Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Getting Untangled

Yeah, it's been a couple weeks since I posted here.  Everything's fine but life's been a bit tangled up and busy.  Pretty much every day involves some Operation Christmas Child project or another but many of them are pretty repetitive.

Blogging about sorting and counting stuffed animals every day would be about as exciting as blogging about changing diapers. And describing the fun of restacking the boxes in the storage container that toppled over again last week gets old, too.

Of course, in the middle of the animal and storage chores there's been the excitement of bringing on two new team members and watching the team begin to make some new contacts.

Last weekend brought some new tangles that I haven't blogged about in a while--if ever.  A local discount store named Gabe's had a sidewalk sale last Thursday and when I arrived at the store I saw a dozen beautiful cartons of jewelry sitting there.  This jewelry from Express and New York & Company is either tangled, mismatched, or in need of repair.  You can fill a quart sized bag with all you can stuff in it for $5.00.

I spent a few hours combing through the boxes look for bunches of tangled necklaces that would likely be in perfect shape when untangled.  I left with two bags and spent some fun hours over the weekend beginning the untangling process.  It's kind of like doing a puzzle and surprisingly therapeutic.

I have 155 beautiful pieces already untangled and ready to go and there's plenty still to do.  Not bad for a ten dollar investment.

And, my weekend also included a visit from a blog reader from Canada who visited Erie to shop and to bring me a donation of 200 stuffed animals.  This was exciting and helped make up for my less-than-stellar morning at yard sales.  So encouraging!

And...the other weekend entertainment involved preparing for Monday night's team meeting.  We had 13 team members gather last night and enjoyed getting to know each other a bit better and doing some role playing to help us prepare for sharing the mission of Operation Christmas Child with people we meet in checkout lines, at church rummage sales, at yard sales, and in our churches and neighborhoods.

After all, it's going to take each of us doing our part to meet the goals on our ministry plan.

Meanwhile, I'm beginning those summer rituals of lying awake at night thinking about the packing party that's less than four months away...

But...those tangles are old news.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Long Sprint

Can you stand one more racing analogy?  Today I ran (and here I use that term loosely) another 5k race.

I know I've been running markedly slower lately, but today's finish was slower than even my normal runs around the block.  It was the worst finish ever for a 5k--not only marking the longest time but also finishing in tears with my tongue literally sticking to the roof of my mouth.  Sorry, that may fall into the 'too much information' category.

There were a few extenuating circumstances that contributed to making this race tough, but I'll spare you the details.  I asked God to help me learn something about perseverance in this race by not stopping to walk.

But...walk I did.

The first mile went well and was faster than I expected but my mouth was dry already.  By the time I hit the water stop I had to walk so I could drink every drop in my cup.  And, there's something about walking in a race.  It's like giving into temptation; when you do it once it's easier to do it again.

So I kept throwing in some walk breaks and I just couldn't seem to get past my thirst.  I finally stopped to drink at a water fountain I spotted at about the 2 mile mark.

When I saw the 3 mile marker I decided to pull out my best sprint (this time I use the term VERY loosely.)  I knew I could pick up my pace for that last tenth of a mile.

That's where it got tough.  I tried to keep pushing but that last tenth had to be measured WAY longer than it should have been.  Seriously.  And we just seemed to keep running around a curve so I couldn't see the finish line anywhere.

By the time I finally saw it, tears were streaming down my face and all I could think of was WATER. You know, it's very hard to sob and run at the same time.  Somehow I made it over the line.

I was first in my age group. In all honesty, I must tell you I was the only one in my age group.  Still, I feel I earned that participation medal and coupon for a free Arby's sandwich.  Neither of those could compare to the bottle of water I begged for at the end of the race.

As I sat wobbling with my back against a tree guzzling that water, I thought again about how that race compares to life.

Maybe some of you thought you were close to the finish on a really hard season of life but it just won't seem to end.  You keep putting one foot in front of the other.  You try to sprint to get it to go by faster, yet you still can't see the finish.  Your strength is fading and you feel like you're dying of thirst.  And the tears come, followed by the sobs.

Man, I feel for you.  My race this morning ended in just 33 lonnnnggggg minutes, but yours may have been extending for months or years.  I encourage you to keep putting one foot in front of the other.  Don't try to anticipate the finish line.  Trust that God knows where it is and just keep moving forward step by step in His strength, depending on the Living Water.

That sprint (or crawl) may be much longer than you thought it would be, but there's a prize at the end.  God's pleasure in you when you finish the race will be much better than an Arby's coupon.

And that's a measurement you can count on.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Casual Prayers

Don't you just love this picture of Elias?  His family is blessing me by storing bags of stuffed animals we've purchased for our Operation Christmas Child packing party.  When Elias's mom told me how excited he was about all those animals I suggested she ask him to pray and ask God to match each one with just the right child to receive it in his or her shoebox.  And Elias did just that.

I've been thinking a lot about prayer over the past year or so and wondering at the mystery of it.  How can I make my prayer more 'effectual' and 'fervent' as James 5:16 mentions?

Meanwhile, I'm amazed at how God answers even those casual prayers that seem anything but fervent.  A few days ago I received a Facebook message from Kim who, with her husband and two young children, left a few months ago to serve as missionaries in Cameroon.

Kim wrote, "Really neat! We have friends over here that run a children's home. We have gone out there a few times. Thursday, Andrew and Emily went out for their kids' club. They got to witness the children receiving their Operation Christmas Child gifts. They said it was really neat!"  

Last year Kim and her children faithfully worked to bag soap and make jump ropes for our packing party, and I was excited to hear they got to see shoeboxes being distributed.  But it was hours later when I remembered that some months ago when I heard they were leaving for Cameroon I'd prayed for them to see some connection with Operation Christmas Child.  I prayed a casual prayer-- once--maybe twice--and then never prayed again.  Still, God remembered.  

A few months ago as I was preparing to go speak at a church I realized I didn't own a skirt that could be paired with any of my OCC shirts, so I casually prayed for one.  I forgot about that prayer until this week when I was working at a local clothing pantry and found a perfect skirt and brought it home.  When I tried it on and discovered it fit perfectly I remembered my prayer and thanked God for His answer. 

I was blessed with an email this morning from a young friend and prayer partner who blesses me in so many ways.  Back in August I wrote a blog asking readers to pray for her dad who needed a job.  (you can read that by clicking here.)  Maybe you read that blog and stopped for a few seconds to pray.  If you did, thank you, because in this morning's email my friend shared that after months of waiting and searching her dad just started his new job.  

I have to admit I am not very organized when it comes to my prayer life.  I don't keep a prayer journal to record each request.  There are some heavy burdens I pray about nearly daily and even multiple times during my day.  Some people I pray for regularly and some only when God brings them to mind.  

And there are many of those casual prayers--so many I honestly don't even remember--the ones I pray so often as I scroll through Facebook.  Though I am not always effectual or fervent in prayer, our faithful God still hears, remembers, and blesses more than I could possibly realize.  

Even our casual prayers matter... 

(sorry for this white background on the text...I've tried numerous times to fix it...if someone could tell me why this happens every time I copy and paste into Blogspot I'd be ever so grateful)

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Penney's Provisions

Day by day we pray for God to provide all the items we need to bless as many children as possible through our Operation Christmas Child packing party.  I've been especially praying this year for the quality of our boxes to be even better.  I'm asking God to make each box a blessing for the child who receives it--a worthy representation of His love.

It always amazes me to see how God provides, and today He really surprised me.

After breakfast at our local Chick-fil-A, my media coordinator, Pam, and I decided to stop at Penney's.  They advertised they'd be handing out coupons at the door for $10, $20, or $100 off. Now, we weren't sure if those coupons were to be used on a larger purchase or if they'd be the coveted ones that could be used almost as cash to buy items for the entire amount.

We drove to Penney's in our separate vehicles, and I arrived first, hurried into the store and got my coupon.  When I opened it, I was stunned to find it was for $100 off $100 or more!  I went back to the store employee who handed it to me and she excitedly called her supervisor to say, "We have a winner!"  I could hardly wait to get started on our shopping spree.

But, wait...it gets better!

When Pam got her coupon, hers was also for $100!  Only 2 out of 100 coupons were $100 ones and, by God's provision, we each got one.

We started looking for the best bargains possible so we could bless as many children as we could.  We started in the children's department and scoured every sale rack.  Unfortunately we couldn't find many low-priced sale items, but we did find some cute fleece pajama pants for $2.97 and a few shirts that were $3.59.

We checked the washcloths--too expensive at $5.99--and then headed down to the men's and women's departments.  It took us nearly two hours to complete our search of all the sale racks in every department.  Finally we found a great sale area in the misses' department with racks of nice brand name sweaters--including some Liz Claiborne--for $3.97 each.

Then it was off to the checkout.

Strategically, we worked together and used one coupon first, then regrouped and recounted and went to another register with the second coupon.  We watched carefully to be sure all the sale prices rang up properly.

Ultimately, God allowed us to walk out with high quality clothing items to bless another 56 children--

and, thanks to Penney's, we only paid a couple of hundred pennies (well, we didn't really give them pennies I was just trying to be clever.)

Thank You, God, for answering our prayers in such a unique (and FUN) way.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Packing & Planting

Today I was watching the Exponential Conference via live stream and listening to Mark Batterson, Brian Houston, and Matt Chandler speak to church planters.  As I listened to the vision being cast for taking Jesus to those who don't know Him, I started to feel sad and a little guilty that I'm not involved in church planting.

I attend a church that believes in a multi-site structure and has started two satellite churches.  I guess that qualifies as church planting.  But I'm not really involved in that, and, truthfully, my involvement with Operation Christmas Child keeps me so busy I don't serve much in my local church.

But as those sneaky thoughts of guilt played around in my brain, I suddenly realized the precious shoeboxes we're blessed to pack through Operation Christmas Child are the very tools often used to plant seeds that grow into church plants around the world in many different countries.

These sweet kiddos in the picture are some of the 70 graduates from The Greatest Journey discipleship course at a church in Colombia.  I was blessed to be there last May to see them get their diplomas and New Testaments.  The pastor told us they'd planted the church six years ago and never had more than four children in their children's program until they had an Operation Christmas Child shoebox distribution last spring followed by the discipleship course.  Now these 70 children brought their families to their graduation ceremony and that Sunday morning 25 people made decisions to follow Jesus.

Since I was a child I've had a heart for missions and as I was growing up I affirmed I would be a missionary nurse to Nepal.  Instead, I struggled with clinical nursing--only working three years full-time after graduation--and got married and had three children.  I never went to the mission field and after struggling on several short-term mission trips it's pretty clear to me I don't have gifting in cross-cultural ministry.  I've always felt a sense of failure about that.

Then along came Operation Christmas Child and our merciful God was able to marry my love for missions with my love for bargain shopping and allow me to come alongside Him to minister to children around the world without leaving my own city.  How great is that!

I read a great quote by Craig Greenfield this week: "I have found that if I pray for God to move a mountain, I must be prepared to wake up next to a shovel."  I've prayed for decades for God to move the mountains and turn people's hearts to Jesus and now, through Operation Christmas Child, God handed me a shovel.  Isn't it marvelous that He invites us into this work with Him?

In 1 Corinthians 3:6,7 Paul wrote, "I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.  So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything but God who causes the growth."

The speakers I heard today had some advice that applies to any ministry.  Brian Houston from Hillsong encouraged his listeners to be themselves and not try to replicate someone else's ministry.  That's so true in our Operation Christmas Child lives also.

God has work for you and He has work for me, and only by His grace He causes growth.  We may not get to see the harvest but we'll keep packing and planting in faith.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Counting Down The Zoo

In my favorite movie "Facing The Giants" the story is told of a farmer who prayed for rain but also prepared his fields to receive it.  So...as we pray for God to rain down stuffed animals on us I've been preparing by cleaning my attic to give me more storage space.

We visited our daughter this weekend and picked up the 365 stuffed animals she scored at Walmart after Easter in her area.  I sorted and bagged them last evening.  As close as I can figure, I think we still need about 21,650 more animals.  At this time last year we needed 22,700 so we're actually a little bit further ahead this year.

Still, if our packing party ends up being in September (still don't have that date confirmed now) we have less than five months to collect.  That means collecting over 1,000 animals on average each week.  Or maybe God will provide them all in the last week so we don't have to store them.  We are praying and trusting Him.

This photo from the Samaritan's Purse website illustrates how much these stuffed animals mean to the children who receive them.  This little girl carried her new bear around all day at the recent Operation Christmas Child shoebox distribution.  

As I sort and count stuffed animals I often pause over them to pray for each child who will receive them--asking God to begin now to open their hearts and the hearts of their families to receive the love  of Jesus.

Meanwhile, we've also been praying for more members for our prayer team.  Just this weekend God blessed us with another new application and leads on a couple of other potential members.  Please pray with us for a Prayer Mobilization Coordinator and a strong prayer team to intercede for us.

And...all but one person on our team have completed their recommitments to the team for another year.

Now I'm gearing up for tomorrow night's area team meeting where we will hopefully approve our 2016 ministry plan as well as meet as individual teams, spend some time praying together, and celebrate our completed affirmations with pizza.

When we all get crammed into my house a meeting can be a zoo, too, but I'm still counting down to it.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Sunny Day

Last Saturday we had April snow showers, but this Saturday we were blessed with bright sunshine and temps that climbed into the 60s.  A lot of couples were probably doing yard work or washing their cars, but we ended up at the storage container.

It's kind of a trickle down effect.  I couldn't clear the extra stuff out of the house until we made some room in the storage container.

Jim helped me make a decision about the 40 or so cartons of plastic cups--the most recent delivery that has been causing a bottleneck.  I'd been on the fence about whether to open all the cartons and inspect and count the cups before finally storing them.  After thinking it through, we decided today to just store them until the packing party.  I guess it doesn't make sense to handle them several times--even though I do like to have those sorting jobs done in advance of the packing party if I can.

So with that decision made it didn't take all that long to get things moved around.  Everything's walled in now, though--so I will not be able to share any extra items until after our packing party.

After a few hours it looks much better and I'm feeling relieved--what a gift!

And tonight I did a cursory tally of our stuffed animals.  I think we have nearly 4,000 now, so we just need to pray for another 22,000.  And, while we're at it, we'd better pray for a place to keep them.

I have 14 bags of stuffed animals in spare bedrooms that are going to the basement of one of our gracious team members.  Anyone else want to host a zoo?