Phone calls, tiramisu, and agape: For anyone who’s ever felt worthless, been at the bottom of the popularity food chain, or hated God


14 years ago, I traveled to Hungary with a group of teens for 3 weeks.

It quickly became one of the worst experiences of my life.  In a way, it was actually harder than my father dying because I had no one who loved me around me.

I was poorly fed, I became sick, fatigued, and I rapidly lost weight.  I injured my back and I’ve never fully recovered from it.

If it had only been that stuff.

I was attacked, belittled, devalued, isolated, scorned.  I felt so worthless I just . . I didn’t know what to do, so I kept going.  My posture, my body language, and my social skills began to aggressively reflect how little I thought of myself—and people picked up on it.

The details are humiliating.  I kowtowed to the teens in my group, longing for acceptance that seemed to keep fading further and further into the distance.  It wasn’t everybody who treated me bad.  And I was very sensitive.  And I had bad social skills.  This isn’t about condemning the teens in my group.  I pray God’s grace over their lives.

Just now.  For the first time.  The scar I got from that trip is deep.  I was so often embarrassed and felt so worthless that I had to cover who I was with a faker and faker self.  Even so, I got to a point I have never been where I could start sobbing at the drop of a hat on a bus, in a church, in the middle of the night, and not be able to stop.  It didn’t even take the drop of a hat.  I told everyone I was homesick (and myself) to cover.

Not homesick.  Humiliated.  I felt like a stray dog.  Only uglier.

There were two things, two things that meant hope in my life: phone calls and food.

Not God.

God did not mean hope in my life.

Just phone calls and food.

I did not talk to God, but I talked at God.

“I know God hates me.  He hates me.  He hates me.”

The thought—somehow–became comforting.  Like—the battle was over.  I’d lost.  No matter.  In that time, in that misery, for me there wasn’t going to be eternity.  There was just right here that went on forever.  If God didn’t love me right here, why would I want to see Him in eternity?

I was numb, dull.  Shut off.  Fake.  Grinning, now bawling.  Grinning, now bawling.  Pariah.  Trash.  Not worth God’s attention.  Not worth anybody’s attention.

Well, almost anybody.

There was the phone calls.  There was the tiramisu.

The twenty-year-olds in the group threatened to guard our phone calls.  I got that we were not to tell bad things.  I was scared.  So scared.  I was afraid for them to see me call.  I was afraid to talk on the phone.  But I desperately, desperately needed to hear my mother’s voice.  Desperately, desperately, desperately, desperately.

I can still remember the phones in the student campus we stayed.  They were pay phones, old fashioned pay phones.  They were in the middle of the lobby.  Everybody could see.  I was so afraid.

And then there was the overweight man in probably his fifties who worked there.  You know, I never realized until just now why I always wanted to date an overweight guy with a belly.  Funny–now I get it.

That’s how powerful he was in my life.

This is how it happened.

I was making that phone call, daring to call home.

And I began sobbing uncontrollably.  Sobbing, sobbing.  Hysterically.

And suddenly, he was out, out in my world.  I’d seen him before, but he didn’t matter to me.  He was just the guy behind the desk.  But suddenly, he was my connection to home.

It wasn’t like he dignifiededly beckoned me in his world.  Oh no.  He came out to me, gestured big, and he begged me to come behind the glass wall that separated me from him.  He begged me to come to his office.

I will never forget the feeling of standing in the room behind the glass.  I will never forget it.  It was my harbor.  The waves couldn’t get through.

And he loved me.  He absolutely loved me.  He absolutely, undeniably loved me.

He smelled like pipe smoke.  I don’t think, as long as I live, I will ever dislike pipe smoke.  (Probably not in eternity either.)

We couldn’t speak to each other, but I knew this—he wanted to help.  Oh no way—it wasn’t that he wanted to help.  He was frantic to help.  He pointed to his phone.  His office phone.  He and his office mate shielded me from the lobby, their backs to the door, and all of the sudden . .

I got value.

Instant value.

There was not a blessed thing or an unblessed thing or any other kind of thing that the leaders, especially the one who so hated me (in my eyes), could do.  I was in that office for safekeeping.  I could make my phone call.  I could say whatever I wanted to say to my mother.

I was free, and I was safe.  There is no more I could ever ask.

Oh, wait.  But there was more.  I was loved.

You know, I was so vulnerable that day, and every day after I went to that office.  If that man had tried to misuse me, I can tell you he could have.  But he didn’t.  In no way.  He wanted no harm for me, and it wasn’t about me giving him something.  It was about him sheltering me.  A true shelter.  He never touched me—it wouldn’t have crossed his mind.  All he ever did was give me free access to his phone, access I could never ever pay him back for.

And then there was the tiramisu.

I finally got so sick, that the leader (the one I felt hated me) took me to the doctor.  She seemed disgusted to do so.  I was wasting her time.

In order to take me to the doctor, she had to take along a translator.

And in walked the tiramisu.

This is how it happened.

I was not looking forward to spending the day with my leader.  Yes, I had wanted to go to the doctor.  But a whole day alone with her?  I had been allowed to spend the day before in bed—what a precious relief.  I had been allowed, but I knew that was it.  No more.  I would have to get up and work from then on.  How on earth.

I followed her and she did not seem happy.  This was going to be ridiculous.  This was going to be awful.  Already, a day or so before I’d asked her about the doctor and she’d scorned me.  I felt like trash to her.  Now I was traveling trash.  And we were alone.  I wasn’t afraid she was going to hurt me.  I was afraid that she was going to scorn me long enough that I was going to fall into shreds right before her eyes, and no one would care to carry those shreds back home so I could see my family again.

Somebody had packed sandwiches for us and they were weird.  I think they were for breakfast.  But weird or not, I was hungry.

We got on the bus.  And we were joined by a translator.

And I don’t know why.  And I don’t know why.  And I don’t know why.

But he loved me.


He  was a translator.  He translated how I felt and he understood at least some of it, because he showered me with compassion.  He told me I was brave and he repeated it.

The doctor gave me antibiotics.  I drank out of a cup to take my first one that I thought was clean.  I found out it was a cup another patient had drank out of.

Really, I didn’t care much.

(I wouldn’t get to take many of those antibiotics, and I wouldn’t get over my sickness while I was in Hungary.  Rather than giving me—a 14 year old—the antibiotics, they gave them to the leader directly overseeing me.  I would plead with her to give them to me.  Sometimes she would.  Sometimes she wouldn’t.  She had control over them.  It became so condescending, I just didn’t care if I got them or not.)

After we got my antibiotics, we went to a mall.  We ate lunch.  I got a good lunch.  I can’t even tell you what it was.  All I remember was the translator walking off with a purpose.  He came back with a cup of tiramisu.

(Later, when he gave me one, my leader was disgusted with me for eating on it without offering anyone else some and embarrassed me in front of everyone and said I had to share it with everyone.  That was probably the ugliest moment for me on trip.  It was my tiramisu.  It was the only time on the trip I had something that made me interesting.  Not only that, but I was the one person who they would not translate my money over so I could have enough money to buy good evening meals after almost no breakfast and a small lunch.  I didn’t get my money translated until the day we bought souvenirs, like the day before we left.  Then I had too much money because I translated too much.)

As I said, he got me a cup of tiramisu.  From a KFC in Hungary, actually.  I’d never had tiramisu.  I didn’t even like coffee.

On that trip though, I learned something about being hungry, really hungry.  Food is good.  The body stops discriminating the way it does when you are full or know food is in plenteous supply.  And I discovered something.

I loved tiramisu.

Picture this, if you will: I stood at a high barstool table with the leader who seemed to hate me the translator walked up and gave me the tiramisu for being brave.

Can you imagine how she felt?

Now picture this: I stood at a high barstool table eating a dessert in front of my enemy.  It wasn’t about me having it and her not having it (although, yes, I thought about that).

It was about that I had been honored.  Honored.  Honored trash.  Nothing I have ever eaten has ever tasted better on a spoon.

Two things, two things I took back good from my trip.  Phone calls and tiramisu.

But it wasn’t phone calls and tiramisu.

It was value and honor.

I left Hungary feeling like a dumpster.  I had hate, anger, bitterness, and a real longing for vengeance.  I had grief, depression, anxiety, and timidity.  And I stamped myself with worthless, unbeautiful, fake, stupid, and a big old black hole of waste.  And there was another stamp I gave myself: God made me this way.  And: because He hates me.  And: God has favorites—and I’m not one of them.  And: God has least favorites—and here lies my name.

I wanted to leave God in Hungary.

And herein lies the wild irony of this tale.

The man in the lobby who gave me his phone and the translator who fed me in the presence of my enemy—

—were such vivid, astonishing, unmistakable allegories of Christ that I couldn’t have done better if I’d made them up out of thin air.

And what is tragic and absolutely incredible is that I didn’t even know they were revealing to me a little glimpse of the nature of Christ.

I would love to share more about these men and how God, in all His wisdom, tried to lead me to Him through them.  I hope to share more in blogs to come.  But first, I have to address what I just said.

Yes, I did say tried.

Did I just say, God tried?  What do I mean?  How can God try at anything?  Am I saying God can fail?

Never.  God tried and when God tries anything, He is perfect.  God can’t fail.

But we can fail.  I think it’s jaw-dropping to realize God places Himself in our lives, draws us to Him, and lets us—lets us—fail to respond, if we want.


The man inside the lobby didn’t force me at gunpoint into his office.  How would that have changed the story?  And the translator didn’t force my mouth open and stuff tiramasu inside.  I wouldn’t be ordering the dessert today if he did, I can tell you that.

Amazingly, incredibly, God doesn’t make us respond to Him.

God tried to catch my attention, draw my love, through value and honor.

And I failed to see.  I totally did not see.  I idolized the two men who helped me, and that was that.

Would you believe, could you believe, that God would do something neither of those men could have, or would have done?

That man in the lobby was kind, but if I had refused to enter the protection of his office, I don’t think he would have asked me again.

But what if he had kept asking me for 12 years?


And the translator.  He was so compassionate.  But if I had pushed away the tiramisu he offered, would he have given me another chance the next day?

Would he have kept offering his free gift to me for 12 years?

Who could have the will, or the grit, or the love to do that?

The same God who sends a hotel clerk and a translator to a teenager He knows will have no acknowledgement or appreciation of Him sending them.

What is that?

What is that called?

That is love.

That is phone call love.

That is tiramasu love.

That is the love of a God who breaks His body on a cross for the people who mock Him, spit on Him, and hit Him with their fists.

That is agape—

–the love only God can own.

The LORD is close to the brokenhearted
and saves those who are crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18, NIV)


Photograph of tiramisu by Peter Alfred Hess, profile on

Photograph of pay phone by jmconn1, profile on

Photograph is under Creative Commons License.

See Copyright Page for Bible translation information.


The Prodigal’s Brother

Then Jesus said, “A man had two sons. The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the property.’ So the father divided his property between his two sons.

“After a few days, the younger son gathered his possessions and left for a country far away from home. There he wasted everything he had on a wild lifestyle. He had nothing left when a severe famine spread throughout that country. He had nothing to live on. So he got a job from someone in that country and was sent to feed pigs in the fields. No one in the country would give him any food, and he was so hungry that he would have eaten what the pigs were eating.

“Finally, he came to his senses. He said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more food than they can eat, while I’m starving to death here? I’ll go at once to my father, and I’ll say to him, “Father, I’ve sinned against heaven and you. I don’t deserve to be called your son anymore. Make me one of your hired men.”‘

“So he went at once to his father. While he was still at a distance, his father saw him and felt sorry for him. He ran to his son, put his arms around him, and kissed him. Then his son said to him, ‘Father, I’ve sinned against heaven and you. I don’t deserve to be called your son anymore.’

“The father said to his servants, ‘Hurry! Bring out the best robe, and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let’s celebrate with a feast. My son was dead and has come back to life. He was lost but has been found.’ Then they began to celebrate.

“His older son was in the field. As he was coming back to the house, he heard music and dancing. He called to one of the servants and asked what was happening.

“The servant told him, ‘Your brother has come home. So your father has killed the fattened calf to celebrate your brother’s safe return.’

“Then the older son became angry and wouldn’t go into the house. His father came out and begged him to come in. But he answered his father, ‘All these years I’ve worked like a slave for you. I’ve never disobeyed one of your commands. Yet, you’ve never given me so much as a little goat for a celebration with my friends. But this son of yours spent your money on prostitutes, and when he came home, you killed the fattened calf for him.’

“His father said to him, ‘My child, you’re always with me. Everything I have is yours. But we have something to celebrate, something to be happy about. This brother of yours was dead but has come back to life. He was lost but has been found.'” (Luke 15:11-32, GW)

Just about everybody likes to criticize the older son in the parable of the prodigal.  Everyone likes to point out how arrogant he is, what a hypocrite.

But have you ever had someone throw a party for somebody you hate, somebody you really hate, and then be asked to attend?

There is something very dark in us that begins, it seems, just about as soon as we can think.  It’s called wanting others to get in trouble (even for the stuff we’ve done).

I have been late more times than I can count.  And  yet, if I’m on time one day, and someone else comes in late, I share in that happiness of giving that person a disapproving glance.  Now how does that work?

All of us, all of us sin, except for Jesus Christ.  Yet when our sin is quieter, or when our sin isn’t out in the open, we want them to pay and us to go free.

It’s interesting that the younger son didn’t actually do anything to his brother.  Rather, the brother is offended by his father’s forgiveness of what the prodigal did to his father.

But I think there’s more than just that.  The brother wants to hate him, because, in our sinful state, sometimes it feels really good to hate people.  In fact, it can distract us from hating ourselves.  The brother thinks that, compared to the prodigal, he’s got it made in the shade.  He probably figures he has made a grade of somewhere between a A- and C- with his father, but the prodigal–well!  He has a clear F.  By hating the prodigal, the older son can feel loved–or so he thinks.

This whole theory is ruined by the father, who immediately forgives the younger son and celebrates him.  Now the brother feels really insecure, because not only was the prodigal forgiven, but he was given a gift the brother never was.  Does that mean the younger son is actually the most loved?

Now, what makes matters even worse for the brother is that the father invites him to the party.  And that brings me to a question: have I ever had someone throw a party for somebody I hate, somebody I really hate, and then be asked to attend?

Truth be told, I can relate more to the brother than the prodigal.  I wish that wasn’t true.  There is something way more special sounding about being the younger son.  After all, he gets the party.  When I read this parable, I often find this arrogant growl in me, like a dog with its fur rubbed the wrong way, and I think, How dare God–how dare He do that for the younger son and not the older!  The older stayed on the farm!

But you know what I think all this stems from, what this really stems from (and I may be wrong)?  I don’t think at its core this goes back to hypocrisy.  I think the older brother gets a bum rap because it’s usually really easy and comfortable for us to make fun of hypocrites (even though we are all hypocrites, because we all sin and we all to one degree or another judge sin).

I don’t think at the heart this is about hypocrisy, although there is definitely the side effect of severe hypocrisy.  But at its roots, I think it goes back to a deep fear we have that God shows favoritism, and I think, even deeper, it hits at the core of something very selfish and very ugly inside me that wants to make sure God loves me more than anyone else.

This is a mortally dangerous fear.  This fear might have been part of the reason the Pharisees rejected Jesus.  They didn’t want Jesus to stand in the way of them getting their love from God.

Back to the parable, this parable that Jesus told strikes the heart of jealousy and disunity and probably most hatred (I think of Cain and Able).  Every time I have talked about this parable, I have talked about the prodigal son.  But what does prodigal mean?  I thought it might mean “wayward”, or “bad”, but when I looked it up on, I found out it actually means somebody who spends a lot of money extravagantly.

Calling Jesus’ parable “The Prodigal Son” only tells part of the story.

Maybe we should call His story something more like, “The Prodigal Son and the Jealous Son”.

Both the sons have problems.  But as no one would ever have guessed, but Jesus reveals, the one who stayed at home and pretended to respect his father actually had way more issues than the one who left.

Interestingly enough, both of the sons have problems believing in their father’s love.  The prodigal son believes his father will take him back as a hired hand–that seems reasonable after what he’s done.  He way underestimates his father’s love.

But the jealous son is worse off.  I don’t think he really believes his father loves him at all.  And because of that, he wants to spite his brother by setting limits on his father’s love.  I think he stays outside of the party deliberately to try to get his father to “pick sides”.  I think he is trying to manipulate his father into setting limits on the love he shows the prodigal son.

It doesn’t work, and he goes down in history as the hypocrite, the one who’s easily hated by most listeners.  But you know what’s incredibly intriguing about the jealous son?

The father doesn’t hate him.

At the end of the story, the father doesn’t shut the door on him, or take away his inheritance, or cast him out of the family farm.  The story ends, as a matter of fact, with the father standing outside with him.

The father says, “Everything I have is yours.”

Yet, it doesn’t look very much like the jealous son is going to take it.

Here is the terrible irony: the prodigal son loses his inheritance and is taken back into his father’s love. . but the jealous son, at the end of the parable . . never even takes his inheritance . . . or his father’s love.

There’s a lot of jealousy in me towards the prodigal son, until I realize that the father in the story is offering the very same thing to both children: his love.  Just like God offers the same thing to us, all of us, whoever we are.

See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are! But the people who belong to this world don’t recognize that we are God’s children because they don’t know him. (1 John 3:1, NLT)

Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” (Acts 10:34-35, NIV)

God does not play favorites. (Romans 2:11, NIV)


Credits go to John MacArthur’s booklet Grace for You, which got this whole new way of thinking about the older son started in my head.