The Encounter

This article was originally written as a letter to the congregation of Saint Aloysius church in Detroit, by my brother, Brother Ed Gura, OFM. Ed has been serving the Lord as a Fransiscan for over 30 years in various capacities, including as a nurse in the Appalachian country of Kentucky, running a free medical center, and most recently, as a street minister in Detroit, daily serving the homeless out on the streets. He is a great inspiration of sacrifice, humility, compassion, and love, and I am proud to call him brother. I hope you will enjoy his story.

THE ENCOUNTER

On a cold winter day in March, I gathered with volunteers in the alleyway of Saint Aloysius Church to prepare for morning street ministry.  We then headed over to the Rosa Parks Bus Terminal where we served sandwiches and hot beverages and passed out hand-warmers and warm winter clothing for our guests. Upon our return to Saint Aloysius Church I ended up staying longer than planned as the remainder of my morning took on a new direction. When I was finally on my way, I thought I knew where I was going next until a surprise encounter with a homeless man caused me to turn off my car engine and get out of my car to see if he needed anything.

To my surprise, though, the man had already disappeared so I ran to the end of the alley to see if he might be heading down State Street, but he was nowhere to be seen. When I turned around to head back to my car, it was then that I caught sight of him sifting through a dumpster. When I asked this aged man if he was hungry, he was quick to say that he was. I then invited him to come in out of the cold to warm-up. We talked for awhile and then I headed downstairs to gather up some food and warm clothing. When I gave them to him, he smiled through his tired, worn and weather-beaten face. He then thanked me as he headed back out into the cold. Our encounter humbled me and reminded me, once again, of the plight of some of our brothers and sisters on the streets of Detroit.

Later I thought about my encounter with this homeless brother of mine and how it never would have occurred if I had not been open to a change of plans that morning, which then kept me longer at St. Aloysius Church. Often we begin our day with a plan, but let us also pray for guidance in case our plan is not what the Lord has planned for us, for only then can we hope to welcome, serve, bless and be blessed by those whom God wishes to send our way.

I remain ever thankful to all who support our downtown ministries so that we can continue to feed the hungry, quench the thirsty and clothe the naked.

May our Lenten journeys continue to draw us ever closer to the Foot of the Cross where all becomes clearer as we see more clearly that it is the merciful who know the way for it is the way of the Lord and the way home.

Thank you for taking the time to read my article. The Lord continues to bless me with an ever growing family, now including the people we serve in Detroit. Sometimes when our guests ask me if they could have two hot chocolates or two hot coffees or one of each, I humor them by saying:  “We are having a sale today — by the first one at no cost, and get the second one free”.  It always brings a laugh and a response that makes me laugh. They remain a blessing in my life just as you remain a blessing in my life.

A Lesson from Star Trek

A few months ago, we ventured out of the land of Hulu and back into DirecTV. With our newly found plethora of channels, the family sat on the couch and rifled through the endless list of shows. I happened upon an old Star Trek: The Next Generation, one of my favorites from back then, and was quickly drawn into the story. When a commercial hit, reality set in and I quickly changed the channel thinking my kids must be about to lynch me for subjecting them to such torture. But to my surprise, they hollered, “What are you doing? Put it back!” Hence dawned our new family “tradition” of watching the series from beginning to end, compliments of Amazon Prime.

As you may or may not know, most of the show’s storylines are founded around a current cultural topic which is extrapolated into an extreme or futuristic version of that situation. Entire species of “humanoids” are fabricated from inflated versions of cultural no-no’s, making for some interesting and conflicted plots. In the episode we watched last night, a woman’s fundamental genetic make-up and sole purpose in life was to morph her entire person into the perfect companion for her mate. She was a biologically natural but rare form of their species who had a specific purpose in life, to prepare for an arranged marriage with the leader of a rival faction to begin the restoration process. Until she was married to this person, her life was a constant morphing of personality traits and characteristics that aligned to whomever happened to be in the room with her at that time. She effectively had no definition of self. Once married, she would bond with her spouse and be permanently created as the person who is her mate’s perfect companion.

As the show progressed, this woman found herself, for the first time, finding a version of her self which she realized made her a better person. This happened when she was in contact with one particular person, in this case the captain of the ship, Jean Luc Picard.

She had a found person that made her a better person.

The night before she was to be married to the rival faction leader, she chose to bond with Captain Picard. Meaning, she chose to create a permanent version of herself which was better than any she had known previously, and in doing so, accepted the sacrifice of having to work to be the perfect mate to her soon-to-be-spouse.

The story was quite dramatic in watching the evolution of her awakening and the dawning of realization that two people can work together to build each other up into something better.

As the showed replayed itself in my mind, I started to experience a sense of loss, a longing for a partner in which the other person made me a better person.

Then the reality hit me. I do have this. His name is Jesus.

There is a song by Britt Nicole, All This Time, whose lyrics come to mind now:

I hear these people asking me
How do I know what I believe?
Well I’m not the same me
And that’s all the proof I need

I started thinking of all the ways in which Jesus has made me a better person since I started following Him. When the first couple came to mind, I pulled out a sheet of paper from the scrap drawer and actually thought to myself, “Oh, I’m going to waste this whole sheet of paper on two thoughts.” But I wrote them down anyway. Fifteen minutes later, I had filled the entire page with all the ways He has changed me. Here’s my list:

More compassionate, less controlling, less judgmental, more value in myself, more humble, better at shutting my mouth, more patient, more aware, less destructive, more perceiving, less easily influenced by negative things, more conviction, less greedy, less materialistic, less close-minded, less shameful, less living by guilt, more tolerant, more friendly to strangers, more co-operative, less rigid where unnecessary and more firm where needed, less complaining, more protective where needed, less fearful about: money, jobs/unemployment, rejecting cultural norms, my “reputation”, speaking the truth, speaking about Jesus, artificial dependencies (my home, money in the bank, etc); more ability to dream in what’s possible, more creative, less of a chameleon, better understanding of community, more likely to donate money / more open-handed, less likely to follow old behavior patterns, more loving and appreciative and understanding toward my mom, a better parent, a better co-worker, a better wife, a better sister, better at smiling at people, more health conscious, better listener, more competent in my job.

And lastly, after all that, I realized the one that surprised me the most. I realized that during the show, I did not relate to or align with this woman’s chameleon nature, when in fact, this is exactly what I used to be – a shape-shifter morphing the definition of myself to others’ needs for the purpose of receiving love. A painful and terrifying way to go through life. He relieved me of that burden and gave me a new heart about myself.

If you are looking for someone to walk with you, to build you up into a better person, to remain beside you during your slips and failures, and to stay by your side for the lifetime of getting better while never expecting perfection, then Jesus is your answer. Give yourself to Him today so He can help you become a better you.

U2 on the Roof – God Cares about EVERYTHING

I had a really rough night last night. Really rough. I spent today feeling bruised and battered, like I had been run over by the emotional express train. In the evening, driving the kids around, I dialed up a string of U2 songs on YouTube and let ‘er rip in the car. Through the cracks in the conversation with my daughter, my mind kept grasping and pecking at the lyrics and riffs, trying to maneuver them into my soul and elevate my mood. But relief was eluding me. I kept thinking, Man, I really want to hear ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’.

I pulled into our church parking lot to drop the kids to youth group and while pulling back out, I thought, I bet God was just waiting for me to drop them off so I can hear the song uninterrupted. Three minutes and one song later, my radio wails with recorded police sirens and DJs frantically announcing an impromptu U2 video shoot on top a building in LA at 7th and Main. Voices of police officers threatening Bono they will shut down the shoot play over the pandemonium rising in the background as crowds pour into the streets. But their legendary opening riffs blow over the rooftop and into the streets below. It was March 27, 1987. The song they played that day… Where the Streets Have No Name. Best version of that song ever recorded.

Relief, blasting through my speakers and settling in my soul. The song is great, but my God is Good.

Gorging’s Gotta Go

I’m recently struggling with a problem I’ve not had in the past… FOOD! I just can’t quite seem to get enough of it. I’m gorging myself at meals, over-packing my lunch for work, eating those explosion-of-sugar kids’ birthday cakes that once I never would have dreamed of ingesting, thinking about which restaurant we’re going to after church… you get the idea. This is strange for me – this is not something that has haunted and taunted me before. I’ve been praying about it a lot, trying to break the habit, trying to force myself to stop and… nothing.

But today at church, I had a “Doh!” moment. A revelation that in hindsight, seems absurdly obvious. It’s amazing how the enemy can blind us to awareness and insight and how that can keep us trapped in cyclical behavior. Last January, after my church community ended their annual beginning-of-the-year-fast, I decided I wanted to keep it up through the year instead of doing it just once. So I joined hands with my sister and we’ve fasted and prayed together each Wednesday through the year. It’s turned out to be a profound experience for me in growing closer to God.

So why on earth was I struggling to understand why I’ve been having a FOOD problem? I’ve been FASTING which has helped me grow CLOSER to God! Where else would the enemy try to attack me? Well, he can attack, but he can’t win with Jesus on my side. Today at lunch after church, I stopped with a third of my meal still on the plate, comfortably full, not stuffed. Victory!

Is there something that has been nagging you or chronically derailing you? Is there something you feel as though you just can’t break free from? If so, I encourage you to look for ways that it’s related to something you have recently made a commitment to change in your life. When you make the connection, recognize it as a sign that you are moving forward and making progress and the darkness of this world is trying to shut it down. So press in and don’t give up! Identify it, call it out by name, and reject it in your life by Jesus’ saving hand. Then step forward into the victory that’s waiting for you!

A Hamster in my Hand

We have a hamster who, to be truthful, I did not want. Despite my objections and resistance to its invasion of our home, over time the little guy turned from rodent to pet in my heart. And because, of course, the agreement that the kids would take care of this hamster (Stan) has long since evaporated, I make sure on a daily basis that the little guy doesn’t starve to death. The result has been that I have earned the exclusive right of having him crawl into my hand and cozy up for a little scratch, tucking his bitty nose underneath my thumb, and sometimes even taking a little snooze. Over time, he learned that my hand is a safe hand; he learned to recognize and trust me.

What strikes me every time little Stan is in my hand, is that he has no possible concept of who and what I am. Even if his eyesight weren’t naturally dreadful, he could not possibly take in my full scale just by shear proportion. It would be like standing on an outcrop during an ascension of Mount Kilimanjaro and trying to take in the whole mountain. Stan can’t see me, he can’t possibly understand me with his definitively small brain, but he trusts me. He knows my smell, he knows my touch, and he knows I will keep him safe, warm, fed, and comfortable through life’s hamster challenges.

But isn’t this just a reflection of us sitting in God’s hand?

Aren’t we in the exact same position in our ability to comprehend who and what God is?

hands holding the sun at dawn

Sing it with me: “He’s got the whole world in His hands…” This isn’t just a childhood song. It’s a fundamental truth. You are sitting in God’s hand, whether you recognize it or not. He is way too big for us to see. Way too complex for us to understand. Way too magnificent for us to behold with our five senses. But unlike the hamster, we use our decisively large brains to conclude, therefore, that he doesn’t exist.

And so we strive in our own effort.

And we falter without seeking His support.

And we toil through the days feeling an emptiness, and a burden for life’s outcome.

What if today, we decided to be more like Stan? What if we chose to believe there is a great Caregiver who loves us and will keep us safe, healthy, strong, comfortable, warm, peaceful, joyful, if only we allow Him? If only we believe? If only we take the time to understand Him outside our five senses; to learn to recognize His presence and how He wants to relate to us?

To acquire the discernment of what is God’s hand, and what is not, is life’s foremost goal. When we do, we develop clarity for separating out those things that do not keep us safe, healthy, strong, comfortable, warm, peaceful, joyful. With awareness of His presence, we learn to know His hand and trust that we are firmly in it. And that He will meet our needs for life’s challenges.

I invite you today, to allow your beautifully large and complex brain to expand beyond the boundaries of its five senses and open up a window of trust to the God you cannot fully see or understand. Remember, if Stan could control me, I would not be his caregiver. And if you could control God, by being able to fully document and describe Him, He would not be your Caregiver. Spend some time today, alone, tucking your nose under His thumb, and allowing Him to help you know and trust Him. He’s got you in His hand.

What Does Answered Prayer Look Like?

My daughter attends a charter school downtown that I drive her to and pick her up from every day. Yesterday, I did some grocery shopping, then headed straight to the school to pick her up even though I was going to be forty minutes early. Since I was so early, I shut the car off after getting into the carpool line and kicked on my Kindle. Forty minutes later, as kids starting pouring out of the school, I cranked the car and… nothing. Not even a flicker of power, other than the orange CHECK ENGINE light glaring at me… the “your car is so dead” light.

As I searched for the roadside assistance card, started making phone calls, and texted my husband who was just about to board a flight to Texas, the chaos of kids running down the sidewalk and cars careening around me died off. My daughter and I were suddenly surrounded by the eeriness of a quiet school ground… in downtown… with boarded up houses across the street. It was going to take an hour and 15 minutes for the tow truck to arrive.

Empty School

“Dear Jesus, please keep up safe…” the prayers went up.

Within 5 minutes a police officer pulled up in the carpool line right behind me, followed by a second and a third patrol car. Within ten minutes, four officers had apprehended and handcuffed a man, put him in the third patrol car and drove him away. The first and second patrol cars however, remained onsite, right behind me, in the carpool line… for the next hour. The first patrol car pulled away from the line directly behind the tow truck as it pulled into the line – quite literally, he followed the tow truck through the line and passed him by as the truck pulled over to help me.

This is amazing grace.

But let’s be real about this. This is clearly amazing grace by the way I told the story. How many of us, when we see a police officer roll up behind us, say to ourselves, “Praise God. Help is here!” Possibly my first reaction to the scene was not to see God’s grace at all? But to say, “Oh crap,”? To start plotting what I would say to the officer when s/he knocked on my window? To start explaining why I was loitering on a school ground? I actually almost completely missed the grace. Once I had the relief that the officer was not there for me, I put the whole thing behind me. But then it struck me; this WAS God’s answer to my prayer.

Are there places in your life where you have missed God’s answer to your prayer?

I invite you today to take stock of your prayers and the recent events of your life. See if you can map them together; see if you can identify something that felt like a problem, annoyance, frustration, as actually an answer to a prayer. I’m learning more and more how to let go of my vision of what answered prayer looks like and see the ways that Jesus is actually answering them. I hope you will find yourself shocked, as I was, that the answer is right in front of you.

The Right Serving

Over the years, I’ve been on a roller coaster of spending my time in service to others and pulling back to allow myself rest and focus on the family. Up and down, back and forth, in and out of life. But no matter which hill or valley of the roller coaster I’m on at any given point in time, I find that the benefits are fairly short lived. I might feel satisfied with accomplishment for a while after spending my time in service to others and I might feel restful and relieved when I choose to focus on myself for a while. But both are fleeting. Sadly, when I’m serving myself, that sense of obligation creeps back in, pecking at my conscience, but when I’m serving others, it eventually turns to exhaustion from overwhelming myself and kills the joy of what I’m doing. So what’s the deal? Why can’t I find the happy medium?

To be truthful, it doesn’t exist. Not when I’m trying to find this balance out of my own sense of should and shouldn’t do, derived from our cultural norms. Here’s the big shocker – the right amount of serving comes only from God’s plan over your life. So what does that mean exactly?

God has been giving me a growing level of discernment about myself – I’ve started to become aware when I’m doing something that’s motivated by a sense of obligation vs. motivated by God’s request for me to act. Although truthfully, the first does provide a sense of satisfaction in knowing that I’ve helped someone through a life challenge, the reality is, that satisfaction is only a shadow of the experience of walking out something I know God has asked me to do. In the first, I get this filled up feeling, slightly euphoric, a little puffy-chested, that allows me to breathe more deeply in the aftermath.

For the second, I get the experience of being in God’s presence.

This would be a joy that flows through me like an abundant river, with an intensity that brings me to my knees. A shower of blessing drenches me, not for what I have done for someone else, but because I am overcome with the awareness that God saw me, chose me, asked me. My thankfulness comes not from what I accomplished, or even what He asked me to do, but because He turned His gaze to me. I can’t help but to ask Him to bring me more of those opportunities, ask more of me, just to experience more moments of awareness that His eyes are on me.

But He is a good God. And He will not ask too much of me. So when He is not asking, I do not bear the burden of obligation. This is my time to delight in rest.

As it is with everything in life, our first action should always be to seek God. Imagine a world if everyone did this – if everyone sought Him for their daily activities – there would be nothing that was left undone and nobody would be overburdened. What an amazing place this would be!

Leaving my Home

We’re selling our home. In our next (major) step on this adventure faith walk, we are embracing the one income challenge and downsizing. Not just downsizing, but renting even. 100% debt free. Woohoo!

That may sound all fab and fancy and all that, but in reality, it’s been a bear… excusing myself from using the other b word that would have more adequately described my disposition…

This process of letting go of my home has been something akin to wrenching and twisting and scraping the skin off my arms and face and body, if I had to describe the emotional by the physical.

Porch roller skates

What has been so hard about it?

I put everything into that home. My heart and soul when I painted my son’s room in earthy browns and greens and blues to reflect his homeland of Ethiopia, and my daughter’s room in vibrant swirls of primary red, blue, and teal to splash her artist’s heart on the wall, and my other daughter’s room in lime and periwinkle with a bold strip of black cutting them through the center to show both her soft and daring sides. I put my time and energy into that home, preparing it for the teen years with the goal of our house being the hang-out place, by investing in a pool table, an air hockey table, and an entertainment area in the basement all leading out to a swimming pool out back. I put my love of labor and quality into that home by hand-staining the deck and fashioning hand-made curtains and planting an indescribable number of shrubs and flowering plants of all variations of color and size so that something beautiful was blooming all year round.

2015-04-13 15.00.45 2015-04-16 11.58.212015-04-13 15.00.59 2015-04-16 11.58.29

*De-personalizing my daughter’s room for sale was very difficult

But what did I really put into that home that has made it so hard to leave?

Faith.

I put my faith in that home; faith that if I made a good home, my kids would be ok. Faith that if I made a stable home by hunkering down and staying for the long haul, my kids would be ok. Faith that if the home was good, the kids were good.

The good news is, I made a good home. I made a stable home. It’s just not tied up in the house we live in.

I’m reminded of the time a very good friend of mine told me that Christianity is a crutch. What I’ve discovered is that in reality, my house is a crutch. And Christ has been wrenching and twisting and scraping it out from under my arm for a year and a half now. He has gently but persistently showed me that He is my home, my stability, my rock. Since He goes everywhere I go, that means I’m always home. And since I go everywhere He leads, that means leaving my house behind.

And that means my kids are going to be fine, good even. Because home is where we are, where He is, wherever that is.

And behind all the rubble and tears and the wake of what felt like a disaster in leaving my house, I see the Lord working in His most amazing and mysterious ways. I feel the pinpoint of light of renewal coming upon me – I feel the first beats of my drifter-vagabond’s heart starting to awaken again. He knows who I am. And I can’t wait to see where He takes us and in what house we will settle our home.

2nd Grader’s Letter to his Teacher

Too awesome not to share-

I grabbed a partially used notebook from our scrap paper drawer this morning. Flipping through the pages looking for the clean sheets, I came across this letter my son wrote to his teacher in second grade. Apparently, she never had the privilege of receiving it from him. I’ve transposed it in his “kid” language underneath if you can’t make out the writing, but definitely try to read his version first. Hilarious-

Letter to Teacher 1 Letter to Teacher 2

5-16-13

Dear Mrs. Mackee

I think you should not let us go to go to school.

I think that Because it is a hole waste of time.

I think that Because we could Be out side play all day.

I think that Because we are all stuck in a hot room all day.

I think that Because we should Be geting a lot of fresh air.

I think that Because we are leaning stuf that is so easy.

I now you are going to say no But I think that we should have school 1 a week.

I now you are going to say no but we have lean a lot the last few years so we should get 1 yeare off.

I think that Because we should be play sports.

First of all math is boring second writing is a hole waste of time third reading we can do that at home.

So that is why we should have no school.

Sincerily,

Tadi

A Simple Thought with Profound Impact

Just a simple thought for today – which when put into action, creates a profound impact:

How much better would every marriage be if everyone’s goal was to add value to their spouse?

Man and woman

I recently became involved with the John Maxwell Team. John is an internationally recognized leadership expert, having spoken to governments of nations, leaders of corporations, and trained millions of people. His basic philosophy is that everything rises and falls on leadership.

Leadership is the outcome of providing value to other people.

The concept of leadership is almost exclusively aligned with the professional world in our minds – we focus on how we can excel in our careers. Over my protein shake this morning (wishing it were a dark roasted coffee with Southern Butter Pecan creamer…), it struck me that the bible calls us to be leaders in our homes too. Husbands are called to lead their wives. Parents are called to lead their children.

Ladies – how would your lives be impacted if your husband’s goal was to add value to your life? And how would your husband respond if your goal was to add value to his?

How would our children be impacted if adding value to their lives was our focus of parenting?

The impacts would be profound.

Adding value does not have to be a massive undertaking. Make your spouse’s lunch today. Put a note on the dashboard of their car. Make their coffee. Set the table. Schedule a massage. Put a heart sticker in your child’s lunchbox. Tape a note to their bedroom door. Carry their backpack upstairs. Find them an umbrella on a rainy day. Take them outside in the snow. Enjoy the freedom of giving of yourself for the betterment of another!

Now, I’m off to find some note cards…