Jul 4, 2007

Listening to the still, small voice

I’ve lived most of my life close to the tempering breezes of the ocean. Even in New York I was less than a mile from the East River and Long Island Sound. But now Larry and I live in a Eagle Rock, a hilly inland neighborhood wedged in the hills between Glendale and Pasadena. We may not have ocean breeze, but every night we get to look out at the twinkling lights: east toward Occidental College; south toward Dodger Stadium and north where a ribbon of freeway spools from Glendale to Pasadena. Lights in the hills. It's gorgeous.

But it’s not just lights we get to see. We’ve got wildlife! Two nights ago Larry and I saw both a raccoon and a skunk outside the window. We know we’ve got skunks. We smell them every night. Not long ago Honey came prancing into the house with a baby opossum in her mouth.

There are sounds of wild life as well. Right now I am cringing at the sounds of pop-pop-pop, and boom, of what I am praying are illegal fireworks. There was a fatal shooting up in Eagle Rock a few weeks ago: high school graduation party gone wrong.

Not that we need fireworks popping. LA had just three inches of rain in the past year. Everything is dead and dry and waiting for a stray firecracker to ignite it. We are going to enjoy the fourth of July from our back deck. Our neighbor says we can see three different fireworks shows from our vantage point. I am praying we don’t see a hillside go up in flames.

The bougainvillea outside our front door had become weighed down with dead blooms. A couple weeks ago I batted them out with a broom to let light in on the branches. After two weeks i can see that many of the branches are dead. So this afternoon I pruned the bougainvillea. Hopefully the branches will have a chance to get light and water and survive. It made me think of the biblical parable about how a gardener prunes his vines so that they will be more fruitful.

Man I got a lot of dead wood in my own life to prune. And maybe that’s what this post is about.

My brother-in-law and nephew just returned from a 3 ½ week missions trip to Mozambique. They helped at an orphanage, visited surrounding villages with food, medicine, and the love of Jesus. They built a house for a widow out of bamboo, rocks and cement. The widow got the luxury of a door. Most people live without doors. So there’s no security or safety. “To look at the way you and I live, they’d think we were royalty,” Phil marveled. On his trip he thought a lot about the parable of the ten talents. What am I doing with my talents? What will I have to show for my life at its end? Or even now, half way through?

Larry and I talked about this tonight: the old “what are we doing with the time we’ve been given?” I don’t think there is a formula. It would be easy to sponsor a child or donate to an organization and leave it at that. But God never reduces himself to a formula. He calls us to give money one day, time the other day, neither the following, or both the next. He tells me to speak up, and then to be quiet. He’s unpredictable, which makes it very frustrating for us who want to make God a convenience.

The other day I was walking into Trader Joe’s. There was a man with a donation box standing at a good distance from the front door. I skirted inside and went about buying my sugar free chocolate, wheat free muffins and aspartame free diet ginger ale. I spent a good amount on budget gourmet items. Items that, if I hadn’t bought, I would not starve.

On the way out I skirted away from the man but he smiled and said hello. Before I had a chance to think I found myself walking over toward him. He smiled so friendly and kind. I asked him how he was doing and what his organization was, so he told me his story. His name was Henry, and the group was a transitional living place for homeless. Five months ago Henry had been on the street. He was in a long line at Union Rescue mission hoping for a bed. A man walked by and handed him a flyer advertising a transitional home in the desert that helps people get back on track.

"The guy said his van was leaving in 30 minutes. I thought, I'm not going to get a bed here, so I got on the van." And that's how Henry found himself at a transitional housing place in Lancaster. He said now he’s spending money on clothes and toothpaste, "instead of crazy stuff you spend on the street. I'm learning how to care for myself. I'm learning everything over.

"I got my driver's license renewed, they helped me establish credit. They even got me a cell phone and trusted me to pay the bill. I thought it was too late for me. But I got another chance, man. I want to be a trucker. I got good credit and no marks on my driving record. I can drive trucks."

"You seen me five months ago you wouldn't recognize me." Henry smiled brightly, showing the gaps where teeth had fallen out. That was the only thing about him to suggest what his life had been, up until that night he got on the van.

"I've had a lot of regrets," I said. "Regrets over things I didn't think I'd have a chance to make right. But look at what you've accomplished in only five months. You give me hope, Henry."

Henry smiled. He smiled big. I gave him some money and asked for one of his flyers.

When I got home I saw the flyer said, “please support our volunteers by supplying jobs in the following areas: automotive, landscaping, general labor.”

I wondered if Henry would like to make some money doing some brush clearance at our place.
Today I was at another trader Joe’s. Another man was standing outside. He had the same box and same flyer. I thought, “I should go ask that guy if he knows Henry,” and have this guy tell Henry hello. I also thought about asking him if Henry would want to do some gardening for me. But maybe it would be beneath him.

I envisioned myself calling to ask if Henry wanted to come over for Fourth of July. But then I thought he’d probably want to hang out with his friends at the homeless shelter. And how would he feel with all my friends who had homes? What would they feel like if they had to talk to him? Would it be weird?

But I didn’t. Instead, I went inside the shop, and when I left, I forgot about the guy with the box like Henry’s. It was easier. What if that guy expected me to give money also? I’d just donated five dollars for prostate cancer in line at Vons.

I hate when the checker just asks you point blank at the register.

Would you like to donate money to prostate cancer research?

You have to look her in the eye and say it.
No. No I would not like to give money to prostate cancer.
And it sounds like you're saying No forever. Like Now is the only moment you have to say yes. Now is the only moment you're alive.

I hate that. So I have to give. And I give five dollars. Geeze, what am I doing? And then the checker fails to redeem my dollar-off coupon. So I remind her. And she fails to double it like they advertised on the door. Now Vons has six of my bucks. Money I could have given to ... my sugar free chocolate fund.

I came home later and googled the transitional living place in Lancaster. I couldn’t find anything. Maybe they’re too poor to have a website. I thought I could call the number and ask for Henry. Or I could call and talk to the owner, see if they’re a 501(C)3 organization. that way I could give and claim it on my taxes. But I don’t. I don't call.

I also ignored the impulse to buy my husband a greeting card that says "thank you.” Because I already did that a few days ago.

And I realize I’ve tried to work the formula. Do one good thing so I can then feel good about me. When that's not what God lets us get away with. He wants us to pay attention, listen, and obey. Obey the still small voice not just to talk to Henry, but maybe hire him to do some brush cleaning, or come over for barbecue, no matter how weird it is for my friends. But I was not paying attention.

I remember these lines from “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder.

Emily: Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?--every, every minute?
Stage Manager: No. Saints and poets, maybe--they do some.


Stephanie said...

Emily: Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?--every, every minute?
Stage Manager: No. Saints and poets, maybe--they do some.

I've never heard that before, Susan. Shame on me, eh? But I wanted you to know -- your closing your post with it made want to bow my head to receive the final blessing. Saints and poets. Maybe.

Annina said...

The other day, I decided to walk to my gym (it's about two and a half miles one way) and listen to my IPOD shuffle. I had a pretty strenuous workout, and as I was walking back, I thought I'd do a little praying. After about a mile, I was interrupted by a heavy-set woman eating Cheetos out of a bag. She pointed to her feet and said she had already walked "from Staples" and did I have a buck for the bus so she could get home? I did, but I wasn't in the mood to give it to her. STAPLES?? I had already walked TWICE that, AND had worked out for an hour! Put down the Cheetos, lady, I thought, you don't need 'em! Spend the money on a bus, or better yet, get some exercise! Pissy now, and no longer in the proper "mood" to pray, I turned on my shuffle, and out of 500 songs, I heard:

If God had a face, what would it look like
And would you want to see
If seeing meant that you would have to believe
In things like heaven and in Jesus and the saints and all the prophets...

What if God was one of us
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make his way home...

I had another mile or so to go. I cried all the way.

Ted and Lori said...

Susan, we must have some psychic link or something. I've been thinking so many of these same thoughts just this week, which I wrote about over at my blog too. I so get what you're talking about.
That trio of folks we helped out in the Home Depot parking lot up here I've wondered a lot about lately. I also thought about how being with them that night took about 45 minutes of our time, time that I'd devoted to getting a blackberry milkshake (which I never got). How selfish is that? I actually thought about that missing milkshake a couple of times while we were talking to them, these people who just wanted a bed for the night.

eleventh hour said...

What a gracious God we have, who keeps speaking, continues to give us more chances to participate in the life of Him.

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