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Archive for the ‘City Life’ Category

One by One

One thing that never ceases to amaze me when I walk or drive the streets of Chicago is the mass of people that call this place home.  There are just so many people here!  And, when I think about all these people pressed into this shared space, I wonder, “How can we reach them for the Lord?  How can we share the story of Jesus with them?”

I often try to think of some grand plan that would reach this mass of humanity.  Perhaps we should try newspaper ads.  Or, direct mail.  Or, television spots.  Or, a call-in radio show.  Or, even a plane overhead that pulls a banner, like some of the planes I’ve seen over Uptown when the Cubs are playing at Wrigley.  “We need mass evangelism to reach the masses,” I sometimes think.

Then, I have experiences like I had today.  I left our apartment this afternoon to get a haircut.  On the way, I spoke to one of our neighbors who was walking her dogs.  She said, “They are pit bulls.  That’s why I pulled them away when you started walking toward me.  They are easily intimidated, and I didn’t want to upset them.”  “Thanks,” I said.  “I wouldn’t want them to get upset.  They are beautiful dogs.”  We smiled at each other and I walked away.  I walked by our bank on the way to the barber.  The bank manager saw me and waved.  I waved back and walked on.  Then, I thought to myself, “Go back there and talk to that young man.  You’ve been wanting to start and build a relationship with him.  What are you waiting for?”  So, I turned around, went in the bank, and greeted our bank manager.  “Good to see you, Mr. Holton,” he offered politely.  “It’s good to see you, too, Alper.  I was just wondering if you ever have time for a cup of coffee, or lunch.”  “I do on Saturdays or Sundays,” he said with a smile.  “Well, I would just like to get to know you better,” I said.  “I would love that,” he replied.  “Here is my business card, and let me write down my personal cell phone number.  Hey, I bought that book you recommended.  I haven’t started it yet, but I will.”  “Good for you!” I said.  “I’ll call you one of these days in the near future, and we’ll go out for coffee.”  I don’t even like coffee, but I’m eager to get more involved in this young man’s life.  As I turned to leave, one of the tellers who often helps me looked up and saw me.  She smiled and gave me a friendly wave which said to me, “I know you, Mr. Holton.  It’s good to see you!”  (It’s amazing how small gestures like these can renew one’s strength.)  After leaving the bank, I walked another four blocks to the barber shop.  My barber was having her hair colored by one of her colleagues.  “I think you would look good with purple hair!” I said.  “Oh, my husband would faint dead away if I came home with purple hair!” she said.  “If you’ll give me ten minutes, I’ll be ready to cut your hair.”  “No rush,” I said.  “That will give me time to walk to Walgreen’s.”  Three minutes later, I was having a conversation with a cashier at Walgreen’s, and ten minutes later, I was sitting in the barber chair.  My barber, Anita, and I had a wonderful conversation about God.  She brought up the subject.  She asked about our sons.  “How are they?” she asked.  “Well, the one in Mozambique is doing well, and the one who recently came back to the states from north Africa is planning his next move.”  “Thank God he is home safe!” she said.  That led to raising your children to love and serve the Lord, how it is that some people feel called to serve God in certain places, etc.  It was a wonderful conversation.

I want to continue to dream of ways to reach the masses in Chicago.  I think that is a legitimate dream.  But, Kerry, you must not overlook the individual persons you meet in the course of an ordinary day.  Perhaps the best way to influence the masses in the long run is to reach my neighbor, my banker, my bank teller, the cashier at the store I frequent, and my barber.  One by one.

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An Iraqi friend that Becky and I see often sent me an interesting email a few days ago.  The gist of his email was that he could no longer shake Becky’s hand when he greets her.  Before you jump to conclusions, dear reader, I should say that the reason for this no-handshake rule is not that Becky has angered our friend or that she has a communicable disease or that our friend is simply unfriendly.  He is very polite and friendly and we love to be with him and his family.  It is that someone told our friend that since he is a Shia Muslim he is not permitted to shake hands with or touch a woman who is not his wife.

Now, that interested me.  So, I replied to his email.  After assuring my friend that Becky would not be offended by this change, I asked him why he was not permitted to shake a woman’s hand.  Was that a rule in his holy book that he believed came from God?  Or, was it a rule that his people and culture had fashioned?  I wrote that I was wondering by whose or by what authority he was not permitted to shake a woman’s hand.

He replied that it was not a rule that their Iraqi culture had made, but was a religious rule that came from their prophet.  He wants to please God and remain pure in his thoughts, he intimated.  Of course, while this is not a rule that I feel the need to practice, I respect my friend’s right to live by his beliefs, and I admire his motivation for doing so.

Still, I think my question is a legitimate one for my friend and for all of us.  It’s a question our Lord once asked of the religious leaders of his day.  “By what authority are you doing these things?” (Mk. 11:29).  Are the rules we try to live by of human origin or did heaven authorize them?  I think that is a significant question.

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In absolute horror I have watched the Arizona shooting media coverage over the last several days.  I’m sure you have too.  It appears that at least one person walked into a political “meet and greet” session outside a Tucson grocery store and just started shooting.  Six people are dead, including a nine year old girl, and fourteen others are also injured, several critically.

Why?  Why do these “not-so-uncommon” events continue to headline the news?  The Pima County Sheriff in Arizona hinted at a possible reason for this atrocity:  political mudslinging that has become vile, toxic, and destructive to human dignity with deleterious effects, particularly on those that are unstable.

Late yesterday afternoon I walked to our local Dollar General store that is located near a high school.  As students were exiting the school I was a bit taken back by the appalling verbal insults that were being hurled at each other.  Suddenly, just as she was passing me on the sidewalk, a young female ripped off her coat, threw it down, and lunged at a male student who was engaging in the verbal sparring with her.  He jeered and laughed and continued to loudly evaluate her character and her family in a most destructive and disrespectful manner.  Last week I happened upon an elementary school playground during recess.  The adult supervisors either didn’t hear or didn’t care about what the young children were saying to each other – statements that were intended to deeply hurt another child because of a disagreement over a toy.  A toy.

Have you attended a sporting event recently and listened to the comments of the crowd?  Or have you waited in a “customer service” line to return a retail item?  The conversations that take place between the employee and the disgruntled customer are usually not pretty.  One of my older friends who doesn’t quite qualify for disability status is having a hard time making ends meet.  She told me recently that she is considering a telemarketing job since she can sit down for that type of employment.  Not saying a word I cringed and scrunched up my face when she shared this job possibility with me.  She replied, “I know.  I’m strong but I really don’t know if I can take all the verbal abuse that people would give me when I called them.”

I turned on the television last night and heard with fresh ears the verbal volleying that occurs between actors on many shows.  It seems that the unspoken message is whoever can say the most hurtful, cutting remark – the quickest – is the better person.  It is all about “one-upping” another person with the quickest, Sonic-slap comeback.

Wow.

I don’t think it is just politicians that have become experts at hurling vile, insensitive, and hurtful comments at each other.

I am wondering if we have lost the art of respectful, social discourse and interaction with those that we live with here on the earth.  In fact, flip to the old movie channel tonight for a stark contrast in social interaction.  I know those old movies are just that – movies.  However, they are a reflection of the culture of that time.

I heard a quote last week that has come to mind during the events of the last several days.  The quote is:  “Nothing is as strong as gentleness – and, nothing is as gentle as real strength” (St. Francis de Sales).

That reminds me of Jesus.  I love the picture of Jesus calling little children to come to him.  I picture him swooping them up in his arms, kissing their little faces and hugging them tightly.  I also love the gentle way I picture Jesus with women – especially those that were outcasts of society.  He called them “daughter”, he looked loving at them, he encouraged them, he helped them, he took up for them, he healed them.  It touches me when I think about how he gently spoke to and cared for those that were so destitute and helpless.  But Jesus was not a wimp.  He knew how to get in someone’s business when he discovered that they were taking advantage of people for whom they should have demonstrated concern and gentleness.

Jesus showed us that there really is nothing as strong as gentleness.  Proverbs 25:15 (ERV) says, “With patience, you can make anyone change their thinking, even a ruler.  Gentle speech is very powerful.”

Vile, hateful language appears to be contagious and destructive these days.  However, Jesus reminds us that gentle speech is profoundly powerful and ultimately more contagious.

Let’s spread the word.

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Last week I was able to talk to a sweet lady as she waited for surgery.  I noticed an accent and inquired about her home country.  It was a simple question really.  But her answer will long live in my heart.

She was a baby when WWII began.  One night when she was two years old her daddy left home to purchase some milk for her.  He never returned and they discovered that he had been arrested by the Nazis and taken to Auschwitz where he was executed.  As I held her hand I was riveted to her words as she unfolded events of her life.  The story of her childhood was filled with pain, abandonment, abuse, and terror.  It broke my heart.

Suddenly she said, “I’m sorry.  I am talking too much.”  I quickly assured her that she was not and thanked her for sharing her life story with me.  I told her how deeply it had touched me.  She leaned up on one arm and, dropping her voice, said in broken English, “Do you know some people don’t believe this really happened?  The Holocaust.”  I knelt down to where we were eye to eye and I called her by name and said, “Please hear me my friend.  I believe it happened.  And I am so sorry how it hurt you and your family.”  She began to weep.  After 70 years it still makes her cry.  I also said, “Please don’t stop telling your story because if people forget that the Holocaust happened we are at risk of letting it happen again.”

She squeezed my hand tightly and said, “We just can’t forget.”

It is beyond my ability to understand how a group of people can target another group of people and incite such unspeakable atrocities.  It is also beyond my ability to understand how people can actually say that the Holocaust didn’t happen.

Denial.  Forgetfulness.  They can be dangerous things.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was also executed by the Nazis when he was only thirty-nine years old, said “Satan does not fill us with hatred of God, but with forgetfulness of God…”

How can we EVER forget God?  Talk about another atrocity!  How can I ever forget how good God is to me?  How much he blesses me – even in dark and difficult places of life.

It strikes me how important it is to also keep sharing the stories about God’s precious work in people’s lives – in days gone by (Hebrews 11) – in my life today.  We must keep sharing the stories of God.

Because we just can’t forget.

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Upon returning from an early morning walk yesterday I initiated a conversation with a Korean lady (or, was she Chinese?) who was picking up yellow fruit which had fallen from a tree just outside our apartment.

“What is that?”  I asked.

She smiled and replied, “It’s ginkgo.  In China, this fruit is used in medicine,”  she offered.

“Is that what you plan to do with it?  Make medicine?” I asked.

“Oh, no,” she said.  “I will remove the skin and the seeds and make soup.  I just wish I had a bag for this fruit,” she said.

“You know, I have some bags you can have, ” I offered.  I motioned behind me and said, “I live right here in this building.  Let me run up and get you a bag.”

In a few moments I was running down the stairs and out the front door with two white, plastic Target sacks in my hands which I gave to this lady.

“Thank you,” she said.

“You are very welcome,” I responded.  “I hope you have a great day.”

Starting conversations, asking questions which demonstrate an interest in others, and showing small kindnesses.  These are things I believe followers of Jesus do.  They are not praise-worthy.  They are not sensational.  They are just simple, natural, and everyday actions that followers of Jesus do, often without thinking and often in response to the people they encounter in the course of an average day.  Of course, I am wishing that my conversation with my neighbor is but the first of many.  I am wishing that somewhere down the road my wife and this lady and I may become friends.  I am wishing that at some future date we will have the opportunity to share our love of God with this woman.  I am wishing that perhaps, God may use us to help her draw near to God, and her to help us do the same.  If my conversation and two Target bags are but a “cup of cold water” given to someone, and it ends there, so be it.  But, I will wish and pray for more.

“Father, thank you for allowing me the opportunity to converse with one of our neighbors yesterday and for the opportunity to show her a small kindness.  Please open my eyes to the opportunities to love and serve others in your name.  And, please work through those opportunities, encounters, and conversations to the end that your will is accomplished.”

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I wish I had the wisdom of Solomon, because there are many times when I could surely use it!

Today, I was standing in the checkout line at Walgreen’s.  The man in front of me was dirty, dressed in ragged clothing, and smelled as if he had not taken a shower in a week.  After he pulled a $20 bill out of his billfold and paid for his brats and other items, he grabbed his suitcase and walked away.  I judged that he was homeless, but I could have been wrong.

After I paid for my items, I walked to the Post Office.  Forty minutes later I was walking by that same Walgreen’s and there waiting at the bus stop was that same smelly man I stood behind in Walgreen’s.  “Mister,” he said to me, “can you spare a dime?”  I stopped and said to him, “I just saw you pull a $20 bill out of your pocket.  I don’t think you need a dime.”  Then, I told him, “No,” and walked away.

Yesterday, I was walking out of another Post Office when a middle-aged woman asked me if I could spare some change.  Immediately I told her “No” without breaking stride, and as I walked away, I heard her say that she had hungry children to feed at home.  Well, she knew what to say.  I guess I’m a sucker for children.  And, babies in strollers.  (Months ago, Becky and I were stopped by a young woman who was pushing a baby in a stroller.  She said she needed money to ride the bus.  We didn’t even ask her any questions.  We just gave her $5, said, “God bless you,” and went on our way.)  As I was walking away from that middle-aged woman who claimed she had hungry children at home I got to thinking about those children and what Jesus might do if he were in my shoes.  Twenty yards later I did an about-face and returned to the woman.  “How do I know that I can trust you?” I asked.  “You can trust me,” she replied.  “My husband is out of work, and we have nine children at home.”  She may have been another panhandler, but I opened my wallet and gave her a $5 bill.  Now that I think about it, I probably should have given her a $20 instead.  She said to me, “God bless you,” and I walked away.

I have been approached by so many beggars since moving to Chicago, and more often than not, I look at these people, judge them to be panhandlers, and think, “I will be a poor steward if I give this person any of my money.”  I seldom trust the pleas of these people, some of whom may really need my help.

Yes, I need the wisdom of Solomon for a more discerning heart.  And, forgiveness.  I need that, too.

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The Holocaust

A few days ago I met a very interesting man named Bill.  He is a good man.  One of the really fascinating things that I learned from him was that his parents were both survivors of the Holocaust.  His father was sent to Auschwitz while his mother was exiled to a labor camp.  In the end, when Hitler saw that he was going to lose the war, he gave orders to kill everyone – even those in work camps.  Bill’s mom was shipped from the labor camp to a death camp, along with many others, and she narrowly escaped execution there.  The camp’s name was Bergen-Belsen and she told Bill how the corpses at the camp were piled high in a pyramid type fashion that seemed to reach “up to the sky” as she used to say.  After the war was over, his mom and dad met at a reunification camp in Europe that was set up by the United States and just a few months after Bill was born his family made their way to America.  Even though both of his parents are now deceased, based on his parents’ narratives, Bill can still describe, in precise detail, story after story of horrific events.  In fact, the stories were relayed in such detail to Bill that he can suffer similar feelings of trauma that his parents experienced when he finds himself in parallel circumstances that they described.  Not only are blue eyes or high cheek bones transmitted from parents to children but so are parental effects of trauma and fear.

I have reflected a lot on my conversation with Bill.  How can a person (or group of people) get to a place where not only is it preferable but it is essential to annihilate an entire race of people?  Really.  How does that happen?  When does a person become just a breath away from seeing another person as an “enemy” and as disposable?

The thought that has really haunted me is how much our words and behavior toward others matter.  Although certainly not on Hitler’s level, what I say or how I treat another person impacts their life. . .and often generationally.  I know that as well from my profession as a counselor.  Oftentimes an individual can suffer extreme emotional pain due to the effects of another person’s behavior toward them – or toward their parent(s).

My biggest question after talking with Bill, however, is how do people safeguard themselves from being a “breath away” from “Hitler-ish” behavior?  Where, with their words and behavior, they can annihilate a person’s self-esteem or dreams or relationships?

Thinking about these reflections has been a bit disturbing for me and I know that I need help from outside of myself for this safeguard.  For me the help is prayer.  A funny thing happens with prayer I think.  In prayer I often think I am helping God by asking Him to do things the way I think they should be done.  But in this process of prayer, I am observing, God uses it to change me. . .to soften me. . .to open my heart to see people the way He does.  God is good like that.  Thankfully.

Wouldn’t it be great if God would change us so that we could speak to and treat others with such love and care that the effects of those interactions could flow over into the lives of their children. . .and grandchildren?

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