The Stray

Photo by  fancycrave.com

Photo by fancycrave.com

If you were a stray in my childhood, I collected you and brought you home. I wrapped you in cloth, found out what food you ate, fed youby eyedropper sometimes, made you a shoe box with tissue paper nest, put your box by my pillow, and stroked your fur or feathers until you calmed and slept. Baby mice, baby birds, baby rabbits. Anything lost or abandoned or too weak to survive on its own. I had a place for you in my house and in my heart.  

I thought of myself as an animal Mother Theresa. And I imagined if I lived in Calcutta, I would do the same with people.

My husband jokes that he was the final stray I brought home.

When we moved to Mexico, I carried my love for animals with me. Many days out on the desert ranch, I helped village children learn compassion and gentleness toward the animals they came in contact with. This wasn’t always an easy task because the outlook on animals is different there. For the most part, they provide a means to an end—food, protection, transportation. Very rarely are they coddled or adopted as a pet, especially in the villages. The people often struggle with feeding their own family, let alone a dog or cat. And without funds for spaying and neutering, the homeless population grows exponentially.

Extremes exist on both ends. Both cultureswhether we neglect or pamper. This isn’t about that. This is about what happens to a heart turned cold.

Many nights on the ranch, we cooked our meals outside, in the open air. We built fires and sat around them enjoying food, rest, and good stories from the day. Smells travel far on desert wind, and we often had uninvited guests on these nights. Strays looking for their next meal, their next comfort.

A few of those homeless dogs who found their way to the ranch we adopted and took them into our pack. But we had trouble with them eventually as they never fully lost their street sense. On occasion, they would attack the farmer’s livestock and damage our relationships with our neighbors. So, we stopped taking them in.

Our own dogs, two German Shepherds, helped with border control. We never trained them, they just lived off our cues. When a stray dog came onto the property, our dogs would determine how to respond by our actions. If we welcomed the animal, they would too. If we yelled to scare them off, the chase would ensue. Most often, the strays high-tailed it off the property. Our dogs would stop at the fence line and then return to the fire, a job well done.

When the work day began next morning, we’d shore up our fences and tighten our barrier against further intrusion.

One day, however, things went all wrong. I can still see the dog without effort, even years later. His image embedded in my thoughts. Rooted there to remind me of something eternal. The dog was a tan and black terrier cross, with desperate eyes. He came onto the property slowly. Slinking from the fence line, closer and closer to the warmth and smells and laughter of the circled fire.

When he got too close, I stood. My dogs came to attention. And when I yelled, “Yaah, get out of here!”, our dogs took up the chase. But the visitor did not run like most. Instead, he cowered. Curled himself in a ball while the large shepherds barked and nipped at him. He growled and nipped back, but would not be moved.

I stepped closer and reached down for a stone. The people taught us that if you are afraid of a street dog, just pretend to pick up a stone and they will run off. They know stones.

When I faked the motion, the intruder ran a few paces toward the fence, then crumpled again in the dirt.

“Get out of here,” I yelled with little response, except to rile my own dogs more.

In one final effort to be free of the trespasser, I launched the rock in my hand. Never had I had such precision in my aim or even considered the consequence of my actions. The stone found its mark and the crouched dog let out a yelp. A bitter cry from a heart of despair.

I froze in place. Dropped my arms and cried for the choice I had made. Maybe you think it’s no big deal, or you empathize with my heartache. Either way, think about the questions I considered …

What am I doing? How—how in heaven’s name—did I get here? And when did throwing rocks become justified in my mind?

I called my dogs off and approached the intruder. He remained huddled on the ground, but barred his teeth expecting the hurt to continue. But he didn’t move. Because when you have nothing left, how do you give up on the only string of hope you have?

“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I’m so sorry. It’s okay. You don’t have to be afraid.”

Then I gave him something to eat, and he never came back. But I haven’t forgotten him.

The outcast. The exiled. The unclean. Pushed to the borders and left to starve—physically, emotionally, spiritually. And we wonder why they huddle in the streets and on the corners. Why they curse and snarl, and sometimes steal. We wonder how they got there, and how we came to the place of shutting them out. Or even throwing the stone in our hand. How?

I was not who I imagined myself to be.

Why do you enter my gate when I don’t want you here? Why do you refuse to leave when you make me so uncomfortable? I have nothing for you.

Ah, but I do.

I have a shoe-box and a cloth. I have tissue paper and an eye dropper. I have a gentle hand to heal your wounds and a smile to calm your fears. And I have the One to give youone much better at loving you than I am.

The one who removes stones from hands and hearts.

And in Him, friend—when I come to the end of my meager offering—you’ll find your hope.

 

 

 

I Don't Like People

Image by David Clarke

Image by David Clarke

Some days, I don’t like people very much. Not just the mean kind. Not only the thieves who break into my house or my car, but those who break into my time. Who steal my energy, my focus. Those who ask me to step out of my world, put down my program, and pay attention to them at just the wrong time. Even those who want to do life together when I don’t want to. When I want to do it alone.

You can imagine choosing life as a missionary would disrupt this plan. Open someone up for the deluge of “other.” And Mexican parking lots are a great place for life lessons.  

Walk with me through the build-up.

I leave home on my way to the grocery store. Five children in tow. I usually send my husband for these trips, since I’m not comfortable still with all I need to learn in another culture. At the gas station, a young man pumps my gas. He finishes and waits for a tip. This is how he makes pocket change to survive. I’m on board. I dig through my cup holder and come up with a good amount of pesos. He is grateful and tucks away the change. At the first intersection, the light is red. While I wait, someone fire-breathes in front of my car. A slightly talented performance with the added risk of swallowing gasoline all day. When he approaches my car, I dig for some more change and drop it in his hand. He needs to eat too. At the next intersection, I get another red light. Someone washes my windshield (even though I said, no thanks). But they’re working, right? A few more pesos. I arrive at the grocery store, and someone attempts to direct me into a space in a wide-open parking lot. That’s insulting because I’ve been driving for over 30 years and certainly know how to park a car. He’s not a store employee even. Just some guy with a whistle. When I pretend not to see him, he curses me out for taking the space he suggested and not paying him for it.

Inside the store, I drag my five kids up and down the tight aisles. I buy what looks like the food I’m used to. At the check-out counter someone bags my groceries and waits for another handful of change. I dig through my purse to give her the rest of my pesos.

Meanwhile, I’m still agitated over the guy in the parking lot. I haven’t totally let it go. I don’t like being cursed at by strangers. And little by little, my annoyance meter has risen. My kids are tired and hungry and sick of being stared at for being different. I’m feeling a bit used and abused with all the hand-outs. Especially the entitled ones. I’m hot and ruffled and my generosity has tanked. I pity the poor soul who asks me for one more thing.

And here he comes.

An oversized teenager offers to help me with my cart before I can take two steps from the cashier. He’s got a hand on the metal basket already blocking my forward progress. I politely decline, but he follows me out the door. He looks both ways and guides my cart across the drive. As he shuffles next to us, I say, “Thank you for your help, but I’m fine. I have my own children to help me. Please, I don’t need you to walk me to my car and unload my groceries. Have a nice day.”

My Spanish is okay. I think he understands, but he follows me anyway. My kids cast wary glances, as if this over-assertive person could be a danger. When I get to the car and open my trunk, he reaches for a bag.

“Really, I’m okay. We can do this. I don’t need your help. Thanks anyway.”

Please, just go away!

Of course, I don’t say that. I just feel it. It crawls under my skin and into my bones.

With all the composure I have left, I corral the kids into the car, grab a dollar from my wallet and stand by the trunk to wait for the teen to finish unloading my groceries. And to make sure he doesn’t walk off with anything.

He is meticulous. Conscientious. Too absorbed in perfecting the task than any teenager I know. He lines the bags up perfectly—all part of the tip gauge. A job well-done surely demands a higher wage. I just want to chuck in my own groceries, slam the trunk, and be out of there.

When he’s done, he closes the trunk softly and smiles.

When I attempt to hand him the dollar, he waves it off.

“No, please,” I say. “Take it.”

He waves it off again and shakes his head, no.

I offer once more, because now I have to live with my attitude.

He says good-bye, and walks away.

And as I climb in my car, the rear view mirror reflects the depravity in my soul.

How often do I misjudge someone right in front of me? I tag him with motivations and intentions that I take the freedom to make up. If someone cuts me off, he’s a jerk. If I cut someone off, I’m sorry, I didn’t see you. My motive is pure. My intentions, certainly wholesome.

On the flip side, how often do I serve expecting nothing in return? Absolutely nothing. Not only expecting nothing, but accepting nothing. When that something could also be the very thing I needed most.

I heard a message soon after that moment by John Maxwell. It broke my heart and stayed with me until this day. He said something like, “Every morning when I wake up I ask the Lord to help me bring value to each person He puts in my life. And when I lay down at night, a think about how well I accomplished it.”

John Maxwell understood something so profound. That his job, his goal, his motivation for the day was not for himself. It was not for A, B and C. Not for the task or the outcome. But for the people. And miraculously, if I take the focus off me (i.e., I need to speak well, write well, perform with excellence) and put it on them … how, O Lord, can I serve them—value them—today, the pressures and stress of my day vanish like vapor. Because it’s not about me trying hard to be something I’m not. And every new day, every new moment becomes an opportunity to place value—the highest value—on God’s most treasured creation.

 And I find that I actually like people … a lot.

For me, the message came from a teenage boy who broke all odds. A kid who, though he had little, demanded nothing. A kid who served, just to serve.

A kid who changed my heart.

Everything You Need Is Here!!!

Rancho el Camino, La Paz, Mexico (www.ranchoelcamino.org) - founded in 2007, Peter and Cher Gatto

Rancho el Camino, La Paz, Mexico (www.ranchoelcamino.org) - founded in 2007, Peter and Cher Gatto

Before there was a ranch, there was nothing. Well, if you count cactus and hornet’s nests, there was something. But the potential for something beautiful, something vibrant was lacking and the resources were scarce. It was rough. Really rough. Coyote and cowhide tough. The stuff desert fathers are made of.

Our friends and family who visited the ranch in its early days forbade us from attempting life out there. From raising our kids in the middle of the desert without electricity or running water, and starting a ministry from an abandoned lot tucked out of reach. Four miles of dirt between us and the nearest convenience store.   

One day, sitting on a cracked cement step, taking in the vast emptiness that we believed God had called us to, my husband Peter prayed: Lord, I need to know this is You. I need to know You are in this, because if You’re not, I will surely die.

It sounds tongue and cheek when we say it today, but it was real. The task was daunting. We had unending limitations. And it would have killed us had we gone alone.

 The Lord answered—as clearly as if He had been sitting on the step and gazing out at that same desert and that same emptiness in that very moment. He said: Yes, Peter. It is Me. And everything you need is right here.

Everything.

The palms we would cut. The wells we would tap. The friends we would make. The ministry He would build. Everything.

That was true then. And it is true right now. Somehow it is harder to remember here. I have forgotten what Everything means. When the comforts are easier, perhaps the answers become cloudy.

But the reality is, I don’t need to be on a vacant ranch to feel empty.

I can come to the end of myself all on my own. I can be surrounded by affluence, career momentum, hordes of people and still feel a vacancy. A heavy burden I can’t bear. As though surely, I will die if I have to go it alone. The amount of effort and pace and endurance just to keep my head above water has the potential to derail me.

The void is real. The emptiness, the lack of resources, the shortcoming of strength and perseverance, the power we give others to determine our worth, the barrenness of our day or purposelessness of our steps.

But wherever we might be, desert or crowd, the truth stands just as real.

God says, I have everything you need, and I am right here. Everything. All the resources I lack to be whole and complete. To stand tall and finish strong. To break the bonds and be a victor despite my brokenness. Despite my circumstances. To throw off my need for approval, acknowledgment, accolades and find rest, deep rest in Him.

“Adam was created on the sixth day. Clearly, then, he had no part in those first six days of work, for he came into being only at their end. God’s seventh day was, in fact, Adam’s first. Whereas God worked six days and then enjoyed his sabbath rest, Adam began his life with the sabbath; for God works before he rests, while man must first enter into God’s rest, and then alone can he work.” (Watchman Nee)

Man must first enter into God’s rest, and then alone can he work.

We have it backwards. Sunday begins the week, it doesn’t end it. Whatever your day is, Sunday or another, enter into the Sabbath first. This, my friend, is the key to the emptiness. To mine. And to yours. That we rest in Him FIRST. I know we’ve heard it and even believed it. Why then do we fail to receive it?

And here is the coolest part. “It was because God’s work of creation was truly complete that Adam’s life could begin with rest.” (Nee)

He did it all. It’s finished already. Whatever you are striving for, it’s been done. Whatever you might think is missing, it is not. This is His gift to us.

Breathe Him in. Breathe yourself out. And find today that you lack nothing.

 

 

 

What If ...

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My neighbor died last week. He was an older gentleman who lived across the street. I didn’t know him, so his death, in and of itself, left little impact. I’m sorry for your loss. That’s sad. Must have been his time—kind of impact.

But I’ll never forget it.

The day he died, he had been mowing his front lawn with a push mower. I suppose the strain was too much for his heart and it had quit. The mower’s track—the diagonal stripes, perfectly spaced and perfectly even, stopped half way through the yard. One side neat and trimmed. The other unfinished.

Uncompleted.

The gentleman had started the yard that morning assuming he would finish it. Get the house ready for his grandson’s graduation party. Do some mowing then run to the store for the lemonade and bag of ice. Maybe get some time later to read the New York Times chucked at the end of the drive.

But time ran out. His name in the Book of Life had been on that page.

In the Bible, James says: Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes (James 4:13-14).

Oh, the best laid plans in the face of time.

It’s natural to plan. We all do it. It is not a bad thing to order our days. Think ahead. Set goals and move toward them. But here is where the danger lies. Where it deceives and distorts. Where it robs us of the very minutes and seconds we have been given …

When we are apt to live our lives in the “plan” and miss today.

This is my admonishment for myself. I am a dreamer. I live, not in the moment, but in the potential. The what could be. I see myself there, somewhere in a hazy future that may never come to pass. The when’s take over … When I get there, when I have this, when I …

Harry Potter’s Dumbledore said it this way: “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”

Because the when’s and what if's of the future propose only air. Nothing I can truly grab onto.

But today??? Today offers the sustenance of life.

What does your day look like? Is it filled with work due tomorrow? Worry for next week? Next month? Next year?

Those thoughts and plans and ideas may be important, but don’t live there. Don’t sacrifice what is right in front of you-- A sweet time with your Creator. An hour with your child, just the two of you. A walk with a loved one. A hand to someone in need. A kind word to a hurting soul--for the vapor of a what if.

You see, tomorrow will wait. It has to. But today will not. Grab onto those cherished moments that will carry on after the mist fades.

For two days, the grass tracks from my neighbor's mower remained, until someone finished the job.

Someone else.

But the tracks left an indelible imprint on my mind—a forever reminder that I have only today to make a difference.

My days are like the evening shadow; I wither away like grass (Psalm 110: 11).

 

Through the Eyes of a Child

Slow my heartbeat, Lord, today… until I have seen You with child eyes.

Slow my heartbeat, Lord, today… until I have seen You with child eyes.

Three times in my life I have had a vision of heaven. All three times, my eyes took in the scene around me as if I were a child. A child with unrestrained, abandoned faith. Nothing between me and Jesus. No agenda. No shame or guilt. No need to prove myself or be anything but me.  

On one occasion, I was in a meadow of tall grass. The warm breeze bent the blades and the bright sun bathed me in shifting light through the leaves of a sprawling oak. I lay on my back, gazing upward. Though I did not see the Lord’s face, I felt His presence. He was there. Close. An uncontained joy bubbled up in my heart like the giddiness of a child. So full, I nearly burst with it. As a little girl would in a field of grass, I encircled my arms about me and kicked my legs in complete abandon.

Then, enraptured with that joy, I asked Him, “What can I do for you now?”

I do not remember an answer… because the moment was not for the question. But for the joy of being with Him.

Ahh, but to live, not just through a glimpse, but my everyday through the eyes of that child. The one that is in me still, in all of us, hungry for more of Him. To throw off the burdens, the temptations, the things that wear us down and pause in our pressured pursuit of naught. To see life… to see Him… with reckless abandon.

I recently came across a quote from G.K. Chesterton that resonated with my heart. He was speaking on the joy of a child and the joy of our God…

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never gone tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

My prayer today is that I would see the treasures around me… those that are new, and those that have grown too common for me to care. That I would see them, not as a sinner grown old, but with the appetite, the devotion, the reckless abandon of a child. To ask-- not with another task to check off or rung to climb-- but with the pure delight of being with Him. “Oh Lord, what can I do for you now?”

Slow my heartbeat, Lord, today… until I have seen You with child eyes.

“…Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.” Luke 10:21