How My Life was Changed by a Small Act of Kindness

bible_coverContinued from here.

In his song, Dream Small, Josh Wilson says that “these simple moments change the world.” Here’s my own testimony of the truth of that statement…

While I had been a Christian for decades, I was emotionally-wounded, spiritually immature, and self-absorbed in my pain. One Sunday morning, I had a pity party in which I cried out to God, “Can you show me evidence that even one person on this planet gives a #$%& about me?” (I had a potty-mouth back then.) I then left for Sunday School. When I arrived, a woman from my class handed me the Bible cover in the photograph, said she saw it in a Christian bookstore, and thought I might like it. She had no idea that this one simple action would change the world, beginning by changing me.

Receiving that Bible cover shortly after my prayer opened my eyes that I was loved and valued, not only by this woman but also by God. This prepared my heart to accept God’s invitation to seek Him with my whole heart during the first hour of each day in quiet time. After filling me to overflowing with His love for months, God led me to forgive my childhood abusers, which forever changed my heart toward “the guilty,” who I now see as “the wounded” in need of God’s healing. That change was needed to prepare my heart for becoming the executive director of a statewide prison ministry – an area of ministry I had repeatedly said I would never do.

This ministry has been active in prisons for years, and the vision has always been to expand this ministry outside the prisons to those returning to society upon release. However, the leaders were unsure what that model should look like. God placed a vision on my heart to take the same meeting format used in the prisons and offer it in a church building, and the Board of Directors approved launching a pilot of this vision. That pilot will launch next week with 16 volunteers from multiple denominations with different colored skin and will be open to anyone with a criminal record – no exceptions. (Some post-incarceration ministries exclude people convicted of murder, sex offenses, or gang-related crimes.) Each attendee who comes to know Christ through this ministry will not only be changed individually, but that change will impact his or her family, friends, and community, including people who might otherwise have been victimized by future crimes. God brought all of this about through one simple act of buying a Bible cover.

To be continued…

[Graphic: Photograph of Grace’s Bible cover. Courtesy Grace Daniels.]

 

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Dream Small

Lately, I have been meditating on Josh Wilson’s song, Dream Small.

He packs a lot of punch into this short song, and it’s a lesson the Church needs to learn: our small acts of kindness matter. Some Christians err on the side of dismissing the value of small acts because they are chasing the bigger ones. They want to be the next Billy Graham or Beth Moore, but they don’t appreciate that God likely started both out doing small things that added up to big things. In his book Detours: The Unpredictable Path to Your Destiny, Tony Evans says that when people fresh out of seminary ask him what they need to do to pastor a megachurch like his, he tells them to go minister in a prison, which surprises them. Ministering in a prison is not going to get someone the name recognition to be invited to pastor a megachurch. However, it’s exactly where God can teach a new pastor through small things how to prepare for bigger things.

And then there’s the other end of the spectrum, where I languished for decades: I was too focused on what I wanted God and other people to do FOR ME to think about what small acts of kindness I could be doing for them. That’s a sign of spiritual immaturity because the heart of Christianity is humility – focusing on God and other people while removing the focus from yourself. I was such an emotionally-wounded Christian that I couldn’t remove my focus from myself long enough to see the many needs of the people around me, many of which were small needs that I could have easily met had I not been so self-focused.

This week, we are going to focus on the value of “dreaming small,” as Josh Wilson puts it, which is what Jesus did. As an example, his small act of publicly acknowledging the Samaritan woman led the many Samaritans to become believers (John 1:1-42). Simply speaking publicly to this woman was a small act on Jesus’ part, but it had a profound effect on her – a woman who was publicly disgraced and shunned by her community. A small act of kindness by Jesus led to the salvation of many in the same community that shunned the woman. As Josh Wilson says, “five loaves and two fish can feed them all, so dream small.”

To be continued…

[Graphic: Link to Josh Wilson’s video, Dream Small. Courtesy YouTube.]

 

Don’t Judge the Prodigal – You Don’t Know Where He has Been

barrelContinued from here.

As God revealed this version of the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard to me, I thought about the parallels in this story to the Prodigal Son. I heard a great sermon on that parable in which the pastor said, “Don’t judge the prodigal because you don’t know where he’s been.” The workers who had been in the fields all day assumed that the time that James was not in the field was spent doing something more pleasant, such as playing video games or sleeping in. However, James would have done anything to have been in that field working all day. Those workers had no idea what James’ day had actually been like. They were correct that James didn’t deserve the denarius, and James fully agreed. The difference is that the unmerited favor of God’s grace elicited thanksgiving from James – who suffered more – but grumbling from the other workers – who suffered less.

Whenever I hear someone say he wants to be treated as he deserves, I respond that I am immensely grateful that God DOES NOT treat me like I deserve. I relate much more to James than I do to the other workers because I know how hard my life journey has been. I know how much I suffered as I tried to make my own way while others labored under the protection of their heavenly Father. No one is more aware than I am of how far I fall short and how undeserving I am of the grace that God has given me … and I am so immensely grateful for that grace that I could never earn or attain on my own.

PRAISE GOD for His “unfairness.” THANK GOD that “he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities” (Ps. 103:10). PRAISE GOD that He is generous … that He sees the pain we suffer outside his vineyard … and that He loves us enough to keep coming back and looking for us, inviting us to join Him in his vineyard of grace.

[Graphic: Cartoon of Grace wearing a barrel. Courtesy Bitmoji.]

 

The Landowner’s “Unfairness”

thank_you1Continued from here.

James was unable to find any more work so late in the day, and he faced the reality that he would likely have to bury his sister in the morning. He no longer had the will to go on and decided that if she was going to die, then he would join her. He had nothing left to live for. At 4:45 p.m., he headed back to the marketplace looking for the drug dealer. He planned to offer his body in payment for enough drugs to take the lives of both his sister and himself. Whether they went to heaven or hell, they would go together.

The drug dealer agreed to the terms and began to lead James to a secluded area for his “payment.” At that moment, the landowner’s bus pulled up, and the landowner invited James, along with others in the area, to come work in his vineyard. Although James knew that one hour’s work would not be enough, something inside told him to go with the landowner, so he did. For one glorious hour, he focused on the work and drove all other thoughts out of his mind. The time passed too quickly, and then the foreman called him over, along with the 5:00 p.m crew, to receive his wages.

When the foreman placed a denarius into James’ hand, he thought it was a mistake and tried to return the money. However, the foreman assured him there was no mistake: the landowner had instructed him to pay James a denarius for a job well done. James dropped to his knees and sobbed, praising God for saving not only his sister’s life but his as well. He knew he didn’t deserve a denarius. James was so overcome with joy and astonishment and was too busy thanking and praising God to notice the grumblings of the other workers as they judged James as unworthy of receiving the denarius. If he had heard their complaints, James would have fully agreed with them: the denarius was his solely because of grace.

To be continued…

[Graphic: Cartoon of Grace flat on her face at someone’s feet saying, “Thank you!” Courtesy Bitmoji.]

 

What the 5:00 p.m. Worker Did while the Others Labored

helpContinued from here.

James tripled-checked his alarm clock to make sure it was set so he could be the first to arrive in the marketplace in the morning. He was unable to sleep because of his sister’s persistent coughing. He did everything he could to help her breathe and finally fell asleep at 3:00 a.m. next to his sister. He mother awoke at 3:30 a.m. and saw her children sleeping peacefully together. She decided her son needed his rest and turned off the alarm clock.

James awoke to sunlight flooding the room as terror swept over him. “No! No! No!” he screamed as he saw how pale his sister looked as she coughed and slept. She wouldn’t survive another night without the antibiotics, but how could he afford them now?

He ran to the marketplace, but the place for the day laborers was empty. He heard that the landowner had needed more workers and had come at 9:00 a.m. looking for more, but James had just missed the bus. James held back tears and pushed back the panic, determined to figure out some way to earn a denarius by evening. He went store to store and door to door, begging for any type of job – no matter how small – and did several short, unpleasant odd jobs for half what they were worth, from unclogging toilets to scooping manure out of a barn. Around 11:30 a.m., he returned to the day laborers’ spot at the marketplace and saw others milling about, hoping for a half-day job.

A man rolled up his hotdog stand, and the day laborers formed a line to purchase lunch. James had not eaten in two days and was tempted to use the little money he had earned to buy himself a modest lunch. But what if that would have been the exact amount needed to pay for the antibiotics by the end of the day? To avoid the temptation, he left the marketplace to look for more work and never saw or heard the landowner’s bus drive up looking for more workers at noon.

By 2:30 p.m., James had earned a little more cash, but it was far from enough, and he was growing desperate. He returned to the marketplace, hoping for even a few hours’ work, and sat among others waiting for the same thing. A drug dealer sat beside him and offered to sell him drugs to ease his pain. James declined, telling him he didn’t need drugs – he needed money for antibiotics for his dying sister. The drug dealer offered to sell him enough drugs to put his sister out of her misery so she wouldn’t have to suffer. In return, he wanted no money but rather to use James as a prostitute. James stormed off and again looked for more work. He never saw or heard the landowner’s bus drive up looking for more workers at 3:00 p.m.

To be continued…

[Graphic: Cartoon of Grace sinking in quicksand and yelling, “Help!” Courtesy Bitmoji.]

 

Perspective of a 5:00 p.m. Worker

life_is_hardContinued from here.

The parable of the Workers in the Vineyard is unpopular because we identify with the early morning workers. Why should they get paid the same amount as the 5:00 p.m. workers who only put in one hour? Let’s take a look at the story from the perspective of James, a 5:00 p.m. worker.

At age 15, James’ life had been hard. His mother was mentally ill, and he never knew which version of her would walk through the door. Some days, she would have irrational rages and present a physical threat. Other days, she was so disoriented that she didn’t know who he was. But once a week or so, the mother who loved him would surface, and she was exceedingly kind. James frequently thought it would be easier for his mother always to behave as a monster so he could hate her. Her shifting personas was very disorienting.

James’ father was the only one who could “manage” his mother. His parents had known each other since they were children, so his father always knew the right things to say to calm her. His father was a hard worker but uneducated, so he didn’t make much money, and the family lived paycheck to paycheck. That paycheck ended a year ago when his father was tragically killed by faulty equipment at his job, and the employer accused his father of negligence to avoid having to pay for his wrongful death. Thus, James had to drop out of school at age 14 and go to work as a day laborer, where his large body could pass for age 16. He would go to the marketplace where other day laborers congregated and seek employment by the day.

The one bright spot in James’ life was his eight-year-old sister, but she had become ill. She coughed constantly, and James worried when she did not recover after weeks of rest. He scraped together enough cash to pay for a doctor’s visit and lost a day of work taking her to the appointment. The doctor diagnosed her with pneumonia and said she needed to start antibiotics immediately, or she would die. Unfortunately, the doctor was out of free samples, but he wrote a prescription that would cost one denarius to fill. While walking her home from the doctor’s office, James ran into another day laborer who told him of a rumor that a landowner was hiring day laborers for one denarius, so be sure to arrive in the marketplace in the morning before daybreak. James saw this opportunity as an answer to his prayers.

To be continued…

[Graphic: Cartoon of Grace reclining on a couch with her hand to her head saying, “Life is Hard.” Courtesy Bitmoji.]

 

Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

judgeMy pastor recently gave a sermon on an unpopular parable: “The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.” Here’s the parable from Matt. 20:1-16:

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Seems pretty unfair, right? Praise God for his “unfairness!”

To be continued…

[Graphic: Cartoon of Grace scowling from a judge’s chair above the word, “Judging.” Courtesy Bitmoji.]