May 29, 2017
Something amazing took place this week. On Monday, while John and I were stopping by at the West Plains Wal-Mart, we were walking by a small truck in the parking lot and in the bed of the truck in the middle of a few tires and some trash here and there, sat this beautiful large dog, a beige pit bull with white markings. I was so taken by his stately stance and presence that I felt prompted to take his picture.
There was a young inmate with whom I was working at the jail in Houston that I thought would really like the picture as it looked similar to his dog at home. A friend of the dog’s owner was standing to one side of the truck, and gave permission for the shot. What a pose! The friend stated that the dog was well trained and would not jump out of the truck unless commanded by his owner. As I walked away, a thought jumped out at me as I looked at the picture of this well cared for pet, that his noble demeanor was really saying just one thing “I am loved!” On Thursday at the jail, I showed the picture to two other inmates who I had been working with for several months. The one young man had a menacing word tattooed in large letters on his neck from one side to the other declaring to the world that he was to be taken seriously. Over the months, I had come to see a different person in him that this persona did not fit. Prison life had gradually created this protective shell that he believed had kept him alive. He was finishing out a county jail sentence and then would more than likely leave for a stint in the Missouri Department of Corrections. These two inmates were not the ones I thought of when I took the picture but knew they would like to see it. When he looked at the picture, I could see in his eyes that some of that tough protection had melted as they lit up with a big smile of approval of what he was looking at. His dog from another time in his life had looked like this. I told him that I felt that with the dog’s amazing presence and confidence, he was saying “I am loved”. Then the Spirit took over. I immediately knew that this was the person for whom this picture was meant. I don’t remember verbatim exactly what I said, but the gist of it was that “like this beautiful animal, God wants us to project a noble presence of confidence, grace and a persona of excellence that declares to everyone ‘I am loved!’ even when we are surrounded by trash and chaos. ‘My Master loves me and no one can do or say anything that can come between me and his love!’ We don’t have to be tough and hardened by life when we know that we are always loved, can be forgiven and are never alone.” He got it! He nodded his head in a spontaneous response to what he was feeling that he understood what I was saying and that the Holy Spirit had given him this blessing. He stated that he needed to hear these words. Later at TEAM, an area-wide interagency meeting, I felt prompted to share what had just happened at the jail. That same beautiful Spirit attested to its validity as everyone around the table felt it’s remarkable Presence. It is so amazing to me that God set up this life-giving experience days in advance and for a different person than I had first thought. God’s love for this young man is unquestionable. We can be the messenger for God’s work if we respond to his Spirit, even just walking by a dog sitting in the middle of trash in the back of a pickup truck. I showed the picture to the other inmates that day but did not feel the degree of that electric Presence in the retelling that I had felt earlier.
I Am Loved: The Epilogue
Shouldn’t the knowledge that we are loved by our Creator, show in our demeanor, be felt in our presence! Shouldn’t there be a calmness in us that makes us mindful to react and thoughtful about what we should say! Shouldn’t we always be filled with confident hope and positive in our presence with others! Shouldn’t we be sharing the ecstatic joy we are feeling!
The chapters of Sweetwater Journey are meant to convey the truth that “We are Loved”. That same young man, who we will call “Mike” was released this week from county jail with a new desire in him to never return. He said that this was the first time he’d ever felt like that. As he walked to Wal-Mart, he prayed “God, help me with what’s next.” He ran into someone he met in jail and that person then gave him a ride as far as a few miles south of Licking. When he got out, he saw a woman outside of her house. He walked over and introduced himself. She then let him use her phone to call me and prepared food for him. When I picked him up an hour later to take him to his friend’s house another hour away, he talked about the good conversation he had had with her. We both talked about the way God works, taking him on his journey step by step – angels waiting to give him a “cup of cold (sweet)water” as stated in Matthew 10. That’s how God works. You can’t see the destination ahead, only the next step of the journey and he works through you and me to do that for him. It’s the steps of the journey that build faith and continually tune in and sharpen the focus of our destination. Before John and I took him to his friend’s house, we made sure he had a cell phone and took him to apply at a place where he had worked four years earlier. He had left on good terms but had been picked up and taken back to jail on an old warrant. When Mike reached his friend’s house, he found the conditions that he feared he would find. He knew that staying here would not go along with his new life and the new person he was becoming so he left on foot that evening to see what God had next in mind. I don’t know what’s going to happen next for him but if he can trust the process and stay focused on the positive, even if he falls and makes bad choices, God is there to help Mike pick himself up and try again. He already made the right choice by not staying where he knew he would relapse again. It’s one choice after another, always choosing life in Christ. Step by step. The next contact I had with him was when I texted him the numbers of service organizations in the city where he ended up after a long walk and a ride with another “angel”. Right now, I’m not sure if he called those numbers. The many years that he’s spent in prison creates a personality that has never had a chance to become independent and self-reliant. It’s easy to become an introvert and stay out of the notice of others. Not so much to be secretive but just to be “safe”. He went to the cemetery and found a bench to sleep on that night and thank God he had a cell phone that was quickly becoming his lifeline. I didn’t see any change of clothes with him, just his Life Recovery Bible and a folder with his STONES newsletters and personal papers. The last contact I had from Mike was a text that read: “I’m OK things are hard Rita please pray for me.”
The words “things are hard” stayed with me and gnawed at my faithful resolve for the outcome of what was next for Mike. Herein lies the summation of life and the desperate need for “angels”. Things are hard. Life is hard. But by the grace of God go us. I don’t know that I had any control when I was a spirit in heaven waiting to be placed within the body on earth to which I was assigned. Because of that, it is important we pay it forward. Give from the abundance we have received. Not necessarily material wealth but spiritual, emotional, and intellectual wealth that we can pass on for the good of others. Many times when I’m in a setting surrounded by friends, food, laughter and love, I pray that God will give this same experience to my friend “Mike” and all the Mikes in the world who are struggling to not choose death when it appears that’s the only choice they have. I pray for angels to see him along his way to the next step of God’s plan for him. I pray that he won’t feel abandoned. He is learning that God leads people to help him but it’s always about whether they choose to respond to the Spirit or not and give that help.
Sowing and harvest are closely connected. It is said that “when the ground is torn up, plant seeds”. Ben Mikalsen. So if your life is a wreck and feels out of control, do something positive for yourself and someone else. Let it spring from love, so that great will be the harvest for you and them.
Have you ever watched little birds feed from the stems of grass that have gone to seed? They can’t sit on the tiny stem and peck out the seeds. They fly up and perch on the grain head and literally ride it to the ground and sit on the stem to hold it down while they peck out the seeds. I watched this happen one day while I was waiting in the car. I find God’s creation to be amazing in the problem-solving ways it masters its world for food, shelter and reproduction from one generation to the next. We, as humans, can be independently ingenious when we need to be but we definitely need each other to make our lives more enjoyable and productive.
Christina Fox is a counselor and writer who writes a blog titled “toshowthemjesus.com” . The following is her reflections on the importance of being loved as a part of community:
“Doing Life Alone vs. In Community
We once were a society that centered around family. Multiple generations often lived together under one roof and when families did live separately, they never moved very far. These days, we are more of an individualistic culture. We rely on ourselves. We live far away from where we were raised. Our connections with other people take place most often in the workplace. But those connections are usually shallow, fickle, and short lived.
In the church, we see this sense of individualism and disconnectedness as well. Many people serially date churches, never staying in one place very long. Some may stake a claim on a church but remain distant and on the margins, attending only when something better isn’t going on. And then there are those who may indeed have a committed relationship with a church but they are not all in. They aren’t fully known by their community. They don’t rely on the Body when they are struggling or in need. Instead, they wear masks that cover the pain of their lives, pretending that everything’s okay, even though it’s not.
Yet individualism and doing life on our own is not part of God’s design. After all, God is a community in himself. Existing for all of eternity past, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit have enjoyed the love and fellowship of their perfect triune community. In creating mankind, God desired for us to participate in that community and know the perfect and joyous love the Godhead share.
But God didn’t stop there. He didn’t create man to be in community with him alone. After he created the world and Adam, God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him’ (Genesis 2:18). God created man and woman to be in community together, to create families and live together, bearing the image of and reflecting the three-in-one God.
Scripture is all about community. God chose the Israelites to be his people. ‘And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people’ (Leviticus 26:12). They lived and worshipped him together in community. Following the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, God then instituted the church, the Body of Christ as a community of believers. ‘Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.’(1 Corinthians 12:27).
Here’s what Paul Tripp says in his book, Whiter Than Snow: Meditations on Sin and Mercy, ‘We weren’t created to be independent, autonomous, or self-sufficient. We were made to live in a humble, worshipful, and loving dependency upon God and in a loving and humble interdependency with others. Our lives were designed to be community projects. Yet, the foolishness of sin tells us that we have all that we need within ourselves. So we settle for relationships that never go beneath the casual. We defend ourselves when the people around us point out a weakness or a wrong. We hold our struggles within, not taking advantage of the resources God has given us.’ Not only were we created to be in community but we also need community. As I learned hiking in the Alaskan mountains, there is safety in numbers. Though there aren’t bears out there in everyday life, there are wolves who seek to destroy us. False theology abounds at every turn. Satan and his legions try to distract us with temptations. Our own sin leads us astray. We need godly brothers and sisters to watch our back. We need to be connected in community where we can all be on alert together for the dangers that are all around us. The truth is, we need each other. We need to trust, rely on, and depend upon other believers. God gave us each other to walk alongside, encourage, and spur one another in the faith. The writer to the Hebrews says, ‘And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near’ (Hebrews 10:24-25). James 5:16 says, ‘Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.’ We are to carry each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), care for each other’s practical needs (Romans 12:13, Hebrews 13:16), warn each other of sin (1 Thessalonians 5:14) and rejoice and mourn with each other’ (Romans 12:15).
. . . we are safer together in the community of the Body of Christ . . . Though society might tell us that we can do life on our own, God’s word tells us that we simply can’t function without each other (1 Corinthians 12). We need each other and we need community.” “Don’t Go It Alone, You Were Made for Community” by Christina Fox.
I observe the inmates and see that many have been alienated from community because of addictions, mental health issues and a sheer desperation to survive the only way they know how. I also observe that for many, they can experience loving community with peers they find in jail. Sometimes this can be a problem if the others in your community are unable to change their lives and live drug-free, crime-free lives. God’s love for us absolutely needs to be experienced coming through others. God’s love is without strings that enslave and control us. One of the reasons I volunteer to visit with inmates is to share the love that God has for them especially through knowing about his Son, Jesus Christ.
I finally received another text from Mike. It read: “Hi, sorry it’s been so long. I am just about to give up. I can’t live like this. I’ve tried my hardest – don’t see any other way. . .” If there aren’t enough people out there being the kind of person it takes to care about what happens to others then, the outcome has less and less chance of being positive. I keep praying for him, that someone will show him the the next step of his journey.
Saving the starfish is such an excellent story about caring. Here is one version of it:
“One day, an old man was walking along a beach that was littered with thousands of starfish that had been washed ashore by the high tide. As he walked he came upon a young boy who was eagerly throwing the starfish back into the ocean, one by one. Puzzled, the man looked at the boy and asked what he was doing. Without looking up from his task, the boy simply replied, ‘I’m saving these starfish, Sir’.The old man chuckled aloud, ‘Son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you make?’The boy picked up a starfish, gently tossed it into the water and turning to the man, said, ‘I made a difference to that one’”
Certainly human beings are not starfish but until we value each other enough to care about what happens to the least of us, then nothing will change. Love is the one genuine emotion that we are all capable of. It is the healing balm that is needed to cure the ills around us. Loving community is the next frontier and we are the explorers God has perfectly created for that mission.