Monday, September 26, 2011

Water to Wine & God's Everlasting Love

The Operation Christmas Child packing party is over and the post-packing-party letdown is a little like the day after Christmas itself. I'm surrounded by the messy aftermath of a jumbled storage container and trying to figure out the logistics of packing the leftover items into more boxes.

I slogged through the day at school and drove home dreading the chaos I'd see when I opened the door at home. Instead, when I walked through that door the first thing I saw was a beautiful bouquet of flowers. My husband knows better than to send me flowers. I'm a practical person who'd much rather have a pizza dinner than flowers.

So I pulled the card from the envelope and saw no name--only this note "May the beauty of the flowers be a reminder of God's everlasting love." Tears welled up because, yes, they are a reminder of God's love. They aren't practical but they are a balm to the soul.

They make me think of Jesus' first miracle--turning water into wine. The people at that party didn't need wine (whether it was alcoholic or not). They had perfectly good water to drink. Yet Jesus chose to bless them with something they didn't need--something unnecessary that would bring them pleasure and show His amazing love for them as well as His divine power to change the ordinary into the extraordinary.

That's really what our Operation Christmas Child boxes do, too. People sometimes ask me why I don't invest all this energy and passion into something like drilling wells or feeding the hungry. And I do contribute to Samaritan's Purse and other relief agencies who do those things.

Yet there's something about a treasured shoebox gift that brings love and hope, and those are just as necessary--maybe even more so--than food and water. When I saw my gift today--those flowers--I was filled with God's love and hope. I think I got a new glimpse of how those children feel when they see a gift packed by an unknown giver and realize, "someone was thinking of me."

I hope the bestower of my gorgeous bouquet is reading this. I hope you know how loved I feel today--by you and by God. I hope you know how much this symbol of God's everlasting love means in my life.

Because hope and love are what life is made of.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


Blogs are supposed to be short but I may fail at that rule as I post about our Operation Christmas Child packing party yesterday here in Erie, PA. After a few hours of sleep I was ready to leave for the church at 6:30 am when I got a message telling me the man who was going to run sound for us was ill. I was already in prayer mode so I told God I was waiting on His plan.

Got to church at 7:00 to get the chance to fill with helium some of those balloons I've been moving from place to place at my house. A few balloon bunches really dressed up the space and while working to place them in the worship center, we were blessed to have someone who knows how to run the sound board 'just walk in' as an answer to prayer. When he turned on the sound, guess what was playing? "Bless the Lord oh my soul." Not an accident in my book.

Don't you just love looking at these cartons all lined up like cubbies waiting to be filled with boxes. I prayed over them and asked God to let our volunteers fit 23 into each of them so we'd have room on the truck

Then when enough volunteers arrived we head out together and marched the 7th lap around the building of our symbolic Jericho march and claimed God's victory over the day. Before long volunteer training was underway and we enjoyed Chick-fil-A breakfast.

We finished the looping Operation Christmas Child videos in the worship center and then started the day together at 9:10. After explaining OCC and showing a hilarious 'silent movie' version training video we assigned jobs to volunteers and then got the packing line moving shortly before 9:30.

Looking at this hallway of boxes waiting to be filled reminds me of the children who are waiting to receive them. I was a bit concerned about not having enough volunteers in the beginning but they drifted in through the morning and the lines kept moving. Even though we were behind last year's times, I realized that God was gracious in allowing us time for volunteers to learn to get the cartons filled without being pressured with too many boxes at once.

Almost every room of the church was being used--one for bagging crayons, one for stapling paper, two for folding boxes and labeling. And the neat thing is that ministry was happening in each of those areas. People were connecting and loving on each other. It was beautiful to see.

We'd only packed 4800 boxes by 11:30 when we moved everyone to the worship center to hear Oxana Moore speak.

Oxana received a shoebox as a child in Belarus and her story of what that box meant to her helped everyone to see how God uses each of these simple gifts to bring hope and love.

A TV crew and the Chick-fil-A cow came at the lunch break
but people didn't take much time to gobble down pizza and quickly went back to work. We hit the halfway point at around 1:00 and I began to think we wouldn't have enough fillers to finish the day. I thought maybe we'd only make it to 10,000 boxes. So I made my second visit to the prayer room that day and fell on my face on the floor before God--reminding Him that this was His idea and if He wanted us to get to 15,000 boxes, well, it was up to Him.

Things started moving faster as more people stepped up to fold boxes at a feverish pace. I hid out on the stage folding boxes for quite some time and made stops to bag crayons and count paper also--so happy to be out of the flow of questions--while my team handled the action.

While I'd been afraid of running out of items a few hours before, now the piles didn't seem to diminish as carton after carton was filled. Just before 4:00 we hit the 15,000 mark and at 4:06 the 53 ft. trailer (the one that was dropped in the middle of the night) was declared officially filled with 670 cartons.

Still the packing continued. We were supposed to have received 16,000 boxes but somehow we filled 16,145 white GO boxes and we'd hardly touched the 2-4 boys or girls clothing and filler supplies. Enough items remained for hundreds more boxes but we had no boxes left to fill.

God, you did it again! After a prayer over the boxes and a teary singing of the Doxology
most of the volunteers trickled out while the faithful core remained for the massive clean-up.

Having so much left over meant storing it all back in the container along with the 32 extra cartons filled with boxes. I left at 6:00 before the clean-up was over (heard they finished about 6:30) to drive to Saegertown for an OCC kick-off meeting with Oxana Moore speaking.

Another week and another day filled with more miracles than I could ever anticipate. And today I've been getting reports all day already of ways people on THIS side of the box were blessed by yesterday's packing party. God never wastes anything.

I sat in church dreaming of how we could have another packing party--maybe with clients from the City Mission or a local residential center for troubled youth. Someone will be blessed by packing the rest of this stuff into boxes.

Now we just need to get the truck pulled and the miracles are on their way. It's time for them to GO!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Ready, Set

These little girls and so many million others around the world are waiting to get an Operation Christmas Child shoebox. And now we're waiting to pack some for them.

Tomorrow is our big packing party and, by God's grace, I think we're ready. Well, all except for the truck. We have a 28 ft. truck but they're supposed to switch it out for a 53 ft. truck--hopefully even in the midnight hour tonight. It'll be exciting to see if it's there when I arrive at 7:00 tomorrow morning.

Our local Chick-fil-A is providing breakfast for our lead volunteers while we do training at 8:00 am and we're setting up the helium balloons before that.
I wish I had pictures of how neat things look. My daughter took some and hopefully I'll get them downloaded tomorrow. One of our team members is a graphic designer and she made an amazing tree out of deco boxes placed flat in a shadow display box with a sign in the form of a large star on top inviting people to take a box home and fill it.

Lots of volunteers came tonight to fold boxes and we now have 5,500 folded to start the day. They'll go fast, though, so I hope we can keep up.

Tonight I went out by myself and walked around the perimeter of the church 6 times while I prayed. Tomorrow I want to get our Prayer Coordinator to walk and pray the 7th lap with me.

We're trusting God for great things for all the children who are waiting.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

We Need 25 More Feet

This is a picture of the 53 ft. truck from last year's Operation Christmas Child packing party. We carefully figured out that if we can get 23 boxes in each carton (which we still haven't confirmed yet we can do) then we will be able to have enough space on the truck for our shoeboxes on Saturday.

That's if we have a 53 ft. truck.

We just got a confirmation e-mail from the trucking company confirming they will drop a 28 ft. PUP truck tomorrow between 9-11 am.

But we need a 53 ft. truck.

God knows we need a 53 ft. truck. And God knows I need a good night's sleep.

So I'm going to bed and trusting Him to get us a 53 ft. truck tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Carton Quandary

Another wild night of set-up for our Operation Christmas Child packing party. I never saw so much plastic and cardboard tossed around as we unpacked so many factory-packaged items. A crowd of youth came and assembled 1880 boxes, bringing our total to 2580--half way to where we want to be when the party begins.

Tonight's big quandary is the packing of cartons. I had planned to put 23 boxes into each carton. That seemed to work fine with last year's GO boxes and last year's cartons. But when we tried it tonight (see picture above) it seems like we need another half inch of space in the carton to make it work.

We only have 720 cartons and if we put only 21 boxes in each carton I don't think we'll have enough. Today I read in Isaiah 38 about how Hezekiah prayed to God when he was told he would die and God granted him another 15 years of life. So I'm going to pray that God will add at least 15 mm to each side of these cartons or subtract 15 mm from each side of the boxes so we can fit 23 in the cartons.

Have any of you had experience with this year's cartons and GO boxes yet? Is there something I'm missing?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


Another great day of preparations for our Operation Christmas Child packing party and we're counting our blessings. We're so grateful that Aaron Crossman and Tom Albert have volunteered to run sound and video for our packing party. Now we're praying for the right choice of videos to show in the morning before the packing begins.

We've been blessed with the generous contribution of commercial time from WCTL, our local radio station. I've received several e-mails already from families that are coming to the packing party because they heard about it on WCTL.

One of the local churches I've been specifically praying would decide to participate in OCC is Erie Christian Fellowship. Today I got an e-mail from their youth director telling me he's bringing his family to the packing party.
I see all these pieces of good news as direct answers to prayer. So many of you around the country have sent messages telling me you're praying and God is answering those prayers.

Tonight 8 people worked for a little over an hour to assemble 400 more boxes--a little under 1 per person per minute. That's my benchmark. I figure if we can get 50 people to fold boxes at the rate of 1 per minute, then we can assemble 1000 boxes in 20 minutes to keep up with the rate they'll be used at the packing party. Heather Rogers, our OCC team's Church Relations Coordinator, says I should have been an actuary.

Why do I love figuring out stuff like this? Let me count the ways.

Set-Up Commences

I need to get better about taking pictures of what's actually happening but I always seem to be too busy to think about it. Yesterday was our first day of set-up for our Operation Christmas Child packing party.

My husband met the truck in the morning and got the 6 pallets containing 160 cartons of flat shoeboxes and 720 cartons placed in the church Commons area. On a sad note, I found out last night that he didn't get the labels and tape that were supposed to be delivered at the same time. I really, really need those labels so I'm praying he finds them when he calls the trucking company today.

Last night Jeff Pinto and I moved all 160 cartons of boxes (weighing maybe 30 pounds each) from the Commons area to the youth rooms behind the gym. I used muscles I forgot I had and got a good workout. Not sore this morning, though, by God's grace.

Meanwhile, we had about 5 other volunteers opening cartons of coloring books, pens, pencils, etc. and we amassed a large amount of cardboard already.

Then 3 of us worked on assembling boxes. The GO boxes look so different in plain white. We said they looked like doughnut boxes and it felt like we were working in a bakery. We got 300 boxes assembled. A long way from the 5000 I'm hoping to have ready by Saturday before the party begins--but it's a start. Finding space to put them is a challenge, too.

This morning I read in Isaiah 37:36 "Then the Lord went out and put to dath a hundred and eighty-five thousand men in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning--there were all the dead bodies." God can have the victory without us--even while we're asleep.

Part of me wanted to wake up this morning and hear that God had packed all of those boxes while I was asleep. But part of me is glad that He's waiting until Saturday to move through US to get the victory.

What a joy to watch it happen again!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Empty Ark

The ark is empty! Yep, this is pretty much what our storage container looks like now. God provided a 'just right' number of volunteers who worked tirelessly for more than an hour to unload a 40 ft. long space crammed with boxes of supplies and bags of animals for our Operation Christmas Child packing party. And a donation of Beanie Babies today put us over the 16,000 mark for stuffed animals.

Someone on Facebook wanted to know what 16,000 stuffed animals look like. Well, right now they look like a mountain of garbage bags and we'll just unload them one at a time so we'll never really see all 16,000 at one time.

There were some glitches today. I found out we still need a volunteer to run sound for our speaker at the packing party, the event isn't listed on the church's website calendar, and we weren't scheduled to use the worship center. Ah, well--just more communications problems--but it will all work out, I know.

On the positive side, we had good coverage with a nice-sized article about the event in Saturday's paper and another blurb in the editorial section. We're praying that God will bring the volunteers He wants to have there.

So now the countdown begins. Every evening this week we'll be working to set up for the packing party on Saturday.

Meanwhile, the animals are glad to be out of the ark and waiting patiently for the next leg of their journey.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Paper Plus

It seems our lives are often littered with paper, but for a child in a third or fourth world country paper is often a treasure. I remember Lejla Allison describing how she used a notebook for several years as a child in Bosnia by erasing the pages with a rubber band wrapped around a stick, so I always try to put some type of paper in each box we pack for Operation Christmas Child.

This year I've been challenging people to buy reams or cases of filler paper and we're getting volunteers to count out and staple packets of paper. Notebooks are preferable, but in the volume we do it's been hard to find enough of them at a good price.

When it comes to providing things for these precious boxes, I love how God amazes and amuses me all at the same time. Two weeks ago I got a hot tip on buying composition notebooks online at WalMart. The deal was for 40 cents for a 5-pack of notebooks--only 8 cents each. I was able to place an online order for 103 5-packs at one WalMart and 125 at another. But when I went to pick them up I got nothing but frustration and hassle. They wouldn't honor my order and I left without any notebooks, chalking it up to the "if it sounds too good to be true..." axiom.

Fast forward to this week when Target discounted their school supplies to 75% off. On Wednesday I got a tip from a Facebook friend and cruised up to Target to get 384 spiral-bound notebooks for only 5 cents each. While I was loading my cart I noticed they had shelves full of composition books priced at 10 cents each. Too pricey for me, but if they ever came down to 90% off they'd be 4 cents each and I'd be able to scarf up a great deal.

On Thursday I stopped at Target again to get items that were 70-75% off on the Dollar Spot area and I checked again on the composition books--still 10 cents.

This morning I went in and found the shelves of school supplies empty. Horrified, I scurried to find a manager. First contact called by the service desk was Heather, the front end manager. She said they were probably salvaged out and given to charity. With uncharacteristic boldness I asked her how I could get our charity on that list.

That brought a call to Jim, the manager. He said school supplies wouldn't be salvaged but kept until they were sold. He said they must have been moved somewhere else in the store and if I could find them he'd give me a great deal on them. The hunt was on!

I checked the stationery end caps, but no luck. Then I returned to the seasonal area and found a helpful worker who pointed me to the very back aisle of the store and there they were in all their beautiful lined glory.

Back to the front of the store where I found Jim and inquired about the price. "Well," he started, "they're 10 cents now so how about 5 cents?" I had that 90% off figure in my mind, so I countered "How about 4 cents?" He shrugged and agreed.

The ensuing hassle of dragging two flats of them to the front of the store was compounded when they decided they had to separate them by upc number. In the end I offered to come back when they had it all figured out.

Four hours later they called and I and my dutiful husband went to retrieve the bounty. Two vehicles filled with 2,902 composition books with covers flexible enough to bend and fit into a shoebox for a grand total of $116.08.

The best part is that the faculty at Belle Valley school is designating their Jeans Day money for Operation Christmas Child this week and that should almost cover the cost.

Just think--2,902 kids will have a notebook for school. And I'm so glad God foiled the previous deal at WalMart. That's just a plus.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ark Advances

I can't believe that two weeks from now our packing party will be history. Last night I couldn't go to sleep again--both excited and thinking of details. All the animals for the ark are still resting in the bedrooms--all 47 bags of them--so at 2:30 am I decided to sort them out to see how many animals we had for boys and how many for girls.

I hauled all the bags off the beds and put the ones for boys--all 29 of them-- in the living room and then counted the 12 for girls and the 6 for 2-4 year olds.

I got them all added to the previous total and we have.....14,400 including the ones already in the ark. There are 1,000 stored in the home of another team member, bringing our grand total to 15,400. I still have about another 100 in the process of being washed and/or drying so that means I just need another 500 to get to 16,000 and be sure to have enough.

Today brought another chore. I bought 2,000 pencils that don't have erasers because they were the cheapest I could find at a wholesale company. I had hundreds of pencil top erasers so today I counted the erasers out by hundreds and put them on the pencils.

Here's what I can't figure out--my shipping order of pencils included 14 boxes that were marked to hold one gross each. The total should have been 2,016. But I counted out 1,900 pencils and put erasers on them and I still have 3 and 1/2 boxes of a gross each left. I've counted several times and I can't figure out why I have so many left over.

I guess God is starting the multiplication process early.

Friday, September 9, 2011

What Joy!

Yesterday evening I was exhausted at 6:00 and couldn't wait for an acceptable time to fall into bed. Then a few hours later I was lying in bed at midnight wide awake thinking about our upcoming Operation Christmas Child packing party.

Instead of my usual nighttime thoughts of dread and fear and obsessing over details, though, I was filled with such amazing excitement. And I woke up in that same excitement this morning. I'm not sure if this is the result of someone's prayers or just God's abundant grace (not that HIs grace could ever be 'just' anything). I feel like I've been given a gift to see His goodness in a new way and I want to hang onto this sense of wonder.

I think back to 2005 when the small OCC team at my former church tried to have a packing party. We sent notices to surrounding churches and we planned and prepared for weeks.. When the day came only about 15 people showed up. We packed around 600 boxes that day, mostly through the work of the few people on the team. If you'd told any of us that one day we'd be planning to pack 15,000 boxes in one day I don't think one of us would have believed it.

Just 4 years ago in 2007 a small team of us worked all year--packing around 100 or 200 boxes at a time--to pack 4,665 boxes. Again, if you'd told us that in just 4 years we'd be planning to pack 15,000 in one day we'd have been incredulous.

As we approach this packing party I am struck by what a miracle this is. This is happening not because of the strength or wisdom of man but because God can do anything and He's graciously chosen to allow us to be a part of what He's doing.

I know that soon I'll be thinking about the details again and wondering how it's all going to work out. But I want to delay that as long as I can. I want to just bask in the wonder of all He's done and all He has planned to bless thousands of children and adults around the world.

It's simple: this is God's work and He will accomplish it.

I want to ponder these things in my heart.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Storage Saga

Wow! Look at this nice empty storage area. Uhhh, that is NOT what our storage container looks like right now. Ours is nearing maximum capacity and when the 30 cases of soap (15,000 bars) get delivered tomorrow morning it may just max out.

Over my years of packing Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes, storage has always been an issue. I think I have a soft spot in my heart for that much-maligned guy in the Bible who kept tearing down his barns to build bigger ones. I can see his problem.

Although my hoarding is seasonal, it's still a problem. Back in the middle of the last decade when we had a weekend of packing boxes at my old church it would take 5 team members coming to my house with their cars to unload the stuff from my attic. But that was when we packed about 700 boxes.

The stuff for 15,000 (give or take a few hundred--HOPEFULLY give) makes for a lot of storage space.

I just counted, and I now have 42 garbage bags full of stuffed animals on the spare beds in my home. And I'm still praying for another 12 or 15 bags full over the next week and a half.

So if you live in Erie and have stuffed animals to donate, bring them in ASAP so we can sort and clean them.....but if you have other items to donate, if you can possibly keep them in your home until Sunday, September 18th, I would be so grateful. If you can't, bring them in and we'll find a spot for them somewhere. There's always my bathtub!

And speaking of September 18th, if you go to Grace McKean we could sure use your help to unload the storage container right after the 9:15 worship service is over. With enough help we can get it done quickly.

And then we'll have plenty of room to start filling it up again.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Testing, Stressing, and Resting

I can't believe I haven't done a blog post for almost two weeks and I don't even know where all that time went. Well, actually I know where a lot of it went--school and getting ready for school.

Operation Christmas Child packing party preparations have been taking a back seat to the launch of a new school year. As a school nurse for three elementary schools (one of them new to me this year) I've been facing most days of the past two weeks asking myself, "Where do I begin today?" The new year brings chaos and stress.

By the time I finished my first week on Friday I had a headache that lasted until this morning. And I almost never get headaches.

Which brings me to my wondering about the tests in life and how to move from stressing to resting in the Lord. I've been feeling like my mind is on overdrive with a constant revving. My mind jumps from detail to detail. I can read my facebook statuses from a year ago and find they read the same.

I need to keep reminding myself that God is in control. He always shows up and makes these major packing parties work for His glory. On Wednesday this week I got a neat gift in the mail from my regional Operation Christmas Child office. It's a cool little box filled with slips of paper--each one containing a Bible verse--one for every day between now and the end of Operation Christmas Child's National Collection Week on November 21st. What a perfect gift to get this week! I confess I've been cheating a bit and reading more than the allotted verse per day.

And in the middle of this busy school week there were still packing party preparations. God brought in another 765 stuffed animals this week to be sorted and bagged. I think we're only about 1200 away from the goal now. The idea of God bringing in 15,000 stuffed animals this year is astounding.

I ordered 15,000 bars of soap this week, too.

Thursday evening brought the final meeting of our packing party team and the first where we were all together. It feels like there are a lot of details still up in the air but I know I need to trust God with them.

Three weeks from today it will all be over and the truck should be ready to ship out.

I know there will be a lot of tests in these next weeks and I'm praying God will move me from the stressing to the resting.