Sunday, December 10, 2017

An Unlikely Pardon

“Forgive us our sins, and help us forgive those who’ve sinned against us." ~ Matthew 6:12
Her son's killer stood on a chair blindfolded, his hands tied behind his back and a hangman’s noose around his neck.  Hundreds crowded outside the prison in a northern Iranian town to watch the mother, Alinejad, exercise her right to kick the chair out from under him to let him hang.
Her only son Abdollah (18) had been stabbed and killed in a street brawl.  He’d known his killer, Balal.  The two had played soccer together.  Years earlier, Alinejad’s youngest son Amir was killed by a motorcycle that Balal was driving.
Under Sharia Law’s concept of an "an eye for an eye," families of murder victims are often given the final word over whether convicted killers live or die – a legal concept that has drawn sharp criticism by international rights groups.  Iran executes more of its own people than any other country except China.
They also have the option to show mercy as an act of charity and a chance to atone for one's sins.  But after dreaming of revenge for 7 long years – she wanted Balal dead.
Seconds away from what would have been his final breath, a weeping Balal begged for his life one last time.  "Please forgive me," he shouted, "if only for my mom and dad."
An angry Alinejad climbed up on the chair and shouted back.  "Did you have mercy on us?  Did you show mercy to my son?" she demanded.  "You have taken happiness away from us.  Why should I have mercy toward you?"  Then she slapped him hard across the face.
Balal's fate then took an unexpected turn.
She forgave the convicted killer.  Immediately she “felt the rage in my heart vanish and the blood begin flowing through my body again.”  Then bursting into tears, she removed the noose from Balal’s neck.  By lawful declaration, he’d been pardoned from the death penalty but would still serve the remainder of his prison sentence.
Some in the crowd applauded.  All appeared shocked.
Balal's own mother reached across the fence separating the crowd from the execution site, and embraced Alinejad before reaching to kiss her feet – a sign of respect and gratitude.
But Alinejad refused and instead gestured for the woman to stand up.  “After all, she was a mother just like me," she recalled.
Weeks later, Alinejad has found a peace lost since her son's death.  "Losing two children is like losing parts of your body.  All these years, I felt like my body was dead.  Now I feel very calm.  I'm at peace; vengeance has left my heart."
Alinejad's decision was widely publicized by the semi-official news agency, hoping to encourage more victims' families to consider choosing mercy over retribution.
Almighty Father, I believe that your son, Jesus Christ died for my sins, was resurrected from the dead, is alive, and hears my prayer. Please become the Lord of my life, to rule and reign in my heart from this day forward.  Amen

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Gentle Giant

“Your own soul is nourished when you radiate kindness." ~ Proverbs 11:17
Henry Ellis was a man of routine.
Each morning, Ellis left the ‘Eddy’ – an inexpensive flop house for the poor with nowhere else to live, and walked six blocks to the Waveland Cafe for breakfast.  He perched himself on his favorite counter stool every day.  The diner’s employees always knew his order - an egg sandwich with a half order of french-fries and 3 Cokes.
To them, he was part of the family.  They knew him by name but mostly referred to him as “Gentle Giant.”  He’d usually make a bit of a mess so they knew to provide extra napkins.  As one of their most beloved customers, they enjoyed his daily visits.  And he loved the camaraderie.
When the old man would describe his life, locals were instantly transported to another place and time.  His voice was slow and he stumbled on his words.  Sometimes he’d be overwhelmed by emotions and would pause to collect himself, recalling memories that’d been buried for decades.
At times he’d appeared excited to weave a tale.  Other times he seemed to be honoring a solemn duty to remember the past.  After speaking for a time he’d often nod off into a little catnap, seemingly exhausted from the energy required recalling bygone days.
"Our paths crossed almost every day,” remarked Carole his favorite waitress.  "He had a great heart.  If there was ever a break in his routine, I’d be sure to ask the rascal what he’d gotten into.  He’d pause, and give some random reason, but mostly it was my way of letting him know that he had a following of people who cared about him."
But his routine was tragically broken when the deadliest Des Moines fire in a decade took the 71-year-old's life.  His absence was instantly noticed.  The Waveland CafĂ© staff and other regulars mourned his death, but nothing could fill the seat that remained empty.
But they found a sweet way to remember their “Gentle Giant.”  They set up a makeshift memorial in his honor, leaving a cup of coffee, sugar and extra napkins for him as if they were still serving him.  They also left a note, his photo, and a flower on the counter across from Henry’s stool.  Regulars donated money to cover the funeral expenses of the other fire victims too.
“Although he’d never walk through that door again,” Carole added tearfully, “We wanted everyone to know how much he meant to us and that he’d surely be missed.”
Such a simple gesture … but a powerful message.
Like the ripples radiating from a pebble dropped in a pond, kindness pulses out after each of our actions and has a contagious effect on those around us.  Make somebody smile today, it’s so worth the effort.
Dear God, if I can’t be brilliant, let me be kind.  If I can’t change the world, let me inspire just one other to do so.  If I can’t give away riches, let me be loving.  Amen

Friday, December 1, 2017

Second Chance

"The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love." ~ Psalm 86:15
Karl massaged his throbbing temples, glancing at yet another flash card.  As the figures blurred together, he pressed his forehead onto the card hoping that might stamp it to his memory.  As a 6th grader, he had to find a way to pass the math midterm.
Stifling a yawn, Karl rubbed bleary eyes.  Despite his best effort, this was just not working.  He pushed the chair back and decided to make a little ‘cheat sheet.'
For the week leading up to the exam, Karl studied really hard.  At one point, he almost thought he didn’t need it.  But on the day of the test, he put it in his pocket - just in case.
Faced with a sheet of math problems, Karl started freaking out. In less than an hour his fate would be sealed.  He choked down rising bile and placed the cheat sheet under his desk.
Then he closed his eyes and said the little prayer below.  Almost immediately, Karl felt a calming presence wash over him.  His focus became razor sharp.  Attacking the problems with vengeance, he didn’t even need the silly cheat sheet.
Karl proudly placed his fished work on the teacher’s desk.  In his exuberance however, he completely forgot the paper he’d left on the floor; one that had not gone unnoticed by a glaring teacher.  Busted – for not even using the dumb thing.
Karl felt so embarrassed.  “This couldn’t be happening to me!”  He waited outside the Principal’s office until his teacher arrived after class.  When he saw the disappointment on her face, he wanted to cry.  Only in his silent prayers could he speak to God and beg for mercy.
Karl tried to explain how the cheat sheet had given him the confidence he needed to complete the exam without using it.  Even he thought his account was hard to believe.
But his teacher did believe in second chances.
“For your punishment,” she began, “you’ll create a completely different exam.  It must be at least 100 good, thoughtful questions long.  I’ll choose 25 of them for your make-up exam (imagine the lesson here).  A perfect score on your test will gain no better than a “B.”
“And don’t even ask what will happen if this ever happens again,” the principal added.
Karl learned two lessons that day … the hard way.  His teacher helped him and so did the principal.  No one had ever done that for him besides his parents.  And secondly, intentions are as sinful to God as completing the act itself.  But one of the amazing facets of God's character is His incredible patience with us.
“Dear God, I know there’s probably no prayer that can change a "D" to an "A" but I still need Your help as I take this exam.  Let there be a peace that flows over me when I walk out of the classroom after knowing that I did my best to prepare. Thanks”  ~ Karl

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Hidden Scars

“As Christ does for you, help carry each other’s burdens and troubles." ~ Galatians 6:2
Every year, when winter starts to drag and they wanted to more activity than simply walking to and from classes, Tim and some friends burned a little energy by cheering on their high school basketball team.  Screaming and cheering was good for a few calories they reasoned.
When the Warrior’s captain swished a 3-pointer to take an improbable lead, a younger girl in front of them jumped to her feet.  She threw her hands skyward.  Faded scars ran down the length of one arm; small cuts veered across the large vein on her hand.  She quickly jerked down her sleeve.
While self-injury can be a squeamish topic, Tim knew it was an important one.  He had no training, no experience, no morbid curiosity - just a caring heart and grace-fueled courage.  He waited until they were leaving the gym after a disappointing overtime loss and approached the girl.
"How long have you been cutting?" he asked quietly.
She gazed into his soul, liquid eyes seeking acceptance or at least some refuge of understanding.
She motioned toward a more secluded area and slowly raised her sleeve.  It revealed the map of emotional pain.  "I've never told anyone before," she said.  "I'm only talking to you because you didn't freak out.
Tim learned over burgers and cokes, that Ally was a ‘cutter.’  Publicly she had everything together.  But inwardly she was a boiling cauldron of stress, family dysfunction and unresolved agony that had erupted into self-mutilation.  He listened empathically without interrupting.
“At first it was just safety pins,” Ally revealed.  “But like other addictions, the cuts needed to be sharper and deeper to obtain the same level of relief.”
In the beginning, the external scars were a visual catharsis that represented the internal wounding her family had inflicted.  But now Ally suffered at the point of utter desperation.
Eventually the two became friends.  Tim helped Ally find a Christian counselor skilled at unlocking the root of her struggles and helping her deal with stress in a healthy way.
Ally’s not alone.  In fact, Teen Vogue recently called cutting “the new anorexia.”  Chances are, you personally know someone who self-injures.
Cutting is more than a stress relief, it is a cry for help.  But the question is - what are you going to do about it?  You don’t need formal training, just a caring ear.
This week, pay careful attention to the conversations and encounters you have with your friends.  If they seem to be disengaged or have drastic mood swings, it may indicate a problem.
It may be an opportunity to engage them in discussions about the love of Jesus and the healing that comes through the Gospel.  God ain’t afraid of the tough stuff.
Healing Lord, please ease my pain.  Take all my rejection, despair, loneliness, anger, frustration, and sorrow away.  Have Your blood cleanse my heart and help me see the love, joy, and acceptance that You have for me.  Amen

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Thankful Despite ...

“Whatever happens, keep thanking God because of Jesus Christ." ~ 1 Thessalonians 5:18
It was never about the spiced maple turkey for her.  Nor did the sausage stuffing, carrots, mashed potatoes, or cranberries define the day.  She had to admit that Thanksgiving would never have been the same without Pecan Pie and Pumpkin Cake.
To her, being able to sit around a table lined with family - that was simply magic!
Thanksgiving Day began early, with Martha’s family gathered around the kitchen table for a special, once-a-year breakfast.  Between bites of fresh cinnamon rolls and sips of eggnog, they’d record the year's blessings on notebook paper: “landing a new job, making a new friend, getting a driver’s license, earning an ‘A’ in Algebra.”  No item was too small for the list.
Once they’d filled their pages, Martha would reach for the family's “Thanksgiving Journal” that contained lists from the past 37 years.  As they sifted through the pages, they’d recall key milestones: moving into a new house, starting their own business, entering college, marriages and grandchildren.
Tears and laughter flowed freely as they read about a 4-year-old's appreciation for a new bicycle, the swing set inherited from a family at church, their first dog and memories of loved ones who’d since passed away.
Shortly after breakfast, the turkey went in the oven, the card table transformed into a puzzle area and football entertained those inclined.  But the heart of their Thanksgiving happened despite the day’s chaos - when they added the year's memories to a growing collection of God's blessings.
Martha’s eyes fluttered as her dreamlike state shifted to reality.  She first became aware of the musty air and a mattress as lumpy as oatmeal.  She sat up and took in the homeless residents around her.  Waking up can be really harsh, especially if your dreams were better than reality.
Her life had changed dramatically when her husband passed away last spring.  Since then, she’d lost their home and business, a storage unit with a lifetime of assets, and been sexually violated.  Her string of back luck didn’t end there.
While sleeping in a friend’s car a few weeks back, Martha became very ill and was rushed to the hospital.  When she was well enough to be discharged, they’d accidently thrown away what few belongings remained.  She left the hospital in scrubs and a threadbare blanket.
But on this Thanksgiving Day Martha was fortunate enough to secure one of the 30 beds the Baldwin Shelter made available for the night.  And tomorrow, they’d share a holiday meal of processed turkey, candied yams and mashed potatoes.
The shelter was clean and warm; the staff kind and nonjudgmental.  And she had her FAITH.  If she still had the family’s Thanksgiving Journal, she’d add several pages of the things that she was thankful for right now despite the setbacks and disappointments.
Dear God, I’m thankful for all of it.  The highs, the lows. The blessings, the lessons. The setbacks and the comebacks.  The memories.  The love.  But most of all, Your grace!  Amen  ~ Martha

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Poor Philanthropist

“Help carry one another's burdens." ~ Galatians 6:2
Jalen’s family was as dysfunctional as it was large.  His mother Jolene’s hunger for procreation looted their already meagre budget.  With each new sibling the resource pie got cut a little thinner.  There was rarely enough food to provide even a hint of relief from starvation.
Today would be one of those rarities, however.  His grandparents invited the family and a few close friends to celebrate Jalen’s seventh birthday to a picnic in the park.  No presents – but plenty of fried chicken and all the fixin’s.
Just as the candles were about to be blown out, Jalen noticed a woman and a small boy rummaging through the park dumpster for food.  He begged his mother to invite them to the party.
There’s something about hunger that robs the spirit and the body.  In the throes of severe malnutrition all emotions that could thwart a person's ability to fight selfishness are switched off.  At least that's the way it was for Jalen’s mother - Jolene said “No!”
His head sagged.  He would have given away his last grain of rice and a hug to go with it.  They were poor but they never rummaged through a garbage container full of rodents, broken glass and dirty diapers for food.  But he wasn’t about to spoil one of the best days of his life by starting a nasty argument with his crack-addicted mother.
As Jalen continued watching them, his grandfather handed him an envelope.  It contained a crisp $50 bill and a handwritten note suggesting he spend it however he wanted.
The argument that he’d hoped to avoid erupted between his grandma and his mom.  Jolene objected to her son receiving such a large sum of money.  Mom wanted the money for the ‘family’ but grandma knew it would have gone to fuel her habit.
“Jalen can do ANYTHING he wants with the money,” grandma insisted, thus ending the debate.
So he did.
Jalen walked over to the dumpster and handed the entire amount to a woman he’d never met.  He explained with more maturity than most twenty-seven year olds, that it just wasn’t right for someone starve when hunger could be prevented.
His grandparents understood how powerful it was for a boy to give away the only money he’d ever seen.  Sadly, Jolene never did.
Jalen paid dearly for his actions that night by the wrath of an addict who hadn’t scored.  But to him, every bruise was worth it.
Jesus taught that in reality, we are all poor.  We’ve all felt “hungry,” that is, unfulfilled, uncertain about life’s purpose?  Who hasn’t been exhausted by the day’s work or by life itself?
The most fruitful works flow from a heart of inclusive love heightened by understanding one’s own poverty.
Here I am Lord, accept my poverty, hide my sin in your wounds, wash them away with Your blood.  Allow me to trust in Your goodness so that I too, may become more capable of mercy, patience, forgiveness and love.  Amen

Monday, November 13, 2017

Memories of War

“God is our refuge and strength; ever-present in troubled times." ~ Psalm 46:1
When I was about 10, my Dad and I sat with Grampa in his den.  I asked him about a small painting of a rocky snowcapped peak he’d made with strokes of blue, gray and white many years ago.  He looked at it for a moment, able to see his ghostly reflection in the sheen of glass that covered it.
The image awakened memories long forgotten; echoes of that hospital stay jarred his mind.  (I later learned that he’d painted it while recovering from his wounds in a hospital after the war).  Suddenly being forced to swim in the tide waters of the past, he spoke with the attitude of a soldier returning to the battlefield.
Tears filled his eyes as Grampa shared a brief snippet of his 3-year stretch in Europe during WWII.
"I remember this poor (American) Indian kid,” he began, “a private.  We were being shelled by artillery, but the krauts were shooting too high.  We heard the rounds pass just over our heads and hit the mountain somewhere behind us.  The whole earth shook.”
“The kid crouched beside me.  As the rounds went over, his face went white as a ghost.  When they exploded behind us, color returned to his cheeks.
I'll never forget that kid's face, dying and coming back to life, over and over on that mountain.”  I hated the senseless killing; the suffering and misery of war but I was proud that I’d done my duty and served my country."
I looked over at my Dad, who was leaning so far forward I thought he’d fall out of his chair.  His eyes were wide and, for a moment, he looked younger than me.  I didn't realize until that moment that he'd been waiting since 1945 for a single story about the war from his father.  Grampa never told another.
A WWII vet silent about his experiences.  What a loss.  They represent qualities that we admire so much in our citizens – duty and service.  Their experiences also reminds us that the military can be a great social leveler.  These two soldiers wouldn’t have thought twice about serving in the same unit despite disparities in culture, education and social status.  In the civilian world, their paths would likely never have crossed.  For a time, these were all Americans who invested their lives in service to our nation and secured our freedom.
Veterans Day is a time to reflect, but it’s also a time to help veterans find their voices, so we can collectively find ours as a nation.  We can't afford to hold our veterans at arm's length.  We need to learn from them and see them for who they are – an essential part of our nation and ourselves.
Lord, today we honor our veterans, worthy men and women who gave their best when called upon to serve our country.  Bless them for their unselfish service in the continual struggle to preserve our freedoms, our safety, and our country’s heritage.  Amen

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Innocence Lost

"Nothing can separate us from God's love for us!”  ~ Romans 8:39
As if the water would cleanse her anguish, Danielle took the longest, hottest shower she’d ever taken.  Giving up her virginity had unleashed feelings more powerful than she could have possibly imagined.
He was her brother’s best friend – she had admired him.  He would make comments about how pretty, smart, and talented he thought she was.  Initially, Danielle had freaked . . . but she was also like a sponge, soaking in his compliments.  A good-looking, single guy was interested in her, even though he was in his mid-20’s and she was still a teen.
She and her girlfriends had joined True Love Waits and pledged sexual purity until marriage.  She broke her promise to God, to herself, and to her future husband.
He hadn't forced her to have sex with him.  Yet, she felt like a victim.  He had carefully planned his seduction using flattery and manipulation.  Danielle felt important and loved – but at what price?
She hadn’t worried about getting caught.  Mom was too busy to notice and Dad wasn't around.  Over time, her ambivalence became easier to live with . . . until this morning.
She missed her period and vomited before breakfast.  Panic stricken, Danielle wondered if she was pregnant.  She told Eric after work expecting him to be worried too.  She imagined that if a home pregnancy test was positive, they’d discuss how they’d break the news about wedding their plans.
His response shocked her.  "You're old enough for an abortion without parental consent," he snapped.  "I'll give you the cash, but you’ll have to get your own ride.”
His glare terrified her.   No concern for her whatsoever – only raw, selfish fear for his himself and his reputation.  How could she have been so gullible?
Luckily, she was not pregnant, but his reaction shattered her fantasy.  She’d convinced herself that she was important to him, but deep down, she knew the truth: Eric was using her!  Danielle had given him something that she could never get back.
She would eventually open up to a counselor, and pour out her deep shame, self-hatred and hostility.  Her Youth Pastor would also help her find spiritual peace.   She no longer blames God for what happened.  She knows He forgives and loves her.   God will use her painful experience to help others, she prays.
She no longer blames herself, either.   She can even share this story – as a warning to those who might be vulnerable to sexual predators.
She’ll wait for true love . . . someone to laugh, cry and make memories with.  A man of integrity (Ephesians 4:28); someone whose behavior will be caring in all circumstances (1 John 3:18); and a man love and listen to events of her day with sensitivity, interest, and concern (James 1:19).
“Jesus, as a teenager You walked in our shoes.  You faced the same temptations.   You understand!  Help me say ‘NO’ to inappropriate temptations.  And forgive me when I mess up, in Your name. Amen.”

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

By Chance

“Stop me not, but let me jog, for I am Chance, a firefighting dog.'' ~ Chance
For the first years of his life, the nameless cocker pup was chained from dawn to dark in mud, feces, storms, and flies; all alone and mostly frightened.  When Nigel, his owner, got home, he was allowed inside to conditions ever worse; locked in a crate, in the garage, unable to stand.
One day he managed a bold escape, wandering narrow alleyways and scaling the limits of his imagination.  His roving took him near a fire house where he promptly laid down to rest on the dry pavement, oblivious to the dirt that clogged his matted fur.
Erin, a rookie firewoman, crouched down next to him and offered her hand.  Instead of sniffing her, he just tucked his head between his paws in the most submissive gesture possible.  The pooch was so thin it was like dragging her fingers over a xylophone.
Erin noted his collar and returned him to Nigel.  But mindful of the most attention he’d ever felt, the dog quickly escaped and returned to the firehouse … at every opportunity.
Nigel soon abandoned the struggle and allowed the dog to follow his own path.  So Erin welcomed its first 4-legged firefighter and named him Chance; meaning unintended, yet important.
At first, they left him at the firehouse when duty called.  Chance danced with excitement when they returned to the station, always deliriously happy to greet them.
Eventually, he was allowed to ride with the crew in the firetruck until they’d release him near the fire, running in advance, and announcing by his bark the welcome news that help was on its way.  He even had his own boots.
At the fire, he’d amuse himself by pulling burning sticks away from the flames with his mouth; impressed that he was rendering a great service and clearly anxious to show any onlookers his significance.  He even rescued several people and a variety of terrified pets.
Chance remained faithful to the profession he’d so deliberately chosen despite frequent injuries.  Having suffered a more serious burn than usual, Erin nursed him beside the firehouse hearth, when a "call" came.  At the familiar sound of the engine turning out, the old dog made a last effort to climb aboard, but couldn’t gather the energy.
He passed away while the fire crew was away.
Chance was eulogized as a “faithful companion, a fierce guardian, and a symbol of the resiliency, bravery, and fortitude of firefighters and those they help.”
If only we loved like dogs do.
They don’t care if you got fired, dumped, or made a bad fashion choice that day.  All they want is you!  They’re the only living example of unconditional love and the ultimate reason why God made dogs.
“Master, treat me kindly, for no heart is more grateful than mine.  Hold me gently in your arms, knowing that until the last breath I take, I’ll walk by your side, and stand ready and willing to protect you with my life.”  ~ “A Dog’s Prayer”

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Prison Break

“Never grow tired of doing good; at the right time you’ll reap a harvest." ~ Galatians 6:9
Prisoner #846239 opened his Bible, something he did every morning before chow.  It was the same Bible that sat on his shelf at home for years collecting dust.  It’s like God and jail were somehow connected.  He browsed through several passages, not to seek God but to try and find the answer to why he’s behind these walls again.  Galatians 6:9 seemed to jump from the page.
He’d already served half of his 26 month sentence for a series of petty crimes.  But he wasn’t sure he’d make it.  Good behavior got #846239 into the prison work detail outside the prison walls 7 hours a day, 5 days a week.  But Georgia heat in the summer was like the breath of hell.
Today he and 5 other trustees were cutting grass at a local cemetery: 86oF and 100% humidity.  Even sweating offered little help in the muggy heat.  It trickled down his neck and back like warm soup.  The ground surrendered a disorientating haze; the grass stood still as if it were too hot to move.  Even the birds were silent.
Maybe he’d just walk away today; disappear into the shadows of homelessness and never reappear in public.  He looked over at the guard to assess the opportunity.
Something was wrong.  The guard was clutching his chest.  His lungs seemed to be searching the air for relief.  His breaths shortened, wheezing with each successive gasp.  Then he collapsed onto the ground, dry grass sticking to his face.
His initial thought – this must be a sign; the perfect chance to escape.  First grab the fallen officer's pistol.  Then steal the prison van and cross the state line before anyone noticed.
His second thought – Galatians 6:9 ... “always do good.”
He sprung to action.  Instead of taking advantage of the situation, he helped the unconscious guard.   Inmate #846239 quickly opened his bulletproof vest and immediately began chest compressions.  Instead of reaching for his gun, another inmate took the guard’s cell phone and called for paramedics.
The guard was rushed to the hospital, and though he doesn’t recall much of what happened, the inmates were the real heroes.  “A man’s life meant more to them than any selfish thoughts of freedom,” he said later.
For doing the right thing, the officer’s family treated all six of them to a pizza lunch in the park.  But more importantly, each one of their sentences was commuted to time served!  Tyler Hayes, former inmate 846239, was now a free man.
When we express our appreciation of God it enhances our enjoyment of him.  God heard Tyler’s prayer and provided an opportunity.  It was one of many ‘good’ decisions Tyler would make for the rest of his life praising his Savior.
“Lord, thank You for giving me another day, another chance to become a better person, another chance to give and experience love, another opportunity to do it right.” ~ T. Hayes #846239

Friday, October 20, 2017

Zero to Hero

“The body is not made up of one part but of many." ~ 1 Corinthians 12:14
He showed up for practice with a new glove and cleats right from the box.  Translation: Matt (11) had never played Little League, or any other baseball before.  He clearly wasn't the teammate the other boys were hoping for.
Matt was painfully shy and appeared more fragile than rice paper.  Bright, eager and verbose were not necessarily athletic qualities.  While other kids on his team were chasing fly balls or taking batting practice, Matt seemed content drawing elaborate patterns in the dirt or reading the rule book.  His teammates took notice and eventually gave up on Matt as a player.
Excelling at sports can result in a windfall; creating a cycle of self-confidence that provides a life-long advantage.  But Matt knew he was a liability to the team.   Midway through the season he’d yet to get a base hit (0 for 23)’ or catch a routine fly ball.    He kinda liked baseball; he was just scared to death of playing it.
Then something occurred that changed the game.
Matt arrived early for their contest with the Titans … in an above-the-elbow cast.  A bicycle accident had ended his season.  He looked up into his coach's face and, with relief in his eyes, offered to quit the team.
Coach pitied the boy.  But he had different suggestion.
He pulled the boy aside and said, "I don’t want you to quit.  Will you try something new today?”
The frail boy nodded, “I’ll try.”
“I want you to coach third base.  You’d be sorta the ‘captain’ of any runners on base after they round second base.  “I’ve watched you Matt,” he continued.  “You understand this game better than anybody on the team.  We need you!”
“I’ll try Coach,” he repeated in a small voice.
With the game tied and two outs in the bottom of the final inning, Matt remained deadly focused from his position in the 3rd base coach’s box.  A weak base hit to right field advanced Jorge toward third base.  The safe play would have been to hold him at third.
Matt gambled Jorge’s speed versus the right fielder’s arm.  He motioned Jorge to round third and dig for home.  It was so close a play that many would have questioned Matt’s logic.
But Jorge beat the throw and tag by a fraction of a second.  Game over.
With the reality of what just happened starting to settle in, Matt looked in the stands.  Everyone was standing up, cheering and clapping.  His mom was crying.
Jorge’s slide produced the run that won the game.  But it was Matt’s decision as third base coach that set it all in motion.  In the unlikeliest turn of events, he felt like the day's hero.  Gone was the shy, scared eleven-year old, at least for now.
Holy Father, please help me know my place in the Body of Christ so that I can serve faithfully and productively and bring glory to You.  In Jesus' name I pray. Amen.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Rat Race

“Slow down, you move too fast, you got to make the morning last." ~ Paul Simon
“No, No, No!” she said hammering the steering wheel as if tenderizing meat.  “This can’t be happening, not today.”
The traffic snaked up the hill, two lines of steel and tire, each capable of over 100 MPH and averaging about 5 in their stop-start fashion.  In each self-contained world, radios told stories, cell phones squawked or texted and flat screens humored kids. Few noted the scream of sirens from the ambulance driving rapidly into the oncoming traffic.  Just another lap in the (rat) race.
Patti snaked a U-turn across the median and got off at the first exit.  She’d take the back roads home; much slower but at least she’d be making progress.  She turned on the radio and began singing along to “Teach Your Children.”
The sweet harmony ended; replaced with the dreaded news break.  Patti drove on while the broadcaster droned on: a terrorist attack in another European city, rival gang members killed in Chicago, Congress can’t agree on anything, and fans rioting to celebrate a national title.
She switched the radio off.  Silence seemed preferable to listening to anything more about the crazy, competitive society we live in.  Patti slowed down entering a local town.
A tall muscular man was helping an elderly lady out of a car and helping position her walker so she could shop in a local store.  A smiling woman was tossing birdseed into her backyard while a dozen robins flew down to enjoy the feast being laid out for them.  A young man was carrying his two year old daughter safely in his arms.  He tickled her gently when she pulled the hat off his head and they both laughed.
Patti laughed too surveying all the humanity.  It felt like a glimpse of Heaven.  The radio may have been off, but in her heart she was still singing.  Aah!  Patti loved this feeling!
No one was calling her, knocking at her office door and there was no loud hustle and bustle outside.  “Lord, what did I do to deserve this moment?” she wondered.  “Never mind,” her thought process continued.  “I just want to enjoy it.  Thank you Jesus, for allowing me this feeling of freedom and contemplation.”
Honestly, this world could use a little more kindness and a lot less competition.  Kindness makes us all winners in this life.  Kindness reminds us that we are all God’s Children.  Kindness shows us that we don’t have to beat others in this world.  We just have to love them.  May all of your moments here on earth then be full of kindness, love, and joy.  And may your only competition be with yourself: to be the best possible you … that you can be.
“Slow me down, Lord.  Ease the pounding of my heart by quieting my mind.  Steady my hurried pace.  Give me time Lord, to look at a flower, to chat with a friend, to read a few lines from a good book.  Amen  ~ Orin L. Crain

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Glory Beyond Description

“Change your thinking and become more like little children.” ~ Matthew 18:3
Her’s is not a new story – but it’s one worth sharing.
Akiane Kramarik’s life began in an unusual way.  By uncommon, she refers to her underwater birth in a shack on the edge of an Illinois cornfield.  Her family had no money, no friends, no relatives, no television or radio.  A simple life – nature hikes, open dialogue, and hands-on searches for knowledge and truth.
Her mother, a Lithuanian immigrant, and father, a chef from Chicago, created an insular home life.  Religion was never discussed in the house; all 4 kids were homeschooled.  There was no prayer, no discussions of God, and no visits to church.  Yet in their isolated, rural environment - free from media influences or outside babysitters, Akiane suddenly began to talk openly about God.
"Prince of Peace"
She spoke of colorful dreams about heaven and God’s amazing love.  Her stunned parents realized her intense focus on God couldn’t have been inspired by anything they exposed her to.  Indeed, Akiane seemed to be having divine encounters with a living god.
At the tender age of four, God instilled the desire to express her visions into art.  Initially, she utilized whatever medium was available: candles, makeup, charcoal, even tomatoes.  At around 8 years old, she progressed into acrylics and oils; and from walls and carpet to sketchbooks and canvass.  That’s when she decided to paint the face of Jesus based on revelations she’d received.
It was a meticulous effort.  Skillfully working with light and shadows, Akiane painted ‘Prince of Peace’ (left) on an enormous 36 x 48 canvass.  “The light side of His face represents the truth, the dark side represents suffering,” she explained.
She was particularly enamored by the beauty of Jesus’ eyes.  “They were like no colors ever created.  His expression was so reassuring and sincere.”
A study of the Shroud of Turin, believed by many to be Jesus’s burial cloth, shows a remarkable match.
The most amazing thing about this child prodigy is that she embarked on this spiritual journey totally unbiased and unprepared.  Yet every word she utters shows extraordinary wisdom, worthy of God's assessment.
Akiane, now 22, speaks four languages including Sign Language.  She’s published over 200 art pieces (some selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars) and 800 literary creations including two bestselling books.  Much of the money from sales is donated to charities throughout the world.
Her second book, “My Dream Is Bigger Than I: Memories of Tomorrow” is a collection of Akiane's childhood dreams, poetry, and personal reflections.  “I portray Jesus how I see Him, as both human and as divine.  I pray that people will one day follow Jesus, His teachings and feel His love.”
 “Since nobody told me how to find God, He found me.  He’s always been there for me.   I don’t belong to any denomination or religion.  I belong to God.  My art is only a representation of what I see - Jesus’ glory is beyond any description!” ~ Akiane

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Lord of the Dance

“Christ is the incarnation of the piper who is calling us." ~ Sydney Carter
Today she’d show them!  She would rise from her wheelchair and show them that, at nearly 100, she could still dance.  Dance like the days back when, as a beautiful young girl, boys would wait in line to dance with her; everyone dancing like they'd forgotten how to stand still.
Yes, today she’d show them that she was not just an octogenarian who needed help eating and getting dressed in the morning.  She began pulling herself up from her chair but her arms were simply too weak.  Sophia collapsed back into her seat.  She tried again, this time getting to her feet before she felt a firm hand on her shoulder.
“Sit down Sophia!” the nurse said and she collapsed back into the chair again.
“Not again!” she thought.  It was happening again.  The picture in her mind began fading; a distant memory of happier times.
She’d been in love once, over 70 years ago.  Marco had been what her heart had truly been seeking.  The picture in her mind regained its clarity.
Marco loved dancing too.  The lights twinkled with every step as Sophia spun in delicate circles, her graceful dress billowing.  She loved the pressure of his warm hand on her back and the feeling of her small agile feet gliding across the floor like a gentle dove in the wind.  Their life together had been wonderful.
Sophia outlived Marco and everyone she’d ever known.  They said that long life was a blessing, and the part of her that wanted to dance still believed this.  Such thoughts suddenly made her drowsy, eventually giving way to sleep.
When she awoke she was in the dining room, and someone had placed a white bib on her so she wouldn’t spill.  She decided that the time was now.
She pushed herself up from the chair and got to her feet, and for a second she felt like a teenager again.  She placed her arms around Marco’s imaginary neck and began shuffling her feet, imagining grand ballrooms as she swayed back and forth.
But a loud voice snapped Sophia back into the present. “Sit down before you break your hip,” the nurse shouted angrily.  Sophia reluctantly complied.
She needed those memories to remain with her, to soothe her when the bad ones threatened to erase all traces of those people she still held dear, even in their absence.  And at least for a moment she’d gone to a place in her mind that no one could take from her; a place where she could celebrate all that she once was.
She slumped back into the chair.  Soon the wonderful memories faded into silence, and Sophia’s mind grew quiet until the next time Lord, when she'd dance again.
Dance, then, wherever you may be, I am the Lord of the Dance, said He, and I'll lead you all, wherever you may be, and I'll lead you all in the Dance, said He.” ~ Ronan Hardiman

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Iddy Biddy Boo©

“Encourage one another every day." ~ Hebrews 3:13
Lisa was an artist … she just didn’t know it yet.
As an elementary teacher for more than 30 years, she sculpted young minds by fueling their curiosity and igniting a passion for her subjects.  Even the driest subjects came to life.  When teaching reading, she revealed an adventure in every book.  There was always another way to solve a math problem, even if it meant counting on one’s toes.  And art … well it came in all shapes and sizes; colors and emotions.
Lisa emphatically believed that she was responsible for more than just academic enrichment.  She knew that great teachers can change the trajectory of kids’ lives.
She was committed to her students’ well-being both inside and outside the classroom.  By forging strong relationships, Lisa was able to affect virtually every aspect of her students’ lives, teaching them essential life lessons that would help them succeed beyond term papers and standardized tests.  She just had that ‘way’ about her; creative, compassionate and inspiring.
In return, Lisa’s students also inspired her with their ability to take risks and try new things.  That’s how real learning happens.   Their willingness to experiment, learn new skills, and participate in different activities motivated Lisa to do the same.
Such was the genesis for Iddy Biddy Boo Design.
Many people see art as something with many barriers – maybe the materials are expensive, maybe you lack enough space, or maybe you think it’s too difficult, requiring many specialized tools.
Sometimes that’s true.  But for Lisa, it began simply; a few Christmas cards for family and friends using almost nothing but paper and scissors and glue.
We have some form of paper within reach all the time, and yet we seldom think about the extraordinarily beautiful pieces of paper art that we could create with them if we ever took the time to try.  Lisa did!
Friends encouraged more designs and soon a few stores gambled by displaying her “whimsical” cards (exact photos of the original artwork).  One owner, noting the success of her sales remarked, “It’s time for more people to see what you do.”
Now nearly 150 designs later exhibited in 30 stores, Lisa’s business is thriving.  Because others encouraged her!
“Teaching first grade,” said Lisa, “brought me in touch with creative and inspirational six year olds on a daily basis.  I love seeing children bundled up in brightly colored, mismatched snow clothes.  Such lovely shapes and colors.  My goal for each piece of art is to capture that children’s sense of joy and humor.  My art has definitely been inspired by the children in my life!”
Our most lasting and fulfilling achievements are often earned by helping others fulfill theirs.  A teacher who inspired, was inspired, then was encouraged … now inspires again.  Isn’t Karma great!
Learn more about Lisa’s story and her artwork by visiting http://iddybiddyboodesign.com
Almighty Father, we live in a broken world where everything calls us toward selfishness and despair.  Teach us to invite curiosity and inspire dreams.  Today let us help others find the strength and the courage to use their gifts according to Your plan.  Amen

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Old School

“With God’s mighty power working in us, we can do infinitely more than we even dreamed." ~ Ephesians 3:20
Deloris feared this day would come – the day she’d be asked not to return.  Volunteers couldn’t really be fired, just gently told that her style was no longer “in line” with that of the school’s.  As she approached the office she wondered which of the children had complained that’s she’d been too mean, expected too much or not given them enough praise.
“Grandma Dee,” was ‘old school.’  She’d been volunteering for 17 years at local schools in Nevada helping children learn to read.  In addition to helping students learn, she’s also been a role model and grandparent figure.
Her ‘tough love’ methods left some parents outraged.  Administrators felt pressure to remove her despite remarkable results.  Accountability, she believed, sharpened their minds.  Academic development required a realistic (and therefore tough) assessment of their shortcomings.
Slacking wasn’t tolerated.  Forgetting homework meant extra work.  Lack of respect met a look that could melt ceramic.  She was never physical of course, but Dee had zero tolerance for the unprepared.  Excellence came from hard work.
Over the years, this passionate 75-year-old woman watched proudly as her students grew up into young men and women right before her eyes.  She’d seen them go onto great things.
But today all that may come to an end as she cautiously entered the Principal’s office.
To Dee’s surprise, a smartly dressed woman stood there holding a dozen roses.  Her face was made up, but not overdone and her long brown hair was pulled back into a pony-tail.
“These are for you,” she said.
That young woman, Tori Chavez, had once been her student.  She’d endured a life of almost unimaginable tragedy growing up in countless foster homes.  Negative influences in her life far outweighed the good.
“You pushed me to dream bigger and achieve more than I ever imagined,” Tori continued.  “I’m running for the State Senate now.”
“You taught me that REAL love is not always pink and fluffy.  It isn’t holding hands while running through sunflower fields while wearing pretty dresses and eating chocolates.  It’s just not!”
“REAL love is tough as nails.  It’s often tarnished, scuffed and a little jagged.  Real love is losing your temper seven times and apologizing eight times.  Real love is feeling overwhelmed and exhausted at the end of the day.  It’s giving all you’ve got yet ready to give even more tomorrow.”
Their reunion inspired Grandma Dee to continue her life’s mission with renewed passion.  You see, studies show that students flourish best when constantly under a moderate amount of stress.  Overpraising kids actually makes them less confident and less motivated.  Maybe we need a little more ‘old school’ at home and in the classroom.
Father, You gave me the ability to dream, to create, to imagine.  Never let an impossible situation intimidate me.  Let it help me believe more, experience more, learn more and trust You more.  Help me understand Your dream for my life.  Amen