Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Light in the Darkness

I’ve really been struggling the past few days. I mean, really struggling. I am looking for my voice—my purpose.

I’ve shared my “mountain-top” experience with a few of you, and I’ll share it again now. For the skeptics out there, let me say—I understand! But, it happened to me.

It was ten or eleven years ago. I was at a women’s retreat at Hume Lake Christian Camps in the Sequoia National Forest. I was really struggling that weekend. Two people who I thought were dear friends had waged a slanderous campaign against me (see previous post) for reasons I could not understand. The minister who oversaw our team had relieved me of my ministry duties. I was so sad, lonely, and broken.

About a month before the retreat I had been asked to put together a drama presentation that was to be performed at one of the weekend meetings. Every time I’m asked to do something like this for a church event, I meet with major opposition. A friend told me, “Satan must be really afraid of you, because he sure puts a lot of stumbling blocks in your path.” As I prepared for the retreat, I felt so alone and the darkness was frightening and oppressive. I spent a week praying and reading and crying. I wrote a sketch called, “A Light in the Darkness”.

A few hours before I was to perform the sketch, I went for a long walk around the lake. I was praying and crying. I stopped and sat down on a rock and I said, “God, please talk to me. I’m scared.” I heard an audible voice. I HEARD the voice say, “Pray for D and K”. D and K were the couple who were back home saying cruel things about me. I did NOT want to pray for them. But I did, and I felt peace and love wash over me. I heard the voice say, “You’re dealing with jealous people.” I said, “Okay, but I want you to tell me about me. What do I need to do? What do I need to change?” The voice said, “Tell your story.” “Okay. Which part?”

I felt like I’d lived through a lot in a relatively short life. I was raised in a broken home, and then I’d survived an abusive marriage to a cocaine addict, an unplanned pregnancy, and single mother-hood. After marrying Tom, we experienced job loss, a failed business, and bankruptcy. And now, finally, life seemed to be settling down a bit. But these judgmental attacks started coming from the most unexpected of places—my friends and ministry partners.

So, after asking which part of my story should be told I heard the voice say, “Your story is just beginning.” I was pissed! Just beginning? The voice said, “Your story is for the church.”

In the years since that day by the side of the lake, I’ve come to understand. I’ve been hurt, attacked, gossiped about, and shattered by the behavior of Christians. The church has let my family down again and again and again, but I’ve kept my eyes on God. I have NOT always been faithful to what I believed. The pain has led me down dark paths. My children have rebelled because of the in-your-face hypocrisy of the spiritual leaders and the personal criticisms of so-called friends. I have never, however, stopped believing.

I have a family member who has accused me of “blaming” others for my woes. Listen…let’s imagine I lost a leg in a car accident. If people asked me how I lost my leg I would say, “in a car accident”. Would their response be, “Oh Liz, stop blaming the car accident for your loss”? Um…no! It’s not about blame. None of us are islands unto ourselves. Our actions affect those closest to us, and their actions affect us. That’s just the truth.

My whole life I have taken personal responsibility for everything I’ve ever done. Further, I’ve accepted that the ills of others are also my fault! Global warming? My fault. Financial meltdown? My fault. Ozone depletion? You guess it—I’m to blame for that too!

I remember once when I was trying to rectify a broken relationship with a Christian friend. The woman sitting across the table from me was pointing her finger at me. She was telling me how weak I was and called into question the condition of my heart. I said, “If you were so sure that I was such a bad person, why didn’t you say something to me? Don’t friends do that for one another?” She said, “Let’s get something straight, you were never that good a friend.” I said, “I’m more…I’m your sister in Christ.” She said, “I won’t yield to your victim mentality.”

So, I’ve kept my mouth shut for many years about many things because I didn’t want people to think I was “blaming” anyone, or that I was playing the “victim” card. But I’ve been remiss. That day on the mountain sitting on the water’s edge of Hume Lake, God told me to tell my story. He told me the story was for the church. A few weeks ago I heard God’s voice say, “Don’t let them hush you”. Within minutes that message was confirmed!

I know this blog entry is long, but I can’t sit silently anymore. We are not islands! We are pebbles whose actions create ripples that touch everyone around us. Your ripples have changed my life, and mine have changed yours.

My story is about pain and recovery, sadness and joy, brokenness and miraculous healings. Above all, my story is about hope! After the hurricane, restoration comes. It may take years, but it does come.

The church isn’t perfect because it’s full of imperfect people. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. God just wants us to bring our weaknesses and failures to him so He can restore us and reconcile His kids. Let’s shine a light on the darkness and talk truth. Let’s be a light in the darkness.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Life isn't like the Soaps

I grew up watching soap operas, or “stories”. I remember being a young girl and sitting on the floor in our tiny living room, folding sheets and watching “All My Children” with my mom. Like all AMC watchers, we loved to hate Erica Kane.

Of course I know that the lives of television characters are fictional. But when I was growing up, I rested in the knowledge that the truth would always win out. I mean, it worked that way in the soaps, and it would be so in life—right? Erica Kane would spin her little web of destruction and her victims would get tangled in her drama. She stole many a man from the women who truly loved them. But eventually, the web would slowly unravel, and the truth would finally be revealed. Erica’s lies would be at last exposed, and lovers reunited. While the drama was pretend, I found comfort in the premise—love and truth would always win.

I once had complete faith in the knowledge that people were inherently good and that wrongs could always be righted. I was about 35 when I learned I was mistaken. I suppose I’m lucky that it took that long for my trust to be shaken to the point of breaking.

I had an Erica Kane in my life. I thought “K” was my friend and I cared very deeply for her and her family. We went to the same church, and along with her husband “D”, we served in the same areas of ministry. When the first whispers of gossip wafted my way, I ignored them. People talk, right? Surely I’d misheard. K wouldn’t say those things about me.

Then the phone calls started. D called me and accused me of saying something I didn’t say. K called and told me she was angry with me for something I’d never done. I assured them that I hadn’t said or done these things and I thought our conversations had cleared the air. Misunderstandings happen in friendships, and relationships can ebb and flow. I even laughed at the absurdity of some of the accusations. But things got worse. Other people started repeating what they were hearing from D and K. Since talking with them hadn’t solved whatever was going on, I contacted our pastor. He agreed to oversee the meeting that I hoped would lead to reconciliation and restoration.

I’ll never forget that night—D and K were sitting on one side of a long table when Tom and I walked in the room. Pastor H greeted us and said, “I want to start by saying, I know where D and K live. I know where their hearts are.” I looked at D and K and I saw smiles that told me they knew they had won. We talked briefly, but the bottom line was this—Pastor H believed that if D and K had doubts about my character, they must have good reason. I lost friends that night. D and K took over all the responsibilities on the ministry team—responsibilities that had been mine.

It has taken me a very long time to trust again. I find myself second-guessing the validity of my friendships. I don’t like that!

It was a painful time, but I learned some lessons. I learned that gossip is a terrible and awful web, and once you get caught in it, it destroys friendships. I've learned that if we look for the ugly stuff, we’ll find it (even if we have to make it up). I learned that the people we look to for leadership (in this case, Pastor H) are human and just might disappoint.

Real life isn’t like it is in the soaps. I guess that’s a good thing—after all, Erica Kane has been married 10 times. That’s a lot of wedding gifts to buy!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Socialism? Compassion?

My son Drew and I had a rather impassioned political conversation the other day. Older people wonder why “kids today” seem to have a sense of entitlement. I talk with a lot of young people who just feel that every human should have the same rights and privileges as every other human. Those on the political right resent having more and more of their money taken via taxes and poured into programs that benefit a few. The left believes that the poor and indigent can’t care for themselves and it is the obligation of the rich to help them. The right calls it Socialism. The left calls it compassion.

I want to believe that when there is a need, people who are able will answer the call and help. Drew responded to that with, “Really? How’d that work out for YOU?”

Like you, I’ve contributed to telethons and car washes. I’ve donated money, time, and resources to the needy and hurting. I’ve prepared many a meal for my sick friends, and I had the awesome privilege of loving on the poorest among us in an African village. Sadly, however, Drew’s question and observation are valid. When our family’s need was the greatest, we saw very little benevolence. Despite being very involved in a large church and belonging to a big family, we received no meals when I was hospitalized, no donations to help pay the enormous cost of saving our daughter’s life, and no phone call when ugly gossip about us took on a life of its own.

Throughout history, the United States has seen times of plenty and times of want. When times are good, we as a society don’t store up for the inevitable famine. We usually party. The “roaring ‘20’s”, the “Happy Days” of the ‘50’s, and the decadent 1980’s were particularly excessive decades. We were embarrassingly selfish and self absorbed.

Perhaps Americans are just finally sick to death of looking in the mirror and seeing the face of greediness. I realize that that’s an extreme generalization, but I think we all ought to look in the mirror and ask the hard questions. Maybe, just maybe, our children are not so much about endorsing entitlement, as they are about putting an end to crazy self-indulgence.

I don’t pretend to know the answer. I do know what it is to need a helping hand and not find one. It feels lonely. I also know the amazing joy that comes with showing kindness to a friend or stranger in crisis. If we all did our part, the need for government programs and handouts might just go away.

Just a thought.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Of Course I'll Call!

It might surprise anyone (except my family) to learn that I suffer from a serious phobia. I am terrified of making phone calls! That is not an overstatement. I am TERRIFIED of making phone calls. I will talk on the phone if you call me, but I actually get sick to my stomach and experience a mini panic attack in the moments just before dialing a phone to “reach out and touch someone”, as the Ma Bell commercials used to say. I talked with a therapist once about this issue. She said the phone fear is about rejection. Yep! I’d have to agree.

So, given my deep-seated fear of Alexander Bell’s most famous invention, what motivated me to (without hesitation) pick up the phone to call a perfect stranger? Simple. Her child is missing.

My friend Liz called me earlier today and asked me if I would call a desperate mom whose 14 year-old daughter has been missing for six weeks. Liz knew I might be able to offer encouragement and insight, because 5 ½ years ago, I was in that woman’s shoes. Before I contacted the distraught mom, I called Giana. She had been that runaway little girl, and I needed her perspective and wisdom. She was wonderful. She said, “Tell the girl’s mom that her daughter wants to come home, but something bigger than herself is keeping her away.”

I picked up my cell phone and called the number Liz had given me. “Liz told me you’d call. Thank you.” The voice sounded relieved. The missing girl’s mom was doing everything she knew to do to find her child—putting up posters, regular contact with the police, contacting friends and acquaintances, then doing it all again…day after day. There is nothing a parent won’t do to find their missing child! I told her our story and then gave her some ideas that she hadn’t considered. She was so grateful to talk to me. The worst part about being in the midst of a storm is the feeling of aloneness.

I shared Giana’s words with the little girl’s mom. “Your daughter wants to come home.” Mom told me she would “operate with that belief”.

It is against the law for children under the age of 18 to run away in many jurisdictions, but not in California. A 2003 FBI study showed that there were 123,581 arrests for runaway youths in the United States. I know that the numbers are much higher today, due in part to rampant drug use among teen-agers. So many hurting kids and so many hurting families…

I would not wish my experience on any mom or dad! It is our job and desire to protect our kids from harm and pain. Not knowing where my daughter was, and not knowing if she was sick or hurting was heart wrenching. I am, however, so grateful that I can share hope with other mothers who now find themselves in that same dark place.

Today I’m praying for the safe and soon homecoming of another little girl

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Heart of the Artist

What is the difference between an artist and the person who just does a job? It’s in the creation of a moment. That’s really as simple as it gets—the artist looks for opportunities to create moments for the viewer or receiver of the art.

My daughter is an artist. Her tools are paints, brushes, and canvases, as well as fabric, needles, and thread. Whether she’s painting a picture or making a dress, she creates art by adding her own special touch. Those touches move people, and the extra effort is very much appreciated. Those special touches are “moments”.

Just before Giana completed her time at rehab, she did a large oil painting for me. It’s a gorgeous rendering of the back of an androgynous figure with butterfly wings growing out of the shoulder blades. The painting is done in vibrant shades of reds, purples, and blues. She could have stopped there and the painting would have been wonderful. But, she added one heart inspired detail. In the head of the figure she painted the small hand of a child, holding a larger adult hand. The painting told the story of the little girl wanting to fly, but needing to know (or to let me know), that she would need support. Further, she was becoming a young woman who wanted to take her child-like joy into adulthood. The gentleness with which the hands are clasped tells a story. The painting is more than just a picture. Viewing the painting literally stirs the heart to experience a moment. It is art.

It is NOT easy to create a moment and it doesn’t just magically happen. It takes thought, planning, a sifting of ideas, and the willingness to get to know your audience. The artist does those things. He’s not content to just do a job, but he desires to create.

In the fall of 2008, the creative team I was a part of was working on putting together the Christmas pageant for our church. We had chosen several songs that would be a part of the production, and we had written the beginnings of the script. We still needed a “hook” song—the song with lyrics that would stir the heart and bring the production to its dramatic climax. The moment I heard it, I knew it was the song we were looking for. It wasn’t a Christmas song at all, but the lyrics created a visual in my mind that I could not shake. The song was called, “Bow The Knee”.

The lyrics of the song included these words; “when you don’t understand the purpose of his plan, bow the knee”. I wrote a short script in which (I hoped) the audience would see that Mary and Joseph weren’t unlike us today. They were a young couple with plans for their future. But an unexpected turn of events rocked their world. In my script, Joseph tells Mary that he loved her, and though he didn’t understand or have all the answers, he’d stand by her. The actors sang the song as a duet—Mary coming from her place of strong faith, and Joseph working through his doubt because of his love for Mary. It went from a nice song, to a moment.

This past Christmas my daughter gave me another original painting. The picture shows three butterflies leaving a woman’s hands. The hands are mine and the butterflies are my children. I’ve given them the wings to fly, but I’ll be close by when they need me. The backdrop for the featured players is a beautiful rendering of the plains of Africa. The vivid reds, yellows, and greens make the butterflies pop. It’s the African visual that lifts the painting to “art” status. Giana has been to Africa three times, including the 2008 trip when I was privileged to share that experience with her. She definitely knows how to paint a moment.

You don’t have to be a painter or a writer to be an artist. My mechanic is an artist. When he has the task of repairing one of our cars, he takes the extra time to really care. He checks the hoses and fluids. Once, when one of his mechanics made a mistake that led to a transmission failure, he took responsibility. He paid for a rental car, and since we were on our way out of town for a 10-day vacation, he paid for the full ten days of rental. His work is more than his job—it’s his craft, and each vehicle is a piece of art.

Whether I’m teaching, acting, writing, cooking, or vacuuming, I desire to create art. Do I always reach my goal? No way! I fall WAY short, but my daughter and my mechanic inspire me to create moments.


Friday, April 2, 2010

The Menace

She is the unseen force that turns the eye away from her lover.
She is the weight that droops the shoulders and slows the gait.
She is the intruder who steals peace
from the heart of the unsuspecting.
She is the monster that erupts in anger
when awakened by the gentlest of touch.
She consumes the soul and replaces unselfish kindness
with bitter deeds.

She is guilt.

Elizabeth Stoeckel

Thursday, April 1, 2010

My Line In The Sand

I ran into a friend the other day. We hadn’t seen one another in a few months, so we stopped to chat and catch up. She told me that her life had changed dramatically since the last time I saw her. She was now retired. Wow, it hadn’t been too long since our last visit and at that time she hadn’t mentioned this looming milestone at all.

I know many people who have taken the early retirement option offered by their companies as a cost-cutting measure. My friend worked for our cash-strapped county, so I wondered whether her unexpected retirement was forced upon her. “No”, she answered. “I always wondered where the imaginary line was—the proverbial last straw. And then one day, I saw the line.” She smiled as she remembered the moment she walked away—her head held high and her shoulders strong. “I told them I didn’t have to put up with this anymore, and I turned by back, walked out the door, and never even turned around.” Even now, as she shared the memory of that last day at her long held job, she giggled a bit at her own audacity. But you see, she found her line. She could no longer reconcile what she believed with what was being asked of her.

We’ve all drawn lines in the sand. These are ultimatums if you will—things we just simply will not stand for or compromises we will not make. If forced to do so, we’ll walk away. These are the deal breakers.

If you asked me a few years ago where my line was, I’m not sure I could have given you a cut and dried answer. Of course I believe in and try very hard to follow the Ten Commandments, so those are hard and fast lines, right? Well, I’m sorry to say I’ve broken one or two of those. However, rather than shift the line, I simply cross back over to the right side. I reaffirm my reliance on God and lean on Him for the strength I need to not give in to temptation

I have had opportunity in the last few years to discover my relationship deal breakers. How many times would I allow a family member to tell me how “unattractive” I was, or that the bad choices my children made was my fault? How many times would I listen to my best friend tell me ugly things about another friend before trust was broken? For how many more years would I carry the guilt heaped on me by people I loved? Well, one day I woke up to the fact that I’d had enough. I saw the line in the sand and I realized that somewhere along the way, I was the one who had drawn it. Now I must choose—would I erase the line, ignore my heart, and compromise myself further? Or, was it time to take inventory and clean house? I chose the latter.

It’s hard to tell other people about your line. They often don’t take it well. My experience has been that they expect me to continue to put up with the uglies the same way I always had—by pushing my hurt feelings aside. Sadly, I learned that because I had not always been the draw-the-line-in-the-sand kind of person, this new me would tick people off. Some wouldn’t forgive me. But the bottom line is—if I don’t draw lines I’m not being true to my Lord or myself.