Friday, April 18, 2014

Last Moments: An Easter Reflection

About five years ago, my family traveled to Japan. When the last day arrived, we were reluctant to leave the tropical island. Standing on the shore of the East China Sea, my husband urged me to take a long last look. “After all,” he insisted, “we will probably never return to this place.”

That day, I stopped what I was doing and carefully examined the exotic scene: the green moss covered coral reefs, the grey blue water stretching as far as I could see, the sea shells littering the white sand. I took a deep breath and concentrated…this was my last glimpse of Okinawa.

Last moments are meant to be savored because they may never happen again. But all too often last moments have a way of sneaking up on us. We don’t realize they are the “last” until they are gone.

In 1998, my dad died of a heart attack at the age of 60. His death stunned my family. There were no last moments. No last chances to say good-bye, to tell him how much we loved him. He was with us one moment and gone the next. Even when I try to remember the last time I spoke to him, the exact words are not clear. It was one of those ordinary conversations, and I did not appreciate it until it was past. My last moments with my dad were in a hospital room, when he was already on the other shore.

At this Easter season, we remember the last moments of Jesus’ time on earth. For the disciples, the moments leading up to Jesus’ death on the cross were marked by shame and fear. I am sure the disciples remember those hours with regret. Why did they fall asleep during those last moments in the garden? 

Couldn’t they have remained alert in his time of need? I am sure that Peter probably played over and over those last hours before the crucifixion. He may have recalled in excruciating detail each denial of His Savior. The Bible says that three times he denied knowing Jesus.  Three times!

I am sure the disciples wished those last moments had been different– that they could have stood up for Jesus, testified on his behalf, carried the cross, waited while he breathed his final breath. But they did not. Their last moments with Jesus were not proud ones.

So imagine their joy a few days later when Jesus rose from the grave and walked up to them. In that one magnificent moment, those last moments of shame were erased! Here was their Savior, in all of His glory. They had one more chance, one more last time!

This interaction with the resurrected Jesus was not marked by shame and regret but by forgiveness and challenge. Jesus commissioned his followers, sending them forward. This was not the end, he seems to say, this is only the beginning. “Go, and make disciples."

The day after my father died, I was searching for piano music to play at his funeral. He was our church pianist, and his all-time favorite hymn was the old gospel tune, “Victory in Jesus.”  As I opened the piano bench to find the sheet music, I noticed a bright yellow post-it-note he had placed on top of his hymn book. He had hand-written these words in capital letters: “My Hope Is in the Lord!”

My last moments of sadness suddenly were transformed by a convicting sense of peace. My dad was not gone forever. My last moments with him would not end with this grave, because as believers in Christ, we know that this is not the end of the story. This life is only the beginning. I will see my dad again in Heaven.

As you celebrate this Easter with your family, I urge you to stop and savor the treasures you have been given on this earth. But we must also remember to look to our Risen Savior as a promise. When we believe in Him, when we look to the promise of Easter morning, we are reassured that this is not the end, these are not our last moments.

In Christ, this is only the beginning.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Check Engine: Clean on the Outside

The yellow light on my car’s dashboard illuminated just as I was turning onto Route 30 for my Saturday morning grocery dash. My heart sank. This was not the first time that pesky glowing signal had appeared. I had already had our Kia Soul into the dealer’s repair shop three times.

When I first saw that strangely shaped yellow light, I frantically dug the user manual out of the glove box, trying to decide what that little puzzle shape represented. Ahhhh. Check Engine. “This indicates a concern with the emission system. Take it to the dealer as soon as you are able.”

May I just say that I hate having things go wrong with my car. It throws my life out of kilter. My husband gets all cranky and irritable, and my already-busy schedule has to be adjusted. Suburban moms depend on our vehicles. We shuttle kids to activities, load up groceries, head to work, or make our requisite stops at Target. I have absolutely no time for disruptions – yet, here it was.

Later that day, the dealer called. Problem solved. They had replaced a faulty coil pack. "We should be good to go," he announced cheerily. "Plus, we washed it for you."

And it did seem better. It definitely looked better. No  yellow light. The car was all shiny with the winter layers of salty grime removed. Ahhhh, my pretty little car was back.

Until, the next morning. As I left for work, the light came on again. “Arrrgggggghhhhh,” my heart sank with disappointment. “Not again!” I called the dealer and begged a ride to work from my gracious neighbor. This time they replaced something else. They said it was fine now. Fixed. "And," the attendant informed me, "We washed it again!"

It looked as good as promised, but this time I was skeptical. My car was like a friend who had betrayed me once too often. I wasn’t sure I could trust my Kia Soul, even if she did appear shiny and clean.

After my latest conversation with the repair shop (yes, the problem is ongoing), I began thinking about that annoying “yellow” light. I was so easily distracted by a nice car wash, when the real problem was never actually fixed at all. No matter how much I tried to ignore it, and how many times they power-washed my car - the problem was not repaired, the yellow light came back on. "Check Engine."

It’s a bit like life. Sometimes we are satisfied with a quick fix to solve our problems, or at least something that distracts us. When I am sad, I tend go shopping or eat massive amounts of chocolate. And, I feel better . . . at least for awhile. But, that temporary fix is never sufficient. The problem still exists, simmering under the surface, waiting to glow again.

The yellow light always comes back on. Always.

What is interesting is that it says "Check Engine." It doesn't say, "Eat Chocolate" or "Go to T.J. Maxx." Cleaning the outside accomplishes very little. Or at least nothing that lasts. I need to dig deeper, see what's lurking under the surface. I need to examine the deeper issues - not just calm the temporary storms.

When I turn to God in prayer, He always offers more than a temporary fix. He is able to see beneath my surface requests, to hear words that I am not even able to say. While I might ask for a source of cash to pay an unexpected bill or a positive solution to a medical concern, God digs deeper. His ways of addressing the needs in our lives are not easy or quick, but I know He can and will discover the root of my problem. 

1 Samuel 16:7 says, "Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart." 

This is not threatening to me, I find it assuring. I rest in the fact that I serve a God who knows me completely and is not easily fooled or distracted by the things I use to seem "clean" or "in control." With God, I have no secrets. I am fully and completely myself. In His presence, I am able to unload my burdens and find true rest.

As for my poor car - well, we're still working on it. I'm hoping it soon gets "cleaned" inside and out. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Few Things I Learned At Festival of Faith & Writing

Every other year, this wonderful, magical gathering of writers happens in a beautiful town called Grand Rapids, Michigan. This Festival of Faith & Writing brings some of our favorite authors together with those of us who enjoy trying to put our souls on paper.

It is a chance for me to think about writing, to hear the writing of others, and to set aside the distractions of every day life. I enjoy spending time with old friends and making new ones. I like the diversity of spending one session listening to a woman who lost her parents to a bear attack in Alaska and the next one hearing from a graphic novelist who authored a book on China's Boxer Rebellion.

All in all - this conference is nurturing to my soul and mind and heart, urging us to just do it: write.

A few of my takeaways:

1) Precision in language helps us see and touch, feel and communicate. Good writers pay attention to details. Thanks for the lesson, Brett Lott.

2) Part of our task as writers and believers is just showing up (Anne Lamott). Show up for church. Show up to write. Show up to care. From Anne I also learned to go ahead and buy stronger reading glasses when needed - don't hold out for a full year!

3) We must guard our right to speak and think and have a voice. Memory is vital to our society. (The Giver)

4) To write memoir, we must often push on the bruise (Shannon Polson).

5) Honesty is everything. But, consider who you might hurt in the process. Weight the costs.

6) Write brutally honest drafts - even if they are only for you, yourself, to see and read. Get the truth out there - and then rewrite.

7) Everybody, even Anne Lamott, has trouble staying in her seat and writing.

8) The church needs to be willing to ask the hard questions. Sometimes we hold on to our beliefs so tightly our fingernails leave imprints on our hands. Rachel Held Evans.

9) You will never be able to research enough to feel capable and confident. Gene Luan Yang

10) Stop hitting the snooze button and live this one precious life. Anne Lamott

And, when you're not absorbing this type of writerly wisdom, you can head over to streets named Lake and Wealthy and Cherry and eat sushi and baked goods and veggie meals and take in a shop or two!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

My Door County Inheritance

My dad and Door County are forever intertwined in my heart and mind. 

One of my earliest memories is unzipping the heavy canvas door of our tent in Peninsula State Park in Wisconsin, climbing out into the crisp morning air, pulling on my hooded sweatshirt, and seeing my dad crouching next to the campfire. Wisps of smoke would come from the logs and kindling as the struggling fire tried to catch. The smell of sweet pine and musty canvas mingled with campfire smoke to create a scent only true campers can recognize.

My parents were not wealthy. They were both public school teachers which meant they had lots of time to spend with us kids, but very little money. Hotel vacations were foreign. Most summers, we piled into our 60s station wagon, packed the camper and headed to state parks. Our favorite destination was always Door County, Wisconsin.

The drive seemed like it took hours from our home in the south suburbs of Chicago. In those days no one worried about seat belts or child safety seats. Mom put a mattress in the back of the station wagon, pile our games and toys to one side, and we would play all the way. I remember long, nauseating drives without air conditioning.

My dad always honked at the Door County sign which greets visitors from highway 43. Two honks would rouse us from the back seat, and we would applaud our favorite destination. From that point on, we would all look for landmarks. Through the trees we could spot our first glimpses of the Bay. We would look for the Red Rocket gas station or the Dykesville Bowl. On a good day, we would stop at Frosty Tip for a cone. Crossing the steel bridge at Sturgeon Bay, we would finally pass Carlsville and turn the corner into Egg Harbor. 

But, Door County never seemed real until we descended into Fish Creek.

There is something magical about the Fish Creek hill…like a steep descent from reality into summer. The highway curves downward toward the bay, lined with rock and pine trees. When you finish the descent, you see the unusual pagoda-type architecture of the Summertime restaurant. Much has changed, yet Fish Creek still holds a childhood charm for me. I am glad my daughter can visit the Stonecutter and the Confectionary. There are moccasins for sale and fudge shops. The White Gull Inn holds court at the end of the road, like the most beautiful girl at the party who is playing a bit hard to get.

My family camped at Peninsula State Park. We graduated from a tent to a pop-up with pull-out beds on each side. My family had an extensive camping set up, complete with awning, screen tent, fake grass mat, blow-up boats, and more. It took all five of us about an hour to get our site in order. As we worked, my dad would make his way around to all of the neighboring campsites, introducing himself and chatting up new friends. My dad was a quiet man, but for some reason camping made him unreasonably social.

We were like the ballet of the campground – each of us knew our part and worked in a synchronized dance to create our temporary living space in the woods. When it was complete, my dad was the happiest guy in the world. He would take a deep breath and declare, “Ahh, this is living! Nothing like that Door County air.”

My mom and dad brought us back to Door County  each year. Although decades have passed since those early visits, I still am drawn back each summer. Many of the places we loved are gone. Much has changed. But when I drive up Highway 42, I am traveling through memories of places and people I loved.

My dad died in 1998. He was just 60, and a heart attack stole him from us far too soon. So when I visit Door County, I feel like I’m given the opportunity to spend time with him again. As I sit outside my camper and look up at the sky through the trees, as I build a campfire or honk at the Door County sign, I feel closer to my dad.

This place is my inheritance, and my life is richer for it.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Freed for Evangelism: The Story of Former Slave Amanda Berry Smith

My pastor once said that God often calls us in our area of weakness, asking us to do the things we most fear.
I didn't want to believe that. Just days before, I was invited to speak at a conference. While I was flattered, I fretted about my decision for months since I was not comfortable with public speaking. Why would God ask me to do something that so clearly frightened me?
That is the same question that plagued the heart of Amanda Berry Smith.
Amanda was born into slavery in 1837. Married at 17, she all-too-quickly became a widow at age 26. She labored as domestic help for minimal wages, raising her children alone. She was so poor she couldn't afford medicine to heal her sick baby. Weeping bitterly when he died in her arms, she realized she had no money to bury him.
Amanda Berry Smith
Amanda Berry Smith
Despite personal hardship, Amanda was a resolute believer. She felt that even while doing menial tasks like mending clothes or washing dishes, she was serving God. In her autobiography, she wrote,
I found out that it was not necessary to be a nun or be isolated away off in some deep retirement to have communion with Jesus; but, though your hands are employed in doing your daily business; it is no bar to the soul's communion with Jesus. Many times over my wash-tub and ironing table, and while making my bed and sweeping my house and washing my dishes I have had some of the richest blessings.
Amanda showed deep devotion to God. Yet, she felt like many of us do, fearful and unqualified, when he called her to carry his message around the world.
In the 1870s, the equal participation of a black woman in church or public life was unusual–even in areas where they were considered "free." Despite the fact that she had left slavery many years before, Amanda still faced discrimination.
In Philadelphia, Amanda wanted to attend a Bible reading held by author and speaker Hannah Whitall Smith. On her way, she happened to sit by Hannah's husband, Robert. He did not show any embarrassment at being seen in her company. "How real and kind and true he was," said Amanda.
However, when she arrived at the prestigious address, she grew nervous. Amanda prayed to God to give her the courage to attend the white gathering. "I always tried to avoid anything like pushing myself or going where I was not wanted," she explained. When she arrived, a woman told her the meeting was full and to come back another time. She slipped quietly inside and stood at the back.
Immediately following the meeting, a finely dressed woman approached her. "Are you Amanda Smith!? Why didn't you sing for us? Why didn't you speak?" Amanda felt convicted by her lack of confidence. She said, "I was not so well known then and many people were shy of me, and are yet. But, I belong to Royalty and am well acquainted with the King of Kings and am better known and better understood among the great family above than I am on earth."
How true that is of us today. While our insecurities may not be couched in the color of our skin, we often hold back from participating because of our lack of experience or even, sometimes, our gender. Yet, Amanda demonstrated what it means to quietly and determinedly step in and take our place, even when we are marked by insecurity.
While some did not want her at those meetings, others welcomed her and were surprised at her reticence. They encouraged her to stand, to speak, even ushered her to the front of the room. We are royalty, declared Amanda, children of the King. We have been given great gifts, and, in our relationship with God, we find self-assuredness and confidence that has nothing to do with our outward appearance, our gender, the color of our skin, or even our self-determination.
Amanda was convicted that God was on her side and that He would enable her to face her fears. Several women invited Amanda travel to England to hear evangelist D.L. Moody preach. Again, both fear and excitement battled as she had never left the United States. Should she go?
Deciding the adventure was worth the risk, she packed her trunk and boarded the steamer for England. She was the only African American woman on the ship. The captain said since there was no preacher aboard, maybe she could read from the gospel of John and lead them in a hymn. Suddenly, the atmosphere changed, and the people she once feared became friends.
In England, she was asked to sing and speak. She was a novelty as a black woman and former slave. As many as 600 people at a time would attend those meetings. In 1879, she received another invitation to travel to India. With each step, she felt God's leading and reassurance.
In October, she sailed to Bombay where Amanda would travel and speak. One pastor spoke of her ministry in Calcutta. In the past few nights, Christian preachers had been treated roughly, but Amanda was not afraid. The Bishop, standing to her side, noticed a group of men and boys gathering, moving toward the square with loud cries and threats.
He wrote of the occurrence, "Sister Smith knelt on the grass and began to pray. She turned her face – smiling – to the sky and poured out her soul. The crowd became very still – transfixed by her appearance – and did not even whisper. It was as if they were in the midst of a church."
Here was a woman who experienced the oppression of slavery and poverty, yet, in following God and turning her face to the sky, she displayed incredible confidence and power. People could sense that in her. When Amanda prayed, crowds grew silent. Oh to pray and speak like Amanda Berry Smith!
She would soon travel to the continent she had only dreamed about: Africa. In Africa, the educational, spiritual and physical needs overwhelmed her. She went from place to place by canoe, visiting schools and mission stations. She was upset by the conditions facing African women who would marry at age 13 or 14, sometimes younger. She saw infants just a few months old wearing betrothal jewels. Some missionaries would "buy" a girl and pay her dowry for $20 to $25 just to save her from a miserable life. Amanda wrote, "When I first went to Africa, I saw there was much to do, and I felt I could do little."
In 1890 Amanda journeyed home to the United States. It had been years since she left and her health was suffering. 'I was so tired of holding on and trying to keep up… I went to Africa at [God's] bidding, and did not leave until I was sure I had his sanction."
God used Amanda Berry Smith in mighty ways. After returning home, she joined the Women's Temperance Movement in Chicago. She wrote her autobiography and started an orphanage for African American girls. When she died in 1915, her funeral was one of the most widely attended by African Americans who gathered to honor this resilient woman of faith.
There are many women whose stories are not told, women like Amanda Berry Smith who refused to give in to fear, obeying God's call and venturing into unknown places to serve Him. Let's share their stories. We can gain confidence by learning from the examples of others.
By the way, I said "yes" to that speaking invitation. My daughter noted that I trembled a bit, my foot wiggling back and forth as I spoke. But, like Amanda, God gave me the courage and confidence I needed to follow, even in my weakness. I just had to take that first terrifying step.
Oh that we can all be a bit more like Amanda Berry Smith. Walking in the door. Getting on the ship. Going where God calls us.
Jamie Janosz is a wife, mother, professor and writer. She works at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, but in her spare time you'll find her poking through antique shops. Most recently she authoredWhen Others Shuddered: Eight Women Who Refused to Give Upwhich tells the stories of eight significant women of faith, including Amanda Berry Smith. Her blog is
[Reprinted with permission from Hermeneutics, a publication of Christianity Today, March 26, 2014]