Monday, January 25, 2010

Nudges, Bridges and Miracles!

I was rounding the curve on one of the back roads on my way home from choir practice when I felt it. A slight nudge. A nearly audible sound…like there was a person next to me in the car. Or perhaps, a voice from the radio speakers that were playing softly in the car.

“You need to make sure Debbie and Geoff know. Frank may not have called them.”

It was that simple...that plain. Not grandiose words or a long, drawn out narrative. Just simple words telling me that I had a job to do.

Only hours before, my brother Frank had called to tell me that we would need to cancel our dinner engagement for Friday night. We had planned to get together so I could deliver some Christmas gifts and catch up some since we hadn’t visited for over a month. He went on to tell me that he needed to cancel because his wife Clare’s dad had died suddenly the day before and the funeral would be on Friday. I quickly extended my condolences and told him that is would be no problem to schedule for another time and asked how he and Clare were doing. He told me that he and Clare's dad had grown close over the past ten years, but he was doing OK. We visited for a few more minutes and I hung up.

At choir practice, the director opened with an invitation for prayer requests. I sat there quietly as member after member shared their requests to the group and the list grew.

“Please pray that I find my cat’s eye medicine. I just bought a new bottle yesterday for $85 and it has disappeared.”

“Peggy’s mother is in the hospital and it doesn’t look good. Let’s pray that God will give her a sense of peace about her mom.”

“Brent lost his job last week and we have a wedding coming up in a couple of months. Brent really needs a job.”

As I sat and listened to the other choir members naming their requests, I felt led to ask for prayer for Frank and Clare.

“My brother Frank’s wife Clare’s father died unexpectedly on Monday night”, I shared. “Could we pray that God would provide comfort and strength for them?”

It was added to the list and after a few more moments, we joined in prayer and lifted up all of the requests to God…agreeing that He would hear and meet our many needs. I had NO clue how God was going to answer my own request.

Our family structure has been fractured for years. In fact, I haven’t been in the same room with both of my brothers and my sister at the same time in over ten years. Actually, I have no idea the last time we were all together. But I do know that it has been the desire of my heart for over a year that we might all be together again. That there might be healing in this family of four. That whatever ever wounds are still open that have created a chasm too wide to bridge would finally find some healing.

And so, as I rounded those curves on a dark, rainy evening, I made a decision to be careless. Even as another silent voice screamed at me, “NO Mark!!! Stay out of this, it’s not your place to get involved!”, I pulled out my Blackberry and started to enter a short e-mail to Debbie and Geoff. Now I know that a convicted felon on probation probably shouldn’t take a chance by breaking the law and sending a text while driving my car, but the sense was so strong that I needed to be doing this. I kept one hand on the wheel and the other on the Blackberry as I crafted the message, glancing down when I dared to make sure that the information was correct and hit the send button.

What happened over the course of the next 48 hours can only be described as a miracle. After various e-mails and phone calls, Debbie and Geoff said that they planned to attend the funeral on Friday. I have to admit, I had a little bit of apprehension about what might happen. Although Frank knew that I would probably be there, I hadn’t told him that I had notified Debbie and Geoff about the funeral and he had no idea that they might be there. I knew that it was going to be a hard day for both Frank and Clare and I didn’t want to be the cause of any more heartache or distractions on the day they were burying a man they both loved.

“Could we pray that God would provide comfort and strength for them?”

As we arrived at the church and entered the sanctuary for the beginning of the service, an astonished Clare came over to greet us. It took only seconds to realize that we had all made the right decision to be there. The hard, clinging hug and the tears streaming down Clare’s cheeks were the first indication. The heartfelt words of appreciation that we were there came next. After a few moments of visiting, we took our seats and awaited the beginning of the service.

Moments later, the bagpipe played the haunting melody of “Amazing Grace” as the casket was wheeled in, attended by six men serving as pall bearers. I almost didn’t see him. Looking older than I had ever seen him, my brother Frank walked with one hand on the casket and his head down alongside the casket. In that moment, I knew that this man he called his “father-in-law” was indeed a special man in his life. Clare wasn’t the only one who had lost a father…Frank had as well.

We spent the next ninety minutes rising and sitting as the full Catholic mass worked its way to completion. Scriptures read of loss and love. Prayers recited for all those groups who this man had represented. A humorous eulogy that left me feeling as though I wished I had known this man. And then it was over. The family gathered and followed the coffin out as it was taken to the Cadillac hearse for his final trip to the cemetery.

As Debbie and Geoff, with his wife Lynn, and I waited for Frank and Clare to return, I wondered what the reaction would be when Frank and Geoff met. Theirs is the most tenuous relationship and up until now, any bridges laid down to restore it had not been crossed. Frank soon walked over and gave me a hug, thanking me for being there. He moved on to Debbie and embraced her as well. I couldn’t help but hold my breath as Geoff stepped slightly forward and Frank pulled him into his arms. I could be wrong, but it seemed that he held him for just a moment longer and perhaps a little tighter than he had Debbie or me.

We stood and visited for nearly an hour. I wished it could have been hours. The tears that would occasionally find themselves appearing in the eyes of my oldest brother may have only been tears of grief over the loss of his father-in-law. But I think they were more. I believe they were tears generated by a sense of love and appreciation for the four of us being there with him and Clare. Tears that come when our hearts are filled to overflowing with emotions that we can’t quite explain. Tears that I found myself fighting back as I watched a little bit of youth restored to the man who appeared so much older only hours before as he walked beside a casket.

“Could we pray that God would provide comfort and strength for them?”

My prayer from only two days earlier was indeed answered! I had seen God’s love provide strength and comfort for my brother and his wife. But I had seen more. I had seen God’s hand in helping to bring healing and restoration to a family that needs it by nudging each of us across a bridge not yet crossed. God is definitely still in the miracle business and he blessed me by being a part of one in my own life. I could have chosen not to ask for prayer. I could have listened to the ‘negative’ voice telling me to mind my own business. We all could have simply been “too busy” to take time to go to a funeral of a man we had never met. But God was working in the lives of a family that He loves and that He desires to see restored.

Bridge photo from Flickr
Family photo by Clare Lyons

Monday, January 18, 2010

Atop the Fifty Foot Platform

The image has stayed with me for the past week. Nick, perched on the platform fifty feet in the air. Watchful, expectant eyes looking up at him from the crowd below. Waiting. Anticipating. Wondering. Would this man with no arms and no legs actually dive into the small pool of water waiting for him below? The look on his face gives nothing away, but you have to wonder what thoughts must be flooding through his mind at that moment.

The past week has made me feel like the man on that perch. It started when I received an e-mail from my sister to watch a short video that she thought I might find motivating. Little did she realize at the time what the impact of watching a 20 minute video might have on my life. The man in the film was a man I had met in prison…Nick Vujicic. Born without any arms or legs, he spoke to the inmates at Taft Correctional Institution while I was there. He presented a message of hope to men who found themselves in a season of hopelessness.

When I sent my sister a message that I had met this man, she suggested I blog about that experience. As I wrote of that experience I had no idea what would transpire next. The morning after I published my blog, I received a comment from a writer who is assisting Nick in writing a book and he inquired about using my story. After thirty minutes on the phone with the author, I realized that Nick was having a greater impact on my life than I realized when I sat in a prison chapel for an hour and a half as he shared his story.

I am finding that Nick is weaving himself into my life at church as well. I’m currently part of a teaching team for our church choir Sunday school class and we are teaching from a book by Bruce Wilkinson titled, “You Were Born For This”. The book discusses how God purposes to use each of us to perform miracles during out walk on this earth. The title of the book struck me as I prepared my lesson this week as I thought about Nick. Could it be that he was born in his condition for a reason? As I briefly shared Nick’s story with my class, I could see a miracle occurring before my eyes as a sense of recognition to how each of us can be used by God registered in minds of each person in the room…me included.

And so now I find myself on that perch with Nick…looking down at that small pool fifty feet below me. Is it fear within me that is keeping there – unwilling to take the plunge? Is it lack of confidence? Is it the memory of time on the high board as a child…remembering the pain from a miscalculated dive that resulted in me landing flat on my back on the hard water below, and the embarrassment of rising to the surface of the water to the chuckles of others in the pool? Whatever the reason, I’ve found myself frozen on that platform for several years.

It has been my desire to write a book about the choices that I made that put me in prison for three years and how God has worked in my life as a result of that time in the wilderness. I know that I keep receiving nudges to move forward. Just this week, the leader of my men’s group sent me a short text asking “how goes the book?” He said he felt God laid it on his heart to ask me that question. An author, reading my last blog and wanting to include it as part of a bigger story…a coincidence? I don’t believe so. Another nudge perhaps?

Perhaps the nudges this time will lead me to leap into the unknown, willing to begin the journey of putting my story to paper. Like Nick…my story may also encourage others who have spent time wondering if their life had a purpose…if their circumstances are completely hopeless. Through Nick’s testimony and his courage to “take the leap”, I believe I’m ready.

Photos from Flickr

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Hope from the Cocoon

Side show announcer:
“A perversion of nature, a man if you could even call him that, whom God Himself has turned his back upon…I give you – the limbless man!”

(And with that, the announcer draws back the curtain revealing a man with no arms and no legs.)

From the short film, “The Butterfly Circus”

It was April of 2007 and I was getting closer to my release date. I was working at the time in the “Wheels for the World” program – a part of the ministry of Joni Eareckson Tada. The prison didn’t often bring in speakers for the inmates, but since we were reconditioning wheelchairs for the disabled, our entire department was invited to see a guest that would be coming to T.C.I. We really didn’t know much about him…simply that we would be a “motivation”. As you can imagine, there was a certain amount of trepidation about how this person might be able to give hope to men who have been locked away from society, and their lives altered forever.

The presentation was scheduled in the chapel and the 40 of us from "Wheels" slowly walked across the yard and entered the main chapel room. The occupancy sign read “278”, but the room was nearly full and was set up to hold more than the maximum recommended. I found a seat about ¾ of the way back as more inmates continued to enter the room. Many of the men here would take any opportunity that they could to get out of their work assignment for a few hours or out of the housing units and today was no exception judging by the number who continued to file in. Soon, every seat was taken and inmates were lined along the walls, taking up every space available.

As the deputy warden moved to the front of the room, the group slowly quieted and turned their attention to the slender, black woman. She thanked the inmates for attending and informed us that we were about to meet a man who’s story should give each of us hope. While there wasn’t audible snickering, it was obvious that the majority of the men in the room weren’t buying into the warden’s pitch.

I noticed his eyes first. I knew that I’d seen them before, but it took me a moment to recognize him. He is portrayed as an angry man…perched on the stool with the gawkers and curiosity seekers snickering and laughing at his looks. But I knew I had seen those eyes before.

And then we saw him. He was wheeled in by a man we would discover later was his brother in a wheelchair. The man carefully unbuckled him and gently lifted him up onto a wooden table. He adjusted the lapel microphone and went back to his chair against the far wall. Left on the table was a man whose condition was difficult to describe…and a little disconcerting to look at. He was literally no more than a trunk with a head attached. No arms…no legs, only a small ‘flipper-looking" appendage on the lower left part of his torso.

“My name is Nick Vujicic”, he said as he introduced himself. “I’m 24 years old and I want to talk to you today about overcoming circumstances in your lives that may appear hopeless to you.” Needless to say, he had the attention of every inmate and institution employee in the room.

Mr. Mendez:
“But you, cursed from birth - a man, if you can call him that, whom God Himself turned his back upon…”

“Stop it! Why would you say that?”

Mr. Mendez (leaning down close to Will, looking into his eyes):
“Because you believe it.”

From “The Butterfly Circus”

For the next hour and half, Nick told us his story. Of the disappointment his parents bore when he was born…neither they nor the doctors aware of his disability until he was delivered. He spoke of the countless prayers he and his family prayed that by a miracle from God, his limbs would begin to grow. They never did. He spoke of his struggles to perform even the most mundane of tasks that we take for granted every day. And he told us how through time, he accepted his disability and instead of feeling sorry for himself, made a choice to use his story to give hope to the hopeless.

And then he entertained us and made us laugh with him in a place where laughter is a rare thing. He hopped backwards on the table until he was precariously situated on the edge…demonstrating a degree of balance I have never had. He would waver…appearing to get ready to fall off the table, bringing gasps from the room, and then smile as he righted himself and bounded back to the center of the table. He asked for a volunteer from the audience to “play catch” with. He would do the “throwing” while the inmate was expected to “catch”.

A plastic grapefruit sized ball was set on the table next to Nick and he lined up his single appendage (which closely resembled a dead, featherless chicken carcass) that extended from his left hip region. He would “bounce” the flipper on the table…the sound echoing around the room and then line-up the ball with the inmate who was to catch it. And then he would swing the little foot (or whatever you might choose to call it) and the ball went sailing right into the outstretched hands of the waiting inmate. A chorus of cheers and applause erupted from the men gathered as he smiled to the room and asked if we wanted to see it again. Of course, we all did and for a second time the ball went straight and true.

As the time for the presentation came to a close, Nick gave us an invitation. He told us that at every event where he speaks, he offers anyone who needs a little hope a hug. As I looked around the room, I thought it was going to be a pretty short receiving line for Nick today. After all, these were prison inmates! Men who would rather spend a month in the SHU than be “diss’ed” by another inmate. Men who had murdered…and robbed…and abused innocent people out of selfishness, anger and greed. Men who would never allow another man to see a tear grace his cheek.

But I found myself surprised on this day. One after another, men stood and formed a line. Nick’s brother and several of the corrections officers moved the table forward and Nick balanced himself near the front edge. As each man moved toward him, Nick pressed his neck against the neck and face of the inmate and his shoulders moved forward in as much of a hug as he could manage. Tears streaked the faces of the men as they walked away…seemingly unashamed to have hugged this man and received his love in return.

The crowd gathers around Will after he completes his amazing feat…diving from a 50 foot platform into a shallow pool of water below. Slowly, a young crippled boy on crutches with one leg moves forward to see him. Without saying a word, the young boy smiles sheepishly and moves forward and hugs Will. With a smile and a look of deep compassion in his eyes, Will presses his neck against the crippled boy as a tearful mother simply looks at them both, nodding her head in a grateful acknowledgement of what Will had just done for her son. All she could say was a simple “thank you.”

From “The Butterfly Circus”
As I walked away from the chapel that day, my heart echoed with the words of that mother. “Thank you.” Nick had shown each of us that there really is no obstacle too great that we can’t overcome it. Without question, Nick had done nothing wrong that warranted his being a “limbless” man nor had his parents. They weren’t being punished for some great sin in their life. Instead, God sent this young man with a heart as large as his body to those who were hopeless, and needed encouragement. To those who needed a visible representation that hope is available to anyone who is willing to seek it. To men who on the day realized that their lives could also emerge like a butterfly from a cocoon into a beautiful creation of God.
Photos from Bing
Narratives from "The Butterfly Circus"