Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Just Call Me Ashley

Do you ever have those moments where you have to pinch yourself to make sure you aren’t dreaming? Today I had one of those “I can’t believe this is happening” moments.

I had a 2 hour break from work, so I headed to a quirky little restaurant in Mill Valley to eat lunch and get some studying done. If you look up the word “eclectic” in the dictionary, there would be a picture of Mama’s Royal Café. It’s bright and colorful and has weird trinkets all over the walls. You could spend the whole day looking at the strange decorations in this place. On one wall, there is a large Pharaoh’s head, on the other there are pictures of Marilyn Monroe. Then there are guitars made out of toilet seats. You remember Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus? (the lady with all the weird earrings?) Yeah, this is the kind of place she would hang out.

So I walk in to the restaurant and the hostess (who looks like she is related to Ms. Frizzle) immediately exclaims, “Hello Ashley!” I look to my right, and then to my left. I am the only person standing there. I must have looked confused, but I don’t say anything. Then she says, “Do you want to sit in your normal spot?”

I hesitate, but finally nod and follow this woman to my (Ashley’s) usual spot. I think about correcting her, but I just don’t know how to tell her that I have no idea who Ashley is and I’m really confused. So I sit down, order my meal, and catch up with this lady who is supposedly a friend of mine. Now I’m wishing I had told her I am NOT Ashley. But I find that it’s kind of fun to pretend to be someone else, so I just imagine that I’m Ashley and I come to Mama’s Royal Café every morning to drink a cup a joe and write fantasy novels or something.

I’ve finished my glass of water, so I get up to find the waitress to ask for a refill. I see her out of the corner of my eye and say, “Excuse me, can I please have some more water?” And that’s when I realize that her mouth is moving at the exact same time mine is…and her hair is braided in the same way…and she is wearing my glasses…and…Oh my goodness, I am talking to my own reflection!

I neglected to see that one of the decorations on the wall was a narrow mirror positioned directly in front of myself. Somehow in the midst of being confused about being called Ashley, I mistook my reflection for the waitress! I didn’t really know how to recover from that one gracefully, so I just sat down and pretended like nothing happened.

But at least it wasn’t me that was embarrassed…it was Ashley. 

(The hostess eventually came to me and said, "Your name isn't Ashley is it?" I told her my real name and how confused I had been. She said Ashley is quite a bit older but she thought she got a face-lift. Then she gave me a cup of coffee on the house :)

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Glass Wall

Every day, when no one was looking, the girl cleaned the glass wall. She scrubbed and she scrubbed and she scrubbed until it was clean. So clean, that no one could see the wall at all. To everyone else, the glass wall was invisible. Not even a crack or a scratch could be found on it.

Behind the wall was everything good: her Bible, Jesus, her relationship with God. You see, everyone thought that the girl had a consistent walk with God. Afterall, she was the president of her youth group at church, she went on at least two mission trips a year, and she wore t-shirts with Bible verses on them.

The girl used to feel close to God, but somewhere along the way, she confused her love for serving God with her love for Him.  She began to find her identity in the way that people perceived her. She gradually drifted farther and farther away until one day she realized that this strange glass wall had appeared and was separating her from God. No one else could see the wall, but she knew it was there.

She wondered what this wall was. Was it unconfessed sin? Perhaps it was her pride? Whatever it was, she had to cover it up. If anyone discovered that she was not who they thought she was, she would lose everything.  So every morning, she would sneak out of bed while everyone was sleeping and scrub all of the imperfections off of the wall.

When it looked perfectly clear, she would sigh in relief and go through another day, pretending that she had it all together. Day after day, this was her routine. One morning, as she walked up to the wall to begin scrubbing it, she could see Jesus on the other side and he was trying to get her attention.

At first she ignored him. She only had a few minutes to clean the wall before everyone else woke up. But Jesus persisted to try to get her attention. Finally, he put his hand up against the glass wall and for the first time, the girl stopped what she was doing. On his hand, she noticed the scars from the nail that had pierced him when he died for her on the cross.

Her heart was heavy with shame and grief. She knew Jesus had died for her, and she chose to follow him a long time ago. The girl used to talk to Jesus every morning. Not always about serious things- but about everything: her dreams for the future, funny things that happened to her at school…she told him everything. But ever since that wall appeared, she had been so busy keeping it clean, that she hadn’t taken the time to talk to Jesus. Every day he would stand there, waiting, hoping for her to at least look at him. But the girl was too focused on keeping up her good appearance that she ignored him.

But on this particular day, the girl looked into Jesus’ eyes and her own began to fill up with tears. She missed him so much and wanted more than anything to climb in his lap and stay there forever. She knew what she needed to do.

From the ground, she picked up a jagged rock. Taking a deep breath, she stepped back and threw the rock with all of her might at the glass wall. At first, there was just one tiny hole in the wall. But within seconds, the glass began to crack and it shattered into millions of pieces. As the wall crashed to the ground, the girl gasped in air as if she was breathing for the very first time. Something amazing had changed within her the moment the wall was shattered!

She ran as fast as she could toward Jesus. It didn’t matter to her that she had cuts on her feet from stepping on the glass. She ran and she ran, straight into his arms. Jesus picked her up and spun her around. He was delighted to have her back! He treated her wounds and bandaged her feet as they caught up on the years they had lost.

The girl was so happy to be back with Jesus, without the glass wall separating her from him. She had forgotten how much better it was to be in his presence than to be on the other side of the wall, pretending to be perfect. She was so excited to be with Jesus that she didn’t even notice when people began to walk by. Of course, they noticed the glass all over the ground. And they saw that the girl had bandages on her feet.

But the girl didn’t care. Now she realized that it was better to have a few scrapes and scars and be with Jesus, than to be separated from him and appear to be perfect. Because when it comes down to it, no one is perfect after all. Jesus loved her even when she forgot about him. When she defined herself in things other than him, he was still knocking on the wall, hoping for her to notice him.  

The girl’s life changed that day. She no longer had to scrub and scrub and scrub the glass wall to make it clean. Instead, she talked with Jesus every morning. In fact, she talked to him all day long. And every day when she saw the fading scars on her feet, she vowed that she would never, ever, allow that glass wall to separate her from Jesus again.  

Her life was so abundant now that she could freely admit that she wasn’t perfect and just dwell in Jesus.  She would never return to her life behind the glass wall.

Monday, March 12, 2012

A Different Kind of Birthday

It's easy to be selfish on your birthday. It's the one day a year that it's all about Y-O-U.

It's expected that you'll have streamers on your door, be treated to meals and coffee, blow out candles, and get  phone calls from all of your friends and family.

Though I enjoy all of these things and always feel super special, I've seen a common pattern in my life. On my birthday, I am consumed with myself...(and funfetti cupcakes).

So this year, I wanted to do something different. It just so happened that there was a day-long conference going on in the Tenderloin (see blog post below to hear about the Tenderloin) on March 10th. Perfect! Two of my good friends accompanied me and we headed off to San Francisco that morning for a day of worship and service.

600 Christians had gathered together to worship God and take his love into the hurting streets of the city. My team delivered hot meals to people in their apartment buildings. As I walked up the creaking steps, I wondered if I would fall through. I knocked on each door, anxious to see who would answer it and what their story would be. Most of the people I met that day were hungry, lonely, and empty. Their living conditions broke my heart. Of all the developing countries I've been to, I think these apartments were the worst I've seen. Cockroaches scurried across the floors with missing boards, the walls were coated in mold, and a terrible smell ran through the whole building. This was their home.

My eyes welled up with tears as I saw their faces and got a glimpse of how God's heart must ache for them. One man wept as my teammates prayed for him. He said he was so very lonely and didn't have any friends there. Perhaps God sent them to his room, not just for a hot meal, but so he could have someone to talk to.

Other members of our group were scattered around the Tenderloin doing different projects. From flash mob worship, to block parties, to sports camps- we had the district covered. One group set up a foot washing station where people could come get pedicures and makeovers. Then they could pick out some clothes and groceries for their families. We hope that people encountered Jesus that day.

Sometimes it's easy to feel good about yourself when you do something like this. It's satisfying to be able to meet a tangible need that someone has. While there's nothing wrong with feeling good, we must realize that we are not doing a "good deed" when we do these things. This is what we are commanded to do. It's not like we get extra jewels in our crown. It's a basic call of every Christian to feed the hungry, and clothe the naked. In fact, when we don't do these things, we are neglecting the Gospel.

So what's the point?

A man approached us on the street as we were carrying boxes full of meals and asked what we were doing. When we told him, he responded with a grunt "Oh, so you're just making them more lazy."

That comment sent my brain into a spiral of thoughts about why we were doing these things in the first place. Was it really to help them, or was it just a way to make ourselves feel better? As good-intentioned as it was, the hot meals that we passed out on Saturday are not helping those people today. It may have sustained them for a few hours, but today they are most likely hungry again. So what's the point? The point is that Jesus loves them. And feeding them, clothing them and washing their feet is a tangible, practical way that we can demonstrate that love to them.

The more I thought about it the more I realized that I didn't agree with that man's statement. Some of those people were so bad off that they couldn't physically get out of their homes and get food on their own. We may not have been able to satisfy their physical hunger, but they encountered Jesus and were left with the Gospel presentation printed on their food box. Who knows how God will continue to work long after we left their homes.

So this year my birthday looked a lot different. In fact, I didn't even really think about the fact that it was my birthday all day. But I liked it that way. It was so cool to see the body of Christ come together and serve our city. Even though I didn't eat funfetti cupcakes, it was my best birthday yet!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Drug Dealers, Pimps, and Lessons Learned

I felt like I was walking through the streets of Hell.

Sleeping bodies lined the streets, making it like a maze to walk through. I brushed shoulders with drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes…you name it. Spiritual darkness weighed heavily on me as I took in my surroundings.

Could this really be what life is like just 15 miles away from the fairytale-ish place I live?

It was Friday night and I was in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco with a group of my fellow Seminary friends. The Tenderloin is notoriously known for its crime, drugs and seedy culture. My friends had been going out regularly to do evangelism there, and I was excited to join them for the first time.

“That corner over there is where most of the drug deals take place,” my friend informed me. Sadness crept into my heart and stayed there for most of the night.

I didn’t know what to expect or how I would approach the people, but I had a strange sense of confidence and security. I knew God created those people and loves them and I had no fear in being there. We were carrying around socks to pass out to people who needed them. But we were informed not to give socks to men wearing new, nice shoes. Those were the pimps. They didn’t need socks.

But Victor needed socks. We met Victor as he was rummaging through the trash, looking for something of value, or something to eat. The first thing I noticed was his cross necklace (and his t-shirt with Obama’s face on it).

“Would you like some socks?” we asked with a smile.

He gladly accepted them and we chatted with him for a few minutes. He accepted Christ two years ago and says he has stayed out of prison since. As we walked away I couldn’t help but wonder what it must be like to trust in God and yet still have to dig through the trash every day to find a way to survive. What would my faith be like if I lived like that?

Then we met Ted. After proposing to marry the three of us girls, he explained that he used to be the biggest drug dealer in the area, claiming that he made $1000 a day. His one-legged friend, Papa, sat in a wheelchair next to him, skeptical of everything we said about Jesus. Even if they didn’t agree with us, Ted said, “I can feel some kind of good spirit in you girls.”

Aaron is a sweet store-owner from Fiji. We talked to him for about an hour about his religious beliefs. He is Hindu, but believes that all roads lead to heaven. He loves Jesus…and Krishna…and many other Gods. Listening to him made me wish I had paid more attention in my World Religions class in undergrad. How do you share the Gospel with someone who already believes in Jesus but is convinced He isn’t the only way? My friend eloquently shared a story from the Bible with him. He wants to sit down with us to talk about it sometime.

These are just a few of the 37,000 people who live in the Tenderloin district. They are lonely, mentally unstable, hungry, desperate, angry, addicted, wasted, and in need of a savior. When I looked into their eyes, I sensed darkness and sadness.

I wish I could hear all of their stories. Yes, today they are drug dealers and pimps, but what were their lives like before? What happened to Ted when he was a little boy? Surely Victor hasn’t always dug through the trash. Something must have happened along the way that brought him to this point.

One man said to us, “This here is the end of our lives. We’re stuck here and there’s no hope of things gettin’ any better.”

But praise God this is not true! The Bible says, “If anyone is in Christ, He is a NEW creation. The old is gone, the new has come!” He can take the most sinful, “terrible” person and wash them white as snow through the power of his cleansing blood.

One of the lessons I took away from the Tenderloin is that those people are no worse than I am. We have ALL sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. The only difference between me and them is that I have recognized my sins and trusted Jesus to cover them. How I long for those dear people to experience God’s mercy and grace, just like I have.

People like this aren’t just in the Tenderloin. There are hurting, lonely people all over this country and all over the world. So many weekends I relax and go out to eat and watch movies. While that isn’t bad, it seems so pointless now that I’ve seen the contrasting, hurting world that exists right across the bay. So where is your Tenderloin? Are you willing to step out and go?

We are called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Let’s go shine it in the darkest places.