the same Bible and see the pencil underlining of verses I read during tearful, lonely days as “the new girl” and numerous other difficult moments the teen years are notorious for, I quickly recall the inner peace those words brought me and still bring me today.  His Word takes the guess work out of life for this people pleaser.  In a world I often don’t understand, filled with people who confuse me even more, for me it’s simply referencing in the Bible what would Jesus do?  Twenty-five years later His word is the only answer that has consistently relieved my challenges and given me peace.

In Jesus, I find unparalleled comfort and reassurance that regardless of what life throws at me I will always be OK.  As 2013 came to a close, I heard a sermon in which the pastor reminded us “…we don’t know what kind of year 2014 will be.  For some it will be good and for others not so good.  The only guarantee we have is Jesus.”  Hearing that message instantly brought my favorite scripture verse to mind,

And we know God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.   Romans 8:28

The sermon reminded me of a difficult time I faced when my husband lost his job recently.  With this trial, God showed me I had put something in priority over Him.  Having never been driven by money or material possessions, I thought I was doing pretty well in my relationship with God.  I never realized how much I idolized job security and the reliability of a paycheck until it was gone.

He also showed me I am not putting all of my faith in Him.  At a time when my normal reaction would be to call family or friends to hear words of reassurance that all would be OK, I felt as if I could hear God saying, “No one but Me.  I am all you need.”  For days I didn’t speak to anyone aside from my husband and children and spent every moment I could in prayer or reading the Bible, “white-knuckling it” as I held tight to all Jesus promises us.  After about a week, to my surprise, I was praising God for the blessing of the job loss and all He was teaching me.  I was ready for the long-haul with Him, wherever it may lead.  This was an experience unlike any I’d had before.

As faithful as I am to Him, Jesus is more faithful to me.  At one time or another we’ve all received a reassuring wink from someone that tells us we’re on the right path and heading in the right direction.  A few years ago I began to be very aware of “coincidences” occurring in my life that were too similar to prayer requests of mine to be random.  It felt as if God was winking at me.  As I began to share these experiences, I called them “Godwinks” and not too long after I was given a wonderful devotional I didn’t know existed written by Squire Rushnell, titled “Godwink Stories.”  That gift in and of itself is a Godwink for me, but I’m eager to share a couple others with you:

On one of the more difficult days following my husband’s job loss, I was struggling to fight the temptation to worry.  Sitting at a red light with a white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel as I prayed for the worry to stop, I looked across the intersection and saw a huge tanker truck with “Psalm 91:11” painted on the front of the trailer just behind the driver’s cab.  Five minutes later I was able to stop the car and look up the verse, “For he will order his angels to protect you wherever you go.”

Moms can be hard on themselves when it comes to raising children.  On a particularly emotional day following a temper tantrum I’d thrown when my kids wouldn’t cooperate, I found myself sitting in my car in a grocery store parking lot crying and praying for help because I was convinced having me as their mother could not be in the best interests of my two children!  In the middle of my tears I hear a text message come in on my phone.  It was from another mom I’d had numerous “parenting is hard” conversations with and I have a lot of respect for her as a person and mother.  I had not had any contact with her in a very long time, but it was during that moment of doubt and insecurity she texted me.

Nothing in my life compares to the inner peace and joy I have found through my journey of following Jesus.  It is a journey and He has shown me that it is unique for each of us, but that doesn’t stop me from praying for everyone to experience the overwhelming assurance I have felt in Him.  Life is truly better with Jesus.

With love, joy, and a prayer for you to see your Godwinks,

Kani

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13 Ways To Make This Year Truly Different

Twelve months from now, you can look back at 2014 and see just another year . Or it can be that year when life started to take a new and surprising turn…

Today is the New Year; many are in a hurry to kick off newly-minted resolutions. I have self-improvement goals that are rolled on from year to year, because I have made little progress–weight loss, organizing my house, cooking lessons.

However, I am in the season of a different kind of exciting change. There are goals that I have taken on, that have resonated with my inner desire to grow spiritually and these seem to have taken root with greater ease and bore more fruit. They definitely have added freshness and vitality to my spiritual life, and set me on my life’s great adventure.

I have adopted these changes over a span of a dozen years. Each change was preceded by a prompting from within; its adoption became more of meeting an inner need and receiving an Intriguing gift rather than a difficult against-the-grain discipline. I share these with anyone curious or open but not yet set on this path.

Here are 13 ways to bring God into the New Year.

1.Read the Bible. I have been reading the “Bible in 365 Days” or you can join a Bible study. At first it may seem hard, but if you stay with it, it becomes a daily activity that can comfort, illuminate and encourage you. The Bible reveals to us God and His truths. Daily immersion will instruct us, convict us, build our faith and guide our everyday life.

2. Belong to a local church. Find a church where you feel you can connect with others, commit and contribute to. Involve your whole family so that church becomes a vital part of your family life.

3. Pray more frequently and more fervently. Create a time and space and prioritize this as the most important part of your day. When you face difficulties, pray before you talk to others. And pray with your family and friends every chance you get. Soon you will be praying throughout the day. Faithful and fervent prayer brings us constantly into God’s Presence, and instills our desire for a close relationship with Him.

4. Join a Small Group. Key to your spiritual journey is to have a small group of believers with whom you can authentically share your faith , your problems, and be mutually accountable. The Women of Faith has been a soul-enriching community for me.

5.Read books of deep faith. Here are some authors whose works are both powerful and soul-searching.

  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Cost of Discipleship, Life Together)
  • Thomas Kelly (Testament of Devotion)
  • Thomas Dubay (Fire Within)
  • Francois Fenelon (The Royal Way of the Cross, The Seeking Heart)
  • Basil Pennington (True Self, False Self)
  • Jean-Pierre de Caussade (The Joy of Full Surrender)
  • Henri Nouwen (Here and Now)
  • John Wesley (Holy Spirit Power)
  • Oswald Chambers (Our Ultimate Refuge)
  • Pope Francis (Open Mind, Faithful Heart)

Spirit- led writers will uplift us as their thoughts, their words and their lives challenge us to holy living.

6. Live daily with a powerful devotional for encouragement. I am reading Ostwald Chamber’s “My Utmost for His Highest” together with thirty other friends and we regularly share what speaks penetratingly to our circumstances. Chambers challenges us to surrender our lives unflinchingly and to offer “our utmost”.

7. Share the Gospel. I have been given the opportunity to teach scripture both at the Women of Faith and to inmates in prison. It is extremely faith –building for me to witness the growth and transformation of those in our community who authentically receive the Gospel. I am in awe as I see lives dramatically and divinely changed. The very act of sharing the gospel makes us personally very accountable to what it teaches.

8. Invite someone to church or your small group. My friends and I go ‘fishing’ in laundromats, fast food places and food pantries to invite new members for our Women of Faith group. The Great Commission is Jesus’ command for all His Followers; none are exempt from this command Out of gratitude for having been led into a community, we seek to bring others into our community. The newcomers as they open up to fellowship and faith bring joy to the whole group.

9. Minister to the “least of these” as in Matthew 25. Our Women of Faith community serves the jobless, single working moms and those with incarcerated family members. To experience true community, we have shared not only the Gospel but our lives and our resources. By God’s grace we have been together for eight years.

10. Visit the sick.  I am walking with a few very ill believers. Their ability to see God’s goodness in their difficult health situations provides a very inspiring and challenging perspective to live my life. The very ill are all around us.

11. Mentor someone. I have mentored women in my small group mainly in the area of surrendering their lives. In mentoring, we are discipling others and encouraging them to surrendered faith. Those I encourage often end up encouraging me by their desire to grow. They have also become my trusted and faithful ministry partners.

12. Do something way out of your comfort zone. I felt called to start a blog on faith last year. It is something I never thought I could do as writing is difficult for me. After three months I am still persevering by God’s grace and the Spirit’s content as I am never sure what to write.

13. Start a ministry. In January, six of us women will be starting to teach scripture in a prison. Some of us have taught, but never before in a prison. We are excited for this opportunity to bring hope to inmates.

Friends, I am sure you have your own list of meaningful changes, changes that have helped to prepare your heart and mind for stronger faith. I would love to hear about them! Ostwald Chambers writes in “My Utmost for His Highest”  that sanctification  (which is transformation of our inner being)  is totally God’s work, while consecration, which is making choices for a holy life, is our part.

The question for all of us is : “Are we paying attention to our part?”

I wish you the best whatever you feel called to undertake and I hope this year will be for you, the year of great choices and wonderful new beginnings.

Have a happy and hopeful New Year,

Choonie

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The Christmas I’ve Been Waiting For

Does Jesus know how hard we work for his birthday?

Today is December 15: T -10 days.  Like every year, I am stuck in the same place: too much to do, too little time left.

Driving past the neighborhood homes transports me into a winter wonderland of twinkling lights and Christmas pageantry. Sadly, I haven’t gotten around to it yet; my house is the only unlit one on the block; my tree is scandalously undressed. Daily trips to the mall, lugging three shopping backs in each hand become an Olympian task. My store bought cookies quiver in shame next to everybody’s homemade goodies.

In this holiday season of joy, I find myself drained, stressed, and exhausted. January is starting to sound good.  I can almost hear Jesus saying ‘”Martha, Martha, Why are you so anxious?”. I wanted to make it the best Christmas ever…but why?

Truly, whom am I doing it for?  Myself?

Well, the last few years I have retreated  from my “Best Ever” Christmases. With my kids growing up I have weaned myself from the delight of seeing them rip open presents. I have given up writing Christmas cards. I enjoy my neighbor’s splendid exteriors and join in the Spirit with one modest wreath; I have purchased some Christmas movies for home rather than heading downtown for the big Christmas shows. And for a few days we go away somewhere together to spend more time listening to each other.

And now I am starting to hear like I have never heard before. Many nights in these quieter Christmases I sit before my simple beautiful tree and listen to the divine messages woven in the carols. It is like I am hearing them for the first time.

What a message of hope in the words of “O Holy Night” : “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices; for yonder breaks a new and   glorious morn.”

And this persistent divine invitation spelled out in “What Child is This?”: “ Come rich and poor to own Him; Let loving hearts enthrone Him.”

We are told of the entirety of His gift in”O Little Town of Bethlehem”: “Where meek souls will receive Him still: the dear Christ enters in.

I remember I used to listen this way. As a child, I grew up in a small town in Malaysia and stayed there for many years before we transplanted to bustling busy Singapore.  Life was simple and so was Christmas. There were no presents, no trees, no Black Fridays and Cyber Mondays, and Santa was an invention of the West. And I adored the Manger in the Cathedral near our home and I listened to the radio and memorized Christmas carols and all the timeless words of Heaven’s promises. Some years I even sang in the Christmas Choir that aired over the radio.  Those were my early Christmases, very little doing and a lot of listening. Less Martha, more Mary. Heaven got my full attention. Those were the years when this season unfailingly filled me with awe and I wanted Jesus’ Birthday to go on and on…

I wish you a  “Mary”  Christmas,

Choonie

 

 

 

 

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The Best Gift I Ever Got

What is the best gift you have ever given or received?

As we enter into the season of giving, my mind wanders to the best gifts in my life.

I invite you to do the same. It does not have to be wrapped or even intentionally planned as a gift. It can be an act between loved ones or with strangers. It can be any gift at any time that touched you in the receiving or giving of it.

During my freshman year in college, I was a tour guide. I was assigned to a New York family. The mother was a second-generation alumna and very interested that her daughter perpetuate this legacy; the parents and child had driven from New York to the campus and were assigned to me as a special attention tour for alumni families. The mother and daughter were very particular and their eyes lingered over every bedroom mattress, bathroom sink, and washing machine. I recall they had few questions on academics and a lot of questions on opportunities to meet nice young men in our women’s college. I loved my college life and tried to reassure them with upbeat responses of favorable dating statistics. As mother and daughter disappeared into the washroom, the father who had been silent until now signaled to me, took out his wallet and pulled out some crisp notes equivalent to a week or two of my pay. “This is for you; good luck with your studies.”  I told him this was my summer job and he said, “I want you to have it “ I looked at his kind face and the amount he had given me and was astounded and thanked him greatly.

I told my story to the other tour guides and they shared my surprise. Tour guides don’t expect more than a few halfhearted “thank-yous” or the occasional smile. To all the people we showed the campus, we were just guides, marching them down a scheduled path, reciting a scripted speech. But the man from New York saw me. And I don’t know exactly what he saw, but I can guess.  I was a foreign student, far away from home, living on campus in the summer. I had tried to accommodate every request to visit additional parts of the campus not on the normal tour, and I had worked all summer. It moved his heart to unusual generosity, which I experienced as lavish kindness. Even now after so many decades I can’t forget my reaction; I was overwhelmed and the world seemed full of goodness, and I wanted to be able to give like him. And that was the best part of his gift–not the money, but how his act affected me. His act showed me how much I can touch any person, if I am willing to see them and respond to their need.

I have had many opportunities to imitate this gentleman from New York. And I have carried his example with me, even over 40 years later.

One such moment was when I visited a friend in Rush Presbyterian Hospital. In the gift shop was a gorgeous indigo hydrangea plant in a beautiful pot with hints of mother of pearl. It was rather expensive but I wanted it very much. So indigo hydrangea in both hands, I was heading to the parking lot and saw a small thin lady hunched over with a mask and marks on her arm. I knew the signs of cancer. I was about to pass her and I thought about how many people were suffering from cancer and how powerless I was to do anything for her condition.

As I walked, my pot felt heavy in my arms and I felt a prompting. Something made me look at my hydrangea and stop in front of the lady. “Oh, no,” I thought, “ that’s for me.” And then I saw the brown paper bag where she carried her overnight stuff, and  I pictured her in a small apartment recovering between chemo sessions.

I could tell her life was difficult and her home surroundings perhaps even drab. I offered her my stunning flowers. She talked through her mask “For who? For me?” Yes, for her and my heart felt joy then and long after, whenever I envisioned her eyes lighting up, surprised by the flowers.  And these hydrangeas will forever bloom in my memory.

I saw this lady and her need to be encouraged and to enjoy something beautiful just as the kind man saw me, a young student far away from home, working hard. Once we have truly seen someone, they and their lives matter to us.  They are not strangers. In that moment we belong and are connected, as one family.

If we open our hearts, the Spirit will lead us this season  to see someone and to meet them at their need. I have a friend who has the butcher deliver meat anonymously to her jobless neighbors. I have another friend who pays for piano lessons for the musical child of a single mom trying to make ends meet. A few friends and I have just bought a puppy for a young person going through difficult life changes. Each gift is different because each meets a real and different need.

May we have eyes this Christmas to see someone and their need; may we be moved to give the best gift we have ever given and experience the deep joy of true giving.

I wish you a joyous Christmas,

Choonie

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Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Blogged by Choonie Cladek

Stuck and Suffering

I dislike assigned seating.  Social functions with assigned seats are like signing up to step into a trap. In truth nobody understands us and we don’t always know ourselves , so how can we entrust any hostess to seat us next to a compatible enjoyable partner? And I understand reciprocal feelings are shared by my dining partner. The first year of my first job, at the company formal, someone in Human Resources actually placed me next to the CEO for dinner. I was sure after three hours he wondered who was responsible for my hiring!

Others may appear to love their seating partners but I always get the bores, the braggarts, the “ know-it-alls” and their small talk has the feel of crawling ants . Who I sit with at the table makes the meal and I consider it my right to choose. That’s why I dislike those little place cards with their fancy calligraphy which well meaning hostesses adore.

Doing life too is somewhat like having our own table with seats. We get to pick who we want at our table – our loved ones, our extended family, our close friends, our neighbors, those who have helped us and those who may help us.  And what a happy table of “Me and Mine”, people who share our tastes, values and upbringing, people who appreciate us and make us comfortable.

But when Jesus knocks at the door of our hearts and we let Him in, everything will change. We have to pull up another chair to make room for Jesus at our happy table of “Me and Mine” We can honor Him with a spot with good access to all the food; or we can place Him next to the spiritual cousin who will know the right thing to say; or next to our kid who falls asleep in church and needs more religion or best of all next to self so we can sense His presence and catch His every word. So many seating options to place Jesus!

My favorite is  the seat next to me. That way, everybody would know I thought highly of my guest and I could be seen personally serving him, rushing to fill his plate and wine glass. And of course, it would be easy to get His ear on some difficult issues in my life where I needed some urgent divine fix. Yes next to me will kill several birds with one stone!

And then I started to truly get involved with Jesus, and the gospel came alive with these strange urgent messages:

“Love God with your whole heart, mind, soul and strength”

“When you find the pearl , sell all. When you find the treasure, sell all.”

“If you want to be my disciple, give up everything.”

Here Comes the Guest

I keep reworking the table arrangements over and over again to optimize His place and then going back to His words of  wanting  my whole heart until…like a sharp light piercing me I finally understand what seating arrangement he wants. I know now,  He does not want the best seat, nor access to the best food, nor my best attention. He wants me to rise up and ask everyone to leave the table with me, and then turn over my whole table to Him. Then he, not me, will assign the seats to my table.

 He will seat Himself, then He tells me where I get to sit, and then he decides who gets to sit at my table and my goodness, he will bring in many of His family that are not of “Me and Mine”. He will bring in neighbors who are very ill, forgotten relatives who are jobless, then strangers who are unchurched,, ex-incarcerated (into my home!!!) single moms, all His family, not my genes. He may even drop some of  “Me and Mine” to make room for His guests.  He probably hopes that I will get up to graciously welcome and serve everyone and believe it or not, it won’t even feel like my table anymore; it will be His and my life will be His! That’s what I think He wants.

So will I rise to surrender my table? Will I open my home to God and his incredible guest list so different from my “Me and Mine’ (The bores, braggarts,  and “know-it alls” may even seem easy  compared to His guests!)  We thought we could invite Jesus in and accommodate Him nicely in our existing lives, but He wants to turn our lives inside out!

Friends, we may all have to check our tables and find out who is assigning the seats.Who are you doing life with ? Are you totally focused on keeping it“ Me and Mine”?  Or have you surrendered your table for Him to entertain His guests so your meal resembles the Kingdom feast.

With Love and Joy

The Women of Faith

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Stagestruck and Awestruck

Missing Genes

Do you have secret dreams?

I have always nursed dreams for my children. They stay a secret because they are mostly mine. My dreams evolved from my yearning to offset generations of left-brain imbalance.

I have examined four generations of my family and notice a troubling pattern. We are a clan of logical left-brain problem solvers, be it in computers, engineering, medicine, science or business. Spanning these four generations we may have one lonely right brainer – my younger daughter who is studying journalism. No wonder our extended family conversations have a flavor of the hierarchical logic of a Power Point presentation-– next sub-point please!

My secret dreams are for my kids to be performers with flair– any kind; I am not choosy, just on a stage.  I know the genetic odds were working against me. With sacrificial vigilance, I chauffeured them for decades to endless lessons with great teachers for voice, piano, other instruments, ballet and modern dance. But I have spent a chunk of my life chasing shadows. I have invested for poor returns. I have finally set my lighter down and no longer try to ignite wicks that will not catch the flame. Great instruction alone does not do it.  For the wicks to inflame, there must be the flair. There were just a few hopeful moments….

Dreams of Broadway

One such moment was in middle school, when the descendant of engineers and bankers came home in great excitement that she had a part in the school play.

These plays were huge events and she was soon in a swirl of rehearsals, props, and costumes. My daughter sizzled with excitement; I offered to support with making costumes, which she declined as she knew the needle and I were strangers. But she did press me to bring my whole bible study group, everyone in the Women of Faith. –“ We are so talented, so professional, like Broadway” Finally a daughter of mine would be on stage in a production of “Oklahoma”, which I had never seen. I was in great, great anticipation.

Opening night came and I decided to go with my husband and son and invite all the Women of Faith after we scouted it out. It was a truly vibrant, captivating performance. We had great front row seats .To our right was the family of the male lead and they were excited that he had performed five solos. To our left was the family of the female lead and she had sung six songs flawlessly. I noticed we were an hour into the show and I had not seen a trace of my daughter. And then she came. She had such a radiant smile. She was one of the seven ladies in the park pushing strollers. She gave a little wave to acknowledge us: she flashed by in one minute and was gone.

After the show she came out jubilant and breathless “ Weren’t we great, and I helped to do my friends’ hair, and I told Pete nobody noticed his mistakes…”

I couldn’t even register what she was saying. Ringing in my ears were replays of her past words “we are so talented, we are like Broadway….”

 

I’m OK. You’re OK

And now I was truly confused. I had come to see my daughter act and sing, possibly the first of a long string of future stage performances. Instead she pushed a stroller across the stage for a flash appearance of sixty seconds. And she shared this sliver of limelight with six other lady strollers!  She was totally excited about a performance for which she had an insignificant part. She talked incessantly about her peers’ talents and she delighted in doing their hair!

And then I started to understand.  Of course she knew she had a small role but she could still enjoy, and celebrate the performances of others, and marvel at the beautiful show. Her joy in their combined efforts was unaffected by her own part, her own talent, her own self. What freedom, to have such a response to life! And now I too joined in her excitement as I have discovered something about my daughter that is far more exciting and deeper than her stage presence. The lighter to ignite stage passion seemed so trivial, and was forever discarded.  Even descending from four generations of nerds did not seem so terrible!

 

And Small is Beautiful

She was showing me something that was not scripted for the stage  -a self, small enough that it left plenty of capacity to experience awe. She could marvel and enjoy without gauging and comparing everything through self. She could see things for what they were regardless of what they were for her. Were we all also unaffected and clear-sighted when we were young, and have we lost any of it?

The size of self affects our ability to see others in wonder; it also influences how open and authentic we are to others in the ways we interact, value, celebrate and love them. Even more it shapes how we relate to God, and whether we are able to know Him, as He wants to be known.

A large self makes it difficult to relate rightly to God; we will have difficulty surrendering to His will and instead want Him to assist us to fulfill our will. A large self will always lead us to a small God, whom we then fit into the nooks and crannies of our lives; to this small God, we assign a place and role, as we need Him. In contrast, a small self can more easily experience a huge God, submit to this awesome God and be moved to worshipful amazement and wonder. Only one of us can be big – either us or God.

May your self be truly small so you can see a huge and awesome God and His magnificent Creation. May you worship Him in the center stage and rejoice in your tiny part in this great Kingdom production.

With love and joy

The Women of Faith

 

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In Defense of Slow Drivers

Blogged by Choonie Cladek

 

Persecuted Minority

We slow drivers are the  stench of the highway. ,There is such an irrational  bias for speed in this world. But if all is right and fair, slow driving should be the norm; is it not safer for the driver, better for the vehicle and environment? Unfortunately, where speed is concerned, there is no appeal to reason.

I have been practicing slow driving for the last twenty years and I am getting better with age. For this I have, sad to say, invited a lot of unsolicited feedback. There was the state trooper who followed me and suddenly turned on psychedelic lights and siren in hot pursuit like I was a common criminal! He strode up and tapped on my window, then burst out laughing when he saw me. His words are forever etched in memory: “I thought you were a lot older”.

Then there are those friends I give rides to, who tap their right foot throughout the journey as if they are sending out Morse code. And my otherwise kindly neighbor next door threatened to get out of his pick-up truck to push my car if I didn’t drive faster. I can’t forget the colleague who passed me heading in the opposite direction. He actually called me on my cell to tell me to speed up; there was a mile of cars crawling behind me in the one lane road, trying to get back to the office  after lunch hour. And of course, my bible study sisters, the Women of Faith, who squeeze like sardines into any car to avoid entering my vehicle. Finally the not-so-nice drivers who creep up and suddenly blast their horns because they suspect I need to be jolted to wakefulness. But why? What is wrong with slow driving?

 

Drive Like We Live

Anyone can speed; it does not take brains, just a heavy foot. The road does something to our personalities. Even the timid take off like a lion! It is hard not to notice that few drive like I do and I have asked myself why I drive so slowly.

Is it because I can only do one thing fast, think or drive fast?  If so, I prefer to be a fast thinker and drive like a snail. Sometimes I have even wondered if everyone is created with a personal speed barrier that our bodies are attuned to and mine unfortunately must be about 20mph or 30mph slower than the rest of mankind. But I also like to think that our driving speed reflects the tempo of our lives. My slow driving subconsciously mimics the deliberate and measured pace at which I travel through and experience life.

 My life was not always measured and deliberate. My earlier years were more characterized by racing than slow driving. I was very goal-driven, and goals can take over our lives. I went through so many years of goal-setting and goal attainment. I also notice that many of the goals I set and strained hard for, even when attained did not bring the fulfillment I was looking for.

Screen Shot 2013-11-01 at 4.13.06 PMIt did get me admitted, hired, promoted and exalted, and exponentially increased the pace of life. There were years of busyness, with little surplus left for other than a few relationships. Life had the feel of being in a finite enclosure, and within this, I was racing from goal to goal, with each goal setting up the next. I felt pressured and out of breath. I did things well but lost sight of why I did them. And I never had a moment to spare. Have you met such focused people?

Today I have slowed down. I would not be honest if I told you I have completely given up the opium of achievement and busyness, but I am beginning to catch small glimpses of another way of being, another way that beckons to me. Life seems more open, and I seem to have more time. And time feels different when it is not jam-packed with activity. It opens up to surprises and gives each day freshness and a hint of adventure.

I am slowly shifting from activities to relationships. I am not as attached to  schedules and goals. People and their troubles are becoming more important.  I am in a soul-enriching community in the Women of Faith and we find time to cook for each other and to listen to each other. I am like a person who is looking up and noticing my surroundings for the first time. Creation is stunning, my hymns are beautiful, my passengers who are not tapping their right foot are wonderful companions, the sun and sky are radiant and God is near. I understand now that compassion is not accomplished by speeding along through conversations and racing through relationships. And seeking God’s presence takes time, lots of time to pray, wait and listen.

 

A Change of Pace

Have you driven in a funeral procession? Last week I was in one for a four-mile ride. I did very well pacing myself in the dignified procession of cars with bright orange stickers. I was feeling relaxed and started to slow down. Immediately the funeral car from behind me sprung forward and overtook  me -one, two, three, and four funeral cars from the same procession cut in front of me racing ahead to the cemetery. I shook my head in disbelief.  Will Heaven send someone to tell them, “Why are you racing to the cemetery? She is no longer there; she is up here with us! “

Sometimes our overdeveloped right foot may not allow us to slow down, and you may feel slow driving is an insult to your personhood. Then approach this question of pace differently; look at your goals where you are channeling yourself. Ask yourself what you are hurrying for. Only one goal matters for the life journey – traveling hand in hand with Him.  All other goals and activity fall from this.

One more thought– if you see a cheerful red Fusion driving a slow 35 mph in front of you, don’t push me, don’t blast your horn, don’t overtake me, don’t make primitive hand gestures. Just accept me , come alongside, roll down your window and shout something heartwarming  like “ain’t it a slow and gorgeous day?”

 

With love from all of us

The Women of Faith

Photo Cred:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/rcsj/

What is “flying upside down”?

Blogged by Choonie Cladek

The Burning Flame

I am always in awe when I see passion—

My 16-year-old nephew who loves chemistry and starts Ebay bidding wars to gather chemicals for his home lab.  My older daughter who carries a backpack of math books to the beach and relaxes with Harmonic Analysis, tuning out volleyball players. We are most creative and most alive in our passions.

I see passion and drive everywhere. Joy and inexhaustible energy are poured into little tasks that touch the great loves and fascinations of our lives. My friend, who aspires to make perfect sandwiches for her children’s school lunches and runs around for the best bread and freshest meat; my own children’s lunch boxes testify to an absence of passion.  Swimming is pure joy and I swim thirty laps every day till my overworked shoulders plead for therapy. Mothers with great determination suffer through Suzuki screeching sessions for years; their dream is to see their child in Symphony Hall. And men and women at train stations hurry off to work to give their best– some come back in the evening with filled briefcases to give more!

 

Fueled By Imagination

Vision is how we imagine life can be, while passion describes the intensity with which we pursue this vision. The interplay of vision and passion produces the combustion that drives our life choices and the goals we chase after.

It is not uncommon to see in everyday life a great passion for a limited vision. The vision is limited because the dreams and goals are of material gain, career success and achievements that are only associated with our life on this earth. None of this vision extends beyond our time here.

We believers on the other hand, have been shown a great eternal vision. We have a powerful vision of a loving God sacrificing His Son to redeem us, the awesome gift of an indwelling spirit to transform us, and the promise of eternal life after death. God’s vision for us dwarfs any vision our imagination can conjure.  His vision is incomparably superior to our dreams of good colleges for our children, financial success, and golden retirements.

But God’s magnificent vision somehow does not excite and move us to sacrificial heights; it does not incite our passion as our own more limited vision does. We are far more fired up by our own vision for our lives here. Could it be that we never really bought into His vision, and that our limited vision is more real and more compelling?

 

When passion and vision collide

Still there are some among us who are passionately gripped by God’s great vision. Their lives look different from the rest. For when passion collides with vision, something very special happens. It is as if these people have flipped over and have learned to fly upside down!

I have heard this term used before and do not claim to be original. But for the life I am trying to find, “flying upside down” has a special meaning. The gospel has distinct notes of this upside down reversal — last is first, to lose is to gain, and to live is to die. Following Jesus requires a fundamental inversion and flip of what is conventional, comfortable and even logical.  We are upside down when we find our gravity in the pull of this countercultural gospel.

Right side up flyers have their eyes and hearts on the world. But upside down is the position we are in when we are facing heaven.

So what does an upside down flyer look like? I see quite a few upside down flying stunts in my everyday life. They often hit me first by their strangeness and then a joyous recognition that they are flying upside down, aligning their path with a divine compass.

When my friend Ray closed his office furniture business, he started volunteering at the pantry.  One day he came in and announced with a big smile that his former suppliers had offered him a good position with benefits, and he would have to terminate his volunteer work. But strangely he showed up to volunteer the next week and the next. Puzzled I asked him about the new job.

He told me that the job wasn’t his to take. He had asked the furniture company to hire his former store manager, a single mom with kids. He said she needed the job more than he did. Ray recommended her and she was hired, while he continued volunteering at the pantry.

There is also my mother’s oncologist Dr. Alvin. While other oncologists are careful not to accept too many of the uninsured, he takes on anyone that seeks his care. I suspect that may come at a cost to his financial reward in the hospital. But Dr Alvin is not deterred, as he also donates most of his pay to the Sisters of Mercy. On Friday nights he opens his small house for prayer and worship for the janitors, cooks, bus drivers and working poor who make up a large part of his patient base.

These are but two of quite a few upside-down flyers I have seen. I met a few more last week: Manny and his friends visit prison inmates and run a house to rehabilitate the ex-incarcerated, share the gospel and help them to find work. Joanne is a nail technician and on her day off visits the loneliest elderly in nursing homes to give them loving attention and a beautiful manicure and pedicure.

Look out for them, they are there and they are different. Their life choices are puzzling to the rest of us. They act like they are receiving, not giving and that they are not doing anything different– and that is truly upside down!

I hope you too catch sight of these upside down flyers in your everyday life and better still, try some upside down stunts for the joy of it/

God’s best from all of us.

Women of Faith