​The Random Puzzle Piece

I have often felt like the random puzzle piece picked up and tossed into the wrong box, never really fitting in anywhere. Have you ever forced a puzzle piece into a place it didn’t belong? Even though the shape is almost right the picture doesn’t match. That piece always gets pulled out and thrown back into the pile, hoping to find the right fit later.

Child holding a puzzle piece of home

It took me years to be comfortable in my own skin, to own my own space, and be content with who I am.

I was a “surprise” child, with a different father than my 4 older siblings. I didn’t fit in their puzzle.

My birth father had a family of his own. Somewhere on the planet, I have 6 half-brothers and sisters (one within a month of my birthday) I have never met. So that was not the puzzle I fit into. Although, I have always been curious about them.

Baby Rhonda with a neighbor in Cincinnati Ohio
Me with one of our neighbors, circa 1967.

I was born in Cincinnati and lived there until I was 2. My mom was going through a divorce in the 60s and in a dysfunctional relationship with my birth father, so I had barriers to overcome from the beginning. As a broken family we struggled (being a newly single mom in the 60s couldn’t have been easy) we moved a lot and there wasn’t a lot of stability.

I remember being sad, my mom cried a lot, spent a lot of time in bed, she had headaches. As kids, we were shuffled about between sitters, friends whoever could look after us. My older siblings went to live with their dad, but that wasn’t my family. I think the younger of my brothers, who is seven years my senior, struggled with same feelings, not fitting in the family mold. He must have spent more time with mom in my early days because we have always had a bond. I think the break made all of us long for that perfect family.

Boby Rhonda's first birthday
My first birthday.

One of my first technicolor memories is of me stealing my brother’s matchbox cars, which were sacred, when he tried to take them back I hit him with a little wind-up music box that looked like a TV. Even though I wailed on him, we were tight.

Another of my early memories is being shuffled into the back seat of a Ford Mustang very late at night with everything we owned rolled up in a pink chenille bedspread. I remember it vividly because the chenille left a pattern on my face where I had fallen asleep on top of it. I was probably two or so. When I woke up we were in a new place, Lisle, Illinois, in a house with new people, my aunt and uncle. I don’t know if they knew it then, but they were soon to become my new mom and dad.

James Monroe sitting at the kitchen table among beer and booze bottles
My biological father, James Monroe.

My mom struggled with depression and at the age of four, my mom’s relationship with my father had fallen apart, she had a breakdown, couldn’t hold down a job and was struggling. She gave me up for adoption to her sister, my aunt. My two cousins, became my brother and sister, I think they were 16 and 18. While my new family loved me, took care of me, fed and clothed me, I still didn’t seem to fit. I didn’t understand what had happened to my family, what happened to my brother, where did he go? I had so many questions but as a kid, I didn’t know how to ask them and if I did, I couldn’t process the answers.

I remember riding on the elevator for my adoption hearing. It was in a big building and I was afraid of the elevator. I didn’t want to get in. I was told if I behaved, we would get milkshakes afterward. Isn’t it funny, the things that you remember? After that day, I became someone else. How strange for a 4-year-old.

At the adoption my name was changed, not just my last name, but my first name, too. I remember struggling with that, not knowing when or how to answer people. I think it started as a nickname before the adoption, as I was named after a country song, and when it played, I danced. But that day everything shifted. I had a new mom and dad, new brother and sister.

Baby Rhonda with a neighbor on a blanket in the yard laughing
Me with neighbor, circa 1966.

All in all, I think I was a pretty happy kid, even though I couldn’t make sense of so many things in my world. I spent a lot of time with cousins when family came around. My mom’s family was a big one and most of my aunts and uncles had 3 or 4 kids. So when cousins got together we could get pretty loud. I loved those times of family. I always wanted to be like them, they knew each other, they got each other. They fit. They belonged. Their puzzles were in tact.

I’ve never been able to pin down why I always felt so out of place, so different. Was it inherited from a father I never knew, from a mother who struggled with feeling like an outsider herself, was being shuffled around as a kid? In the long run, does it matter? I think that feeling set me up for struggles along the way and it wasn’t until much later in life that I realized, everyone is different, no family is perfect, no story has only one chapter.

Different is what challenges us to search within ourselves, to search out God and what He has for us.

In Psalms 142 David prays while he is in a cave. He is alone, afraid, isolated, he prays for God to bring him out. I love the way The Message reads, in verse 3 David says, “When my spirit was overwhelmed within me, Then you knew my path. Later on in the chapter, he says, “Get me out of this dungeon so I can thank you in public. Your people will form a circle around me and you’ll bring me showers of blessing!”

I want to encourage you. If you are feeling different today, that’s ok. If you feel like a missing piece of the puzzle, that’s ok. Don’t let your past bog you down, that’s the enemy. That’s only one chapter. Please believe down to your soul that you are fearfully and wonderfully made; Marvelous are Your works. (Psalms 139:14) It may be your struggles and works that give someone else strength and courage.

My story has many more chapters, some good, some bad. Stick with me and you will hear more as I unravel all that is me.

All of those chapters make me the person I am. I am thankful for that gift. The person God created me to be, that person is different, has lots of flaws, is wrong a lot of the time, that person is vulnerable, but that’s ok, too. Too often people try to make a puzzle piece fit that just doesn’t. They think that if you have faith, you have to be perfect. In our weakness we are strong. Jesus didn’t die for perfect people, he died for the broken and we all broken.

The good chapters in my life give me the strength to withstand the bad that comes my way. The bad allows me to grow, to sharpen the gifts I am given, gives me the opportunity to lean into God and cry on His shoulder, to grow my relationship with Him, and it gives me experience that leads to wisdom. Wisdom is a gift to share.

Sharing lets you know you are not alone. Know that you are never alone. So come out of the cave with me and thank Him in public, praise Him in the sunshine and surround yourself with His people and dance in the showers of His blessings.

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Godspeed, how fast are you going?

I am blessed to work in a place that values God, people and community. We start each Monday with a time of group devotions. This helps me keep my focus on what matters thoughout my week.

Image by TeroVesalainen from Pixabay

Last Monday’s devotional brought me to my knees and made me take a hard look at how I serve others. When you work for a ministry or nonprofit it is all too easy to get bogged down and overwhelmed because the needs of our city are so great. Sometimes you wonder if what you do truly matters, are you making a difference? That is when we have to slow down and remember who we serve.

Our world moves too fast. Can you imagine how our community would change if we just took our time with people? This 30-minute video reminded me that Godspeed is not our speed, we tend to fly by in our own little world at 55 miles an hour when we really need slow down and walk at 3 miles per hour with those we serve. So take some time, slow down for a bit, watch and let me know what you think. https://vimeo.com/200206468

Bad Courage?

Joshua 1:6

The preceding verse came up in our Sunday service and the pastor posed the question, “Is there such a thing as bad courage?” My immediate response was “YES!” My mind flashed back to a violent time in my life, a time when I thought I had more courage than sense.

I was 28, in an abusive relationship and rather than take it one more day, I stood up to my abuser and it almost ended me. He was drunk and stoned and the two together were always a bad combination, things got heated and I stood my ground and tried to dial 911, before I got the last 1 in he yanked the phone from the wall (back in those days phones were still attached to the wall) and wrapped the cord around my neck. I couldn’t breathe, but fought back, until I blacked out, he left me in a heap on the floor.

I don’t know how long I was out, but I came to as I heard a loud thump, thump, thump on the door at the front of the house. I tried to move but was paralyzed with fear. It was the police, and my abuser answered the door. He very politely told them there was no trouble here and that we had been having trouble with our phone. The police apologized for bothering him and left.

So when the pastor asked about bad courage, I thought the kind of courage that can get you beaten down or even killed. But as the thoughts played through my mind like an old video on a loop, I realized, in that space of desperation, when I knew I couldn’t count on him to change, the police to help or my own strength all I had was God. That moment was the catalyst for my transformation.

I remember calling out to God as the tears streamed down my face, asking for forgiveness for being a failure, for inciting the wrath of this man who was supposed to care about me, for not being strong enough, for not knowing better, for being a poor excuse for a human being when God whispered this verse to my soul, “And Joshua said unto them, Fear not, nor be dismayed, be strong and of good courage: for thus shall the Lord do to all your enemies against whom ye fight.” Joshua 10:25

In a rumpled mess, lying in the floor, tearstained and broken, I knew the fight was not mine to win. It was God’s. And win He did. Later that night, my abuser passed out, and again God whispered, “Go now.”

I didn’t hesitate, I grabbed everything I could fit into my car while he slept. In the early morning hours, as soon as I was able, I consulted with a trusted advisor who had been working with me. He and his wife arranged a safe haven for me and gave me a place to go. In that moment, God answered my prayer. The times ahead weren’t easy, I had to be careful, watch my back, never go anywhere alone, stay in groups, contact an attorney, there were restraining orders, I had to change jobs and move again, all this took good courage, action, and faith, but I was out and I haven’t looked back.

For years I had nightmares, but eventually, God took care of those, too. It was a hard lesson for me to learn, but I had to forgive, not for my abuser, for me. I couldn’t allow him to rent space in my head and hurt me by reliving it, over and over again.

It was years later when this verse brought me out of my own darkness. “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.” 1 Corinthians 3:16-17.

My abuser defiled the Temple by not treating me with respect and loving me as God called him to do. Again, I saw it was God’s battle to fight, not mine, so I had to lay down my hurt and anger and forgive and let God be God, and deal with my abuser on His terms. How He did or will do that is not mine to question, I just know that He will.

When I forgave and let it go, my nightmares stopped. It took time for me to trust again, and honestly, sometimes I still struggle with trust. But I have faith. I have seen my faith in action. God took my mess and made a way, when I saw no way.

I know many women who lived through a hell similar to mine and some who didn’t make it out the other side of hell and that hurts my heart. My prayers go out to those who live in fear of the one who is suppose to love them. It is my hope that you, gentle reader, do not EVER put yourself in harm’s way. I was lucky that I had a trusted counselor I was working with who knew who to call to help me. If you are experiencing abuse you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-7233 or visit their website.

My life has changed greatly and I have been blessed for the past 22 years. God gave me a man who truly loves me the way God intended, he is my helpmate, my best friend and I can tell him anything, I can’t imagine my life without him.

So, back to the pastor’s question, “Is there bad courage?” I think there are bad decisions, but true courage, doing what has to be done even though it scares you can be good courage. I will close with the quote from Joyce Meyer below. Thank you for reading and blessings to you.

Courage is fear that has said its prayers and decided to go forward anyway. Joyce Meyer

The Space Between

Have you ever had to wait for something? I don’t know about you, but for me waiting is hard.

We are not creatures of change, we like to stay in our comfortable space of knowing what’s next. Especially if you are a planner, you know the steps that will lead you from this to that, but what about when you have no control over those steps? Someone else has to make the decision to take those steps and you have to wait on them, on the process. The space between what we know and what comes next is uncomfortable, at times unbearably so. Uncertainty has a way of filling our hearts with things that are not warm and fuzzy. Things like worry, anxiety, and fear can paralyze us if we let those feelings run rampant. But there is hope.

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That’s where I feel the rubber hits the road. God does some of His best work right there, in that space between this and that. Of course, it is hard to see it while you are in between, when the emotions run away with every possible scenario and your mind is trying to make sense of the chaos your emotions are churning around like butter.

In this in-between space, faith is tested and God does incredible things. My husband will tell you I am terrible at waiting, patience is an area where God is constantly at work with me. When I look back and see how I have struggled in those spaces between this and that, the times when I didn’t rely on my faith, on God, I clearly see how I made things much worse than the times when I opened myself to the possibilities of God had in store for me.

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I know God is at work right now, I am in the space between, even as I type this message.  Sometimes when you hear something, it strikes a cord that wakes up your Spirit and compels you to act, to read, to pray, to listen, to write. Today my pastor said, “my hope is alive in the midst of the storm.” Immediately the verse below came to mind.

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Look at the Israelites, Moses brought them out of captivity, God told them where to go, they were in the process of going and spent 40 years between this and that because they weren’t obedient and open to what God had in store for them. I don’t want to be out of God’s will for me, I want to be obedient. My prayer right now is, “Thank you Lord for this gentle prompting in my Spirit to stay calm, lead me, show me Your path, I am here waiting in the between and I am at peace, help me to keep that peace no matter where the path goes.

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My mantra for the last month has been ” I don’t know what the future holds, but I know who holds my future.” God is doing a new thing, and while I don’t know what that may be, I know I am to be content no matter how long the between lasts.

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What is Community to You?

Dictionary.com defines Community as: 
  1. a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government and often have a common cultural and historical heritage.
  2.  a locality inhabited by such a group.
  3. a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists(usually preceded by the): the business community; the community of scholars.
These were the top 3 definitions, as you can see, a community can look different depending on your vantage point. Consider your community, is it a neighborhood, sports team, church, school, work? The list could go on and on.
Recently my church moved into a new community. We have been there a few months and are not familiar with the neighborhood. This move has me pondering how to engage with those around us? I find myself going back to a book we read as a staff at work last year. This little book called The Art of Neighboring really had some practical insights and I highly recommend it.  Why study a book on neighbors? Shouldn’t we love our neighbor as ourselves?
The Art of Neighboring Book

Ask yourself, how often do you intentionally reach out to your actual neighbors? Do you care about what goes on in your neighbors’ lives? Most of us don’t even know our neighbors anymore. So maybe we need this book more than we realize. We come home, through the garage, close the door, retire to our dens or backyard without even seeing those around us. No kind words or even happy waves happen. We are in and we are out.

I believe so many times we alienate ourselves from our neighbors because they don’t look, act, or talk like we do. We are afraid to step out and introduce ourselves or afraid to make a social faux pas because we don’t know the person. But how can you get to know someone unless you step out on faith?
When we were stationed overseas, no matter the country we visited, I always tried to learn, at the very least, how to say “please” and “thank you.” Americans are notorious for expecting you to speak English no matter what, but the ones who at least try to speak the language are blessed with helpful people and forgiveness for butchering their language. My point is, most people are more forgiving if they know you are trying.
I am a strong believer in the power of diversity. As a child, I colored with every crayon in the box. Too often in this world, we tend to gravitate toward sameness,  what we know and where we are comfortable. There is a wealth of richness and beauty in relationships with people who are not the same as you.  You don’t have to agree with someone to care about them. Genuine, loving, long-term relationships with our neighbors requires us to be present, get to know someone by listening to their story. Stories bring us together and allow us to relate on a level we might miss if we don’t have time to listen.
Too often we feel we need to fix people’s problems or tell them what they should do. Most of the time, people just want to be heard, to feel like someone really cares and is there if they need to share.
Matthew 5:43-45
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; 
So my thought for the day is…What is “community” to you?  How do you live that out? How do you connect with those around you? What can you do differently to truly be a good neighbor?

Journey into the unknown

Spaceship parking

Have you ever felt completely out of your wheelhouse? Or thought that you knew something and then it turns out, you actually knew nothing? That is exactly how I felt at my first Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) conference. It was a journey into the unknown, stretching me to new limits.

In 2015 I remember leaving Memphis, where the conference was held, feeling like I had been hit by a truck. So many things bumped up against what I had been taught, against the status quo. It was earth-shattering, mind-blowing and more than I could digest in 3 days.

Yet, I was so moved by Dr. John Perkins and Coach Wayne Gordon’s Bible study every morning, my heart was opening to the possibilities. I was also overwhelmed. What could one person do to turn the tides against hatred, racism, injustice and a host of other wrongs in the world?

This CCDA thing was so much bigger than I realized, so much more personal than I realized. My empathy grew. My heart ached for people to the point of tears. My soul cried out to God, “why does it have to be this way?”  God still hasn’t answered that one, just in case you were wondering. But I keep asking.

I had to accept that as Christians we had gotten much of God’s mission for us wrong. This kingdom come, thy will be done ON EARTH as it is in Heaven part of the plan, we had messed it up. I saw too much hate, intolerance, persecution, pain, and injustice in the church as man has made it across the ages, the ON EARTH part of the equation was non-existent. That was a hard pill to swallow. It hurt to know that as a Christian those who look to me, see hate, intolerance, persecution, and pain, they do not see Jesus. They see the hurt that was put on them by me and others like me. I am not very Christ-like, I will never be, but I am trying. I am convicted.

I mean, who hasn’t been hurt by church? More and more people are stating that they are just DONE with religion and organized church. Why? Hurt in one form or another. But does it have to be this way? No. We can help create that Heaven on Earth, be good and loving to one another.

How? I realized this journey is one of love. Love is the key to it ALL, and that love lives within me. I can change the world, one smile at a time. The challenge is to LOVE EVERYONE, even if they don’t love me, even if they don’t look like me, act like me, worship like me, believe like me, even if I don’t agree, even if I am on opposite side of the debate or the aisle, LOVE MATTERS. Love is never insignificant.

Does that mean we will all gather together and sing Kumbaya, My Lord? Not even close. Too many times we think of love as a soft, warm fuzzy. Anyone who has truly loved knows it’s hard. It is not all sunshine and rainbows. It is one of the hardest things you will ever attempt. And you will fail occasionally. Sometimes you have to do it from a distance. The key is to keep trying. To listen, to respect, to try to see the other side and love even when it doesn’t make sense.

Friends, a word of warning, it is impossible to show love when all you can see and feel is judgment. I grew up under constant judgment, spoken and unspoken, and it has a way of wearing you down until you feel completely insignificant. It is hard to love or be loved from that place.

A place of insignificance is where my journey began. I understood it, and I felt comfortable in my insignificance. I felt I could do nothing to change the course of things, so why try, who would listen to me? Insignificance kept me captive. Love set me free.

Do I have the answer to life’s burning questions? That would be a big, fat NO.

I have long believed judgment should never be mine, that is the Lord’s job, and one WAY too big for me. Rather than judge, I choose to love and to smile.

Can you make someone else’s day brighter with a smile? I challenge you to step out into the unknown and share a smile or a laugh with someone new. I know for your introverts, that will be hard.

You will be amazed at how it will improve your life, reduce your stress levels and begin to build bridges to others who are not like you. Your world will expand and their world will be brightened. You are the light of the world, a city on a hill that can not be hidden.

You may not be able to right the wrongs of someone’s past with a smile, but at least they will see something in you that brings them in, makes them feel a bit better and maybe, just maybe, they will see a glimpse of Jesus in you.

 

If you are interested in learning more about Christian Community Development, I encourage you to follow @iamccda on twitter or https://www.facebook.com/iamccda/ on Facebook. CCDA principles can be found in the book Making Neighborhoods Whole: A Handbook for Christian Community Development
by Wayne Gordon et al.
Link: http://a.co/0O7tjak

Finding my tribe

Hello gentle readers,

It has been a long while since I’ve posted. My introduction into the world of nonprofits has been a learning experience and while I sometimes still feel like a babe in the woods, I also feel like I have found my tribe. The people of Compassion Coalition are not only my coworkers, they are my family. We pray together, talk about what matters and strive daily to make Knoxville a better place for EVERYONE to live.

I knew they were my tribe from the first hour I began working with them. They get me. I’m an odd duck, so that’s amazing in itself. They also help me be the best version of myself and I enjoy going to work EVERY SINGLE DAY. That is a blessing from God. Nothing worthwhile is easy, and sometimes things are tough, we operate on a shoestring budget, fundraising can be hard, foundations and churches close, coalition members lose funding and are unable to give, yet I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, what we do matters.

It seems, all of my life experience thus far brought me to a place where all of my gifts can be used and appreciated. My people skills, artistic skills, organizational skills but most importantly my spiritual skills. My gift has always been one of encouragement. This position has given me the opportunity to connect with people on a deeper level, hear their story, share hope and help.

While it has been a busy two years, it has also been a period of growth. Stretching my mind, my heart and soul to care more, love deeper and seek justice. This didn’t happen by chance, this job, these people, they care. They care beyond anything I have ever experienced before, and not just for the people they know, their hearts ache for the hurting and marginalized. They help people. People in churches, people on the street, people in the pews and outside the church walls. They help churches cross denominational lines and break down barriers and work together to find common and sometimes uncommon solutions to problems in the community. They connect social work with church work, like nothing I’ve ever witnessed before, yet they are one of the most underutilized community/church resources in town.

Compassion Coalition Staff
Grant Standefer, Jessica Bocangel, Charmin Foth, Gina Whitmore and Carolyn Hansen

Some days it seems impossible to put all that we do into an ‘elevator pitch,’ “Our mission is to inform, equip, and connect churches to transform lives and communities through the love of Christ.” Yet I say, we love people well. That is what we are called to do, and we do it with all that we are. 

In future posts, you will hear more about my journey into the nonprofit life and Christian Community Development (CCD) and as a newbie, how that process has changed me from the inside out. For now gentle readers, I invite you to learn more about the organization I work for, and if you are touched and led as I am, consider giving.

A quote from Sister Simone Campbell at the Christian Community Development Conference this year, #CCDADetroit, says it perfectly, “Our hearts are broken open by the stories that surround us. It is all about community”