Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Painful Revelations: Part 2

We were supposed to be at the airport by 4:40 am to meet the rest of our group for a 6:40 flight. When Prince Charming dropped us at the St. Louis airport, I was surprised how emotional I became. As we said our goodbyes, he told me he had put letters in my journal –one for every day I’d be gone. I was touched by his kindness and immediately felt like the bad wife for not thinking about doing the same for him. Selfishly, I’d been too wrapped up in my own pity party to stop and consider how he would be feeling with us gone. As he drove away, I felt vulnerable – an uncomfortable and unusual feeling.

At the airport, we found our gate and eventually all 47 of us from The Crossing, our church in Columbia, arrived safely. We were off. A stop in Detroit and six hours later, we were in Montego Bay. Each of us drug our two, 50-pound suitcases off the luggage carousel and were thrilled to get it outside to stack up for our bus ride to the mountains of Jamaica. Imagine 94 big suitcases - nearly 5 tons of clothing, toiletries, shoes and school supplies – as well as the 47 of us with our carry-ons. It was quite a site.

As we made our way up the mountains, the scenery was breathtaking. So were the near misses of on-coming cars, pedestrians, goats and chickens that were in the road. The roads were narrow and the curves were sharp. Our driver, whose name is Creamy, honked as he approached and made these curves to warn of our arrival. Lucky for me, I got the very first seat on the bus, which had extra leg room. I was suffering from a leg injury that caused my leg to grow painful and stiff, so I appreciated stretching it out.

Three hours later, we arrived safely to the village of Harmons, where we would be doing our work. As we drove through the village, residents stopped and waved and children ran alongside the bus smiling and waving too. The people of Harmons knew why we were there and the reception was warm. I caught myself feeling good about what we were going to do for these people and immediately asked God to adjust my thinking. I didn’t want this week to be about me and what I needed to feel good about myself. I really wanted it to be all about the people of Jamaica. Shamefully, I realized that only with God’s grace was that going to be possible.

Our accommodations at the Harmony House compound were modest, but manageable. We had 21 women in a dorm room with 12 bunk beds. At the far end of the room was the one bathroom. Yes, I said one. No, it’s not a typo. The bathroom had two sinks, two toilets and two showers, where we got to use our two (cold) minutes of running water per day! Let me assure you, two minutes of cold water is all I wanted. It’s amazing how quickly you can get your business done in the shower when you have to.

The directions for the toilet were posted on the wall and then later reinforced to us by the staff; If it is yellow, let it mellow. If it is brown, flush it down (Just like the scene from Meet the Fockers). I thought I was being smart when I grabbed one of the beds closest to the bathroom, in case I needed to visit it in the middle of the night. By the end of the week, I would grow weary of crawling in and out of my top bunk. By Wednesday night, I found myself lying in bed checking the clock, weighing what would hurt more; to hold it the rest of the night or hobble down the bunk with my nearly non-functioning knee.

On Monday morning we learned all about the history of the organization we were serving with, Won By One to Jamaica. Then we took a walking tour of the city. I was struck by the beauty of the island and the smiles on the faces of those we encountered. The living conditions were hard not to notice too. Homes with a roof, running water and electricity were the exception. Most of these wouldn’t even be considered shacks by our standards.

After lunch we got our first service opportunity assignments. At first I laughed at how the staff called our work “service opportunities.” After hauling bag after bag of maul (a mixture of sand and gravel used to make concrete) up a narrow path on a steep hill for the afternoon, I secretly decided “service opportunity” was code for “working your butt off.” The days would be filled with building three homes, working at the greenhouse, working at the store and serving at the infirmary.

I have written all about these experiences in detail, which is being posted in several installments on our church’s blog. If you would like more information on our work, the mission of Won By One and the lives that we touched and touched us, please go to http://www.everysquareinch.net/2010/07/called-to-jamaica.html.

On a more personal note, the work was hard – emotionally and physically. Building homes was a cross between Extreme Home Makeover and working on a Habitat for Humanity home. But just like the last 15 minutes of every EHM leaves you teary-eyed, so did the home dedications on Friday afternoon. Three families got homes – their lives changed forever. The homes were modest; 12 by 16 with no running water or electricity. But these families were as thankful and happy as anyone I’d ever seen on television. They appreciated this step toward independence, toward improving their quality of life. They weren’t consumed with having it all and having it now. Their joy was inspiring.

Joy was also abundant when My Princess and I worked at the store, where Jamaicans get to come once every 12-16 months and fill two Wal-mart bags with much needed clothes, shoes and school items. It was like Christmas morning to those people and we got to be their Santa.
But perhaps the most profound displays of joy came at the infirmary. The infirmary in Jamaica is the place where people are discarded and left to die. I can’t adequately describe the sensory overload I experienced the first day I went there. Imagine the most horrific nursing home and then add very limited staff, few hygiene practices, flies and bugs everywhere, and an abundance of physical and mental disabilities.

Then imagine these same people displaying an unexplainable joy. A joy that came from us sitting with them, holding their hands, playing Dominoes, reading scripture and praying with them. One lady, named Birdie, told us that she loves it when people like us come to visit because it reminds her that God has not forgotten her. Another lady, Mabel, sat up straight as a board in her bed and talked to us about how she knows she’s going to be called to heaven soon. Tears streamed down my face as I told her that I felt confident that God had sent us to love on her here in Jamaica and that God had called my sweet mother to heaven to welcome her home when Mabel’s day arrives.

Thinking of Mom overwhelmed me with emotion. Does she see this? Does she her granddaughter showing love to the people that the world tells us offer nothing of value?
Did Mom see us the night that we read scripture into one another? It was a night that neither of us will forget. We chose scripture for one another earlier in the day and then we shared it by candlelight. I cried that night too, as Madison read to me from 1 Corinthians 13, “Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres,” and thanked me for showing God’s love to her in this way.

Unfortunately, the week wasn’t filled with these mountaintop spiritual moments. It had its share of valleys too. For example, my heart broke on Tuesday night when I opened up my journal and realized my letters from Tom for the rest of the week were gone! Gone. I searched and searched, asked everyone and dug through the trash. How could this happen? God, how could you allow something like this to happen?

And then there was my leg and the immense pain that I was experiencing. Because I am addicted to running, I continued to try to run a few miles each day, despite the pain and the sensibility of it all. On Thursday, as I came down a big hill, my leg gave out. The pain was so intense that I broke out in a sweat and my breathing became rapid and shallow.

Was this some kind of a sick joke? First I lose my job, then the only connection I have with Prince Charming and now the ability to run? What was this supposed to be teaching me? Let’s just say I wasn’t feeling the patience and kindness that the verse above speaks of. But how could I feel sorry for myself when the people around me had real reason to complain but yet never did. How could I say poor me when I would soon be headed back to the comforts that many Jamaicans only dream of?

How could I not trust God to prune my heart, to hit my reset buttons and to adjust the lenses by which I was determining what is important in life?

Thankfully, God did that. While in Jamaica, God revealed that amidst the many things that appear to need fixing, I am the broken thing that needs His attention. God wanted this week to be about me and Him – not the other things that I’ve tried to find my identity in. He wanted to do business with me and it took stripping me of nearly every prideful thing in my life to make it happen.

It was painful. It’s still painful, but I’m learning to embrace my brokenness. I’m realizing that I have been living the lie, chasing the American Dream. Chasing a finish line that I’m never going to find. Feeling like I have to make more money this year than last year, that I have to run more miles this week than last week, like I have to run faster and further than I have before, like people need to look at Prince Charming and I and be convinced that we are a happy couple who has it all figured out.

So my secret is out. I don’t have it all together. I’m broken. I am weak and on my knees.

But I’m moldable and yielding - and so excited to see God build something beautiful from my wreckage.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Painful Revelations: Part 1

Perhaps I have never been more amazed at God’s fingerprints on the details of my life than I have been the last few weeks. There is so much to tell. Where should I start?

On May 11th, my employer, Takeda Pharmaceuticals notified us that they would be laying off 28 percent of the sales force on June 15th. I’m not sure why this surprised me since nearly every pharmaceutical company has been doing the same thing for the past several years. Maybe it was the fact that we had always been assured that Takeda would not be doing these cuts that gave me some false sense of security.

Speaking of false securities, I have never been fired. I’ve never been laid off. I’ve never been given an action plan for improvement. I’ve never gotten anything other than a positive performance evaluation. I am the anal one. The one in college who never skipped class. The one who everyone hated in high school. Over-achievers like me do not lose their jobs.

The problem is that over-achievers like me like to think we have control when we don’t. Such was the case on June 15th when my boss called to deliver the news of my… what? My termination! I was shocked. This wasn’t supposed to happen to me. What about the criteria that was supposed to be used to make these decisions? How did this happen to me? Was this a mistake? Please tell me I was going to wake up tomorrow and this all be a dream.

But it wasn’t. I did lose my job. People I cared about also lost their jobs. Still other co-workers kept theirs - including my partner and very good friend. How could she manage our business without me? What does tomorrow look like with our partnership now severed?
I have to admit it, I was hurt. Or rather my pride was hurt. How could this company not care about all that I had given to it during the past six years? Apparently, whoever made this decision didn’t think as much of me as I thought of myself! And what about my partner? As if it wasn’t bad enough to lose my job, I lost my partner in the process. I think that loss might have hurt the worst.

And I was mad. I didn’t deserve this. I had worked hard and been successful. What about all the extra projects I volunteered for? What about the leadership qualities I exhibited? What about going above and beyond to help our company and the people around me?

And now I can also admit that I was scared. Yes, somewhat because of the financial security my job provides for my family. But more so because I didn’t know what the future was going to look like for me. I didn’t even know what tomorrow was going to look like. What was I going to do? Get up and do what? I sensed God had work to do in my heart and I feared it wasn’t going to be pretty.

Well lucky for me (in so many ways) that I got this news on a Tuesday and My Princess and I were scheduled to leave the following weekend for a mission trip to Jamaica. So I spent the remainder of the week answering the endless phone calls of my colleagues and friends – all offering their words of condolence and encouragement, and getting ready for our trip.

As we packed, my emotions shifted somewhat from myself to the trip. We began planning for this trip nearly 9 months ago. Only God could have known just how much I needed this trip, just how much I needed to have my eyes opened, my priorities adjusted and my heart shaped.
I’m so thankful to God for allowing me to be broken and then taking me to Jamaica to fix me.

(Please read tomorrow to learn more about our mission trip, the work we were a part of there and the work God is doing in me as a result.)

Friday, April 9, 2010

Fun in the Sun

April 3, 2010

We are sitting on the airplane flying home from Ft. Lauderdale. How did the week go by so quickly? It seems like hours ago that we were leaving St. Louis. This is our fourth Spring Break trip with the Wipfler family. Twice we visited Destin, once to Daytona and now to south Florida. The weather was outstanding and I don’t think I’ve been this tan for a few decades.

Prince Charming is beside me and My Sweetness is beside him. My Sweetness turned 12 this week, which means that someday soon he’ll no longer want me to kiss all over him. Someday soon he’ll no longer smile when I tell him I love being his Mommy. And one day he might even stop saying back, “and I love being your boy.”

I look across the row at him and think about the day he’ll go off to college, the woman he’ll marry, the career he’ll choose, the husband and father he’ll become. I pray for God’s direction on all of these things and remind myself that he is a gift from Heaven. I don’t let myself worry about how I’m not equipping him or the ways that I fall short as his mother. I try to be a good mom and I pray he knows that. I’m not perfect. That he knows for sure. When I lose my patience, I have to ask him for forgiveness and he receives it with a loving smile and that softness in his blue eyes.

Right now, he and his dad are glued to this tiny 7-inch DVD screen watching Blades of Glory for the 100th time. They are sharing the ear buds and laugh after laugh as if it’s the first time they’ve ever seen it.

My Gazelle is several rows back with her friend Madison Wipfler. It’s not that there weren’t available seats behind us. They just chose not to sit by us. It doesn’t bother me in the least though. Her independence makes me smile. She is growing into such a beautiful young woman, both on the inside and out. Now I know that I’m prejudice and some what obligated to say this, but it is true. I’m so proud of her and so very thankful for her.

I’m also shameful that I am not more patient with her. Sometimes I forget she is 13. I start expecting her to think like I do – at 38, but deep down it’s the last thing I really want for her. I want her to be young, confident and content that the world will come to her. Because it will.

I’m trying to chronicle in my head the great memories we made this week: our annual May versus Wipfler family tennis and basketball game, flat runs along the palm tree-lined streets, the airboat ride in the Everglades, the trip out into the ocean, Cardinals Spring Training game, dinner at South Beach, laying by the pool, tanning by the ocean, oatmeal from Jamba Juice, card games and movies. Then, there was my book. Nothing completes a good vacation like a great book. I just finished The Help and if you haven’t read it, you should. I hope I don’t forget the vacation or the book. They are both worth savoring.

The plane is a little bumpy but the sun is shining above the fluffy ceiling of clouds. Riding above the clouds will always be surreal to me. Two rows up there is a young mother struggling with a toddler who hasn’t been content for much of the flight. I remember what it’s like to worry that your baby is annoying the rest of the plane, the restaurant, the church – whatever. I wish I could ease her mind, but I think back to all the “old” moms that tried to tell me the same thing. I didn’t listen. Instead I spent far too many services and such wishing my kids would grow up too quickly.

My sweet mother pointed this sad truth to me one day when I was complaining to her on the phone. In retrospect, I think she’d heard enough of my whining about “doing it all” and such. Prince Charming was training for a new job in St. Louis during the week, which left me at home with a newborn and a not-quite 2-year-old. I think I was telling her how I was desperately ready for the weekend to come and offer some relief of the single-parent life, when she stopped me in my tracks.

She had been a real single-mother. She knew what it was really like and wasn’t going to listen to my pity party one more minute. She told me I was going to wish my babies lives away! And she was right, I was and I was ashamed.

I’m thankful for moments like this one, where my mom set me straight. I wonder if I appreciated it then, at the ripe old age of 26. I know I appreciate it now. But like so many things about Mom, I probably didn’t tell her how I appreciated her wisdom. Her words couldn’t be truer today, as I realize the days of these sweet family vacations are fleeting.

It’s so easy to be sad when I think about a great vacation coming to an end or the life of my mother ending too soon. As we begin our final decent into St. Louis, I hear the announcement to shut my computer off. The next time I open it, I’ll have to download 10 days of missed emails, digest my Outlook calendar for the week and open up the kids’ schedules. Life will ultimately return to the controlled chaos to which we’ve become so accustomed. But instead of being sad that “it” is over, I’m going to do what my mom would want me to do and just smile and be happy because we got to experience it at all.

The joy was in the journey.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

And the Oscar Goes To...

March 5, 2010

Sometimes inspiration comes in the most unusual places and a sense of belonging comes from the least likely people.

This was the week of the Academy Awards and Oscar buzz has been bountiful. But far, far away from the pomp and circumstance of Hollywood’s red carpet, I witnessed the real performance of the year. My Oscar goes to my brother, Buddy, and the entire Prison Performing Arts cast of Stalag 17.

Stalag 17 is a once-Broadway play adapted into a 1953 war film about a group of American airmen held in a German World War II prisoner of war camp. On this particular March night, Stalag 17 became a story of hope, community and the promise of a better tomorrow.
Last July, I wrote (Held in Heaven's Hands: July 2009) about my first exposure to Prison Performing Arts (PPA). It was a night I will never forget. My reserved brother, who had never shown any interest in any theatre, awakened a part of him neither of us knew existed. The experience was empowering and encouraging for everyone involved.

There was never a question about Buddy continuing in the PPA once it resumed. The experience changed him. It made him realize that life is full of opportunities to touch people and be touched – even in prison. It seemed to change his perspective on engaging in and building community.

I couldn’t wait to see the Northeast Correctional Facility company of actors on stage again. And I couldn’t wait for my grandma and aunt to see it as well. Since my mom’s death, these two women have been a pillar of strength for me and my brothers. I was excited for them to see how their encouragement of Buddy has been an investment that allows him to encourage others.
When we arrived at the prison, I immediately began to see familiar faces; family members of other cast members and supporters of the program. I found myself wondering how this concrete structure surrounded in fences topped with barbed wire had went from feeling cold and horrifying to now somewhat, well, comfortable. I never thought in a million years that I would grow comfortable visiting this place. When I first started coming there, the echo of the closing doors haunted me. The thought of my brother being stripped and searched before and after he visited with me outraged me. The reality that he was seen as “one of them” by the guards who work there, by the State of Missouri, by the rest of the world – it broke my heart and physically repulsed me.

Looking back, I realize now that my black and white thinking hadn’t prepared me for my brother’s imprisonment. Life used to be simple in my head; bad people did bad things. Bad people went to prison. My little brother, full of boyish charm and a good heart, wasn’t the sort of person who spends years in prison. Was it possible that good people do bad things and as a consequence end up in prison? Or is it possible that God was calling me to open my eyes, deal with my prejudices and allow my heart to be transformed?

This process didn’t come easy. It came from story after story of people impacting Buddy’s life – people who looked past his prison garb to see someone uniquely talented and worthy of being loved. Agnes, the director of PPA, is one of those special people. She doesn’t just see the best in my brother. She sees it in every man who walks into her class. I see her heart for these men in how she speaks to them, how she speaks of them and in the sacrifices she makes for them. She makes me want to be like her.

When we arrived to the activity room that had been transformed into the set of Stalag 17, I hurried to pick up the programs for the evening. It was several pages typed and very professionally put together – just like everything Agnes does, I suspect. Along with a list of the cast and information on the play and PPA, the program had a short bio of each actor. I cheated and skipped past everyone until I found my brother’s. As I read his bio, I got a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. In it, he dedicated his performance to me and thanked me for being his cheerleader.

I was humbled and emotional. I don’t feel worthy of his gratitude, but I’m thankful for it all the same. This opportunity is a good one for Buddy in so many ways and I’m just proud to be a part of it.
The show opens and like the performance I attended last summer, I am amazed. These guys are funny, talented and courageously entertaining. I recognize most of the cast from the Shakespearean performance. I smile as Rodney hits the stage. Rodney is one of those people, like Ms. Agnes, that understands the value of community. He recognizes the importance of being synergistically connected and thankfully, he’s helped open Buddy’s eyes to it too. Last semester, Rodney convinced my timid brother to come give PPA a chance to change his life. Excited by the opportunity to transform himself and move others through art, this semester Buddy brought along his friend, Jesse.

When Buddy hits the stage, I can’t help but stare at him. I try to tell myself to stop, but I can’t help it. I don’t want him to make eye contact with me because I’m afraid if he does, I’ll burst into tears. I’m so proud of him that I can barely contain it.

After the performance, there is an opportunity for the audience to ask questions of the cast. I love this part almost as much as the play itself. Here I get a chance to understand what it is that really motivates a group of prisoners who are very different to come together in such a unique way. Even the warden spoke and offered his praise. He joked that they don’t like to use the E word, but that PPA offers a great escape from the every day prison life.

I have thought about his comment a lot since then. I hope that PPA offers more than just an escape from prison life. I hope it offers an escape to freedom – freedom that moves beyond the walls of the prison as these men someday transition to a life full of opportunities. I hope it breeds a confidence that will serve each of them well, both today and tomorrow.

As the evening came to a close, we were all served delicious and humongous servings of cake. It was better than any birthday or wedding cake I’ve ever eaten. Maybe it was the occasion; eating cake in my brother’s honor. Or maybe it was the feeling of community that permeated the room. Mike, who served me cake, knew my name and all about my running and writing. His interest in my ordinary life made me feel special, as if what I do matters. Then there was the visit with Rodney’s parents, who I’d met at the last performance. Seeing them again felt like visiting old friends. It was a good feeling. I loved it.

I also visited with Jesse’s family and met Ms. Beasley, who supervises Buddy’s daily work in the activity’s building. It was hard for me to imagine her in the cold, blue, standard uniform for DOC officers. I didn’t want to imagine it either. She was beautiful in her pink sweater and her generous spirit showed through. This wasn’t her shift. She wasn’t there working; she was there encouraging. I loved her for that.

Buddy told me later that the assistant warden wrote each of the actors in the play a letter congratulating them on a wonderful performance. She also put a copy of the letters in their “files.” She didn’t have to do either of those things, but she did. I love her for doing so.
It’s nights like this one that remind me that God wired us all for a relationship with Him and with others. For lots of people, whether they are in prison or not, building relationships like these is difficult, at best. Creating relationships where individuals can accomplish things that on their own is impossible is a gift. I love it that we got to be blessed by this gift. It helped me realize that I’m growing more comfortable with the prison because with the help of PPA, I’m seeing that we are all just people. Not that must separates us. Not nearly as much as I once thought.