Monday, December 24, 2012

The Ugliest Most Beautiful Gift

I recently made an addition to the decor on my desk at work.  It's pretty ugly and I keet waiting to hear someone jokingly mutter about it under their breath as they walk past.  But no one has.  In truth, they probably don't know that I think it's ugly and are doing their best to avoid hurting my feelings.  I'm kind of surprised that no one has even asked me where it came from or why it's there.  It's really not my style, but more like that of the movie stereotypical grandmother who collects all sorts of things.  Yet I've had it for nearly ten years.  I've moved it to three cities and six houses.  Each time unpacking it and putting it in the trash pile.  If I were Bilbo Baggins, this would be my ring. (That might be a stretch, but you get the idea).  It always calls to me from the trash and I continue to rescue it.  Why?

It was the fall of 2003 and I was on my student teaching adventure in a diverse school in the Uptown neighborhood in Chicago.  I was nearing what had been a tough, eye-opening semester during which I questioned whether or not I really had what it takes to be a teacher. They were a beautiful little class of varying ethnicities and personalities; a representation of the surrounding community. They were also urban almost-middle-schoolers and a somewhat difficult class to manage.  I loved them, but I was quite often grateful that I had a "real" teacher present to guide me at all times.

It's traditional to have a little going away party for student teachers and this class was no different.  On my last day, we had treats and the kids gave me all kinds of cards saying I was the best teacher ever (yes, some of the kids were lying).  Some of the kids had gone with their parents to the corner store and brought me little candies, but it was the gift of this one little girl that still adorns my desk ten years later.

I remember that she was Vietnamese and that her parents spoke almost no English.  In fact, they had come to parent teacher conferences and we had not been able to successfully communicate with them.  The girl would wear the same outfit for a couple of days in a row, but she was always clean.  She had the face of an angel; one of those faces that literally beamed when she smiled.  It was that face that brought me a wrapped gift on that, my last, day as her student teacher.  I unwrapped it, preparing myself to give off an air of joy (fellow teachers will understand this), and reminded myself to smile and thank the girl.

It wasn't until years later that I could fully appreciate the gift.  The little girl thought it was beautiful and she wanted to give me a beautiful gift. I don't know the story of what it took for the girl to get the gift or what her family had to sacrifice so that she could, but I can imagine.  I'm certain there was no allowance to save up or extra money in the bank.  Yet this little girl found a way to send me off with something of beauty.  Why?  Probably because she loved me.  That is not a statement of pride, but of awe.  I did nothing special for her to love me. 

Just like I did nothing special to be loved, but God sent Jesus to die for me anyway.

Just like I hope to love on kids who come through our house in years to come.

So I keep this gift on my desk as a reminder; that there is beauty in the unexpected; to ask about people's stories; to love without expectations and with abandon; to hold close to my heart that I was and am loved in much the same way.

May you find something once thought ugly and, tonight, find a beauty hovering in its depths. 

Sunday, December 02, 2012

not just a basket

This is why I love my job: 

I know.  That picture really tells you nothing.  Here's the deal:  that little guy is carrying a basket full of games, crafts, and books to be given to families in need around our city this Christmas. This weekend our church put together somewhere near eight hundred of these.  It takes literally (at least) a hundred volunteers to pull off the full scope of the project. Today, I watched as people gathered and sorted and bundled and prettied.  My favorite part was watching the little ones.  The curly-headed four year old who unwrapped the blankets that would line the baskets; the preteen who eagerly did anything she was asked; the eight year old who collected the trash strewn about; mr. muscles (above) moving baskets from one spot to the next. Kids (and adults) gave their time to create baskets that, when used as intended, would give the gift of "time together" to families.  You see, these baskets are not your typical Christmas gifts.  They are filled with items that bring family members around the table. It's a gift of relationships and memories that will last well beyond the breakable toys that will soon go out of style.

Like the picture above, there's always something deeper than what is initially seen in the work that I get to do.  Not long ago we helped move a greenhouse from one organization onto the property of another.  Greenhouse?  What?  Well, let's just say that it's in a pretty desperate part of the city.  What looks like just a greenhouse is actually going to become a place where seeds are started which in turn will become gardens in the spring.  When the vegetables are ready to harvest, people in the neighborhood will get to pick and take them home.  Perhaps they'll get seeds to start their own garden.  Just a greenhouse?  Nope.  It's fresh, nutritious foods for an area of the city where the word "fresh" isn't known.  It's community in its purest form as people come together to care for and protect the garden.  

Like the landscaping we got to help with for a foster family. It was more than just dirt and plants and mulch.  It was creating a safe and beautiful space for kids to be kids in the midst of what is a very harsh life for some.  It's a place for the foster parents to sit outside on a cool evening and enjoy each other after they've put their eight children to bed.  It's a garden where relationships built on trust can grow.

Or the 90th birthday party we had the honor of putting on.  More than a party, it was honoring the life of a woman who has many a reason to keep grudges and honestly, to hold hate captive in her heart, but who instead loves with great abandon and care.

Yes, I coordinate workdays.  But it's really so much more.  God has given me a front row seat to watch as He heals and restores individuals and communities.  There are workdays (days when I coordinate volunteer projects) when I am so overwhelmed that I can only express myself in tears.  The tears are not provoked by the number of baskets we made or what we planted in the garden.  It's the trust; the relationships; the generosity of time; the gift of love and mercy so often found in the unexpected places.

So on a day like today when I watch the little guy moving baskets that weigh almost as much as he that someone he'll probably never meet can experience all these things...

speechless.  grateful.  humbled.