Saturday, February 11, 2017

Counting Miracles--On The Ball from 2004

I'm thinking today about miracles.  I've been packing Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes for over 22 years now and in those decades God has performed so many miracles to provide each of the items to fill them.  And I'm sure I don't have an inkling of even a portion of them.

Over a decade ago--before the advent of Facebook and blogging--I wrote some of the stories of those miracles.  A few years ago I unearthed some of them and immortalized them in blog posts here, but it's been some time since I posted one.

The miracles then involved tens or hundreds of items whereas God's miracles now tend to range from the hundreds of items to thousands or even tens of thousands.  But each miracle is a story of God's grace and provision--a proof of His goodness.

This morning I prayed again for God's provision for our 2017 packing party and this afternoon I got a text from my friend Lisa who lives out of state but collects stuffed animals for us here in Erie.  She just got a donation of 500 Beanie Babies!  Yep--another miracle.

So...for all of you Walmart shoppers--here's a miracle from 2004 God used to help us pack a total of 1,780 boxes --

Having A Ball-2004
            “Are you a teacher?” the pleasant woman in the line behind me at Wal-Mart inquires, staring at the 112 boxes of crayons stacked in my shopping cart.
            “No,” I chuckle as I launch into my well-practiced reply, “our church packs shoeboxes full of gifts to send to kids in other countries for Christmas.”   I’m used to getting questions about the contents of my shopping cart.
            “Oh, that’s neat.  I wondered what you were doing with all those.”
            I heft the last carton of twenty-four boxes of crayons onto the counter and watch the cashier gamely count the stacked rows.  Soon she finishes and begins to ring up the purchase on her register.  While the machine tallies my total, she turns and asks, “What kinds of things do you put in the boxes?”
            “Well,” I answer, as I scan my credit card, “school supplies, hygiene items, toys--anything that will fit in a good-sized shoebox, really.”
            “Did you see the baseballs that are on sale?  There’s twelve in a case for a dollar!” she says in an incredulous voice. 
            “No! Do they have any more?  Where are they?”  I’m rapid-firing questions like some police interrogator.
            “I don’t know,” she admits, “but someone came through my line a little bit ago with a pack of them.  I couldn’t believe how cheap they were.” 
            I sign my name on the credit slip and heave the bags into my cart, oblivious to the crayon boxes scattering inside them as I concentrate on this new elusive treasure—twelve baseballs for a dollar!   I turn to the cashier, “Hey, thanks for telling me.  I’m gonna put these in the car and come back in to take a look.”  Then I turn to the woman in line behind me and add, “Thanks for being patient.”
            “No problem,” she smiles with a shake of her head.
            I hustle to the car, dump the crayons in the trunk, and speed-push my cart back through the entrance doors, ignoring the Wal-Mart greeter in my haste.  Breezing to the toy department, I cruise up and down the aisles with my clearance-tag-radar on high alert.  No flashes of red sale tags here.
            Next I beat it over to the sporting goods department.  Let’s see—golf balls, footballs—no baseballs.  Where next?  I round the corner, head into a main thoroughfare and nearly hit a display of bright yellow tennis balls. I glance up to read the price sign—YIKES! $1.00!  I pick up one of the shrink-wrapped packages and my eyes glow when I see that it holds THREE cans and each contains three brand-new, brand-name tennis balls—nine balls for only $1.00! 
            I start to salivate but am careful not to drool as I toss packages into my cart.  Wait a minute.  I need to be more organized or I won’t be able to fit them all in.  With a view toward space utilization, I neatly stack the packages and manage to fit all forty of them into my cart. 
            Now where are the baseballs?
            I use my calf muscles to overcome the heavy cart’s inertia and force it around the next corner.  Aha!  Here, with their red tags gleaming like diamonds in the sun, are a row of shelves full of clearance items.
            And on the second row I see them.  The baseballs.
            Nine packages remain—that’s nine dozen baseballs for only $9.00--and I move fast to balance them on top of Tennis Ball Mountain before someone else sees them and wants to buy a pack. 
            I struggle toward the cash registers, stopping every few feet to re-position my baseball pyramid.  Other shoppers turn to look, but I don’t care.  I won the jackpot.   As I push the cart back into the line of my friendly tip-sharing cashier buddy, a passing shopper comments, “You probably don’t even know how to play the game.”
            “Ha!  You’re right!” I giggle.  I’m not embarrassed.  I’m euphoric.
            Once again I start to toss my bounty onto the counter, and the cashier smiles.  “So, you found them,” she says.
            “Yep, and I found 360 tennis balls, too.  This is just such a blessing and an answer to prayer.  I pray every day to find things to put in these shoeboxes, and because of you, 468 kids will each have a new ball to play with.” 
            Her smile brightens up a few notches, “Well, I’m glad I could help.”
            I smile back. 
            We’re both having a ball.



Sunday, January 29, 2017

Days Fly By

Nothing much is supposed to happen in our Operation Christmas Child world in January. We don't even have to complete a monthly report for our team until February is over.  So why have the past few weeks seemed so busy?

Here's a little montage of what's been going on this month. On January 9th we had our first team meeting.  We celebrated the shoebox total God blessed us with in 2016.  The 50,306 boxes were a bit under our prayed-for goal of 51,500 but it was a victory nonetheless. We enjoyed praising Him together and sharing vision for 2017.

Two days later I made a trip to an outlying thrift store to collect 120 stuffed animals and did some shopping off and on through the next week to score some great items for our 2017 shoeboxes, including these cute red shoes.

The next week brought a few meetings with amazing good news of answered prayer--more storage available at a local church and a new Church Relations Coordinator for our team.

Then there was another delivery at our storage container.  God gave me a clear day for the delivery

And everything was going great with my efforts to get things reorganized in the container and get the new delivery stored until...the 10 cartons of toothbrushes I'd stacked toppled over on my head.

No harm, though--just had to do some restacking in the criss-cross log style.

A few days later we had another fun opportunity with a mini shoebox packing party and jump rope assembly session with some middle school students from our Erie City's Mission's Urban University program.  Pam and I set up for them to pack 25 boxes and they completed 800 jump ropes for next fall's packing party.

They viewed the video of shoebox recipient, Alex, who got his shoebox in Rwanda.  Alex later came to live in the US but years later returned to Rwanda and was able to visit and forgive the man who killed his relatives.  The students were really impacted by Alex's story and the chance to help children who are needier than they.

And...two days later I was off to this weekend's Mid-Atlantic Area Coordinators' Planning Summit.  What a blessing it was to celebrate our Mid-Atlantic shoebox number.

Again, we didn't quite reach the prayed-for goal of 1,255,255 but we praised God for the victory and spent lots of time learning about exciting new OCC initiatives that we pray will bring more shoeboxes to children waiting around the world.

Saturday night was especially exciting as we had the opportunity to hear from Dania, a shoebox recipient who received her shoebox in the middle east.  You can never tire of hearing these stories of how God miraculously provides for children and families through simple boxes.  Dania and her family prayed for a radio and you can guess what she received in her box.  Here's Dania in the middle and Jaki, another shoebox recipient, on the left.  I wanted to get a picture with them so I could feel tall.

Our area team formed in May of 2007, and that's when I became an area coordinator.  Since I'm not quite to that ten-year mark I was surprised to be presented with a plaque for ten years as an AC and humbled to realize God's graciously allowed our team to received almost 349,000 boxes in this decade.

It was hard to leave all the area coordinator friends I see so seldom, but God answered more prayer by keeping the roads dry until I hit the snow an hour from home.  January travel in northwestern PA is always unpredictable so it was a real blessing to have an easy trip.

When I settled in to check my email I found another surprise--an email from a 12-year old girl in Ukraine who received one of the boxes I packed last fall.  Those winter boots I picked up on sale found a good home with her.

God is so faithful and this flying-by month has certainly become more exciting.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

January Again

It's January. Again.

For many reasons I often struggle to find joy in January. It's the beginning of a new year that should have bright hope on the horizon.  Instead, I see myself back at the bottom of the mountain deciding where to even start to make the ascent. The year's challenges loom large and make me want to curl up under warm covers and hibernate.

In my Operation Christmas Child world there is change--some beloved staff members and volunteers have left and a few new ones have come.  Change is inevitable and embraced by some but generally not by me.  I like my status quo and, admittedly, would probably have also been content to stay in Egypt--thank you very much.

I've been trying to prepare for our first Operation Christmas Child area team meeting on Monday--in just two days.  So I looked up the ministry plan template for 2017 and found it's significantly changed. Did I say how I feel about change?  How do I figure out what my total number of team members was for 2015 and for 2016 when they come and go throughout the year?  I need to work to see change as improvement instead of just--dreaded change...

God's blessed me with so much lately--lots of shoebox items provided, for example. And I just spent a couple days watching live stream of the Passion 2017 conference--inspiring (but daunting.)

Still I struggle--especially with my sinful attitude toward a fellow Christian. I try to repent but can't seem to let go of this sin and give grace to this person. I pray. Well, I try to pray. God help me.

It's time to set our team's shoebox goal for 2017. I've been praying about that, too. God, will you show us what Your goal is? I'm so tempted to prognosticate based on the number of boxes we can see packed in our own power instead of trusting You for Your provision.  How do we measure 'immeasurably more'?

And yesterday I heard of another fellow OCC volunteer who is leaving. Quitting always looks so very tempting in January.  Almost every January.

If you're reading this, will you stop and say a quick prayer for Operation Christmas Child volunteers and staff and shoebox packers all over this country?  Pray for us to persevere if God is calling us to persevere--to throw off the sin that so easily besets us and run with patience the race that is set before us.

Because.  It's January.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

You Just Never Know

I've been praying for more than a few weeks about this delivery of eight pallets of shoebox items coming for our 2017 Operation Christmas Child packing party and finally...

Today was the day...

Considering it is December 27 in Erie, PA, God answered our prayers for great weather. It was windy and 34 degrees but the pavement was dry and there was no snow when those eight pallets got dropped this morning.  And God provided an amazing crew of a lucky 13 volunteers to unload those pallets. just never know.

I was worried those pallets would be open boxes containing the 28,416 pairs of shoelaces and 10,950 belts.  I was prepared to put them into cartons for storage in the container.

As it turns out, the shoelaces not only arrived in individual small boxes but were also packed in even smaller boxes of six inside those outer boxes.  I knew they'd have to be removed from that packaging before the packing party.  I wasn't planning to do that today. just never know.

While I was opening and inspecting the three pallets of cartons of belts (also surprisingly in individual cartons instead of one big box) I wasn't really paying attention to the volunteers who were toting all those individual boxes of shoelaces into the church gym so they could begin opening them and putting them into larger cartons.

It feels like the storage container is shrinking.  We got the cases of belts stored for future processing.  They are great quality and fun colors but I'm worried that if we take them out of their compact packaging before the packing party they'll take up too much storage room.

Still pondering this belt dilemma, I walked into the gym to find the scene above that made me gulp. This impromptu work day was unanticipated and the piles of hundreds of boxes seemed
overwhelming. just never know.

Those busy volunteers kept working.  After a few hours they'd managed to box up about 10,000 of the 28,416 pairs of laces but it was apparent we couldn't finish this job today.  So we strategized about how to clean up and make plans to complete the job another time. Unopened boxes were toted back to the storage container and lined up against other items that also still need to be processed.  Thankfully, there's still a narrow walkway in the container.

Cardboard was broken down for recycling.  Pam filled her little blue car with cartons of different-sized cartons of purple shoelaces to take home to process.  We filled our van with cardboard and still more cartons of laces.

Those weeks of prayers were answered beyond what I ever anticipated.  Once again I look at the stacks in the storage container and realize there are nine more months until the packing party.  When I find the next big deal what will I do?  It's hard to imagine there's space for much more. just never know.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Last Minute Gifts

Now, how did I manage to let more than two weeks slip by without posting an update?  You know how busy it gets in this holiday season.

Since the last time I wrote we enjoyed a few days of volunteering at the Baltimore (BWI) Processing Center and even got the chance to inspect some boxes from right here in Northwestern PA.

It was hard to leave there at the end of our three days, but the leaving was soothed by a special gift we were able to pick up on our way home--a donation of over 3,000 new Beanie Babies.  They're not counted yet so I don't have an exact number.  It was wonderful how God worked out every detail of that pick-up.

Today I decided to give myself a last-minute gift.  I can procrastinate with the best of them, so over the years I've found a little trick to help me get motivated when I'm stalled.  I tell myself I'll do that task I've been dreading as a gift to myself.  I tell myself I'll clean the house so I can enjoy it.  I'll finish a project that's been hanging over my head and call it a gift to me.

So today I gave myself the gift of spending some time organizing in our storage container.  It was a bit warmer today (37 degrees) so I was able to make it for three hours.  My loving husband came to help me out for part of the time, and that made the work go much faster.

I feel so much better now that I've made some headway in counting and stashing at least some of the donations we got in early December.  Now I can separate packages of socks and count and store them as a real Christmas gift.

As a bonus, I'm more ready for next Tuesday's upcoming delivery of eight pallets of shoebox fillers.  We've been praying for this one for a few weeks now, and I'm eager to see how God will "part the waters" and bring all the volunteers we need and give us a good weather day to work outside.

Meanwhile, I think about the gift of the birth of our Savior.  It was no surprise to God that His Son was born in uncomfortable circumstances--surrounded by animals and stench.  Some of God's best gifts seem to come that way--out of not only discomfort but often real longing or pain.

So as we wait once more to celebrate that Holiest of nights let's praise Him for the hardships, the unmet expectations, the labor, and the muck of life that draws us to the best gift of all....

Him.  Only Him.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Last Gift

If you knew your life was ebbing away how would you spend your last weeks?  A couple of months ago Mary (not her real name) got some awful, deadly news.  She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  She knew that outside of a miracle her life on earth wouldn't last much longer.

For years Mary has been a passionate Operation Christmas Child supporter and shoebox packer.  Each year she uses greeting card and calendar pictures to carefully decorate each of the 100 or so boxes she packs.  She plans them and prays over them.

This year her prayer was that she'd complete her boxes before she completed the race of her life.  Mary's daughter came to be with her in mid-November and tried to help her pack those boxes.  Her daughter grew tired, but Mary persisted.

Our shoebox drop-off logs record that Mary brought her 125 boxes to the relay center on November 16th.  Eight days later, on Thanksgiving Day, Mary went to be with Jesus.

She left behind a legacy of not only hundreds of children who have been touched by her shoeboxes but also a supply of collected items destined for future boxes.  Mary's wish was to donate these items so more boxes could be packed and more children blessed.

I had the privilege of being chosen to steward these items.  Mary's daughter predicted we would need a box truck to transport everything.  I had my doubts.  After all, if you're packing 100 or so boxes a much space could the leftovers consume?

My husband and I made the hour drive in our minivan last Saturday.  Mary's daughter wasn't kidding.  She'd moved all the items to the garage so they'd all be together.  We were amazed at the stacks.

We filled our van and promised to return later with a larger vehicle.  On our way home we discussed Mary's legacy and decided this first load should go to a woman in our area about Mary's age who packs several thousand boxes in her home.  It seemed fitting.

So we dropped that first load off in Rose's garage.  Bags of socks and boxes of notebooks and toothbrushes and purses and toy cars and crayons.  Enough to get Rose started on her 2017 boxes.

Over the weekend we made arrangements to borrow a truck and recruited Bob and Myron to volunteer to go with us.  On Monday we made the trip again and hauled everything back to our storage container.

There's still a lot to sort through but I know God has good plans for each item.  Boxes that Mary has already carefully decorated are going to the processing center to be used at the Shoebox Hospital.  Some boxes of coloring books, jump ropes, and stuffed animals are headed to a last-minute packing party in Maryland.  And there will be plenty saved for our 2017 packing party, too.

As I sifted through a box of Mary's shoebox records for the past years--written on scrap envelopes--I saw her legacy carried out as she planned the contents of her boxes...

When she wrote those lists she had no idea how many shoebox packing seasons God would give her. When she bought all the items that filled those boxes she didn't know her time would be shortened.

But Mary was faithful.  She planned and purchased and prayed.  And though her earthly shoebox packing is completed her legacy the hearts of those who knew her and in the hearts of the children who never knew her but owe her so much.

The box pictured above was found in the middle of Mary's shoebox stash.  We're not sure when it was completed but even as she packed it God knew it would be her last.  I'm taking it to the Baltimore Processing Center tomorrow.  I know God has a special girl already picked out to receive it.

What a gift...

Monday, November 28, 2016

Not Over Yet?

National Collection Week is over...and I am done with the 2016 shoebox packing.  We ended up with 1,271 boxes packed in our home since the packing party in September and they're all safely on their way.

I did some totals this weekend and was, as always, amazed by God's goodness.  Because of generous donations from a few people this year I ended up spending $309.85 less than I spent in 2015 while packing, by God's grace, 1,131 more boxes.  God math is always so incredible.

All year long we've prayed toward our goal of 51,500 boxes here in Northwestern PA.  We didn't quite make it to the goal but we are rejoicing that God provided 50,306 boxes--3,010 more than last year.  I'm trying to give myself some time to just enjoy that but it's hard to stop wondering what God wants our goal to be for 2017.

I'm feeling sad about not being at the Operation Christmas Child processing center in Baltimore to work this season.  On the other hand, it was good to be home through the end of National Collection Week--to be at some of the sites to visit volunteers and to rejoice and pray with those who were bringing their boxes.

I spent some time on Thanksgiving morning looking up churches that have Facebook pages and writing thank you messages to them for their boxes.  In the past two years while I was at the PC I didn't even have my drop-off logs to look at until I got home.

I feel I've been in some sort of shoebox-induced fog for the past few months.  I've managed to miss a lot of important messages.  I somehow missed an email with hotel information for volunteering at the PC and also never saw any information about signing up to volunteer as a Prayer Walker at the PC.  I don't even know what else I may have missed.

Today my collection center coordinator who lives 1.5 hours away drove to pick up 14 leftover shoeboxes from one of her relay centers and brought them to me.  We arranged to meet for lunch with our husbands and had a great time.  As they were getting ready to drive away I looked in my car, saw the 9 straggling shoeboxes I'd been given at church yesterday, and realized I never got the shoeboxes from her!  Fortunately we caught them in time.  A real 'senior moment' for all of us.  Yes--the leftover shoebox count is up to 23.

And that's after getting those final stragglers at the end of National Collection Week.  We had all the paper work completed by late Monday afternoon and the truck was ready to be pulled early Tuesday morning.  Then on Monday evening I got a call that one of the relay centers had accepted 115 boxes.  The poor relay center coordinator couldn't fit them in her car so my husband and I ended up making the hour drive to get them.  On the way, two deer suddenly appeared in the highway in front of us but God allowed Jim to drive right between them.  We had some thumps and fur on both sides of the car but, praise God, no damage.  We got those 115 boxes safely stowed at the collection center waiting for early morning light, then got another call at 8:30 pm from someone who had 83 boxes and missed the collection hours.  She brought her boxes in the morning and we got them on the truck with 10 minutes to spare.  Just think of all that fun we would have missed if we'd been at the processing center.

Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday gave me a chance to do some shoebox shopping and I came home with bags of towels--17 bath towels and 68 hand towels for 2017 shoeboxes.  The bath towels rolled up tightly will fit in a GO box with plenty of extra room.

I thought I'd try making the hand towels into little bears but I lack crafting talent...

Someone graciously offered to make the bears for me but I ended up deciding it might be better to just put them in the box as is so the child can actually use the towel.

Well, I just got a text message that another relay center coordinator has 11 leftover boxes waiting to go to the processing center.  We're still praying for our regional, national, and international goals...'s not over yet...