The avocation of my life for the last twenty-seven years has been international missions. In partnership with dozens of national churches in six continents, I have sought to serve God during two week, church-to-church, evangelistic projects. In most of the places where I’ve gone, I’ve lived with a church member and grown to know and love the people in a way no tourist could appreciate during a short vacation. Always I’ve returned home knowing that I have been blessed.
Fifteen years ago, while on a partnership mission to Venezuela, I heard an old man give his personal testimony. He stood for a few seconds without saying anything. I stared at his long white beard and white hair, and wondered what on earth he could say that I, a young stay-at-home mother, could relate to.
He spoke very softly, and soon everyone was leaning forward, straining to hear his every word. He told us that God had saved him from a life of drugs and alcohol. He further explained how God had saved him and his family from the ravages of divorce and a broken home. He went on to tell us about life in prison and how, by the grace of God, he had been spared. His story was so incredible and so unlike mine all I could do was marvel at how God, the Hound of Heaven, seeks and speaks to every kind of person, wherever they are.
In the closing minutes of his talk, the man revealed that, indeed, none of these calamities actually had happened to him. “For more than seventy years,” he said, “I have walked with God. He’s been my closest friend. I’ve tried to listen and heed what I heard. Though I’ve disappointed Him many times, He’s always forgiven me, and He’s kept me from the temptations and sins that could so easily have entrapped me. But, I began my walk with God when I was a young boy.”
Wow! What a testimony, I thought, and then I realized that my experience with God had been much the same. I’d really been struggling with what to say when I talked with people through a translator overseas, and how best to share my faith with people at home. My story seemed so boring, so ordinary, so uninviting to anyone seeking a dramatic, life-changing experience.
There never was a time that I can remember not knowing God loved me. My earliest memories are of church. My first songs are the ones I learned in Sunday school. As a child I wanted to please my parents and I wanted to serve God. I learned to talk to God about my problems and my disappointments. Bible characters like Jacob and Paul were heroes to me.
Gradually I began to realize that sometimes I did things that I knew were wrong. I did them just because I wanted to. It was impossible to forgive my friends when they hurt me. I tried very hard to obey what I read in the Bible, but the older I got, the more frustrated and guilty I felt. No matter how hard I tried, I was never going to be good enough to deserve heaven.
One Sunday morning, during the sermon, I understood that, on my own, I had neither the will power nor the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit to enable me to live the life God wanted. In those quiet moments as I sat in the pew, I gave control of my life, as much as a twelve year old could know of it, over to God. I asked Him to forgive me of my pride, stubbornness, and disobedience; I asked Him to empower me with his Holy Spirit.
Nothing very dramatic happened at that moment. I remember thinking how good it felt to confess my helplessness, and I somehow knew that nothing would be the same again. As I studied more and prayed more, I developed a confidence and sense of security that was not typical of most of the ‘60’s teenagers I knew.
God had a plan for my life, and I wanted to live that life. I felt God’s guidance as I made those “big” decisions as to where to go to college, what to study and who to marry. Of course, disappointments, hurts, tragedies and some painful consequences of my own willful disobedience, have come my way. I’ve questioned God from time to time about things I didn’t (and some, I still don’t) understand. But, I have a “peace that passes understanding” most of the time.
Troubles and trials come to everyone. It’s how we handle them that make a difference. Just like my friend in Venezuela, I know that God has directed my path through the difficult relationships and circumstances not of my choosing. He has, at times, given me words to say that I’d never thought of, and sometimes He’s shut my mouth. One doesn’t have to live very long to have been gossiped about, slandered by a friend, rejected, or judged unfairly. In those times, God has comforted and encouraged my through His Word.
God has taught me how to forgive, when it would have been my nature to retaliate. He has given me grace so that I can grace others, even when I don’t feel like it. These are things that did not come overnight. It’s been more than forty years that I have walked with God. I know His voice. When He gently speaks to me and I ignore His counsel, He speaks again, louder and more sternly until I humbly obey. He will not let me go.
Hearing that old man’s story gave me a new anticipation for a long walk with God. After Venezuela, I never again apologized for the lack of drama in my childhood commitment. However, it was only after my own children became pre-teens themselves that I truly came to appreciate the unique gift I had accepted as a young girl when I met God personally. It was then that I realized I wanted my children to have a “boring” testimony just like mine.
Janice & Her Mother 1957
I grew up in Kansas, far, far from the ocean. My mother, however, filled our home with reminders of the seashore—conch shell bookends, seascape murals and the scent of gardenia and plumeria which she wore year-round. Sometimes she would direct our attention to the waving wheat field beyond our back yard and talk about the tides and the cadence of the sea.
I’m the oldest of five children, two girls and three boys. When our family became too large to “camp out” in our station wagon, we began alternating vacation times. The girls would go one summer, and the boys the next, always to the beach. The closest ocean was 800 miles away in Galveston, Texas. Occasionally, we would venture elsewhere, to New Orleans, or even to Lake Michigan, where we once took a cruise.
During the summer of my sixth grade year, we moved to Texas and closer to the coast. Still, it was a long drive to the ocean. The near-by lakes became our most frequented shore as we learned to water ski, snorkel and fish. My memory is replete with mother-daughter talks while both of us tread water, drifted in a metal rowboat or sunned on a sand bar. It was there, atop a towel that I read and reread Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea a favorite of my mother’s.
Years later when I was newly married, my Air Force husband and I were stationed in Charleston, S. Carolina. I lived only minutes from the seashore, but, oddly, I seldom went. I guess it was enough just knowing the sea was there, nearby. I was young and my days were full with two babies in the house. Besides, the call of the sea still sounded like my mother’s voice. I had yet to hear its siren song for myself.
My husband and I eventually returned to Texas to raise our family, and our vacations often took us to the beach. Our children loved the new water sports of parasailing, scuba diving and jet skiing. One Christmas, we gave ourselves a family trip to Hawaii. Years later we had access to a beach house in California through my husband’s employer. We went infrequently, but I always kept the house key in my purse as a reminder of my place by the sea.
Over the last thirty years, I’ve traveled to six continents. I’m often asked, “What is your favorite place?” And, I find myself, more often than not, describing a seaside town, an unspoiled beach or a city by a bay.
I live with mementos of my travels all around me. Photographs paper my walls. Baskets and jars of shells adorn my bathroom. Travel books fill every bookcase in my house. I frequently discover a forgotten seashell in a jacket pocket, and sand from somewhere lines the dresser drawer where I store my swimsuits. Even opening one special linen cabinet can give me pause when I smell coconut oil on a terrycloth beach towel, and remember.
I feel at home whenever and wherever I smell a salty breeze or hear the movement of water. The taste of crab and the sight of a lighthouse can send me to my comfort zone almost instantaneously. I can experience tranquility whether or not I’m actually gazing at the sea, which most of the time is not possible from my north Texas home. It’s a part of me.
I hear the call of the sea because I carry its nature with me wherever I go. It’s been said that the difference between a tourist and a traveler is that the latter stops thinking in terms of “back home.” But rather, a traveler takes “home” with her. The call of the sea allows me to journey through life as a traveler.
Just as my mother shared her nature and traditions with me, I want to pass those rituals on to my children. What better place to do it than in Galveston?
On a warm September night in 1994, my life changed in ways I never imagined. My husband, Jerry, and I were both on the phone talking to a friend when “call-waiting” interrupted. Jerry’s brother Bob urgently reported that he had just been notified that their eighty-year-old widowed mother had been hit by a car while walking across a familiar street in her childhood neighborhood. She had traveled there a few days earlier in order to attend a high school reunion.
Bob, Jerry and I immediately jumped into Bob’s car and started our eight-hour drive to Amarillo, Texas, where MeMaw had been care-lifted by helicopter. As we drove through the night, we were in touch with the Amarillo hospital and other family members who were waiting at the hospital during MeMaw’s emergency surgery. Her legs were broken in multiple places, as well as her pelvis, but miraculously, she had no internal injuries. The doctors were primarily concerned about her surviving the trauma of the surgery and the death of her older sister who had been walking with her at the time of the accident.
As the brothers reminisced about their mother and dealt with the possibility of their becoming adult orphans, my mind raced ahead to what my mother-in-law’s recovery might look like. Surely she would not be able to live by herself, at least for a long, long time. We lived in the same town and her care would likely be our responsibility. This was going to be a major interruption in our plans.
Our house was then on the market to sell. With our youngest away at college, we had plans to move from our home of sixteen years. We hoped to enjoy our empty nest years in a new house of our own design, more suited to our anticipated new lifestyle. (I was threatening to put a planter where the oven would normally have gone.)
My journal entries immediately prior to MeMaw’s accident indicated my feelings of unease and uselessness, not knowing exactly what best to do with my time now that high school events, carpooling, and mother-daughter talks would not be a part of my daily routine. I had, in affect, been laid off from my job and it didn’t appear that anyone really needed me.
Then suddenly, my brother-in-law Bob was hospitalized with a rare disease that left him paralyzed from the waist down. He went into a rehabilitation facility the same week MeMaw came out. Three weeks later, our daughter-in-law’s fourteen-year-old brother was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. He had surgery the first week in January. The next week Jerry lost his job. Just when we thought we couldn’t handle another thing, the newest minister at our church confessed to Jerry, who was chairman of the deacons at the time, that he had embezzled money from his previous church and that it had just been discovered. Dealing with that situation became Jerry’s new full-time job.
Our house sold at the end of the month, which was a good thing, but the buyers wanted possession within thirty days. We were certainly needed at MeMaw’s, and we had a roof over our heads, but I felt homeless and unemployed, nevertheless. I realized that we had become the beneficiaries of MeMaw’s charity, instead of the other way around as I had been telling myself. We were as dependent upon her as she was on us—a very humbling experience.
Praying for answers, dealing with doctors, adjusting to a husband at home, cleaning, and cooking in someone else’s house became my life. My nest was no longer empty, and in fact, the nest was no longer mine! I tried to hold onto God, but I despaired because MeMaw was not improving. It became more and more apparent that she would never be able to live alone. I wanted to do the right thing, with a cheerful heart, but could I?
I noticed a similar reaction from women when I mentioned that I would be living permanently with my mother-in-law. I would explain that she was in the process of selling her house and that we were going to combine the proceeds from the sale of both of our houses to build one house compatible with all our needs and nicer than I had originally expected. Still, most of the married women would tear-up, offer condolesences, or explain how they could never live with their mother-in-law.
When we three moved into our beautiful new home, MeMaw was so proud of her three rooms, “her house” — her own front porch, and her handicap-accessible shower. Her friends often visited, and they would play games, gossip, and laugh. Fried meats smothered in gravy became our five o’clock fare—a fifties flashback. “Get the canned fruit covered in heavy syrup,” MeMaw called after me as I headed for the grocery store.”
Sometimes MeMaw would watch TV with a friend—over the phone. They would both be watching the same program simultaneously in their own homes and commenting about the show to each other while staying on the line for hours. (MeMaw had her own telephone line so I learned to laugh along with them without concern that they were tying up our line.) Then MeMaw got a computer, and when she was not on the phone, she was emailing everyone, even our daughter living overseas.
I was grateful that MeMaw and I had had a good relationship. We had always settled our disagreements and misunderstandings quickly as they had inevitably come up over the decades of being related. There was no baggage of unresolved issues, resentments, or harsh words to sabotage our relationship, but we both struggled with the adjustment of sharing a kitchen (no oven planter) and managing holidays.
I had envisioned freedom from a demanding schedule dictated by others. Certainly, I wanted to be useful, but on my own terms, when and where I chose. I felt like I was under surveillance in my own home. I knew MeMaw only wanted to be a part of my activities. I had to ask God to help me learn to share my life, from the laundry to the living room, with my “mother-in-love.”
Corrective surgeries, rehab, heart problems, and medical setbacks continued. I wanted my independence, but God wanted me dependent on Him. I learned to rely on God’s grace in the everydayness of life, just as much as I depended on Him in a crisis.
MeMaw lived with us in our new house for three years before she departed for heaven, not nearly enough time to impart ALL of her wisdom and fun-loving ways to her daughter-in-law. However, “her house” is seldom empty, even now. God has sent us a constant flow of houseguests, grandchildren and international friends. I continue to pray for the welfare of those who reside with me, no matter how long or short their stay, and I’m learning to anticipate and appreciate God’s interruptions.
I’ve always loved to travel and have often extolled its virtues to engaged couples, wanting to know the “real” person they intended to marry; to restless graduates, searching for themselves; and for students of all ages, desiring to understand history and culture. Certainly, I’ve tried to instill in my children the value of travel. “Travel is more than a trip,” I’m prone to say.
I started planning a very special trip, a graduation gift for my daughter, Rebecca (and me), when Becca entered high school. By the time she graduated, our air miles had been exchanged for tickets and our BritRail passes had been purchased. We were off, just the two of us, mother and daughter, for three weeks in “The Realm” of Great Britain.
For four years we had anticipated and prepared for our adventure together. We had read from British authors: Charles Dickens, Beatrix Potter, C.S. Lewis, and Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote, “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.” Indeed, we had great expectation but no specific itinerary and only one particular destination scheduled. Friends in the Lower Hebrides of Scotland were expecting us during the second week, and we would stay in their home four nights, longer than any other stop. Our train passes allowed us unlimited travel on two out of every three days. So, in an effort to use what we’d already paid for, we spent most of our days sightseeing from the train, instead of staying put and buying additional tours.
Our wardrobes had been so coordinated that we each took only one carry-on and a tote bag. We hand washed “essentials” every three or four days, but sometimes the English weather compelled us to linger longer than we had planned in order for our clothes to dry. After we left the colder climate of Scotland, we mailed home our heavy clothes and the “few” things we had purchased.
Becca always made friends no matter where we were or how long we stayed. Just like her father, she never met a stranger, but I noticed that her outgoing gregariousness was tempered sometimes by the English reserve. She, too, took note of the obnoxious tourists, usually young people from the United States, and their boisterous manners that often give us the “ugly American” reputation.
I saw myself as an American through the eyes of the British, and I saw myself as a mother through the eyes of my daughter. Several times I caught Becca quoting an old saw she, no doubt, had learned from me, and applying it in just the way I would have. We laughed about some my most memorable malapropos, and Becca admitted she had that same tendency to twist a word or phrase. In fact, the English language became a topic we both enjoyed exploring as a vehicle for understanding our culture, as well as theirs. Churchill said it best, “England and the United States are two countries divided by the same language.”
Armed with the most current Bed and Breakfast guide and an unabridged train schedule, we set off to learn from our English cousins and to learn from each other. Most of our touring was done during the daytime. Each evening in our cozy room we would decide whether or not we would stay put or move on. The train schedule would be consulted and the possibilities for accommodations within walking distance of the train station would be checked. Even in June, we never had a problem finding a memorable place to stay—or finding another when we didn’t like the looks or location of our first selection.
Sometimes we would get off the train, check our bags into lockers at the train station, and sightsee for a few hours before resuming our journey. We quickly discovered our differences in navigating a foreign terrain, and that became the defining metaphor for our unique approaches to life. Becca would stand at a crossroad, check out the street signs located on the sides of the buildings, and “feel” her way around the traffic circles based on her instincts and the “lay of the land.” Occasionally she would ask directions, but that proved rather frustrating when even taxi drivers couldn’t say exactly how far to go before turning and seldom knew the names of any street. I, on the other hand, had to have a map with the goal clearly marked. I would walk with my head buried in the map in an effort to steer through the maze of cobblestone streets, and would look up only when Becca announced our destination was in sight.
We learned that the trains don’t go everywhere one might wish to go, nor do they go at the time one might prefer. This led us to some surprising places and events, like the five-hour, fifteenth century, “mystery play” in York, performed only every five years by the tradesmen of the town. We never saw it advertised in any of the literature we had collected, but what a treat and a learning adventure!
In Edinburgh I amazed myself, and Becca, by dancing a jig with a stranger twice my age in a park pavilion set up for a Scottish folk festival. Chasing down all the published events I’d read about was a challenge from the start, and eventually, it became a chore. We heeded the advice of Samuel Johnson who wrote, “Worth seeing? Yes, but not worth going to see.” We finally gave up “the going” and settled for the serendipities. Now what I remember most are the simple sights of country stiles, thatched roofs, dovecotes, lawn-bowling, cricket matches in the park, dogs at work and at play, seals sunning in a Scottish harbor, rowboats, lighthouses, rock walls, peat bogs, red telephone booths and double-decker buses, knot gardens, and not a few teapots.
As true travelers we indulged in the local cuisine, only stopping once for a fast food fix, and then, on the Fourth of July, which we felt was rather fitting. Our full English breakfast, served at every Bed and Breakfast, usually kept us satisfied until late afternoon when we indulged in high tea or a pub meal. We’d read from bookstore cookbooks to learn about the “Eccles cakes,” clotted cream, Scotch eggs, and Welch Rarebit we had eaten. Of course, we ate our fill of shepherd’s pie, fish and chips, and scones. Sometimes we would snack at the train depot or corner markets where we’d read the packaging to determine its “energy value” (calories.)
Because of limited space in our bags, most of our souvenirs were our photographs. We each kept a journal and we collected picture and guidebooks as we traveled. Even though I didn’t chronicle our dialogs in my diary, I can still recall our long discussions each night as we shared what we had liked and learned during the day. Mostly we talked about the story we were writing together, and how these days were the chapters we would remember always.
During the six months process of building our dream home, I compiled a list of accessories and odd furniture pieces I wanted for the new house. I needed something for the fireplace mantle, some more lamps, a desk chair, patio furniture and an area rug. For our library nook of floor-to-ceiling bookcases, I wanted a freestanding library ladder.
Most of the items were not too difficult to find on sale or through friends who looked for me as they themselves shopped in antique or furniture stores—except for the library ladder. The new library ladders were very expensive and ran along a track to be mounted on a tall, long wall of bookshelves. My library was a small corner of a room, but still, I wanted to be able to access the tallest shelves at ten feet.
I had seen pictures of beautiful old, wooden ladders used in English libraries where the four or five steps were mounted around a pole. This I thought would be perfect — beautiful, unique, as well as easy to move around. Fortunately, I live in a town known for its quaint antique shops and I am a frequent shopper. We also live close to Dallas where the sources seemed endless.
About three months into my search, I spotted such a ladder in a local antique store, One of a Kind. There wasn’t a price on the piece so I asked Dave Christianson, the owner, what he wanted for the ladder. I tried not to seem too anxious, knowing an overly interested buyer can sometimes cause a price inflation, especially in an antique shop.
“Oh, that’s not for sale.” Dave replied, “I just use it around here.”
I was disappointed, but believed that his casual attitude meant that such ladders were probably around elsewhere and could be found somewhere in Dallas.
I started calling the long list of antique dealers from the huge Dallas Yellow Pages and I asked at import and department stores, which I frequented. I could not find anyone who had seen such a ladder in years. The more hopeless it seemed the more determined I became. My husband said I was “beyond determined and into compulsive.”
The ladder at One of a Kind was not for sale, but I knew it was still there—so close and yet so far from my possession. Every few weeks I would go back and try to talk Dave into selling the ladder. He would laugh when he saw me coming and we’d joke in a friendly way about the ladder’s value and availability. Mr. Christianson revealed that the ladder had sentimental value for him. He’d had it a long time and he did use it every day.
“But wouldn’t a new metal step ladder serve your purposes just as well?” I argued. He promised to look for another library ladder for me as he was constantly buying for the shop from sources I could not access.
Finally in frustration a few weeks later, I volunteered, “O.K., just name your price. I’ve never known an antique dealer who didn’t have his price. I’m the customer you’ve always dreamed of. Just name your price.”
“No, it’s not for sale,” Dave insisted. Once again, I left the store empty-handed.
I was returning from our building site the following week when my thoughts again turned to the library ladder. The workmen had just begun installing the bookcases in my library nook and I still had not found a suitable ladder. It was thirty minutes until closing time at One of a Kind and I decided to try again. What could I possibly say that I hadn’t said before? Maybe I could take a picture of the room and then Dave could see for himself how perfect the ladder would be in my home.
As I drove downtown, I passed by our church. I remembered a sermon our pastor had preached recently. All of a sudden I knew what I would say to Dave Christianson.
“Do you read the Bible much?” I asked him. Dave didn’t answer but his smile encouraged me to go on. “Could I tell you a Bible story?” I asked politely.
“Yes,” he chuckled.
“Jesus told a story about two neighbors. In the middle of the night one of them received an unexpected guest. It was customary to offer food and drink to a visitor no matter when they arrived. The host had no bread left over from that day and had no way of getting any except to go and ask it from one of his neighbors.
“Families in that day slept all together in one room, on the floor with the father lying closest to the door. When the man seeking the bread knocked on his neighbor’s door, he woke him. ‘Go away,’ the groggy man angrily whispered. ‘You’ll wake my family.’
“A few minutes later the man returned. ‘Do you have any bread left over? I must have it to give my guest.’
“‘Don’t bother me. My children are asleep and the cupboard is on the other side of the room.’
“Again and again the man returned until finally his neighbor got up. Jesus said that it was not because his neighbor was kind or wanted to do the right thing, but because of his friend’s persistence that he eventually gave him what he wanted.”
After a long pause, I looked into Dave’s puzzled eyes and said, “Now, I want you to know I’m going to come down here every day until you sell me that library ladder.”
Very slowly Dave replied. “Well, I never thought I’d ever make a sell for Jesus – – – but you can have the ladder.”
Today my library is complete. People often ask me where I got such an unusual ladder. Now I have an occasion to tell them Jesus’ parable of the persistent neighbor. The story is found in Luke 11 right after Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray what we call The Lord’s Prayer. Part of prayer is petition, and persistent petition seems to be encouraged and even rewarded. It certainly gave me a step up.
One of the most amazing natural phenomenons in the world can be found in the tropical waters off the southern coast of Puerto Rico. Phosphorescent Bay is inhabited by millions of single cell plankton. Each emits a harmless blue spark of light when the water is disturbed. On a moonless night, miles from the glare of coastal neon, submerged divers produce an illumination that would rival any Coast Guard search and rescue operation.
Jesus tells His followers in side-by-side verses (Matthew 5: 13 and 14) that they are to be BOTH salt and light in the world. We rarely find both these elements together in nature, or in Christ-followers, for that matter. When we do, it’s a phenomenon, like Phosphorescent Bay. Perhaps the reason for this anomaly is that the properties and functions of salt and light are very different.
Some Christians become the lights of the world, dispelling darkness, revealing God’s presence where it would otherwise not be seen, and guiding pilgrims by exemplary living. Other saltier types rub up against the raw elements of society, preserving what’s good, giving flavor to hopeless people, changing and restoring the their lives. However, it is rare to see all of these qualities in the same person at the same time.
It seems to me that the “light” Christians are usually the ones who like to stay close to their Power source. They like and need to stay clean, their lamps unclouded by the cultural dirt all around them. So they shine from afar, on top of the hill. Whether from experience or fear, they know themselves and they know the dangers and temptations that lurk when they get too close to unsympathetic non-believers.
But, in order for salt to be effective it must come in close contact to the thing it desires to affect. It must be infused or ingested into the very flesh and fiber of that entity it’s trying to help. “Salt” Christians connect with their culture. They not only know their unbelieving neighbors, they enjoy their company. They are there for those trapped in addictions, and they minister to the suicidal and depraved.
Other environments where salt is needed are quite different from the world of crime and addiction. The materialistic American culture can also be the downfall for salty Christians. Slowly and subtly “salt” Christian grow accustomed to the comfort and extravagance of their friends–like the frog in the kettle where the water temperature is gradually raised to boiling. The frog adjusts to the change until it’s too late to escape.
But, how to be BOTH salt and light? Let’s go back to Puerto Rico and Phosphorescent Bay where those single cell plankton thrive in the salty waters of the Atlantic. The light that they produce when they are stirred up by a row boat or raindrops is not only magnificent but powerful. It can be seen from satellites in outer space. Perhaps the plankton possess the answer.
They live in community. These particular single cell creatures are not dispersed across the ocean, but rather they are found clustered together in a few locations. They need each other in order to glow when their salty environment is troubled.
Our culture needs to see Jesus. Our lights can illuminate Him in the darkness. Our salt can be the “Balm of Gilead” (Jeremiah 8: 22) to heal and soothe our world. Christians need to reach out together in serving others, restoring the broken and in sharing God’s love, because we need each other in order to shine, while living in life’s brine.