Monday, December 15, 2014

Blue Flowers

At seven, she dwelt in the depths of the Great Depression. With five older brothers and two younger sisters, Juanita had been born into hopeless despair. Her father had deserted the family, succumbing to the blistering drought, insects, and hot winds that ravaged their Kansas farmland.

Her mother went callously about the business of scratching out an existence on the remnants of useable land she and the older sons toiled over. Juanita helped as well, up before the sunrise gathering eggs and toting water from the well. In the dimness of the kitchen, her mother began a breakfast of cornmeal mush and biscuits. The sole exchange between mother and daughter was a slight nod as she took the pail from her and poured the water into the tin basin on the table.

"Go git ready for school, Skeeter"

Juanita drew warmth from the nickname, passing through the dingy sheets hanging in the doorway that led to the backroom of the house. Often she would pretend to be a princess readying for the ball, while slipping on her faded, handmade blue-flowered dress...

At seventeen, she’d grown bitter at the depths of her poverty. Juanita managed to finish high school, despite the taunting she endured from classmates who looked upon her as a poor, dirty outcast from the farm. Her mother watched through empty eyes as her daughter slowly packed a grip one night and walked out with nary a departing word. Juanita never turned back, and the threadbare relationship she held with her mother grew even thinner.

But the world proved to be harsher than she had imagined. Juanita skipped from one nickel and dime job to another, often sobbing herself to sleep in her one-room flat, as insects and rodents scurried about. Perhaps she’d judged her mother too harshly, but she clung to her prideful determination to carve out a life on her own. She drifted off to sleep, gazing emptily at the shabby blue-flowered wallpaper...

At twenty-seven, Juanita’s husband found more regular railroad work in Missouri. The young family was allowed to ride on the back platform of a caboose to their new hometown. Juanita allowed herself a slight smile of hope, perched atop suitcases and other belongings with her two older children. She tightly clutched her newborn, as the brisk autumn air blew through Juanita’s blue-flowered scarf...

At thirty-seven, her life nearly ended as a careless driver ran a stop sign, while browsing through photographs he just picked up at the drugstore. Juanita lay dazed on the floorboard of the family station wagon, unable to move a shattered knee. As paramedics eased her gurney into the back of an ambulance, Juanita took great solace at the little voices from the curb.

"We’re ok, momma. We love you!"

Juanita turned to see her children, standing together along the curbside. She whispered a prayer of thanks and slowly faded into unconsciousness as the attendants warmed her with a soft, blue-flowered blanket...

At fifty-seven, she wiped away a tear, sitting alone in the back of the limousine that had carried the family to her mother’s graveside services. Though she’d spent the last few years dutifully caring for her elderly mother, Juanita still felt the anguished twinge of a relationship so torn by the times. She softly dabbed at her eyes and gazed out at the blue-flowered arrangement sitting beside her mother’s grave...

At seventy-seven, she stood over an open casket, saying goodbye to a man with whom she had found true romance. Gazing at the only man she’d ever loved, Juanita gently reached in and touched the hands that had held hers for nearly 60 years. She softly murmured a few parting words, turned away, and reached in her handbag for a blue-flowered kerchief...

At eight-seven, her life's song in its final stanzas, Juanita’s days are taken up by caregivers and the routine of assisted living. Although many memories have been robbed by the evil wretches of dementia, her eyes still twinkle when she sees her baby boy come for a visit.

 We sit eating ice cream, watching the old black and white westerns that she loves, until she’s ready for her afternoon nap. Helping her into her bed, I wonder how many more times I’ll get to tuck her in, like she must have done for me so many years ago. I kiss her gently on the cheek, pulling the blue-flowered quilt over her shoulders...

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Beth's Affliction

Beth was a vivacious young girl. Together, we shared the warmth and love of our parents’ home. She grew into a bright, beautiful young woman, with an ambitiousness beyond any of our peers. She both intimidated and captured the eye of many a young man. As her older brother, I saw no suitor worthy of her attention. But she had no need for my overseeing, as Beth exuded confidence and grace...until the affliction.

For the first few weeks, I knew nothing of her nemesis. She and Mother often whispered in the dark corners of the house, sheltering some sort of secret. Beth often sobbed endlessly and trembled with fear. Father seemed unattached and distant. I awoke early one day to find him in a quiet moment of contemplation.

“What is burdening you so, Father?” He drew in a large volume of the cool morning air, then slowly exhaled.

“Beth...she has some sort of illness. It’s a woman issue. Her – her bleeding has not stopped as it should and she’s remains unclean...unclean.

Father’s voice trailed off in despair, his massive, calloused hands cradling his head.
We sat in silence for a few moments.“Doctors, they must know something, Father.”

“She’s been to three already. No answers.”

Thus, my dear sister’s long journey began. We helplessly witnessed our beautiful vision of vitality slowly deteriorate into a picture of ashen gauntness. Through hushed tones, our community assumed it was Beth’s own sin, or possibly a family offense, that had brought about her situation. We were often the target of a scornful sneer.

A shelter for the unclean had been designated beyond our locality. Leaders from the temple insisted that Beth be sent there, deeming her no longer fit to be in our vicinity. I faithfully made trips to this dark, stench-filled area. At first it was a frightening experience, but I grew accustomed to it, delivering rations and fresh linens to my beloved sister.

Twelve long years passed, with Beth’s situation unchanged. Father died a broken man, having failed to return his beautiful daughter back to her loving home. We pursued any glimmer of hope that we could for Beth, desperately seeking out the services of others who were revealed to be charlatans and frauds. They rid her of nothing but our money, often subjecting her to humiliating treatments and worsening her condition.

One afternoon as I was returning from the marketplace, a large throng approached. They were following a man walking beside one of the rulers of the synagogue. It was unusual to see a ruler out walking with the commoners. I asked one of the crowd what the commotion was about.

“Jairus’ daughter is dying! He’s pleaded with this great teacher to heal her.”

I’d heard talk of a new teacher in our area. Even Beth had spoken of him, as someone had shared the teacher’s words and deeds with her. She held great hope that this man was from God and could somehow remedy her situation. I feared those hopes would once again be dashed.

Racing ahead of the crowd, I climbed atop a small porch to get a better look at this man walking with Jairus. His appearance was unremarkable, with well-worn sandals and a tasseled robe that was rather tattered and frayed. The crowd swarmed around them as they continued their determined walk.

Suddenly the teacher whirled about as though something had struck him from behind...

“Who touched me?” (1)

One man looked at him incredulously and said, “Master, the people are crowding and pressing against you.” (2)

“Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.” (3)

In an instant, the crowd retreated from a weeping woman, her head bowed and covered. Through her sobs, she admitted she had sought his healing power, believing he was a true man of God.

The woman lifted her head and I saw my sister’s radiant face, now restored to her former beauty. Through sheer determination and faith, Beth had somehow eluded her confinement and fought her way through the crowd to reach this man...just to touch the back of his garment.

“Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace.” (4)

As we struggled through the crowd to reach one another, Beth paused and looked back, her beautiful eyes following the steps of her Savior...and mine.

1 Luke 8:45 (NIV)
2 Luke 8:45 (NIV)
3 Luke 8:46 (NIV)
4 Luke 8:48 (NIV)

Monday, December 1, 2014

Bottom's Up

The poverty-stricken area of Guayaquil, Ecuador was like nothing I’d ever seen. My mission travels have taken me to areas of the poor that most people will never witness...but this was on another level of impoverishment.

It surpassed comprehension that people actually dwelled in the run-down shanties that had been built over a city garbage dump.

We’d walked the streets all day, sharing the Gospel at some pre-arranged appointments or, occasionally, with folks we just happened to meet. Fatigue was setting in as we came to five young men sitting on a street corner. My initial thought was to just move on. But the pastor of the small church we’d been working with made a straight line for them.

My eyes scanned over the group. Five young street thugs, complete with dyed, spiked hair, gold chains, piercings...what was the use? They greeted my mission partner Mel and me sneeringly, and, though I couldn’t understand their Spanish, the tone dripped with disdain and mockery. I nodded and winked at Mel.

“Your turn,” I chuckled quietly, hopping up to sit on a concrete ledge with the Pastor.

As Mel began to share through our interpreter, I decided to use the time to rest a spell. But, hearing muffled snickers coming from the group, I began praying that Mel, a newcomer in the mission field, would have the courage to continue despite the group’s apparent disdain for his message.

Mel began wearing down as the gang’s resistence started getting the better of him. I couldn’t blame him. After all, I’d bailed out at the beginning. But then, I got an odd feeling – quite literally. It jarred me and I jumped up, out of my comfortable rest. I found I’d sat in a puddle of cold, muddy water, and the seat of my trousers were soaked and stained.

I grumbled at my predicament. But instantly, God flashed an illustration through my mind, and undeniably distinct directions:

“Take a shot.”

I strolled over to the group. Mel had somewhat penetrated their initial barriers and I wanted a crack at them with what God had just laid on my heart...and elsewhere.

“Any of you ever make a mistake? Ever really mess up?”

The group looked at each other reluctantly. These cocky street thugs admitted they indeed had made mistakes in their young lives. They chuckled and nodded in agreement.

“Well, I just screwed up big time,” I confessed as I bent over, pointing my rear end in their direction. The young men burst out in laughter at my situation as I sensed the chill between us beginning to thaw.

“Let me ask you this: any of you ever commit a sin?”

Stillness filled the air as five sets of eyes cast downward. Shoulders, once erect in pride, now drooped in self-awareness.

“Yes, I have plenty of sin in my life, too. In fact, the Bible says we all have sinned. You know fellas, I can take these pants and wash them and that stain will come out. But, while I can get my pants clean, I can’t clean the stain of sin from my heart. Only the Blood of Jesus, shed on the cross, cleans that stain.”

“Take a shot.”

“I’m gonna ask you to do something brave today. I’m gonna ask you, in front of your friends here, to admit you’re a sinner and need Christ in your life, for your salvation.” Four pairs of eyes rose up at me in prideful rejection...but Juan’s remained cast downward.

“Take a shot.”

“I’m gonna ask you to stand up in front of God and your friends and receive Jesus as your Lord and Savior.”

Without hesitation, Juan raised himself up. Suddenly he appeared childlike, his once prideful eyes welling with tears as he stumbled forward in my direction.

I took Juan aside with Mel, and we prayed with him as he asked Christ to forgive his sins and reside in his heart. Mel looked him in the eye and praised his courage.

“Juan, standing up in front of your friends was about the manliest thing I’ve ever seen.”

I couldn’t have agreed more. But there was great irony in the moment as well. You see, Juan had demonstrated that becoming like a little child.

...“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 18:3 (ESV)