Monday, June 27, 2011

Rain


I hear they're needing rain in Alabama.  My son is ready to hit some fire hydrants just to get some relief.  I know, Alabama gets hot.  Real hot.  I lived there for 12 years and never had a summer I liked.  If the rains are particularly stingy, which they seem to be so far this year,  the grass turns brown and brittle.  Add to that the mounds of fire ants and the weeds that persist on growing even in drought and that was my yard.   Growing up I was accustomed to New York summers where the grass was thick and lush green.   I'm not a bare-foot type person anymore, but back then I loved the feel of it between my toes.  As for the weather, of course it was hot.  Sometimes.  There were those occasional  periods when the mercury topped out and the humidity hung thick in the air, but it rarely lasted more than a week or so.  We always knew that comfortable days and cool nights weren't too far behind.  In the meantime we pulled out the water hoses and ran through the spray until our mothers told us we'd better quit because we'd used up enough water.  Ah yes, there was nothing like summer in New York.

As miserable as Alabama can be, however, it's not the hottest place on earth.  No, that honor should go to Honduras, the country where I spent the six sweatiest years of my life.  Perhaps I should have been better prepared, but Costa Rica had spoiled us I'm afraid. We went there first to study Spanish for a year in the capital city of San Jose where the temperature rarely drops below 65 or climbs above 80.  It's like living Spring all year long. And there's lots of rain.  We were introduced to the rainy season our very first day there.  We had arrived at the airport that afternoon with three kids in tow and lots and lots of luggage. Harriett Wittenberg, a fellow missionary who had just wrapped up her year of language study, met us there with a pickup truck she'd borrowed.  The rain had already started as we hurriedly threw our suitcases and boxes into the back of the vehicle, covering the load with tarps and securing them the best we could. She knew what was coming and wanted to get us to our new home as quickly as possible.  But it was too late.  We were on the highway for just a few minutes when it came, a hard-driving, wind-swept rain that lifted the tarps and pounded the contents in the back.  It was our initiation into a new home, a new country, a new culture.  But in spite of the wet containers,  I found the rain exhilarating.

It was rather strange living in a place where the timing of the rain was so predictable.  Larry and I had classes until early afternoon, and we learned that if we didn't head right home, we'd more than likely get caught in a downpour.  We had hired a maid, and the first thing she did upon arriving each day was wash and hang laundry.  If she'd waited to do it later on, we would never have had anything dry to wear. One afternoon, shortly after our arrival, we walked several blocks to the grocery store with all three kids.  We thought we were well prepared, all five of us decked out in our hooded raincoats that we had been strongly advised to bring with us.  The rain had already started as we came out of the store, large sheets of it hitting the sidewalk and splashing up under our coats and against our legs.  We must have looked like a family of ducks sloshing through the puddles in our slickers on that long walk home.  Needless to say, we were drenched and dripping puddles as we walked through the front door.  It's still one of my favorite memories.

A year later we stepped onto the tarmac in La Ceiba, Honduras.  But unlike the pounding rain that had greeted us in Costa Rica, here we were met by a blast of hot air that drained five very weary travelers.  We were to find that the rain wasn't so predictable here on the coast.  We would often go days without the welcome respite that only the rains could bring, a temporary relief from the stifling heat that never seemed to go away.  But when it finally came, everything changed. There was a sudden mad rush for swimsuits, the slam of screen doors and the squeals of children reveling in Heaven's gift.

Over time we would find other ways to survive the Honduran heat:  solitary beaches, cool mountain streams, breath-taking waterfalls and exotic island getaways.  We enjoyed them all and considered them God's special gifts to us, seeking them out as often as we could.   But life was also full of school and building projects and teaching and groups coming in from the States.  We were simply too busy to load up the car with kids and towels anytime we wanted.  But when it rained it didn't matter what we were doing;  there was always that same rush that culminated with the sounds of excited children coming from the yard below.

I have a favorite picture that sits on a small buffet in my dining room.  It was taken in Honduras on the Fourth of July, 1987.  Several American families had gathered to celebrate the day together at the mission home of Tom and Lydia Hines.  Even though the house wasn't all that big it came with a spacious yard,  perfect for families with kids who needed  to run.  It also had several trees which included a large sprawling monkey cap tree that offered an abundance of shade.  It had been especially hot that afternoon, so when a thunderstorm suddenly blew in, the children were excited and anxious to get wet.   The storm lasted for just a few minutes, but the kids ran for the downspouts that were still gushing out rain water.   And that's where some of them were standing when my sister grabbed her camera and took the shot.

There are five children in the photo, all drenched with their hair plastered to their heads and their clothes clinging to their wet skin. Two are mine:  Fawn, the only girl in the picture and Joel, the oldest and tallest, stands in the middle.  His friend Matthew is the one grinning from ear to ear with his hand on Joel's shoulder, and then there's a couple of younger boys, Ian and Erik.  The moment caught forever by the click of a shutter.

If I were granted three wishes, I would return for a little while to that place and that time.  I would wait in anticipation for the rain, eager to hear the slam of the screen doors once again and the sound of eager feet on the wooden steps descending to the yard below.  Then I would join them as they dance in the yard and stand under the eaves troughs, not letting any of Heaven's shower go to waste.  All the while I would watch their faces, soaking in the memories of children not yet burdened by life's complications or disappointments.  And I would pray for each one that when the heat becomes unbearable, God would be gracious and send the rains once again.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Breathing Again

If anyone's entitled to harbor hatred and bitterness, it's Brooks Douglass and his sister Leslie.  Their parents were brutally murdered by a couple of drifters in October of 1979. Brooks was 16, Leslie 12.  After serving for a time as missionaries in Brazil, they took a pastorate in a baptist church in Oklahoma City.  Brooks happened to be the one to open the door to Glen Ake that Sunday evening; he asked to use the phone. Richard Douglass and his wife Marilyn didn't hesitate.  That's just how they were, always helping someone out.  But Glen Ake was up to no good.  He and his partner, Steven Hatch, pulled their guns, tied up Brooks and his parents and then shot his folks in cold blood.   Brooks watched his parents die while his sister was being raped in another room.  The two men took what little they found of value,  proceeded to shoot the two younger Douglasses and  left the house believing they'd gotten away with it.  But they made one serious mistake.  They never checked to make sure the kids were dead.  Glen Ake would end up serving life in prison and Steven Hatch would die by lethal injection.

Brooks has written a book chronicling not only that horrible period  in his life but what transpired out of it as well. The years to follow were gut wrenching, and the insensitivity towards these two young people who had already suffered a horrible tragedy was deplorable.  Their home was repossessed, belongings were sold to pay medical bills, and the years of appeals and court proceedings opened up the wounds of these two young people again and again.  Eventually Brooks would go to law school, become the youngest state senator to ever serve in the Oklahoma legislature and would become a champion at passing legislation securing victims their rights.

The title of his book,"Heaven's Rain," is taken from a passage in the book of Matthew that talks about the rain falling on both the just and the unjust.  It follows the part where Jesus talks about loving our enemies and praying for those who use us.  The Message Bible puts it like this:  "You're familiar with the old written law 'Love your friend,' and its unwritten companion, 'Hate your enemy.'  I'm challenging that.  I'm telling you to love your enemies.  Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst.  When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves.  This is what God does.  He gives his best--the sun to warm and the rain to nourish--to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty.....Live out your God-created identity.  Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you."

One day while serving as a state senator Brooks was taking a tour of the prison where Glen Ake was incarcerated.  On impulse he asked to see him and was granted  permission.  It wasn't until he was actually sitting across from him that he realized how difficult this was going to be.  He had no idea how much rage there was inside of him, anger he'd been holding back for 15 years.  For an hour and a half he would look into the face of the man who had changed the course of his life, and it was this same man who would tell him how sorry he was at what he had done to him and his family.

The morning of the day that  Pastor Richard Douglass was murdered he would preach his last sermon.  It was on forgiveness.  This was the legacy that Brooks' parents had left him, and in spite of all that he and his sister had endured, his faith had remained intact.  As he sat there with his family's killer, he knew what he had to do.  He could do nothing but what his father had preached and lived. He looked at Glen Ake and said, "I forgive you."  This is how he describes what happened next:

"When I told him I forgave him, I remember falling back on the chair and literally feeling like my body was full of water and it was poison.  I felt like the water was floating out of the room and it was so surreal!  After 15 years I felt like I could breathe again.  I was almost hyperventilating because of that feeling.  When I walked outside, the leaves on the trees were green, the sky bluer.  All of my senses were heightened."

Matt Maher's song  "Alive Again" has a  phrase that says this:  "You broke through my darkness, washed away my blindness.  Now I'm breathing in and breathing out.  I'm alive again."   What was it Brooks said?   "I felt like I could breathe again."  I don't think he could have described it any better than that.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Encounter At The Lube Shop

We had come to Alabama for a wedding and I needed a manicure. I hated to bring it up because Larry was anxious to get on to Cottondale for the dress rehearsal later that afternoon.  But I hadn't had my nails done in months and wanted them to look presentable. Besides, what was another half hour. The Escort was on empty, we'd planned to fill up at a particular gas station heading out of town.  But because I had a preference for a particular nail place in another part of Prattville, we'd be leaving by a different way.  Larry dropped me off and headed to the Pace Car just up a block or so.  And that's where the story gets interesting.

I love the commercial where the guy at the train station sees the girl across the way, their eyes meet, and using his cell phone quickly buys a ticket for the same train as hers.  It not only changes the course of his life but the country's as well.  They marry and their child grows up to become President of the United States.  A chance meeting, an impulse decision and it changes the course of everything.  It reminds me that what we often carelessly term as life's coincidences aren't that at all.  An event or encounter that seems random to us may actually have been designed ahead of time.
  
Back to the gas station.  Larry had just finished filling up when he heard someone call his name.  Across the road from Pace Car is the lube place where he always took our cars when it was time for an oil change. The guys had gotten to know him pretty well over the years, he knew several of them by name.  He looked up.  It was William, the owner of the place.  Larry trotted over and shook hands with him.  They talked for a minute or two and then William said,   "I've got a guy from up north working for me now.  We call him Yank."  "Really," Larry responded. "I'd like to meet him.  Get him out here."  So William hollered and a young guy in his mid twenties emerged from the garage.

One of my favorite Bible passages is in Ephesians where Paul calls me God's workmanship created for the purpose of doing good works for others.  What's really cool is that these things are already planned, an itinerary so to speak,  laid out by the Father with situations and encounters meant only for me.  I'm not always aware of how this is playing out through my life as I walk this journey.  There's a lot I can't see.  But sometimes He lets me catch more than a glimpse of His working out the details through me, and when He does, it totally blows me away.

Back to Yank.  His real name is Brandon and  it turns out he's from New York just like us. "So where are you from in New York?" Larry asked.  "Elmira," was the reply. This whole thing was getting weirder by the minute.  "Really?"  Larry wasn't quite believing where this conversation was going.  "That's where I live."  Brandon told him what part of the city he'd grown up in and Larry told him where the church is that he pastors.  "Yeah, I know where that is," Brandon continued.  "If you turn right at the church and then turn another right, that's where my grandmother lives."  Larry didn't skip a beat.  "Oh, you're talking about Charles Street.  That's where I live."

Brandon had already called his grandmother to tell her about the encounter he'd had a thousand miles from home with the pastor who just happens to live on Charles Street.  So when we knocked on her door that first time,  I think she was expecting us.  As a matter of fact I paid her another visit this week., and she seemed  pleased that I'd come.  She's been having trouble with her feet and has a son with cancer so I asked if I could pray for her before I left.  She didn't seem to mind.  I'm still not sure what all of this means.  Like I said, there's a lot we can't see.  But one thing I know for sure is that I have a new octogenarian friend that I probably wouldn't have met otherwise.  I also know that there is Someone who's been working all this out for a purpose and I don't want to miss out on my part.   After all, this is the kind of stuff  I've been created for.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Little Girl and The Beggar

I spent an hour or so with Edith one afternoon last week.  That's not her real name, but I'll call her that anyways.  She's 81 years old and lives in a lovely apartment with her dog Bubbles.  Actually, that's not the name of her dog either, but that's what I've decided to call her for now.  I first met Edith one Sunday morning right after we came to Elmira, and it would be some months before I'd see her again.  The next time was at a church dinner, and we just happened to sit next to each other at the same table.  By the time the meal was over, I had decided she was rather brusque and a bit unpolished.  No, I didn't much care for this Edith person.  I didn't think about her again until I heard a passing comment several months later that she was a bit put out with the pastor who had never bothered to call on her.  I decided I cared for her even less.  Not too many weeks back, however, Edith was back.  And the next week she was back again and then the next.  "I think it's time we went to visit Edith," I said to Larry.

The door was already wide open when we got there,  she was obviously anticipating our visit.  She pulled herself up with her walker and opened her arms in welcome to embrace us.  Bubbles was in the background barking excitedly, her leash attached to the sliding glass door and hardly able to contain herself at the sight of company.  I found a chair nearby so I could fuss over her, at the same time taking in the room. It was surprisingly large for an apartment, bright and cheery from the light streaming in through the sliding glass doors and from the colors of her furnishings.  I liked it and felt immediately at home.

During the next hour I would learn that Edith had raised a large family, then went on to have a successful career as both a nurse and a teacher.  She had a husband whom she absolutely adored, left her job to care for him when he became ill, and grieved long and hard for him when he was gone.  I felt my throat thicken as she described that dark time in her life and how God brought her out of that depression through a pastor's visit.  But she didn't dwell on that for long.  This visit wasn't going to be all about her, she wanted to know more about these two people who had come to spend an hour with her on this lovely June afternoon.  She seemed as geniunely interested in knowing the details of our lives and family as we were about hers. When I was ready to leave I hugged her tightly and told her how much I really, really liked her.  "I like you too," she said and squeezed me back just as hard.  As Larry and I walked to the car, I knew what I needed to say.  "I misjudged her and I was wrong."

How easy it is to form quick conclusions about others, especially when we find them abrasive or rude.   I had stopped for a few items at the local grocery store recently and was pricing meat at the deli department.  As the woman working behind the counter approached to help,  I told her what I was doing and that I wasn't ready to buy.  She turned away in a bit of a huff and rolled her eyes to the ceiling.  I was shocked and indignant at the poor treatment I had just received and thought for a moment of filing a complaint against her.  But then I thought otherwise.  Sure, it's possible she might simply be miserable, someone who's never learned the art of courtesy. If so, she won't have that job for long.  But what if something had happened that morning to set her off, like maybe a child in trouble, or not having enough money to pay the rent or the responsibility of an aging parent requiring extra care?  I think it's only right to give her the benefit of the doubt. After all, I'd like someone to do the same for me. 

I learned a hard lesson many years ago on making assumptions.  I was shopping in El Ceibeno, a supermarket in La Ceiba, Honduras, when I saw this little girl, maybe six or seven, come flitting through the store.  She was into everything, touching the bags of eggs, pushing the buttons on the coke machine, never stopping for more than a few seconds before she was into something else.  She was having a wonderful time,  her eyes twinkling and with this big grin that seemed to be aimed at no one in particular.  But I couldn't help but notice how filthy she was. Her face was smudged with dirt, her dress hadn't been washed in who knows how long, and her hair was unkempt and dirty.  I saw poor kids all the time, but I was especially appalled at the condition of this little girl.  How difficult would it be for her mother to wash her face and comb her hair?  Couldn't she see how much she needed a bath?

As I walked out of the store that afternoon I passed the beggars who were sitting or standing in the shade that the wall provided.   And then I saw her, that same little girl who only minutes before had been playing in the store aisles.  But now she had her arms clasped around the legs of a woman standing not far from the entrance.  Her head was flung back, her smile wide and proud as she looked adoringly at the woman who was obviously her mother.  The woman was returning the smile, one hand lovingly placed on the child's head, the other cupped and thrust forward, silently asking those passing by for what they could give. I suddenly felt ashamed.  I knew why she was there, why she came day after day to beg. I looked into her eyes as I passed the two of them.  She never saw me.  How could she?  She was blind.