Leaders Not Repeaters

I called our oldest daughter, Lauren to tell her that her dad and I were leaving town.  We would be spending three days in downtown Chicago and then traveling to a suburb of Chicago called Shumburg, to attend Family Life Marriage Conference.  Our adult children are very familiar with Family Life Marriage Conferences.  As they were growing up, Bill and I would sign up for the two-day get-away conference about every five years as we have found it necessary to review every so often, why God has joined us together.  We have found the conference extremely helpful for reminding us of God’s unique design for marriage and that He in fact gifted us to each other; for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and health, AND we are to like it and be happy about it, until death we do part! We have found the conference knocking us to our senses on more than one occasion. Family Life has been such a great tool for our marriage that when Lauren married her husband, Neil, we insisted on treating them to the conference weekend. We wanted to insure that they would start out on the right side of two-becoming-one.  On the day that I called Lauren, the conversation went something like this: “Your dad and I are going to Chicago for the Colliers real estate conference and then at the end of the week, we’ll attend Family Life.” Silence ensued on the other end of the line… after several seconds, Lauren quipped, “I hope you’re going as leaders and not repeaters.” I realized at that moment that she must believe that couples get to a point of “arrival” in marriage and in her mind, her parents should have arrived.  She and Neil, being married for six years, are obviously still in the early stage of, “to have and to hold”.

Arriving Friday evening, we entered the grand ballroom of the hotel where we proudly took our seats, front and center. There were over 400 couples in the room. As I scoped out the other couple participants, I took note of several “to-be married”, “just married”, “happily married for ten years or less”, and some “should have never married”. When the master of ceremonies asked for those married thirty years or longer to please stand, I fluffed my hair, straightened my tiara and stood with a straight back to receive the well deserved congratulatory applause. I turned to take my imaginary bow, my tiara sparkling. As I proudly faced the audience, I noticed only two or three other couples who fell into our age group.  My tiara began a slow slide from my gloating head.  If I had remembered my magic wand, I would have swirled it in the air, vanishing Bill and myself  from the room. With all eyes locked on us, I could only imagine the thoughts in the minds of these young couples who were the same ages as our children. Were they, like Lauren thinking that we belonged in the “should be graduates” group?  By all appearance, we did in fact fall into the same age category as the couple leading the weekend.

Family Life is committed to changing families, one marriage at a time. The conference touches on all the potential home wrecking topics such as: child rearing, submission, respect, and communication, just to name a few. This was our fourth time as attendees and we have found that with each conference, there is a new thought or idea that opens our eyes and catches our attention. I could only pray that this would be the case on this particular weekend if I was going to swallow my pride and rub elbow to elbow with this crowd of young marrieds.

As it happened, we shared our hotel with approximately one hundred very tall, capable high school basketball players. They were in Shumburg for a weekend basketball camp sponsored by Under Armor sport clothing. Under Armor’s marketing slogan is “Protect this House”.  Bill and I found this slogan more than fitting for our purpose of repeatedly attending the conference. We too want to “protect this house”, to build a strong marital foundation upon a rock, not sand, in order that we may leave a legacy of love and commitment for future generations.  C. S. Lewis said, “There are lots of things you can do with sand; but do not try building a house on it.”  We committed long ago to continually work together on the foundation of our marriage and family.  We see this work continuing until death we do part. Therefore, that meant overlooking age and overcoming the fact that we stuck out among the group of  young people.

Once we recovered from the initial shock of being the elders in the group, Bill and I settled in with the attitude that we would use the time to knock the rust off and affirm that we are in fact building our relationship on a solid foundation.  As by God’s divine appointment, the conference did in fact hit a few corroded spots in both Bill and me.  By the end of the second day, we were refreshed and  encouraged to have behind us some of the issues that the younger couples were just beginning to tread upon, which we also had addressed in the past, as well as some issues in our lives that have developed since becoming empty nesters.  The review was good for us.  We have a greater appreciation for our past and each other and are looking forward to the next thirty years.  At the end of the conference, we recommitted our lives to each other by reciting our marriage vows and determined that we are both prepared to be leaders, not repeaters.

I Will

The Weight of the World and a Sack of Corn

When I returned to Wanda to extend an invitation for lunch, she had a look of surprise on her face.  I approached her wheelchair and leaned over to block the noise of the busy downtown street.  Passers-by stepped around as I pressed closer to her.   I said, “Wanda, I would like you to be my guest for lunch today.” Her mouth opened suddenly as if to say something but no words came from her lips.  Again, she tried to speak. This time, just the word, “really?” uttered in a quiet, gentle tone.  She gazed in total disbelief.  I said, “the Lord told me to invite you to lunch.  Would you like to go?”  I was now focused on the smile that dominated her face.  Wanda’s smile was much like the one I remembered on the face of the homeless man that I first encountered many years ago as I passed a bag of potato chips to him through the car window.  I could tell by her reaction that she was having thoughts of what joining me for lunch might be like and truly desired to accept my invitation.

Chicago Artist - Spreading Cheer

My eyes quickly surveyed Wanda.  In the brief time that I stood in front of her chair, I was reminded of the hard life she must live. This poor, vulnerable, woman was weighted down by the plight of being handicapped, unable to work and dependent on others for her daily bread.  Her crippled legs were wrapped in elastic support stockings.  Through the stockings I could see her twisted and useless feet.  Her hair was short with streaks of gray and the defining lines around her eyes and mouth were prominent.  Wanda lowered her small cup onto her tattered blanket covered lap, took a deep breath and relaxed for a brief second as if she were relieved to see something or someone that offered a little hope.

Colliers Banner

Still smiling, she said, “I sure do thank you but I can’t go with you”.  She peered over the side of her chair and pointed with her eyes to the large sack that sat on the ground next to her.  “You see”, she said, someone brought this big sack of corn and left if for me today.  It’s heavy.”   I looked around her wheelchair and noticed several other bags hanging from the handles.  It was apparent that it was going to be a huge effort for Wanda to pack up her bags and blankets which resembled a small campsite, to go into the mall. At that point, I looked at her and asked what she would like for me to deliver to her for lunch.  “I sure would appreciate a sandwich from Walgreens.  Yes, that sure would be delicious.”  Walgreens was only a few yards away from where I stood.  My initial thought was how awful that she would consider a packaged sandwich from Walgreens a delicious meal.  I prodded her for what I thought would be a better choice.  When I realized that she was not going to offer an alternative, I told her that I would return shortly with her lunch.  She said, “If I’m not here when you get back, I’ll be just down the street.  Sometimes they make me move from this spot”. I assured her that I would not be gone long and that if she were not there, I would look until I found her.

Quote etched in granite on the front of the Chicago Tribune building

I decided that a Walgreens prepackaged sandwich would not be fitting for such a dear soul and found myself pointed back to the Macy’s food court for something fresh and hot.  Arriving on the second floor where the food court was located, I purchased a freshly made sandwich, a warm container of minestrone soup, an apple and a drink.  Pushing through the crowd of shoppers and making my way once again to the street, I felt disappointed that Wanda was not able to join me.  Shortly, Wanda came into site, exactly where I had left her.  The sun shone brightly overhead making a shadow on the concrete of a poor, crippled beggar.  There in the shadow was a woman named Wanda, who with dignity, was sitting in her wheelchair with a cup in hand.  I delivered her lunch, which, she was very grateful to have and said good-bye leaving behind my new friend with the weight of the world and a sack of corn.

My Name is Wanda

Our second day in Chicago began much the same as the day before.  Bill would attend the real estate conference and I would soul shop.   Because of our tiny hotel room, I stayed in bed in order to give him space to dress.  As I lay there, thoughts of activity on the street consumed me.  He gathered his things and headed out for the day.  I jumped up, threw on my jeans, brushed my teeth, and slid once again into my most comfortable pair of flats because I knew for sure that I would be on a long journey as I hit the streets of downtown Chicago.  I did not want to be distracted by having to keep up with my purse so, I placed dollar bills in both front pockets of my jeans along with my room key and cell phone.  The anticipation of  possibly putting a name to the face of the woman whom I studied through the plate-glass window or the likes of her, gave me a sense of great joy and excitement.

I feel I must qualify myself by saying that God bestowed on me the gift of giving.  However, the gift was never fully awakened in me until one afternoon while driving our oldest daughter Lauren, then eleven to her dance class.  In the typical busyness of life, we ran several errands before pulling into the dance studio parking lot.  One of the errands was a quick stop at the grocery store for necessities of milk, bread, and randomly, a large bag of potato chips.  While our three children were growing up, I lived my days in a mad rush.  Hurrying was the norm as was tuning out anyone who may be in need except the immediate family around me.  Such was the case on this particular day.

Chicago Pumping Station

After leaving the grocery store, running a few minutes late, I wheeled into the parking lot of the dance studio, expecting Lauren to jump out quickly.  To my complete surprise, she grabbed the bag of chips from the grocery sack and shoved them toward me and said, “Mom, give these to that man back there on the feeder road.”  I was stunned.  I had not even noticed a man on the feeder road.  I began to tell her why I should not give the bag of chips to the man on the feeder road.  Motherly lessons warning of impending dangers spewed from my mouth.  After all, had she not grasped the concept of “stranger danger” drilled into her over the years?   Persistently, Lauren insisted that I give the man the bag of chips and would not get out of the car until I gave her my word.  In an effort to get her into dance class, I relented with a begrudging promise to make the delivery.  With my promise held in her heart, Lauren happily gathered her things and closed the car door behind.

Inconvenienced and disgruntled by my daughter’s insistent demand, I made my way back around to the other side of the freeway feeder road which was in the opposite direction of home.   The intersection was very busy so I pulled off of the road.   At first glance, I did not see a homeless man and felt relief of possibly not making any contact with him.   The tension began to leave my body as I thought of pulling back onto the road when a glance to my left caught the man approaching my window.  My heart pounded in my chest with fear and utter disbelief with the thought that I was about to come eye to eye with a person of such despairing status.  I cautiously lowered my car window and insistently pushed the bag of chips toward him in the same way that Lauren had shoved it toward me.  Much to my surprise, a scraggly smile took over the man’s weary face as he delightfully accepted my small contribution.  As my hand released the potato chip bag into his hand, a scripture verse that I had read and heard since childhood took on life.  In the book of John 21:15-17, Jesus asked Simon Peter if he loved Him.  When Simon Peter responded, yes, Jesus said, “feed my sheep”.

Marilyn Monroe

“Good morning, my name is Wanda”.  She raised her head, looking up from her wheelchair, her frail hand reached up taking mine.   Her warm brown eyes had a depth that represented years of street survival.  “I’ve been unable to walk now for fourteen years.  I have a good roof over my head but I don’t get enough to eat.  I’m hungry”.  The last two words of her statement pierced my heart deeply –  “I’m hungry”.  Tears welled in my eyes as I released her hand and reached into the pocket of my jeans and pulled out a bill to drop into her cup.  In a quiet whisper she spoke the words, “God bless you”.  I gently patted her on the shoulder and said, “God bless you too, Wanda.”  Quickly turning with thoughts of inadequacy, I resumed my walk up the street.  Kind words and a few dollars would not be all that the Lord would require of me this time.  A block past the spot where Wanda sat, parked in her wheelchair, was a three-story mall with Macy’s as its anchor.  In haste, I darted into Macy’s hoping to escape the inner voice requiring more of my reserved spirit.  I rode the escalator to the second floor.  Directly in front of me as I stepped onto the second level was a food court crowded with professionals enjoying their freshly made lunches.  I paced back and forth from one food vendor to another wrestling with the all-consuming thoughts of Wanda.  Her eyes had permanently seared my memory and her words whispered repeatedly in my mind, “I’m hungry”.

After fifteen minutes of inward battle and several laps around the food court, I knew my assignment was to invite Wanda to be my guest for a warm meal.  The same arguments of impending danger that I used many years prior to this moment with Lauren surfaced as well as some arguments that were unique to the situation at hand.  After all, what would the employees and patrons of Macy’s think if they saw me wheeling this crippled beggar into the posh store? Jesus told Simon Peter to demonstrate his love for Him by feeding His sheep.  I located the elevator so that Wanda could get to the second floor of Macy’s. Resolving in my heart to be obedient to the words of Jesus, I proceeded outside to extend to Wanda my invitation to join me for lunch.

A Portrait of the Poor on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile

Today is not my first experience on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile.  I first walked the mile a year ago when Bill had a real estate conference to attend.  Neither one of us had any ideas about Chicago and couldn’t wait to search out all that the city had to offer.  When we arrived on that winter day in 2010, my senses were awakened to many of life’s greatest pleasures.  There were beautifully designed buildings of award-winning architecture on every site line, some very old historical buildings and some, more contemporary in style.  The delectable smell of Chicago style “dogs” with the aroma of kraut, and deep-dish pizza caught my attention on more than one city block.  The hustle and bustle of inner city life was a buzz in every form.  Taxicabs colored the streets with gold, and red, double-decked buses cruised tourist around the city of ten million with their deafening microphone announcements of every site of interest that a person could take in on an afternoon tour while being exposed to the very cold elements from atop a bus.

Chicago's Magnificent Mile

The Magnificent Mile is indeed magnificent in every sense of the word.  It is one of Chicago’s claims to fame as it boasts a full mile of shopping in over 400 of America’s most well known stores such as Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom’s, and not one but, two Macy’s – one on either end of the mile long stretch of shopper’s paradise.  I believe Macy’s wanted to be certain they captured every potential spender either on her way up or down “the mile”.   We strolled along taking in the sites.  I could see beads of sweat forming on Bill’s brow in the fifty-degree temperature.  As I observed the sweat phenomenon taking over, I knew for sure it was time to take him to the hotel and away from the singing of cash registers.  I was certain that once he was confined in the room, away from anything that looked or sounded like moldy money leaving his pocket, he would surely recover.  With an obvious case of anxiety taking over my dear husband, we went back to the hotel to allow him a time of recovery.  I was very accommodating to him as I silently mapped out in my head the experience that I would allow myself without him, the following day, while he attended the conference.

Downtown Chicago
The Chicago River - Downtown Chicago

The next morning, when I was sure that Bill was far, far away from my new-found paradise, I slid into my most comfortable pair of shoes and weighted my purse down with green and plastic.  There would be nothing to stop me this day!  In my mind, Chicago had no idea what was about to storm its street.  I was about to run the mile in record-breaking shopper speed.   However, as I left the hotel, I realized I had a false start.  The stores would not be opened for a few more minutes.

Just outside the hotel, was a quaint coffee shop where I could stay warm while waiting for the starter gun to sound.   I went inside, placed my order and pulled a chair up next to a large, plate-glass window that exposed the tantalizing view of my dream world.  I had just settled in with my warm cup of coffee when out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a woman sitting on the sidewalk.  It was obvious to me that she was in need.  She was dirty.  Her clothes didn’t match and were torn.  She held a small Styrofoam cup in her brown, stained hands in hopes of hearing the plink of a coin falling from time to time.   I intently studied the woman’s face.  Her lips were cracked and her skin was wrinkled and dry from the cold.  She had shallow eyes with dark circles.  Her head hung slightly and her shoulders slumped as though she carried shame.  Many, many people passed by.  They walked around her, behind and in front without acknowledgment.  I sat in disbelief as I watched the number of people who passed, simply ignoring her.  I sipped my coffee and stoically observed all of those who turned a blind eye and deaf ear to this poor woman calling for help.  How could this happen?  How did she get here?  What’s her name?  Does anyone see her?  Why is she seemingly invisible?   I sat in confusion pondering these thoughts over in my mind and the more I thought, the more I could feel my ideas of shopping taking on a new image.  I could feel my interest in the bargain basement waning.  Thoughts of Calvin Klein, Ann Taylor, Gucci and the likes began to fade into the background of the portrait of the poor, who ironically sit, begging for a single coin on the very street where daily, cash registers sing.