Monday, November 27, 2006

The big idea

It's about time I explain the vision I wrote about before. Time has passed and the initial thrill has subsided due to reality setting in. Or are these just doubts to discourage me? Maybe I'm crazy. Let me know if you think this is an impossible dream.

I need to give you the background on how all this came about. Our whole church is reading a book by Rick Warren called Better Together. The book shows us how to deepen our fellowship in the church and then how to reach out in love to our surrounding community. He says participation in a small group is essential. We can't do this alone and we can't do it in the large congregation. He says, "You can attend church services your entire life and still feel lonely and disconnected." This shouldn't be.

We've always had small groups within our church, but now there was a major push for everyone to be involved with one. Many new groups formed until the number was over 140. The book confirmed to us all that the small group can be a warm, nurturing place to encourage, support and care for each other, and a good place for deeper Bible study and worship. But we learned that the small group should go beyond these confines and serve the community. Our own small group has discussed this before but somehow we never moved forward with it. But Rick Warren's book gave me the first glimpse of a bigger picture.

Not too long ago I attended an international dinner at a nearby church. The room was filled with people from all over the world, mostly immigrants who came to our country to work or to study. In touching and humorous stories, many shared their testimonies of struggles they had in a new country. Here I am, the mother of two immigrants, and sitting next to me are good friends who came from three different countries at different stages in their lives. I've heard their personal stories. This is where my heart is.

Another piece of the vision came through an e-mail. We have an adoption ministry at our church. Some of its goals are to encourage people to adopt, to help finance those who want to adopt but cannot due to income, to locate and share resources for adoptive and foster parents, and to support the children left behind in orphanages who will never be adopted. Also each year the ministry participates in the Welcome Home program for Russian orphans. These children come to the U.S. for three weeks in the summer and stay with host families with the goal that either the host family or someone who meets them during that time will adopt them.

I have been only marginally involved in this ministry due to other commitments. Fred and I did speak at a Family Life seminar in the spring so we are on an e-mail list to keep us updated on what is happening. I learned the Welcome Home program is expanding to include children from the Philippines and Guatemala. I read it with interest, but so far Fred has never expressed any desire to host a child in our home. I never mentioned this bit of news to him.

Now came the final piece of the picture that culminated with an explosion in my heart and set this idea on fire. I walked into the bedroom and heard Arielle asking her dad why we can't adopt another child since she wants another sister. So far, we have not entertained the notion of adopting again since I was sick three years ago. We realized then we were too old and we regret we don't have more years to share with more children.

So Saturday night when I heard Arielle ask this question, the whole Philippine/Guatemala project just burst from my lips. To my surprise and delight I heard Fred say, "We could host a child here and try to find her a home." Then I thought, why can't our small group sponsor a child, each of us networking with our own friends and family and acquaintances with the supreme goal of finding parents for this child? Each of us would use our own gifts and talents to minister to this child. Of course, the child would stay in one home (ours!) but we would all be involved. Then, what if each small group in our church (140 of them) took in a child and found him or her a family? The idea is huge! Homes for many, many children! Right now our church sponsors a whole village in Africa. What is every church supported one poor village? What if every small group in churches across America found a home for a child? God could move in mighty ways if only we each did a small part!

I know, I know. Orphans are not everyone's calling and ministry. (Should they be?) The small groups in our church are reaching out to the community in many other ways, all good, all needed. But what if some of them focused on the parent-less and homeless?

Sunday morning I was lit up with this idea. We sat right in front of my friend who coordinates the Welcome Home program for Russia. I rattled on and on about my plan. She is not quite so excitable, but she listened. She said that even as we spoke someone from a participating adoption agency was in Guatemala choosing children to bring to the U.S. in the spring. She then added, "You know, at our age we might not be eligible to adopt again." True. But who said anything about our family adopting? We want to host.

The first thing I did when I got home was go on-line and find out the parent qualifications for adopting from Guatemala. Guess what? There is no age limit. Parents only have to prove they are physically able to care for a small child. Well, we already have two!

"Find the intersection of God's will and your gifts." (Rick Warren)

"Each of you has been blessed with one of God's many wonderful gifts to be used in the service of others. So use your gift well." I Peter 4:10

Friday, November 17, 2006

A sad day

We Americans have a strange tradition when someone dies. The family gathers around the deceased and stands for hours greeting people, smiling, and saying, "Thank you for coming." Why do we choose to do this? It seems like torture to me. That was my first thought this day.

We attended the viewing and funeral service of an acquaintance, a 38-year old woman who died in childbirth. She left behind her husband, small son and newborn daughter, as well as many others who loved her. The casket was closed and covered with a white cloth, so it was not the prominent feature in the front of the church. As people walked down the center aisle, they were drawn to the family instead, who welcomed them warmly. Then the husband pointed out the pictures of his baby girl arranged on the top of the casket. What do you say? "Congratulations?" How can such profound joy and sorrow be contained in the same moment of time? The husband seemed so frail and vulnerable when I hugged him, like an empty shell that could easily be broken if squeezed too hard. An older woman, the mother I guessed, stood next to him. I didn't know her, but she pulled me to her, clutching me hard to to her chest. More hugs for the sister and assorted strangers as we moved down the line saying over and over, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."

We had come early so we sat in a pew and watched the friends come and go. The family standing up front reminded me of a receiving line after a wedding. Except the guests were in tears. During a lull the husband fingered the baby pictures and gazed with empty eyes into the distance. Sometimes as people passed through the line the mother broke into a wail that filled the church, her agonizing sobs ripping at us all. How can a mother survive losing a daughter? The thought is terrifying to me. My mind cannot go there. Yet, here is one living this nightmare. This mom would grab her friends passing by like a drowning person reaching for a life ring. The sister tried to be brave all morning, sometimes wiping the tears streaming down her cheeks with the palms of her hands and focusing hard to keep control. How can she endure this? Later in her eulogy she called her sister her best friend.

At one point the wind howled and rain clattered noisily on the roof of the church. I'm sure some wanted to shout up to God and ask, "Why?" As people walked back down to find a seat they shook their heads in disbelief. This shouldn't be. It's not the natural course of things. Where are you, Jesus? If only you'd done something... I thought of two sisters long ago, accusing Jesus when their brother died. Jesus hadn't come in time to be of help. But when he saw the mourning crowd, he also wept. What a miserable plight we humans have here on earth. Jesus knew the outcome--he knew Lazarus would live again. Jesus knew his own death and resurrection would bring eternal life to us all. Yet still he cried along with everyone else. Are you crying here with us today, Jesus?

Maybe it isn't such a strange custom after all. Maybe the family is comforted by the long line of people who come to show their compassion. Maybe they long to be held in the arms of other humans, to share pools of tears, and to hear the promises of help and friendship. After all, we all share this same earthly fate. If we haven't known it yet, we will surely travel this same road of pain and fear.

When the service ended and the family left their front row pew to walk back down the aisle, I couldn't help but think that not so very long ago there was a wedding, probably with many of these same people in attendance. They saw the happy couple, glowing with joy, turn to face the congregation as new husband and wife, then walking down the aisle to new life. Now, instead, an old woman staggers with grief on the arm of her son-in-law. The sister who was once a bridesmaid sobs openly, her courage spent.

I think Jesus understands grief so deep and overpowering that it cannot grasp the promises of God. Yet scripture says God does not want us to grieve like those who have no hope. Like Martha, we say to Jesus, "I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask." Jesus responded, "Your brother will rise again." John 11:21-25. We encourage one another (and ourselves) with those thoughts. I Thessalonians 4:13-18.

Before we had left for the service, Liana noted my dark clothing. "Black for death, right, Mom?" I said yes. She picked up the small topaz on my necklace. "But gold for heaven."

Please pray for this family.

Friday, November 10, 2006

What now?

After many years attending and four years teaching, last spring I left women's Bible study. With homeschooling two children, it was just too much. As the summer passed and with fall coming again, I was wondering, "What now?"

In the Christian life, there is no such thing as, "now I have time for ME." As Rick Warren says, "You were put on earth to make a contribution...not just to consume resources." We are called to serve. One Sunday I read with interest that our church was hosting Alpha. Help was needed. A good friend of mine attended Alpha years ago and I knew how meaningful it was to her, so I got the "spark." You know what I mean--that nudge, that voice within that says, "Yes!"

In case you don't know what Alpha is, here is what the introduction to the course reads, "Alpha is an opportunity for anyone to explore the Christian faith in a relaxed, non-threatening setting over ten thought-provoking weekly sessions...It is low-key, friendly and fun--and is supported by all the main Christian denominations." Now if I'd just read that, I don't think I would be "sparked" but my friend showed me how life-changing this course is.

From my past experience, I thought my skills could be used as a table discussion leader. But no, what was needed was a cook, as the program offers a free meal to all attendees. Now how's that for using my gifts and talents? I've been cooking for a crowd for over 30 years! As a bonus, Fred and I could do this together. We volunteered.

The behind-the-scenes church work was new and refreshing, yet also challenging. There was the stress of keeping to a tight schedule--dinner at 6:00 sharp, the mess of large quantity meal preparation, and the mental focus needed for ordering supplies and planning the food. (The latter is not my natural talent.) But I enjoy the fact that our work is important to God. For the most part, he is the only one who sees the labor behind the food. I'm learning to find contentment and joy in that kind of service, not seeking the praise of people.

God had unexpected surprises for us. My step-daughter, who has avoided church for years, happened to call right before we left for the very first night. Instead of coming to our house for a free meal, she came to Alpha and has continued ever since. Two friends I've missed lately also came with their children. And my girls! While Fred and I work, they have the time of their lives with the children's choir preparing a musical for Christmas and then Awanas.

God is always up to something. We miss out when we confine ourselves to our own little world. Alpha will be ending soon and again I'm asking, "What now?" I'll probably continue cooking for the next session, but I believe God revealed to me another vision for our family. It's big! It's exciting! But we can't do it alone. I will need the help of friends near and far. More on this later.

A verse to keep in mind: "Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship." Romans 12:1.