True Purpose

“I think you are all going to be blown away by what I have written,” he said.

This was such a bold statement from someone who was about to share an excerpt from his manuscript with a roomful of strangers. Most of us were cautious about letting anyone hear what we had written for fear of ridicule. Not this guy. He was all out there, ready to wow us.

The person in charge told him to go ahead. The next few minutes, which seemed like hours, became one long stream of consciousness with not many stops along the way, such as pauses where punctuation had been added. A good edit job would not have helped because the content was so confusing.

Details of a hitman, a machine gun, and the typical violin case housing a weapon were all there. As he read, I tried to visualize what he said, and just as I had an image form, it was quickly erased like on an Etch A Sketch that was violently shaken.

There was a lot of blood, maiming, and murder. Just dangling pieces of information that made absolutely no sense, and I wasn’t the only one not getting it. He would read the names of characters who would appear and exit quickly just because they could, for no reason at all, without any depth.

I looked at the other faces around me, and they all were frowning deeply. We all wanted to like it, we all were trying to find a shred of something to cling to, but right as it would get to a place where I thought it was taking a turn for the better, he would plunge us back into a dark area of nothingness. Random pieces of scenes and fragmented sentences with no substance kept on coming.

My mind couldn’t take it anymore as it searched for understanding. Instead of a sample reading, it felt like I was undergoing a form of brainwashing where I was supposed to make sense of what he was presenting and accept it. He had set the stage by saying this was right up there in excellence, like Moses reading the Ten Commandments. What was I not getting?

When he uttered his last sentence, he said smiling brightly,

“Isn’t it great?”

I looked to the ceiling to avoid eye contact as he was seated across from me. I was trying to give the impression that I was in deep thought. When really, I was trying to recover from the mental assault we had all just experienced.

The silence in the room was like none I had encountered before. There was throat clearing and hard swallows as we all tried to come up with a response. This was why we were here. Getting hit by a truck was all I could imagine.

We met weekly in a classroom at a church as fellow writers to discuss what we were working on. And the goal was to get feedback on how to improve and where we were hitting the mark perfectly.

He was expecting us to comment, and no one could think of anything to say. I could tell that the man running the group was calculating some thought, as was I. The only thing that came out of my mouth was,

“After hearing it out loud, how do you think you did?”

It was a clever trick I had seen Randy Jackson use as a judge on American Idol. When a singer was at their worst, he would turn it around and have them explain their view rather than give his opinion. It was a way to discuss without causing any harm.

And none of us wanted to make him feel bad. He thought what he had put down on paper would be the next New York Times bestseller.

“I think I could clean it up in a few places,” he said.

“Like where?” I asked.

“I could take out a few of the killing scenes because that got to be a bit much.”

I was out. Someone else, though, picked up on that and began to explain how to improve. Another attendee pointed out another aspect where he could rearrange some things for better meaning. Instead of taking in the ideas gratefully, he got angry, hastily put away his manuscript, and said,

“You don’t get it.” That was the first thing he said all evening I understood.

We were the problem, not him.

As I went to more of these sessions, I noticed that the best writers had extreme difficulty exposing what was on their pages. That is how I felt. Like I was letting reckless people look after my children. I recall one woman reading the most enchanting children’s story with a timid voice.

“I don’t think it’s my best,” she stated at the end.

“Why?” I asked. It was so well done.

“It sounds boring.”

“How many times have you read it?”

“Too many.”

“That’s why. Put it aside and then come back to it. It will be brand new to you then.”

“I feel like something is missing, though.”

“While you were reading it, I kept seeing it as a pop-up book where each page is three-dimensional versus flat.”

“Oh! I like that idea! I already have an interested publisher. I just felt like I needed it to stand out in the crowd from other material like this, and that would help.”

On another occasion, a woman gave us a glimpse into her recent work. Without much fanfare, she led us into a world of a man who had committed a crime and was on a prison bus, pondering his existence. It was easy to get caught up in the storyline, and her words were vivid. You could feel the anxiety of this character coming right through, along with his deep regret.

We all were awestruck at her talent. She was very unassuming looking with her hair half combed, a dirty, stained tee-shirt, and stretchy pants that had seen too many days. I knew her background as a single mom who was struggling like I was at the time. I had engaged in conversation with her to listen and tell her that what she was going through would have a good outcome.

I had no idea she housed such a gift inside.

“That was amazing,” said the leader.

“Really? I thought you wouldn’t like it. I almost threw the whole thing away yesterday.”

“No. I think you should keep going with it and see where it leads you. You have the start of something great.”

“I usually don’t write about topics like this. I write erotic romance novels.”

It was one of those moments where you think you heard wrong, and inwardly you are saying to yourself…huh?

The look on his face told me I had heard correctly.

Stumbling over himself, he said,

“Go in this direction. See where God takes you with it.”

“I guess so. Writing smut is easy for me.”

It was like being punched directly in the chest.

He looked at me to add help to the situation, and I was thinking,

“You are in charge, buddy, not me.”

“Smut just flows off my pen so easily.”

This felt like it was turning into an after-hours 1-900 phone chat. Before she got into any further details, I said,

“Maybe God wants you to do something else. What you have been doing was just for a period of time until you got to this point.”

I was trying to tone it down and break the uncomfortable feelings I sensed from all around me. She was being honest, so I didn’t want to be anything but delicate in how I addressed it.

I had seen a lot of nonverbal reactions in my time, but the expressions around the table were unreal. Wide-eyed and pale, I think most of them were shocked to their core. My goal was to get her to see she was better than where she had been, and she needed to embrace it.

“Your writing is from God. You know that, right?”

“I never thought of it that way,” she said. “I just did it.”

“God wants you to be aware of the idea that you can tell a story that you are given, and it will have deep meaning to many people. Maybe the genre you were writing was limiting God speaking through you.”

No one in that room would have ever read what she said was her usual. Well, maybe one guy, but I could tell by the muted reaction that most would not have touched it with a ten-foot pole.

“You have a choice. You can do what is easy, or you can move to where you have never been and see what you are made of.”

She had been in a comfort zone where what she produced would show up without effort, but now she had to put some work into it with genuine feelings. Right away, she was ready to throw the entire thing into the trash because she believed it wasn’t good. But, when she got outward recognition and support, telling her the truth, then she was willing to keep on going.

Moving from one place of being into another isn’t something most of us excitedly sign up for. We like safety nets and the false assumption that life will somehow change before us if we keep on doing what we have always done. We cannot walk a higher road until we decide to get on another path. That is the scary part. Leaving behind what is familiar to seek out something that is calling us to unknown territory. Sometimes we need another voice in our lives to come along and tell us we can do it.

Many creative or spiritually gifted people often hide their talents for fear of what others will think. Proverbs 29:25 explains,

The fear of human opinion disables; trusting in God protects you from that. (Message)

There’s that word again: trust. And if you have been criticized or hurt in the past, it’s easy to want to protect yourself. So you self isolate and cut yourself off from the world.

The other illusion is that we are just a tiny drop in an ocean of others who are so much better than we are. What do we have to offer the world? We convince ourselves that we aren’t anyone of value so that painting goes undone, the book isn’t written, the speech is never delivered, and a healing prayer is never spoken. It’s just another way to keep ourselves safely tucked away out of the limelight. Yet in Proverbs 18:16, this is stated,

“A man’s gift makes room for him.” (NKJV)

So instead of sitting on the sidelines making excuses while God waits to do the best divine work ever in your life, be willing to step into the real reason why you were created and live out your true purpose.

The Right Road

“I think dad has something for you outside,” she said.

“What is it?” I asked.

“You better go see.”

She walked with me to the shed that was at the back of the garage. At first, I didn’t see it until he began to push it toward me.

“This is your bike.”  It was much bigger than my other one that had training wheels.

It was a beauty painted a bright lime green with a flowered banana seat to match and handlebars that were designed to make it look like a motorcycle. I jumped on it so he could adjust it to my height.

“Let’s give it a try,”he said.

This was the first time I was to ride without the help of two extra small wheels. I had reached the age of liberation, and I was thrilled.

When I started to walk toward the driveway with it, he redirected me by saying,

“Not that way. We have to go through the backyard and go on Norway.”

This was how I became introduced to the fact that I was banned from riding freely on the street in front of our house. It had something to do with it being the 1970’s, having the neighborhood filled with teen drivers galore and people zooming so fast that the living room floor vibrated when they roared by.

My mother was adamant that I not put one toe toward that direction for fear of my safety. The route behind our house never had a single vehicle ever drive on it, so she knew I wouldn’t get run over while practicing. My dad hung on to the back while I pedaled to teach me to balance, and in no time I was moving along quite easily. It was all so exciting at first until monotony set in from seeing the same scenery.

I often wondered when I looked out  our front window and saw other kids gliding by why they weren’t quarantined to a dull, obsolete street like I was. Where were their concerned parents? These children were right out in the street living life on the edge.

A neighbor friend rode her bike over one day and asked if I could join her.

I ran in the house and got permission with the usual stern response,

“Yes, but only on Norway Street.”

It was futile to argue as all of my attempts prior had fallen flat.

I backed out from the garage and started walking through the yard to the gate.

“Let’s go ride on the other street,” she said

“I can’t. My mom won’t let me. She thinks it isn’t safe because cars go by so fast.”

“I do it all the time,” she whined.

This conversation went on all the while we walked through the back alley. She was wearing down my already fragile resistance.

“My mom lets me go wherever I want to. Yours treats you like a baby.”

How was I supposed to deal with that? The more she talked the more I was convinced that one small jaunt elsewhere wouldn’t hurt me.

“Okay,” I said.

I turned myself in a direction I had never gone before. The wind whipping through my hair felt better than ever. Just as I would begin to relax, however, I would recall that I was on a forbidden thoroughfare. I quickly checked over my left shoulder and then my right to be sure no one was following and reporting back to headquarters.

Moments into this glorious and freeing experience, I saw a familiar figure up ahead. It was one of my three brothers!

There was no denying what I was up to, and all members of the household knew the rules that were set for me because they had gone through the same thing.

There was no getting around him or fleeing the other way. I had to go past him and face the consequences. As I went by him, he said,

“You aren’t supposed be on this street.”

That’s all he said in the most calm, quiet manner I had ever heard. While I was expecting yelling and ranting and being dragged into the house, that was his only reaction. His unpredictable response threw me straight into fear. I made a beeline for where I was supposed to be.

“Are you in trouble?”

“Probably.”

“I need to go home, ” I said after a few minutes. My momentary adventure had turned the afternoon quite sour.

I put my bike away and noticed that the station wagon was gone.

I walked into the house and found it to be empty and quiet. Just before leaving the kitchen, my brother materialized.

“Mom is gone shopping, so I’m in charge. I didn’t tell her that I saw you riding on the street, and I won’t. Just don’t do it again.”

I should have collapsed with relief at his generous offer, but that was when the tightness in my chest began, and I couldn’t rid myself of it.

I kept replaying the scene over in my head and feeling guilty for not being given a proper sentencing.

I tossed and turned all night, dreaming of being caught, and waking up drenched in sweat from nightmares. I woke up to the sound of my mom working in the kitchen.  How was I going to face her at breakfast? Like ripping off a band aid, I decided to get it over with as quick as I could.  I sprang out of bed, flung open my bedroom door as the floodgate of my tears rushed down my face.

Crying did not relieve the crushing weight on my chest.  It intensified the problem and left me only able to gulp and my vocal cords to fail me.

“What is wrong?” she said looking up at me from the kitchen table.

I saw her give me the usual registered nurse scan to check my coloring, dehydration level, and my pupil size.  When you have six kids, and one comes staggering out of her bedroom at an early hour in the summertime, no good is usually going to come of it.  She was probably getting ready to grab a basin just in case I was about to throw up.

“Don’t you feel good?” she asked.

The compassion in her voice just made me cry harder.  I was not worthy of being asked if I was alright.  I had committed a crime without punishment, and I couldn’t handle it.

The sniffs and shudders continued until I got myself under control and admitted my wrong doing in understandable English.

“So, you rode your bike on the street that you aren’t supposed to?”

“Y-y-yes,” I said.

“Do you promise never to do that again?”

I nodded.  It was easier than trying to speak.

“Then I won’t take your bike away this time.  But, if you ever do it again, you can’t ride it anymore.  Do you understand?”

Another nod as she handed me a tissue.

“Okay.  What do you want for breakfast?”

I couldn’t believe the fortune I had struck at not having something bad befall me after going out of my way to blatantly go against her orders.  She had every right to send me to my room for however long she wanted.  My bike should have been locked up for weeks.  But, none of that happened and instead, I was given a bowl of cereal and a glass of juice.

I found out many years later the behind the scene conversation that my brother had with her.  Apparently, he had told her he had seen me even though he told me he wouldn’t.  I guess his theory was that if he said that to me, and made her aware of my disobedience, then she could be on the lookout for any future rebellion on my part.  My sobbing confession made my mom see that my conscience was alive and healthy, and she could trust that I was not going to put myself into that predicament again.

In my walk with God, and in the times when I have messed things up, it has been demonstrated to me the type of approach that my brother took.  Instead of lashing out, and bringing down the hammer, my misgivings are often shown to me in subtle, non-threatening ways so I can make some changes.  And, the only reason why those mishaps are revealed to me is because of the great love of God.  We are here to live a life that is joyful and rewarding not riddled with shame and guilt.  When we find ourselves veering off into the wrong lane or one that isn’t for our highest good, we can depend on the reliability and faithfulness of heaven to put us back on the right roadbike

(My old bike in the rafters in storage)

Accused

He was at it again.  With poor aim, he flicked peas to the amusement of his comrades. I dodged the green bullet he sent my way by swaying to the left.  He set his sights on the girl who was eating her lunch quietly next to me.  How had I ended up sitting across from him?  Had he forgotten the events of less than twenty-four hours? John ‘the tomato’ was living life on the edge for whatever reason I was not aware of. He earned his nickname because his face was round and turned bright red when he was angry or got caught doing his daily devious deeds.  He was taking his chances while we were under the watch of a woman straight out of Nazi Germany.

She plainly announced her presence with a strong nicotine odor and a dragon voice to match.  An entire table of energetic smiling children would freeze with utensils in mid-air as she slithered by with a slow deliberate stroll, darting her squinting eyes looking for infractions.  All verbal communications would stop when she locked her eyes on a child, and pensive normalcy would not resume until she continued onward with her patrol.

When she decided that the noise had gotten on her last nerve, she would pick up a microphone and yell,

“BE QUIET!” with decibels that could have shattered the sound barrier.  We never knew when she would blow.

The lunch room was located in the elementary school’s gymnasium to conserve space.  An orange partition was set up to confine us for crowd control, and to serve as a means for public humiliation.  If a student was apprehended for breaking one of her laws, he or she was immediately dispatched to the ‘the wall’ with nose pressed against it for the rest of us to see.

The day before, I had witnessed her approach John from behind, grab his shirt by the collar with her talons and drag him off to a spot.   There was no wrongdoing on his part that any of us had seen.  She had decided to punish him just because she could.

He had beat the wall with his fists screaming,

“I didn’t do anything!  I want my mom!  I didn’t do anything!” True to form, his face was a brilliant shade of crimson.   Usually, I didn’t feel bad for him because he generally was guilty of the crime, but this time had been different.  There had been no offense to afford him the trip up there with his backside to us.

So it was beyond me why he would want to tempt fate to be singled out again.

I heard her approach with my right ear. When in a situation where threats abound, the senses become more keen.   It was the familiar squish sound of soft soled mandatory cafeteria shoes along with the perfume cigarette scent she wore like a badge of honor. John sat up straight and ceased fire of his vegetables.   She bent down underneath our table and brought up a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that had been trampled by numerous shoes.

“Who does this belong to?” she hissed.

We all shook our heads to indicate it wasn’t any of ours.  Without warning, the tomato pointed his dirty pudgy finger at me and exclaimed,

“It’s hers.  I saw her throw it.” A bold faced lie.  The kid who had been wrongly blamed the day before was targeting me.  Any compassion I had felt for him melted away forever.

I glanced up to face off with one of my biggest terrors in human form.

“Is this yours?” she bellowed with her red lips in a snarl.  The entire room went silent.

“No.  I already ate mine.”  I had been done eating for quite awhile and had disposed of my brown lunch bag.

“It’s hers!  I saw her!” he said again. This time his friends joined in with him as well as others around us.

She stood over me and presented the item in question directly underneath my nose.

“Eat it.”

“It isn’t mine,”  I said trying to convince her of the truth. It wasn’t working.

“You either eat this or you will have detention.”

I wan’t one of those kids who got detention!  I had not ever been sent to the wall.  Detention meant the beginning of years of juvenile delinquency, and that was not who I was.  And, I had been told to never go against an authority figure.

The first bite was crunchy as gravel from the floor mixed in with the bread on the surface of my teeth.  I gagged at first but managed.  There was no liquid to wash it down so each sandy bite felt like the desert. I could hear the stifled giggles as those around watched me eat a meal that wasn’t mine.  Her dark shadow enveloped me until she was satisfied with my last swallow.

“We don’t throw food here,” she said as she sauntered away.

When I got home from school that day, I was greeted with the usual question:

“How was school today?”

“I had to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich off the floor, ” I said.

“WHAT?”

I explained the event to my mom.

“Why did you eat it?”

“I was told if I didn’t that I would get detention.”

This situation would have been harrowing for any parent to hear, but she was a registered nurse who kept our home sterile like a hospital.  There was always a can of Lysol lurking in a cupboard waiting to be sprayed.

“Don’t ever do that again, ” she said.

I thought that was the end of the matter, but that evening I could hear her relating the tale to my dad once he got home from work.  From my vantage point in the house, the news wasn’t going over so well.  I was ushered into a remote location in the basement that was nearly sound proof while a phone call was made to the principal.

Before bed, my dad stepped into my room and said,

“If she ever makes you or another child do something like that again, say something right away.  If she does anything that isn’t right, tell an adult.  She will be fired.”

I went into the lunchroom the next day with a new sense of power.   It was like someone had slayed the dragon or at least put out her fire.

I proceeded as usual to get my small carton of milk to go along with my bag lunch. I made sure to distance myself from John’s table.  I had no sooner been seated when I sensed her approach.  With a fake loving hand on my shoulder she said in a voice so soft,

“I didn’t mean for you to eat that sandwich.  There must have been some mistake.”  I looked her directly in the eye without a trace of fear or humility.

“You made me eat that sandwich that wasn’t mine and you know you did.  My dad said you will be fired if you ever do that again.”  She dropped her hand away, blinked rather rapidly with her mouth contorting in shock.  I had found my fifth grade voice. She had suddenly lost hers. She turned on her heel and marched away.

There have been other times in my life where I have been in situations where I felt alone in the face of uncomfortable circumstances.  However, I have learned that just because I feel that way doesn’t make it true.  Just like my dad supported me, we have access to our Creator who loves us so deeply that a plan will be enacted on our behalf if we ask for it. A heartfelt prayer asking for assistance can change things around in an instant. We can go from helpless to hopeful very quickly just by spending some time in the presence of the One who sees it all.   There will be times when maybe the truth of the matter is only known between us and heaven, but we can find comfort knowing that we are not walking on earth in solidarity.  Someone is always in your corner.  Even when you are unjustly accused.

peanutbutter