Friday, August 29, 2014

Love in a Macchiato

The chain reaction began at 7 a.m. with a caramel macchiato. 

Last Wednesday morning, a woman in St. Petersburg, Florida drove through a Starbucks, paid for her drink, and then in a random act of kindness paid for the drink of the person behind her. That person in turn paid for the person behind them, and so on, and so on.

Vu Nguyen, the barista working the drive-through window, was amazed at what was happening, so he began keeping a tally on a piece of paper. As customers pulled up to the window to pay after ordering Nguyen would smile and explain that their drink had been paid for by the person in front of them, and asked if they wanted to do the same for the next in line.

And so it went for eleven straight hours

By 6 p.m., 368 people had paid it forward. Tim Burnside, who had driven through that morning, came back later in the day to see if the chain was still going. When he discovered that it was, he ordered a second chai tea just so he could participate again. “It’s just nice to do a random act of kindness for someone you don’t know,” he said.

It’s incredible - that first small act of kindness turned into a mini-movement. I wonder if the woman even knew what she had done until she read the news the next day. She probably was surprised to learn that her actions had such far-reaching effects.

It’s so easy to underestimate ourselves, thinking that our simple acts of love won’t have much impact on the lives of others. So we tend to second-guess ourselves and, many times, end of up blowing it off.  Should I call that friend and encourage them? Does it matter whether I take a meal to one who is ill or lonely?  Will giving my neighbor a Bible really make a difference?

In reality, our seemingly small acts of love can have a huge effect in the lives of others. In fact, God tells us that the greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves. That is our highest calling, our greatest purpose. 

And as this story demonstrates, God can use our acts of love and kindness to catalyze a chain reaction that affects others. For when we love another, we are also teaching them how to love.  So our example creates a ripple effect that will go on and on.

As Mother Teresa said, “We can do no great things. Only small things in great love.” 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Life Lessons from the Homeless

The Corner
Photo credit: Elisabeth Jordan

My friend Elisabeth has dedicated her life to helping the homeless. Several times a week she goes to a place she affectionately calls “the Corner” – an intersection in the area just south of downtown Dallas that is one of the most poverty-stricken areas in the nation – and cares for the material, emotional, and spiritual needs of the homeless men and women there.
Elisabeth and her homeless friends
Photo credit: Elisabeth Jordan

Recently she invited me to join her, so I ventured down to the Corner to hang out with her and some of her homeless friends.  I did my best to jump right in, mingling with the men and women scattered about, some seeking shelter under the cool shade of a tree, others lined up in the blazing sun awaiting entrance to the shelter they would call home for the night.  I struck up conversations with a few and they shared their stories with me:

  • One man told me he had been on the street for years, proudly showing me his homemade mattress made out of plastic grocery bags woven together;

  • Another man with the kindest eyes I’ve ever seen shared that he’s trying to overcome an addiction of 23 years;

  • And another pleaded with me to call the mayor on his behalf certain that if I could just talk to him the issue of homelessness could be solved.

As I stood there listening to each man’s story, I earnestly wanted to help, yet felt so helpless. I wished I could offer practical solutions and words of advice that would fix their problems, but I had none. I wished I had my checkbook with me so I could buy them what they needed, but I had left it at home. I wish I knew the mayor, but I didn’t. Instead, I was standing there utterly empty handed. I had nothing to give but myself…which felt woefully inadequate.

Lord, how am I supposed to help these people? I was at a loss. In fact, part of me wanted to bolt. I wanted to make up some lame excuse about how I needed to be somewhere and leave so they wouldn’t discover that I was a fraud, useless to them, of no help at all.

But, I didn’t bolt. I stayed.

Instead, I did the only thing I knew to do: be present with them. I offered to hold the man’s grocery-bag mattress while he ate a sandwich. “Don’t set it down, someone will take it!” he pleaded with me, so I stood there, making sure he saw me holding it tight while he ate. Then I held the hand of the man with the kind eyes as he told me of his addiction and his dependence upon God to help him overcome it. I listened and nodded and cried, and shared how I needed to depend on God for help, too.

All I had to give them was myself – my attention, my compassion and love. But, oddly, somehow that felt like enough. In fact, it felt like everything. As I looked in their eyes as we talked about our lives, our families, our joys and sorrows, there was a connection. We were relating deeply, authentically, the way human beings are designed to. It was enough. I was enough.

Sure, it would have been helpful if I could have given them something tangible. After all, Jesus himself was full of practical help. He healed. He delivered. He gave people fishes and loaves. He was - and is - the God of provision.

But isn’t it true that the Lord is also the God of presence? After all, when God introduced Himself to Moses at the burning bush, He called Himself simply, “I Am.” In that moment, it seems, His being present with Moses, relating with him, meant everything.

As people made in God’s image, maybe there are times when we are to be people of provision, and other times when we are to be people of presence. Although meeting material needs is important, maybe there are times where just being there, meeting needs of the soul, is of equal importance.

I had asked the Lord how to help these people, and in the process I was the one who was helped. As I climbed into my car and drove away from the Corner, I felt fulfilled, whole, and useful.  I hope I ministered to those men, but I know they ministered to me. They showed me that I am enough.

Read more about the great work Elisabeth is doing for the homeless at her blog site, "Bridge for Good," by clicking on the link below:

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Good Doctor

Dr. Kent Brantly & his wife Amber
(Photo credit: Samaritan's Purse)
No doubt you have been following the story of Dr. Kent Brantly, one of two medical missionaries who recently contracted the deadly Ebola virus while in Liberia. He was transported to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta last week and, thanks to the efficacy of an experimental serum, has shown great improvement with each passing day.
Brantly’s wife, Amber, said in a statement that she is “rejoicing” that he’s better and is grateful for the prayers of so many. Christian leaders such as Franklin Graham and Greg Laurie have expressed their relief at his improvement and urged people to continue praying for his full recovery.
Unfortunately Brantly is not without his critics. Some like Ann Coulter are angry that his treatment is costing his sending agency more money than the medical services he rendered. Others are questioning his wisdom in going to Liberia in the first place, saying it was foolish to put himself and his family in harm's way by treating such seriously ill patients.

Do the critics have a point? Should Brantly have been more careful with his life?

Interestingly, Brantly had already addressed that question long before he became ill. Before he left for Africa, he shared his perspective in a sermon at his home church:

“God has a call on my life. And He has used relationships and experiences in His church to clarify, to strengthen, to confirm, to affirm, and to reconfirm that calling.
…I have no doubt, no hesitation, that He has called me to be a full-time medical missionary. And as I dream about what that will look like in the years to come, my heart leaps with excitement and joy knowing that He has called me.”

Calling. Every one of us has one. But what does that mean? I like this definition: “God’s personal invitation for me to work on His agenda using the talents I’ve been given in ways that are eternally significant.” (Thomas Addington and Stephen Graves, A Case for Calling) So the nature of a calling is that it is initiated by God. God calls; we respond. In fact, He has had our callings waiting for us since before we were even born! Because Brantly understood this concept, he felt confident that it was God who initiated the assignment in Africa, and not going willy-nilly into a dangerous situation. He felt God had confirmed his calling over many years and through many godly people.

Brantly’s story also demonstrates that there are other voices calling us – temporal voices, contrarian voices - telling us why our callings are neither practical, logical, safe, nor financially sound.

We should pay them no heed.

Instead, we should listen to the One who knows each of us by name and who created us with a purpose in mind. We should listen also to those who affirm the call on our life, who will pray for us and stand with us when the going gets tough.

I love how Brantly said that his calling, though fraught with danger, made his heart leap with excitement and joy. Are you experiencing joy and excitement in your life? If not, maybe you have yet to discover your true calling. Ask the Lord to show you, and then hold on for the ride!

You can hear more of Brantly in his own words in this moving video: