Friday, May 29, 2009

I Went to Jail…

…but it turns out I went for a different reason than I’d planned!

Bad choices spiraled a friend into a bad place -- physically, emotionally, spiritually, and legally. I wrote him a letter when I heard he was in jail, but I felt a nudge to go and visit. He was only allowed one visitor each week. His wife lives far away, and I didn’t know if anyone had seen him that week. I called the jail, but they couldn’t tell me if he’d had a visitor or not. I didn’t have two hours to spend on a wild goose chase, but I couldn’t not go. For some reason, that nudge just wouldn’t go away.

So I appeared at the appointed time, stuffing myself into a jam-packed waiting area. It was like standing in an elevator that didn’t move. Same unspoken rule: no talking! Everyone stared straight ahead, peering through a long glass wall at a stern, uniformed woman behind a tightly secured desk. Instead of surround sound, it was surround sad, mad and fear. We were not there because we wanted to be, but because we had to be.

After 20 minutes of waiting in this silent, unmoving limbo lunacy, I couldn’t take it any more. I asked the fellow next to me, “Is this like a bakery? Do you take a number?” He looked scared. “No. No number!” he said in his best English. The spirit of oppression in that room was suffocating. On a six-foot bench along the side wall sat a large man with his pregnant wife and their toddler who kept throwing down her bottle and running into the motley crowd. The mother’s sharp words to the child put us more on edge, as the father gave chase, and then it would all start again. Other than that commotion, we were mostly catatonic, except for two young boys at the front. They were brothers, five and four, and their manners were impeccable.

To break my own boredom and, hopefully, theirs, I asked their mother if we could play a game. She seemed to regard me as a cross between Captain Kangaroo and the Cookie Monster, but nodded okay. I started, “Hey you guys, do you know what a beehive is?” “No,” was their reply. “Have you ever tasted honey?” “Yes,” they offered shyly. “Who makes our honey?” Starting to trust me now, I prompted them, “Bees?” “Yes!” they exclaimed. And we were off for five minutes with a hand game they caught onto right away. I told them how smart they were and loved the back and forth of their playfulness. This could be a long night, so we may as well do something with the space we shared.

Suddenly, the door opened and the feared uniformed woman checked ID’s and let us in. Into what exactly, was not clear. Everyone lined up in front of her desk for another long wait. By now I was thinking it’s almost as difficult to go to jail as it is to be in jail, but I was on a mission to be my friend’s one visitor that week. It’s the least I can do, so no more whining, girl!

I found myself, out of 40 people in line, in front of a bench on which sat my two new little friends. They were next to their grandmother whose face had been the saddest one by far in the first waiting area. Next to them sat the same man who’d been on the foyer bench; this guy knew his place on the bench! I introduced myself to the boys who happily told me their names. They had been so enamored of the bee game we’d skipped formalities! Their grandmother said, “Say, Hello, Miss Phyllis!” The boys and I broke out into another game: “Row, Row, Row Your Boat!” all the way through, dropping off the last word until you only say “Row!” The noise in the room let us get away with it. I was grateful for the companionship. I hoped the uniformed woman wouldn’t take this moment of light-heartedness away from us as I waited to see my friend and, the boys, as they told me, waited to see their daddy.

By now I’d been in line so long, I’d only have about seven minutes with my friend on the other side of wherever he was. And he didn’t even know I was there to see him! So my evening was pretty much gone, but I was on a mission. No way was I going to skip out now. Besides, I had friends. It’s nice to have friends in high places, but I was really enjoying friends in low places this evening; thank you very much.

Half way through the song I heard my friend’s name called. “Who’s here to see him? The guard wants to see you.” I wasn’t sure why, but I guessed I was getting bumped ahead of the others. Stepping past everyone to the front of the line, including my friends’ mother, I heard the warden say my name. “Yes?” I responded. “No visitors,” was the blunt reply.

It hit me like a bucket of cold water. All I could come back with was, “Why?” The guard then informed me he already had a visitor this week. “Oh, sorry,” I said. “I called and the jailer couldn’t tell me.” “We have 300 inmates in here,” she told me. “It’s their job to let visitors know.” “Thank you,” was all I could manage. Deflated, I walked back to say goodbye to my boys and head home.

Had I failed? Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Besides, the boys were happy I was back. I explained I couldn’t see my person inside, like they could. They were special. We finished the song and gave each other high fives. As we quickly reviewed the beehive bit, I realized we had bonded and that it would be hard to leave. I suggested they show their daddy what they learned, because they were so smart and he would be so proud. I told them I would pray and ask Jesus to watch over them as they grew up, and the next time we met, maybe we could do the beehive and singing game again. They nodded with big trusting smiles. I pulled a dollar bill and four quarters out of my purse, pressed them into their little hands, and told them to buy something fun, whispering a prayer for what those hands would do some day. I bid them quiet farewells, with the boys waving and discussing which was better -- the silver coins or the bills.

In an instant, the experience was over, except for the man at the end of that bench calling out, “Hey, if I’d known you were giving out money, I’d have sung that song myself -- and in Spanish!” A lot of us laughed, really laughed, and it felt good. It was a moment of much needed relief where there was none to be had. It took his calling out to me to let me know my trip to jail was for a reason different than my first intention. I went with one plan, but God turned it into another.

Ultimately, that visit amounted to no more than a few minutes out of my schedule. Still, that time counted for so much to me and, perhaps, those two young boys, their mother, and even their grandmother whose body language and facial expressions changed before my eyes. Who knows? Maybe even the large man on the bench with the frustrated wife lightened up for a minute or two. We will never all be in that same place together again. But that moment was engineered by a loving heavenly Father, who simply asks us to report for duty.

I can’t gauge anyone else’s reaction that evening, but I know mine. Now when I pray for the man who informed me there were no numbers in the waiting area, and for the others with whom I shared that evening -- including the woman who told me I couldn’t see my friend (a woman whose sternness I understand because I once worked in a prison) -- I don’t ever expect to know how their stories turned out. I simply thank God for the opportunity to bring His love into a loveless moment. He’ll take it from there.

But it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t listened to that nudge and gone to jail.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Garden Redeemed

Enjoy these spring, post-Easter reflections from my friend -- Cynthia Schuette, of Midland, Michigan:

Have you ever found yourself coming full circle?

Maybe after several -- perhaps even dozens of years -- you’ve returned to your old elementary school to read a book to second-graders. Maybe you’re sitting in the old high-school bleachers, watching the younger crowd maneuver through life, and you’re thinking -- if I knew then what I know now . . . . Or, perhaps, you’re facing a familiar circumstance or trial and wondering if God is trying to tell you something.

Maybe He is.

Earlier this week, I was struck by the fact that Jesus was in the garden when Judas carried out Satan’s desire to betray Jesus to His enemies (John 13:27).

It was also in a garden, the Garden of Eden, where Satan’s desire to derail Adam and Eve succeeded. He tempted them to go against God’s will and eat the forbidden fruit. What wicked glee Satan must have had as he watched the first human beings God created turn their backs on Him.

Even in this dark garden moment, God, the lover of your soul and mine, had a plan. One day, the last Adam would do what the first Adam did not. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus would choose the will of His Father over His own (Mark 14:36) and through the cross defeat the downward spiral to death. Through the cross, death has lost its victory -- forever.

This, of course, is the overriding source of joy and hope for those who believe. However, the message is also this: My God -- your God -- is in the redeeming business. He can bring you a second chance -- again. He can and will help you through it. How do I know this? I know that my Redeemer lives, and He loves the garden, too.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


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Thursday, May 7, 2009

She said…what?

“She said you took her paintings for your kids. I thought you should know how she feels because I bet I’m not the only one she’s telling.”

This call caught me totally by surprise and pierced my heart. The quote was from an elderly woman I’d considered a good friend. She was a Christian role model whose amazing life I tried to copy. Now she’s failing physically and mentally, but this report -- even in the context of encroaching dementia -- cut me to the quick. Where in my head and heart could I file these disturbing words? This woman, now bad-mouthing me, had regularly prayed for and encouraged me.

What happened? After she moved to the retirement center, I stopped by her home to dig up a rose bush she told me to take. Her son was there packing up the last of her stuff that no one wanted. She was a painter and, after family members selected all their favorite pieces, he saw no option but to haul the unwanted paintings off to the dump. It was terrifying to think of her work destroyed. Surely, there was some place for her finished artwork.

I rescued a dozen paintings and stored them in my husband’s office attic. I planned to someday give them to her grandchildren, the school auction committee, a library -- any place but the trash heap for her handiwork.

I had an equally hard time dumping what she said about me. I asked God to help me forgive the words that she wouldn’t have meant and never would have said before her illness. I remembered St. Paul’s words to the Galatians: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23a). Through these words, He settled my soul so that I could let go. Thank God that through Christ we are forgiven and can forgive! Our intentions are sometimes misinterpreted where feelings get hurt, and rifts are created, but Jesus reconciled us to one another.

Finally, I hauled the paintings to her nursing home and put them under her bed. As I left her room, I thanked God for His Words. Stored in my heart and mind, they reminded me to care more about what He thinks and knows about me than what others do.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Gift of a Mother’s Love

This May we celebrate Mother's Day and also observe National Foster Care Month. For many of the 513,000 American youth in foster care, it might well be a foster or adoptive parent, a grandmother, an aunt, an older sister, or another female relative whom they wish to thank and honor for raising them to be all they can be.

With more than 12 million alumni of foster care in this country, there are countless stories of inspirational women who have come forward to be "Mom" to a child in need.

If nothing changes in the United States by the year 2020, the following scenarios are expected to play out:
  • Nearly 14 million confirmed cases of child abuse and neglect will be reported.
  • 22,500 children will die of abuse or neglect, most before their fifth birthday.
  • More than 9 million children will experience the foster care system.
  • More than 300,000 children will “age out” of our foster care system, in poor health and ill-prepared for success in higher education, technical college, or the workforce.
  • 99,000 former foster youth, who aged out of the system, can expect to experience homelessness.

Here’s Tammy’s story. “I felt from a very young age I was called to be a foster mom. I believe my gift is the ability to nurture and love children.” No group of children is in more need of care then foster kids. Four years ago, Tammy and her husband made the decision to become foster parents. They contacted Lutheran Child and Family Services of Illinois* who helped them through the licensing process. “We were referred to LCFS by another foster mother in our community. The staff has always been there to offer me encouragement and listen to my concerns.”

Tammy is now a foster mother to four children ages 6 months to 10 years old, in addition to her four biological children. She sees the most important aspect of being a foster mom as giving a child a safe place to live and helping him realize his full potential. “These kids have so many gifts, but they need someone to take the time to recognize them and push them to succeed. Being a foster mom is the most amazing thing I have ever done.”

Being a foster mother is not an easy calling. Most children are in foster care because their own families are in crisis and unable to provide for their essential well-being. Like all young people, youth in foster care deserve and benefit from enduring, positive relationships with caring adults. The rewards of being a foster parent are in knowing you helped keep a child safe, taught a child to believe in himself, or just showed that someone cared.

Over the past two years, Lutheran Child and Family Services of Illinois, with the support of the Lerner Family Foundation and, most recently, a gift from the Christopher Family Foundation has significantly increased its capacity to recruit foster parents. As a direct result of the initiative, they have raised awareness, initiated prospective home referrals, licensed and developed homes and, ultimately, placed more children with families. In fact, over the past two fiscal years LCFS has licensed an additional 46 foster homes!

Still, much more help is needed. Now is the time to get involved. Please join LCFS in your State to address the needs of these children. You can help our nation’s most vulnerable children realize their full potential by considering the following items:

  • Become a foster parent: for more information see or call 800-363-LCFS.
  • Learn the facts about foster care at
  • Make a financial contribution to support the personal enrichment or education of a young person in foster care.
  • Wear a Blue Ribbon during May in support of National Foster Care Month.
    Support LCFS activities, such as the Christmas Drive, Back-to-School Drive, Wish List needs, etc.

Wherever it operates, LCFS is striving to provide safe and loving homes to as many foster children as possible, but your support is needed. Help us honor women like Tammy who answer the call to care for our most vulnerable youth, or consider whether you might be able to make room in your home for one of the thousands of children who are still waiting to receive the powerful gift of a mother’s love.

In Illinois, to inquire about other ways you might be able to support foster mothers and the children they care for, please contact Phillip L. Jiménez, LCFS director of development at or 708-488-5555.