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Great hope in the darkest valley

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Against my better judgment, I used to think that if I worked, tried or prayed hard enough, I could ward off all of the evil that the world threatens me with. If I gave my all at my job, saved enough each month, invested earnestly in my relationships, stayed involved in my church community, read my Bible and set goals for the future, I would be safe. In the clear. Untouchable.

Then, I started regularly interviewing homeless and formerly homeless people as part of my job. I’ve stopped being surprised by how much I learn from them during our conversations.  Each person I talk to has a unique story—one that scribbles far outside the lines of what I believed about homelessness before I met them.

I think it’s only fair to let their stories speak for themselves.

 

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Adam loved his wife.

Her prognosis was poor but inconclusive. She was strong and he was brave, so they fought it full force. The medical bills grew. The loans piled up. The kids asked questions. And her condition worsened.

When her heart gave out, Adam lost his wife and everything else. With an empty wallet, a mountain of debt, three grieving children, no daycare, and the feeling of infinite sorrow, he was consumed.

At that point, Adam had a lot to live for but not a lot of life left in him. Before long, he lost his home. He and his three children became homeless.

 

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Roy had finally “made it."

His childhood in Brooklyn wasn’t easy, but he chose hard work over the distractions. Joined the Marines. Started his career. Got married and had three children. He was well on his way to achieving the American dream until it all came crashing down. 

His wife dropped the bomb – she was leaving him for his best friend. She took the children and everything else including the home that they were about to move into.

After working so hard just to fall even harder, Roy started to give up. He became a homeless alcoholic and stayed that way for fifteen years before getting help.

 

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Marcia was a city bus driver.

For the first time since she had started driving her route, it was cancelled for the summer because the local college wasn't offering summer classes. Money was tight for those few months, but she got by with savings and odd jobs.

Right when she started to catch up on her bills, a shoulder injury did her in.  Physically unable to turn the steering wheel, Marcia’s livelihood was threatened.  As a single woman with no family close by, she had no money, no job, no support, and a severe injury.

In a matter of weeks, she was living on the streets.

 

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My chest tightens when I finally hear the truth that these stories are screaming in my ear: that we’re all one tragedy, heartbreak or mistake away from destruction.

And all of us heard that message loud and clear when a deranged retiree opened fire on thousands of innocent people in Las Vegas just last week. Some felt the bone-chilling terror of experiencing it first-hand. Others united in mournful fury as our morning newsfeeds affronted us with reports from the previous night’s massacre. Another fatal shooting. The worst in American history.

Along with acts of mass violence, an unthinkable number of natural disasters have hit many parts of the world since the start of 2017. This week, it's the Napa and Sonoma country fires, which have already devoured hundreds of homes along with hospitals, schools, wineries, local businesses and other structures. A picturesque place, filled with thousands of people who woke up late Sunday night to defend their lives, families and livelihoods.

In the wake of such devastation, we're painfully reminded that everything on this earth can be taken away in an instant. Our jobs. Our health. Our loved ones. Even our lives. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, we’re all living with the constant threat of sudden loss—and we all have different reactions to it. Numbness. Panic. Determination. Despondency.  And at the very core of any loss, we discover our frail lack of control, which can either humble us or break us.

Adam, Roy and Marcia–who are a lot more like you and me than we care to admit–are all people who lost something, lost their way and lost themselves.  None of us are immune to life’s ugliest hardships, so let’s stop pretending that we are.

 

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Now for the good news.

In time, Adam, Roy and Marcia all arrived at the same point: a moment of humility that reconciled each of them to their circumstances and granted them the will to move forward. They each sought help from local agencies and ultimately met the Lord in the midst of their hardships.

Here’s the loudest message I’ve heard after doing all of these interviews: true hope can only ever be found in the face of surrender.

That message challenges me to make a choice. On the one hand, I could choose to bemoan the fact that my pipe dream of control will always be just that. To live in the fear of circumstances outside of my control. Or maybe to seek control through excessive caution that slowly cripples me. I’m not making option one sound very good, am I?

Or, I could choose surrender. Give control to the One who already has it to begin with. Because even though I’m not immune to hardship, homelessness or the sheer evil of strangers, I’m also not immune to God’s unconditional grace. None of us are.

When Paul writes to the Corinthians about the thorn in His flesh, He says that He prayed to God three times to remove it. God responds with, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul’s reaction? “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses… For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

The fiercest strength isn’t found in control, caution or doing all the right things at all the right times. Perfection doesn’t stretch our limits, threaten our comfort zones or challenge us to push beyond them. And muscles can’t grow unless we use them.

God walks with each of us through the refining fires of our lives, where none of us would willingly go ourselves.  He’ll sit with us at rock bottom for as long as it takes for us to see Him there and then He’ll lift us up by His strength, not our own. When my lack of control is replaced by my assurance in His total control, I walk in peace because I walk with Him.

I think about Adam, Roy and Marcia often. Their testimonies have changed my own understanding of homelessness, tragedy, control and God’s hand in it all.  I hope they’ll do the same for you.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4).

Note: Names and select details have been changed to protect the privacy of each individual mentioned.

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A fruit stand east of Sigatoka

A day of food, photos, music and laughter­—and now we were on the road, heading back to the resort. It was Day Four of our honeymoon in Fiji and we hadn’t stopped at a single fruit stand. The freshest fruit on the island lives at those fruit stands.

En route to Pacific Harbor from Sigatoka, we spotted one on the other side of the road.  We flipped a sharp u-turn in our Suzuki Jimney­—a right-hand drive rental car that saw a few too many close calls. Parked in the dirt enclave on the roadside, we stepped out of our car and walked up to the fruit stand where we met Abraham.

At this point in the story, it’s important to note that Fiji is considered a third world country. I know—I was surprised too. I had always just thought of it as a scenic tropical island, expecting somewhat of a Hawaii 2.0.  But Nate, who travelled to Kenya around the same time last year, mentioned that Fiji actually reminded him more of Kenya than Hawaii.

A startling 45% of Fiji’s population lives below the national poverty line and over 50% of the population lives on less than 25 FJD a week (Guadiana 3). The FJD to USD exchange rate is roughly 2 to 1, so we’re talking $12.50 a week.

Tourism is their largest source of foreign exchange, and I don’t think that’s solely because of the beautiful beaches and fine resorts. It speaks to the spirit of hospitality that’s knit into their cultural identity. A friend from our travels said it best when he said, “Here in Fiji, we may not have much to give, but we hope to make our hospitality a gift to you.” Whether you’re at a restaurant or a grocery store, you’ll most likely be greeted with an enthusiastic “Bula!” which is Fijian for “Hello!”

And that brings me back to Abraham.

“Bula!” he says, before we’ve even reached his stand.  

We greet one another and he starts telling us about the fresh fruit he’s selling, mainly papaya and pineapple. The prices? A giant bowl of fresh papaya and the most delicious pineapple we’ve ever tasted for just 10 FJD (5 USD).

“It’s high, I know, but I can assure you that this is the best pineapple on the island.”

Already amazed by the price, we were an easy sell. While he was bagging the fruit, we all started chatting. I asked him if he had lived in Fiji his whole life. For some reason, his response gave me pause.

“Oh yes. And I believe that I am living in paradise,” he said, as he gestured to his surroundings. For a moment he closed his eyes, as though he was savoring the sweetness of home.

I’ve replayed this moment in my head several times since that day.  It stayed with me, and I think there are a few reasons why.

In part, I’m intrigued by his absolute peace in the midst of apparent poverty. In the earlier days of our trip, we would be driving along the main road and we’d see little kids—three, four, five years old—trying to sell bags of fruit to passerbys. We’d see tiny mud huts housing large families and mothers nervously watching their children, worried that they might follow a toy into the busy street.

We’d notice these things and talk about how sad it all was. But here’s the thing. While we were all wrapped up in feeling sorry for these natives, they were going about life as they knew it—usually with smiles on their faces. Many of them, like Abraham, were so incredibly joyful. To me, it felt like the peace that only God can bring— the kind that surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7).  But to them, it seemed like it was the life they knew, and thus, the life they cherished.

So, here’s what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that poverty isn’t an issue in Fiji. You saw the stats above and I saw it first hand. What I am saying is that there might be some merit to taking our western goggles off every once in a while to embrace a culture for what it is, not how it compares with our own. To dwell on what other cultures have to offer rather than the technology and conveniences that they lack.

Abraham’s response, along with his general demeanor, reminded me that each person’s life experience is unique and precious to them. Here’s what I mean. I was born and raised in the United States. I’ve lived in sunny California for most of my life and have been heavily influenced by the power of technology and innovation over my lifetime. Abraham, on the other hand, was born and raised on the scenic Fiji Islands, where he lived off the land with his family and was rarely more than a glance away from the ocean.  He may not have a smartphone, fancy clothes, or a big savings account, but he’s wealthy in his own right. He finds his riches in God’s creation and in the people around him.

That’s Abraham’s paradise.

And I believe our vastly different life experiences leave us both with something valuable to offer one another. So much so that when our worlds collide at a fruit stand east of Sigatoka, we can gain something just by speaking earnestly, listening intently and caring about what we hear.

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Hello, it's me ... {one year later}

When I was in third grade, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer.

That Christmas, I asked my parents for a copy of “Law for Dummies” and a dictionary of “lawyer words,” both of which are now collecting dust on my bookshelf if they haven’t already been sold at a garage sale. Fifteen years later, I can’t even remember what part of my third-grade self thought that being a lawyer was the right fit for me – probably the part that believed there were only a handful of real “grown-up” jobs: doctor, lawyer, teacher, and maybe a couple others. Suffice it to say, God had other plans for my life.

I’ve shared in a previous post about how I stumbled upon my love for writing, so I won’t retell that story – I’ll just fast forward to college.  When it came time to consider a major, I initially didn’t think of writing as an option. One year serving as editor of the high school paper had shown me that I didn’t want to be a reporter of any kind. I couldn’t think of any other careers that would flow out of a writing degree, so I became a Psychology major. Naturally.  

Three very different majors and many restless nights later, I was convinced of three things: 1) I was passionate about writing, 2) I was good at writing, and 3) I could find a way to use the skill of writing to serve God. I dreamt of writing for Christian nonprofits and helping them raise support and awareness for their causes. Knowing these things, I made a decision. I changed my major for the fourth and final time. I became an English: Writing major and never once looked back… until I graduated, that is.

After experiencing such overwhelming peace upon deciding to actively pursue a career in writing, you can imagine my disappointment when I graduated from college with no job prospects and a still unclear idea of what this career path would look like. Needing to start working as soon as possible—because student debt—I took a job from the first company that offered me one. It was part-time and outside of my field, but I knew I had to start somewhere.

I ended up spending two years at that first job, questioning every life decision that brought me there and seriously doubting what God’s plan was for my life. Cover letter after cover letter. Interview after interview. NOTHING. I was baffled. I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, but I essentially spent two years believing that God somehow “owed” me a successful writing career because I had faithfully followed Him in that direction. He needed to make good on His side of the formula – the one I created in my head that was both theologically flawed and seemed to be written in permanent marker.

Once my nose was officially numb from the impact of doors shutting in my face, I started rethinking things a bit. “I mean, if this is really what God wants for me, it should be coming a lot more easily,” said Jesus never. But after two years of “We regret to inform you…” emails, I was running out of steam. So I started thinking about other potential careers. Speech Language Pathology(SLP) and Marriage & Family therapy(MFT) were the top contenders. Right around the time that I was accepted into an MFT program in Pasadena, I was offered an entry-level position at a fundraising agency that represented non-profit organizations. It wasn’t a writing position, but it was in the nonprofit realm and would give me some proofreading experience for my resume. The timing was undeniably fortuitous.

So I took the job and made a deal with myself: I would defer my enrollment in the MFT program, work in this job for one year, and commit to diligently praying for wisdom and guidance in discerning the right path. At the end of that year, I would choose between going back to school and staying the track towards a writing career. But that decision wouldn’t take a whole year. By October – and through a series of events that I could not have predicted or orchestrated – I was a full-time writer on the Creative team at the fundraising agency I was working at. Today, I write for nonprofits, helping them raise support and awareness of their causes. That is actually my job. And it’s the coolest.

I’m telling this story for two reasons. One, to shed some light on my year-long hiatus from posting to this blog. I wrote my most recent post the same week that I signed the contract for my current job. Since then have been focusing a lot of my creativity, energy and time on learning my role and embracing this new form of writing. Every time I’ve thought about writing a new post in the past year, I’ve been overwhelmed at the task of explaining the extended white noise in this space – so I just haven’t posted anything. I guess you could say this is me finally choosing to change the channel.

More importantly, I’m sharing this story because it’s part of my testimony. And because I know that questions of purpose, career and calling are ones that people of all ages continue to face.  I truly believe that God uses every part of us to fulfill different aspects of his purposes for our lives – and that for better or for worse, our moments of decision-making reveal the state of our hearts towards Him. In this season of my life, I define God’s faithfulness as His fiercely unrelenting ability to draw me deeper into relationship with Him while pushing me towards an earthly goal that will allow me to honor Him on this earth. That is the great gift of this season.

What to expect next: While I can’t in good-conscience commit to posting every week like before, I’m excited to generate some new content to share here. Instead of primarily posting short reflections, I’d like to start digging deeper and experimenting with some researched pieces of literary non-fiction on varied topics. I’m also in the early stages of linking this site to medium.com, which I have been told is a great space for shared content and creative collaboration.

All that to say, stay tuned. It won’t be another year before you hear from me again.

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