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“Hello? Hello?”

An eerie stillness met me in the semi-dark apartment as I tentatively pushed the door open. Maybe my roommate had come home early from her babysitting job and forgotten to close the front door…

But then I saw that the back door was open too. Something was not right.

“Anyone here?” Peeking around corners, throwing open closet doors, jabbing behind the shower curtain, I explored every room in the house. But when I saw the clothes strewn on the floor in my bedroom, boxes pulled out from the closet, and my jewelry box dumped out, I couldn’t deny it any longer.

Someone had broken into our apartment.

“Anything else missing?” Officer Mills asked, checking his report. “Electronics? Laptop? Cash?” I answered his questions mechanically while a detective dusted for fingerprints and snapped photos, and his partner interviewed the neighbors.

“No, I don’t think so…” Then I remembered. My iPad. I almost always took it to work, using it in my classes to show videos, enter grades, or plan lessons. But that day I didn’t need it and had left it home, plugged in next to my bed… I rushed back into my room. Of course, it was gone. That and one gold watch and two valuable necklaces of my roommate were all that were taken.

Finally the detective and the police officers left, my parents and the neighbors went home, and my roommate Maira and I were left alone in the house. Though we locked and barred all the doors and checked all the windows several times, I still didn’t feel safe. Strangers had broken into our home, rifled through our personal belongings, and stolen things from us! I tried to imagine them pulling socks and underwear out of my dresser, dumping out my desk drawers, escaping out the back door… It gave me chills.

“We need to pray.” I didn’t FEEL like praying. I was still in shock. Yet more than the loss of the iPad and the jewelry, it was the loss of my sense of safety and security that I was concerned about. Maira and I had specifically chosen this apartment because it’s in a quiet, safe neighborhood. We’d never felt concern for our well-being here. Until now. Now I was starting to get angry – angry at the enemy who comes to “steal, kill and destroy” (John 10:10). I couldn’t let him steal my peace. It was time to fight back.

“Jesus, we declare Your peace in this place. This is YOUR house, and we are YOUR daughters. We know we are safe in Your hands.”

As we agreed in prayer, I felt a strange calmness. He is still here. I don’t understand why this happened. I don’t like it. It doesn’t make sense. But I have to trust that God is still good.

Yes, I’ll double-check the doors tonight to make sure the deadbolt is secure. But I don’t have to live in fear. Because even if I get robbed again, I know my Daddy’s holding me. My peace is not dependent on my circumstances. It’s based on the security of my relationship with Him. And that’s never going to change.

Going Vertical!
MJ

“In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, O Lord, will keep me safe.”
Psalm 4:8 (NLT)

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“As I watched my father’s mistress put her suitcases in his car, an animal rage came over me. I felt I could tear her apart with my hands.” Yagmur, tall and elegant with perfectly styled blond hair, spoke evenly to the audience in the church, but the pain of that childhood memory was evident. “That day I made a decision to hate my father for the rest of my life.”

Yagmur’s mother was also angry, and took out her anger in the form of physical abuse toward her daughter. “As a young girl, I had scars and bruises all over my body from my mother’s beatings. I hated my father for his unfaithfulness. And I hated my mother for her helplessness.”

“Every day my mother told me I was ugly and stupid,” Yagmur continued. “Faith comes through hearing. And I started to believe in what I was hearing.” Escaping to her room and pulling the blankets over her head, Yagmur would dream of being a beautiful princess in a long, sparkling gown. And she would imagine her mother and father smiling at her, proudly. She longed for their love.

Immediately after college, she married a charming and passionate young man, desperate to escape the abuse and pain of her home life. But soon another nightmare began. Her husband began beating her too, accusing her of unfaithfulness, demanding to know why she was a few minutes late coming home from work.

Then one day her husband held a knife to her throat, insisting that she jump out of an eighth-story window. Yagmur clung to his ankles, sobbing and pleading for her life until he let her go.

In desperation, Yagmur fled to the U.S. to start a new life. But when her second husband’s drug abuse got out of control, she found herself becoming more and more hopeless, wanting to end her life. “There is hatred and pain everywhere I go,” she thought in despair. “I can’t escape.”

Eventually Yagmur found a job working for a Christian company. Wanting to impress the boss, she joined the early-morning Bible study at the office. They were reading the story of Jesus’ encounter with the adulterous woman. Yagmur couldn’t help blurting out, “Why did he forgive her? She was not worthy to be forgiven!”

“None of us are worthy,” a co-worker explained. “But Jesus forgives us because he loves us. Even if that woman had been the only person on the earth, Jesus still would have come to earth for her and died in her place, because he loves her.”

“I was that unworthy woman,” she recalled. All the shame of her childhood, the memories of being called ugly and stupid, the feeling of being worthless, the abuse of her marriages, the abandonment and emptiness and thoughts of suicide – it all culminated one day in a desperate cry in the office restroom. “Help me, God! Have mercy! I need You!” As she dried her eyes and walked to her desk, she wondered if He even heard her.

Before she could even get back to work, Yagmur’s boss called her urgently to his office. “I’ve never done this before,” he explained hesitantly. “But I feel Jesus prompting me strongly that I need to tell you something. He says that He has heard your prayer in the bathroom. He saw you when you were a little girl. He’s been with you all this time. And He loves you and forgives you.”

Yagmur crumpled to the carpet, weeping. “Do you want Jesus to be your Lord and Savior?” Her boss was asking kindly. “YES! YES! YES!” She sobbed. Finally she had found the love she had been searching for.

Eventually Yagmur was able to forgive her father and mother for all the pain they caused her for so many years. And today Yagmur has a ministry of bringing hope and healing to girls and women around the world, through TV programming and radio broadcasts. “You are loved. You are valued. You are beautiful,” she tells them. “God has a plan for your future. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to give you a future and a hope.” She knows it is true – she is living proof.

Going Vertical!
MJ

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine.”
Isaiah 43:1b (NRSV)

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It’s no secret to those who know me well that I like to be in the spotlight. As a young girl, I would practice gymnastic routines in my backyard, imagining the roar of the crowd as I won Olympic gold for my country. Or I would pirouette in front of my parents’ floor-length mirror, pointing my toes just so, trying to hold my head erect with that graceful look of the ballerinas I saw on TV. And my performances in school plays, to small audiences of proud parents and squirming siblings, seemed to be just stepping-stones to my glittering future career as an actress on Broadway.

But the spotlight’s not on me tonight. As I slip in and out among tables of happily chatting guests in the candle-lit reception hall, scooping up dirty plates and refilling water glasses, I try to be as unobtrusive as possible. The black dress shirt, black pants, and long black bistro apron of my uniform are intended to help me blend in rather than stand out. As a server for a local catering company, my goal is to be unnoticed, so that all eyes can be focused on the star of the show – the bride.

As I scrape leftover food off salad plates and lug bags of trash outside to the dumpster, navigating the hot kitchen with bustling cooks and scurrying servers, I have to smile to myself. God certainly has a sense of humor. For a girl who loves to be admired and appreciated, it’s challenging to be in a job with very little recognition or appreciation.

A verse suddenly pops in to my head – “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.” It’s from Luke 17, and Jesus is making the point that when you’re working as a servant, you don’t expect thanks or reward for your efforts. Jesus Himself was our ultimate example of this attitude of humility and self-sacrifice. The Bible says that He came “not to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45).

What would make the omnipotent God of all Creation take on fragile, weak human form, and put up with the pettiness and potential pain of life on planet Earth? What made Him confident enough to kneel in the dirt to wipe the grime off Peter’s and John’s and even Judas’ feet? Jesus knew that His identity didn’t come from others’ praise or recognition. One week the crowds were ready to crown Him as the conquering hero, the next week they screamed for His death. But Jesus knew that “the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God” (John 13:3). His identity was secure in WHO He was and WHOSE He was.

“Thank you, Smiley.” My internal reverie is broken by the kind voice of a gray-haired gentleman in a meticulous black suit.

Concentrating on trying not to spill as I pour water into his glass, I’m momentarily taken aback. I didn’t realize I was smiling. But his comment makes my night. “You’re welcome!” And I can’t help grinning even wider. Though it’s certainly nice to be appreciated, tonight has been a good reminder that my value doesn’t come from the recognition of others. My value comes from my identity as the beloved daughter of my Heavenly Father. And that is definitely something to smile about.

Going Vertical!
MJ

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“Lai Lai! Hello! Come!”

Eager hands grasped at my suitcases and tugged on my arm, yelling their offers of assistance. The taxi from the East Asian airport had dumped me within view of the train station with my two 70 lb. suitcases, one rolling carry-on, and a backpack – all stuffed to the limit with gifts and teaching supplies. But as soon as I stepped out of the taxi, I was bombarded by eager porters and pedi-cab drivers. Finally I gave in and accepted the help of a bicycle-pedaled cart.

Loaded down with multiple bags and one weary traveler, the cart wove between speeding taxis, fleets of bicycles, and crowds of pedestrians. Closing my eyes, I tried not to think about the seemingly inevitable collisions.

Miraculously, we made it across the busy street unharmed. The hair-raising trip had taken just a few minutes. Thankful to be safely at my destination, I pulled out a couple of bills from my wallet to pay.

“Bu, bu, bu!” The driver shook his head vehemently. Apparently there was a misunderstanding. I thought he’d said 2.5 Yuan, but he’d asked for 250 Yuan! In my town in the northeast, 2 Yuan would get you anywhere you wanted to go on the bicycle-pedaled carts. But 250, just for taking me across the street?? That was a rip-off!

He wouldn’t budge, no matter how much I protested. Soon a curious crowd gathered, shouting encouragement to the driver. “That’s right! Tell her! Don’t let this foreigner get away!”

Physical and emotional weariness from the long hours of travel and very little sleep were making me cranky and irritable. I couldn’t believe that no one would help me or defend me. Finally I snapped. Angrily I threw the 250 Yuan at the driver and stormed off.

Tears streaming, I stumbled over the broken pavement, lugging my heavy suitcases. Looking around desperately, all I could see were Asian faces. All the signs were in Mandarin. I couldn’t even tell if I was in the right place. For all I knew, the taxi driver and the pedi-cab driver had taken me to the wrong place. How would I ever find my train?

There was nothing to do but sit down and cry. A few of the hurrying travelers stopped briefly to gawk at this bedraggled American girl, collapsed on a pile of suitcases in the middle of the pavement, bawling her eyes out. But no one stopped to ask what was wrong or to help. I felt so utterly alone.

“Are you OK?” The voice sounded like it was in a German or Dutch accent. But it was in ENGLISH! Looking up, I saw a tall, blond young man.

“No, I’m not OK!” I sniffled, wiping at my nose with the back of my hand. I poured out my whole story to him, ending with, “And I don’t even know if I’m in the right place! I can’t find the entrance to the train station!”

He smiled gently and pointed over my shoulder. “But it’s right behind you.” Surprised, I turned around to see a very clear entrance just a few feet from where I was sitting. How had I missed it earlier?

“Thank you so much!” I turned back to my new friend… But he was gone. He had been there, standing right in front of me, now he’d completely disappeared! I scanned the crowd, but there was no sign of a tall blond man in the sea of Asian faces.

Was it an angel? Or had he just melted into the crowd? Whoever it was, I knew with great certainty that God had sent him to me. At my moment of desperation and helplessness, my loving Heavenly Father had given me a reminder that I am never alone. He is watching me. He sees me in my distress. He is able to rescue me. And He will do the same for you.

Going Vertical!
MJ

“In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears.”
Psalm 18:6 (NIV)

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“I don’t know if you remember me. I hope I’m not bothering you…” The man’s voice is hesitant, almost apologetic, with a distinct midwestern drawl.

The number on my phone shows an unfamiliar town in Missouri, and the voice isn’t registering as anyone I know. Wrong number?

“We met on the bus to Springfield,” the man continues. “I had just gotten out of prison.”

My heart jumps as it all comes rushing back. Just after New Year’s. The greyhound bus from St. Louis to visit my grandmother.

The young man sitting next to me had struck up a conversation with me during the three-hour trip. He revealed that he had just gotten out of prison. That morning. Drugs and the wrong friends had messed up his life, but he was ready for a fresh start, he’d said.

“Fresh start.” Those were his very words. Jesus had met him in prison, he’d said, and he had read the Bible he’d been given over and over. When I told him about Fresh Start For All Nations and the blog I write, he agreed to let me tell his story. “If my story can encourage someone else, then please use it.”

Before I got off the bus, I gave him my business card with the Fresh Start website. It was only afterwards I realized it had my personal cell phone number too. Was it wise for a single girl to give her phone number to an ex-con?

And now, four months later, he’s calling me.

“I’ve gotten mixed up with my old friends,” he confesses softly. “And I’ve started doing drugs again.” I can hear the defeat in his voice.

My heart is heavy. He was so hopeful when I met him a few months ago. So confident. And now…

“I’ve been looking through old phone numbers,” the man continues, “and I remember that you were so sweet and encouraging. I was just wondering if maybe you would pray for me.”

What else can I do? I feel so helpless.

“Can I pray for you right now?” I ask. The man agrees. Taking a deep breath, I plead on behalf of this broken man.

“Father, thank you for your grace and forgiveness…” I ask God to be with this man, to bring him good friends, to help him get connected with a good church and a recovery support group. “…And most of all, may he know how much you love him…”

When I finish, the man thanks me. “That was so sweet. I really appreciate it.”

As I hang up, I still wonder if I did the right thing. But what else could I have done? “Always be prepared to give an answer… for the hope that you have,” we’re encouraged in I Peter 3:15. Hope – that’s what this man needed.

Is there someone God has brought in your path who is in need of HOPE? Are you prepared to give the reason for the hope that you have? All you can do is point that person to the One who is the source of all hope – Jesus. And pray that he or she will cling to that hope. It’s a hope that does not disappoint us.

Going Vertical!
MJ

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“You’re worthless! You’re stupid! You’ll never amount to anything!”

The clanking of heavy chains punctuated the harsh taunts as Gloria dragged Pastor Steve around the room of our East Asia Fresh Start seminar. Her sagging shoulders and pained expression revealed that this was more than just a role-play. Squirming in my seat, I cringed as the scenario was played out before me.

It had started with a question. “Who has hurt you the most in your life?” Pastor Steve had asked Gloria.

“My father,” she had responded without hesitation. “He is always criticizing me, always telling me I’m not good enough.” Though Gloria said she had forgiven him, it was clear that she was still affected by his negative opinion of her.

“I’m going to represent your father,” Pastor Steve had then explained. “I want you to wrap this chain around me and drag me around the room.” With a slightly skeptical look, Gloria agreed. But quickly the painful reality of what this represented became apparent. Gloria’s normally cheerful face clouded as Pastor Steve voiced the negative comments and criticism of her father. Soon she was in tears, as were most of the others in the room.

After what seemed an eternity, Pastor Steve told her she could stop. “Do you want to keep dragging your father around with you?” he asked her gently. “Do you want to keep defining yourself by his opinion of you?” Gloria shook her head emphatically.

“Are you ready to forgive your father and let him go?” She threw down the chains she’d been holding as if they were poisonous snakes. “Yes! I want to forgive him.”

At Pastor Steve’s encouragement, Gloria prayed aloud, voice quavering with emotion. “God, I forgive my father for rejecting me, for criticizing me, for judging me. I don’t want to carry this bitterness anymore! I let it go right now!”

“Now do you want to hear what your Heavenly Father thinks about you?” asked Pastor Steve softly. “He says that you are beautiful. He says that you are precious. He says you are valuable. He says He has good plans for you. He says you are His beloved daughter, in whom He is well pleased! You have the best Papa! He loves you so much!” Tears rolled down Gloria’s cheeks as the truth of the words began to take effect.

“I have the best Papa! I have the best Papa!” A smile broke out as she repeated the words over and over. “I have the best Papa!”

What about you? Are you dragging around someone that you haven’t forgiven? Is that person’s opinion of you drowning out what God says about you? You can’t fully receive the truth of who your Heavenly Father says you are until you FORGIVE the one who has hurt you, RELEASE the person and the effects to God, and allow Him to heal those deep wounds in your heart. Let go of bitterness and unforgiveness today and receive the love and acceptance that your Papa has for you! You have the best Papa anyone could ever have!

“I have loved you with an everlasting love…”
“…and underneath are the everlasting arms.”
Jeremiah 31:3a (NRSV), Deuteronomy 33:27a (NKJV)

Going Vertical!
MJ

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Abuela! She’s alone – what if something happens to her? It was my responsibility to care for my 101-year-old grandmother, who I call “Abuela” (grandma in Spanish). But in a moment of distraction, I’d left her unattended. And now an inexplicable sudden fear makes me rush back to the room, just in time to see her trying to get up from the wheelchair on frail, weak legs. As she wavers and starts to fall, I realize I won’t reach her in time. I try to call to her, but the words get stuck in my throat. “Abue-”

I wake myself up with the strangled cry. Sitting up in bed, I stare into the darkness, still shaking. It was just a dream, I whisper into the empty room. Just a dream.

My family recently made the very difficult and emotional decision to move my 101-yr-old grandmother into a Christian nursing home in another state, closer to more of the family. Debilitating strokes had left Abuela unable to dress herself or use the restroom unaided. A simple transfer from the bed to the wheelchair could take two or three people on an especially weak day. And the memory loss and confusion of developing dementia meant she had to be monitored constantly. We loved having her with us. But after four and a half years of caring for her daily needs, it got to be too much. It was time for a change.

Though all the extended family agree this is the best decision, I still struggle with feeling guilty. It feels like we are abandoning Abuela. Every concerned look from friends, every sympathizing smile, every “how are you doing – really?” seems to confirm my underlying fear of being judged and misunderstood.

Jesus knows what it’s like to be judged and misunderstoo. Even His closest friends couldn’t see what His true purpose was. They were waiting for Him to overthrow the Roman government and establish His reign on earth. Many times Jesus asked them, “Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?” (Mark 16:17-18, NIV).

Yet Jesus never lost sight of His purpose. John tells us that He “knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God.” Even faced with the judgement, betrayal and abandonment of His friends, Christ drew strength from knowing He had the approval and acceptance of His heavenly Father.

Am I willing to be misunderstood? With vivid images of the traumatic dream still before me, I struggle with my condemning thoughts in the wee hours of the morning. Even if others don’t agree with the decision my family made to move Abuela to a nursing home, can I let it go? Once again, there alone in the dark, I decide to release my feelings of guilt, self-condemnation, judgement, and fear of others’ opinions. I give it all to the One who sees all, knows all, and does not judge me. He is the only One who truly understands me.

Going vertical!
MJ

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