Category Archives: love

Finding the Sacred in the Middle of the Profane

20120823-213311.jpg

Dear Friends,

All of you are welcome here. This is a sacred assembly. We are here to pray, to worship God, and to learn to see the sacred in the middle of the profane stuff of life. We want to learn to encounter the love of God and share it where it is most needed.
The Apostle Peter says, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9)

Dear Lord,
We come to you seeking light. We come asking to be able to experience your love right here, where we are, in a world that seems so dark, so profane, right where we become convinced that all we will know is great suffering. Show us your Self. Bring your holy Word to life before our very eyes. Do in us what we cannot do for ourselves.
In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

I don’t know about you, but I often get very uncomfortable with titles. People call me mister, sir, chief, boss, captain, pastor or even Reverend. I’d rather just be known by my first name. That’s not because I’m especially humble, but maybe rather because like a lot of you, I know that a title carries responsibility. I don’t want people to look over at me and say, “Ask him, he’s the guy. He knows what’s going on.” But some titles are really important, like Dad, for instance. I don’t want my kids calling me Chris, because we have an important relationship. I want them to know that I’m their only dad, and that their mother and I love them and are interested in everything they’re into.
One title that is very important to me as a Christian is that word, “Holy.” Because of Jesus Christ I belong to God and am called holy. I’m not any holier than you, I am holy together with you, and all others across time who are the Body of Christ. Now if you come up to me and yell out, “Hey, Holy Man of God!” I might just jump out of my skin. I am that, but I don’t often think of myself with that title.
You are sons and daughters of God. You were bought with the ultimate price, that God paid Himself because He loves you. That being the case, our speech, our conduct, and what we regard affectionately must all reflect the greatness of this gift God has given us.
The words sacred, or holy have many different meanings these days. What the Bible means with these words is simply that something or someone is set apart for the Lord’s use. The first of the Ten Commandments is “you shall have no other gods before me.” To be holy is to be devoted exclusively to one Lord.
We may not think that polytheism is really an issue to us, but in truth, this age is full of many little gods that vie for our affections. To be holy means to acknowledge only one Lord and to serve only one Lord. And there is only one way to serve the Lord: the way He says. God doesn’t bargain or negotiate. Either our sins have been washed clean by the blood of Jesus Christ or they have not.
So that is the sacred, what does profane mean? Profane things are unclean, unholy. In the case of worshiping God for instance, you just wouldn’t come in drunk and use a lot of cuss words to describe how much you love Jesus. That would be profane. It would not lead anyone else to respect you, the Lord, or the place of worship.
It seems like its getting harder to live a holy life in Christ these days. This world is full of a thousand and one things that cause us to question God or forget him. But the world was not a much more innocent or godly place when it crucified Jesus. The same words that were given to his first disciples, “if they persecute me they will persecute you also”, and “Be of courage, I have overcome the world” are meant for us today. We must not imagine that we are in any more control than they were. We must not expect any better reception for doing God’s will.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “We read Scripture in order that our hearts may be moved. It will lead us into prayer for the church, for brothers and sister in the faith, for our work, and for our own soul. Prayer leads us into the world in which we must keep the faith. Where Scripture, prayer, and keeping the faith exist, temptation will always find its way in. Temptation is the sign that our hearing, prayer, and faith have touched down in reality. There is no escape from temptation except by giving ourselves to renewed reading and meditation. So the circle is complete. We will not often be permitted to see the fruits of our labors; but through the joy of community with brothers and sisters who off us spiritual care, we become certain of the proclamation and the ministry.” (Spiritual Care, pg. 69.)
One of the things we might misunderstand about holiness is to think that in our service of God somehow we can keep ourselves sheltered from the temptation, suffering, and profane things of this world. To live in this world is to cry out to God in the midst of its real state, not to try to climb to some higher plane on which to hope God is looking. The Love of God places us right where it is needed the most.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, “Today God loves the world so much that He gives you, He gives me, to love the world, to be His love, His compassion. It is such a beautiful thought for us—and a conviction—that you and I can be that love and compassion.
Do we know who our own poor are? Do we know our neighbor, the poor of our own area? It is so easy for us to talk and talk about the poor of other places. Very often we have the suffering, we have the lonely, we have the people—old, unwanted, feeling miserable—and they are near us and we don’t even know them. We have no time even to smile at them.
Tuberculosis and cancer are not the great diseases. I think a much greater disease is to be unwanted, unloved. The pain that these people suffer is very difficult to understand, to penetrate. I think this is what our people all over the world are going through, in every family, in every home.
This suffering is being repeated in every man, woman and child. I think Christ is undergoing his Passion again. And it is for you and for me to help them—to be Veronica, to be Simon to them.
Our poor people are great people, a very lovable people. They don’t need our pity and sympathy. They need our understanding love and they need our respect. We need to tell the poor that they are somebody to us, that they, too, have been created, by the same loving hand of God, to love and be loved.” (Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta”, pg. 296)
Here at New Life Evangelistic Center we share our resources, our time, our energy, our faith with thousands of other people on a monthly basis. Depending on your vantage point that is a very profane, even dangerous thing, or it is a very sacred thing that continues only by the grace of God.
Remember that NLEC’s theme verse comes from Paul’s words “And He died for all, so that all those who live might live no longer to and for themselves, but to and for Him Who died and was raised again for their sake. Consequently, from now on we estimate and regard no one from a [purely] human point of view [in terms of natural standards of value]. [No] even though we once did estimate Christ from a human viewpoint and as a man, yet now [we have such knowledge of Him that] we know Him no longer [in terms of the flesh]. Therefore if any person is [ingrafted] in Christ (the Messiah) he is a new creation (a new creature altogether); the old [previous moral and spiritual condition] has passed away. Behold, the fresh and new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:15-17, Amp.)
At one time Saul of Tarsus (later known as Paul) could not understand how Jesus of Nazareth was anything more than a blasphemous teacher who got what he deserved, whose followers were a dangerous, profane, unholy threat to the true worship of God. He believed that hunting them down and killing them was what he was called to do. He only knew Jesus by this world’s values. But then he got to know the resurrected Jesus and everything changed!
What Paul is saying is that every person we encounter has this same opportunity to get to know the resurrected Jesus, and that we can’t judge anyone by this world’s values. All people are worthy of the same attention that we received in leading us to the grace of God. In short, the Holy Spirit does not lead us to discard, hurt, write off, or call anyone fool or enemy who can be made into a new creation in Christ.
For the last several years developers in downtown St. Louis have been talking about our headquarters building at 1411 Locust Street. NLEC has owned its headquarters since 1975 and many changes have taken place in downtown since that time. The city’s parks have never moved. The city’s main branch of the library has been here all that time. The social security office branch has always been here. But in the last two years there’s been an increase in the number of people seeking shelter and basic services who cannot find them elsewhere in the region.
There are more homeless travelers, more people released from prison, more people unable to pay medical bills released from hospitals. The police move people from the parks and other areas of downtown after dark and they position them down the street right outside our building. There is one portable toilet available for them three blocks away. City hall does not allow us to keep portable toilets around our building. At one time we placed them there anyway until the city began telling the companies they would remove them as rubbish.
As you can imagine, with so many people using the same two block area to sleep in, it starts looking like images of the third world. On different mornings I’ll hear a man singing Sam Cooke’s version of “A Change is Gonna Come” on the front porch.
“It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die/ cuz I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky/it’s been a long, a long time coming/ but I know a change is gonna come/ oh yes it will.”
I know exactly what he’s singing about. Every morning that I come to work and I see a crowd of men, women, and children huddled under blankets on the concrete it wounds me. City hall says that it is our fault that these people lay here. They say first that we allow too many people to stay in our shelter, and then they say that we should not allow these people to congregate outside our shelter.
They know that when people call the Housing Resource Center they are told that no beds are available. We are wrong for the way we run our shelter. We are badly located, they say. It’s a “quality of life issue”.
The answer to all of downtown’s problems with the homeless is simple to the powers that be. Provide housing for those who can be easily placed, through the state department of mental health, or federal funds available through special programs. But for those who don’t qualify for a variety of reasons, well, don’t feed them, don’t give them bathrooms, don’t give them blankets, get them to move along.
This reasoning says, “Be grateful for all the people who do qualify for programs, but it’s got to be cut off somewhere. If we show too much hospitality then we’re enabling homelessness and encouraging vagrancy.”
It is amazing to me how reasonable this sounds to people who do not do any advocacy or casework with the homeless. It even seems reasonable to some people who work only with those who qualify for certain programs. But someone has to ask, “How bad does it need to get before our community actually opens more shelter and direct services (transportation, access to bathrooms, shower and laundry, hygiene products)?” Why is there never enough?
How can we be holy followers of Jesus in the midst of such a profane situation? People come to us desperate, tired, angry, suicidal, and in denial about the true extent of their problems. How can living a holy life make any difference?
Jesus spoke of a poverty of spirit in his Sermon on the Mount. Now if you work with poor people everyday you know that not everyone without money is what Jesus would describe as “poor in spirit”. Jesus was describing a humble person whose posture is not toward what they can get, but longs for their significance in the new kingdom.
The nine “Blesseds” of Matthew 5:3-12 all refer to sacred states that make no rational sense in a world without God. The poor, mourning, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, purity of heart, peacemaking, and righteous persecution all point to a status before God that is not assumed by the individual.
Jesus called his disciples “blessed” for being a people whose real worth was not determined by the figure in their bank accounts. It was not determined by how long the funeral procession would be to remember them. Neither was their state as truly blessed determined by how well they would be liked and praised for their good deeds. With them our true state of blessedness is in our long obedience to God in the same direction.
It is important to recognize that any attempt to appear holy without true communion with Christ is actually hypocrisy. Doing good things for people without real love from Jesus might look holy, but does not win us favor. The only way to BE holy is to be IN Christ.
Romans 14:7-12 says, “None of us lives to himself [but to the Lord], and none of us dies to himself [but to the Lord, for] If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or we die, we belong to the Lord. For Christ died and lived again for this very purpose, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.
Why do you criticize and pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you look down upon or despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to Me, and every tongue shall confess to God [acknowledge Him to His honor and to His praise]. And so each of us shall give an account of himself [give an answer in reference to judgment] to God.”(Amplified Bible)
Doing the works of mercy shows us what we are really made of. Sometimes being a helper feels really good, but often it feels really exhausting, emotionally, physically, mentally. Genuine care is met with dishonesty, deceit, profanity, accusations, and resentment. This is where the sacred and profane meet. Can I overcome evil with good?
Thomas a Kempis offers this wisdom: “If all men were perfect, we should meet with nothing in the conduct of others to suffer for the sake of God. But in the present fallen state of human nature, it is his blessed will, that we should learn to “bear one another’s burdens:” and as no man is free from some burden of sin or sorrow; as none has strength and wisdom sufficient for all the purposes of life and duty, the necessity of mutual forbearance, mutual consolation, mutual support, instruction, and advice is founded upon our mutual imperfections, troubles, and wants. Besides, by outward occasions of suffering from the conduct of others, the nature and degree of every man’s inward strength is more plainly discovered; for outward occasions do not make him frail, but only show him what he is in himself.” (Thomas a’ Kempis, The Imitation of Christ)
To conclude, to find the holy in the midst of the profane is to agree with God that this world is worth loving. It is to find the image of God in all people. It is to have eyes open for beautiful spaces not as they could be if they were changed with money and labor, but as they are in the present. Redeemed lives are messy lives, because we are drawn back into the suffering spaces where God is about his work of redemption.
Let’s pray the Lord’s Prayer together now:
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name. Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. Thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under bonhoeffer, love, Pastoral Ministry

Will you give into the longing or live in Christ’s love?

Dear Friends,

In every one of us, no matter who we are, there is a longing, an insatiable desire to claim more for ourselves. We want more acceptance, more money, more influence, more friends, or more esteem. It seems against our nature to settle for any less than everything at once. And yet, no matter what we receive, the longing does not decrease. Often times, our longings seem virtuous and spiritual, like when we desire to share ourselves with people around us. We want to love and be loved in return. It’s very important that when we invite friends to dinner that everyone have plenty to eat with more to spare. “Are you still hungry? Take some more!” We may even long to help the less fortunate, simply out of a desire that all stay right in our own neighborhoods. We can’t bear the thought that we are warm and they are cold. And so setting things right becomes an extension of ourselves. I fix my roof, I mow my lawn, take out the trash, and I write a check to a local nonprofit to ensure that the homeless stay downtown and not in my backyard (NIMBY). Or I may show up in my car as the great white well-off savior ready to clean up every addict, house and support every miscreant and employ and educate anyone willing. But all will still not be right, and the longing will remain.

You may notice that within all of this longing I have not even mentioned God. That is because, God or not, the desire for more and better is ever present. The divine will need not be consulted in order to dream bigger. And the question becomes, where will this longing lead? I’d like to look at two words used in the Greek New Testament, one for longing or desire and the other for love. Epithumia, is the word for desire that could be for evil things, or for good things. But most often it is used to describe the kind of desire that is overpowering and against the will of God. Jesus warned against the longing in this world that chokes out the Word of God in those who have faith in his parable of the sower and the soils.

“ And the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becometh unfruitful.” (Mark 4:19, KJV) But then he told us what we should desire in Matt. 5:6, “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness; for they shall be filled.” That righteousness is justification before God, to be right in God’s sight. And Jesus can tell us what we should and shouldn’t desire, because he came not as a great moralist but as the world’s Savior. In laying down His life for us on the cross he did just what was needed for our justification. There is nothing we can do to make ourselves right, any more than we can finally satisfy the longing in us for more, better, faster.

There is another word in the New Testament, Agape, that translates into a very  confusing word in the English language. . . . love. In English when we say love it can mean any number of different things in poetry, literature, psychology, sociology, or religion. But in the New Testament it has a very unique meaning. It is usually a reference to God’s relationship with Jesus, and the gift we are given when we obey God and live with each other. Even when the New Testament is read, take for instance 1 Corinthians 13, (known as the love chapter), the common reaction is to apply it only to persons we most easily share space with. It is assumed Paul must mean between husband and wife, or between good friends. But Jesus made it clear in the gospels that the love of God is meant to be practiced even toward our enemies! (Matt. 5:43-48)

This enemy-love has been deemed impractical, apolitical, and even suicidal by many people. They think that Jesus has set up an ideal that’s impossible to practice and so these gospel sayings are often ignored by Christians. But this Agape love has the power to turn this world upside down. It is the only power capable of overcoming evil with good. This love is what God wants for us and is the missing treasure that all of our desire-longing-lust cannot seem to find. So many adults consider themselves survivalists. They feel they must make the most of a bad situation with nothing but the very little they have. They’ve been through the school of hard knocks and graduated with honors in the art of self defense. Whatever they get they win by keeping themselves free of messy entanglements with other people, and so long as most contact can be controlled or avoided, life won’t quite be so bad. This would all be fine if they didn’t need more. And so, together we all scrape and struggle along to get more, better, faster.

It was about two years ago now that my fifteen year old son decided he was going to be like his hero Bear Grylls from the show Man vs. Wild and go live in the woods for a while alone to see if he could survive on his own. I don’t remember exactly when it started, but at school his scout leader had been showing the boys these programs about this former British SAS trooper who leaves himself stranded in uninhabitable places like jungles, deserts, and arctic areas. He demonstrates how to survive with nothing but a nice knife. Chris Aaron became so taken with survival that all he wanted for Christmas one year was survival books and a flint and steel kit with char-cloth so he could light fires. The local army navy surplus became his favorite haunt and he’d use any excuse for me to walk him over there.

So by the spring following that Christmas he was convinced he was ready to go it alone in the woods. I’m sure he would stay up late at night thinking about how he was going to do it. He’d been reading his army survival manuals about how to set up a shelter made of only materials collected in the immediate area. He had his knife, he had is backpack, he had his flint and steel and charcloth. But as the days grew nearer to our vacation he began to doubt himself. We’d have these conversations where he’d openly worry about being alone without mom and dad in the woods. What if he got hurt or something? Would his knowledge of first aid be enough? He made a new friend who was visiting from Germany, and this new friend had an interest in survival too. They encouraged each other in it, and the boys decided they’d survive alone together.

The first night we arrived on our vacation in rural Illinois the boys decided to demonstrate their fire starting ability. Now bear in mind, Chris Aaron had lots of practice using the kit. It was all we could do to keep him from practicing in his room on the seventh floor in Chicago. Starting a fire was basic, even beneath his abilities, so he didn’t have to give it much thought. But that night when we all sat there together, for some reason, the flint and steel just couldn’t get the fire going. He was growing increasingly frustrated. His fingers were red from gripping the magnesium bar so tight. But he wouldn’t let me do it for him. He was so angry at himself that here, in front of his sisters and his best friend, he couldn’t get that fire started! What was wrong? He had all the book learning! He’d seen Bear Grylls do it in one simple stroke in the jungles of Vietnam where everything was soaked with rain. His anger and frustration at himself finally turned to tears and he stomped off for the night. There was no more talking about it. He’d have to overcome this frustration if he was going to continue on with his plans with his friend. But for now the we all had to let him be.

He had a longing to perform what seemed easy on the television and in books. His longing was to demonstrate an ability not everyone had. He had a passion that would give him something to talk about with his friends, something different. But now all of that seemed to be falling apart. The next night he actually got that fire started, and what seemed impossible went back to being common place. He and his friend built their own shelter and didn’t use a tent, and they stayed out there for twelve hours, nowhere near anyone else who could help them. In time he finally came to see enough Man vs. Wild episodes that he didn’t have to watch them everyday anymore. And gradually the survival books weren’t referred to anymore everyday.

We moved down here to St. Louis last year and Chris Aaron’s big request was that he be able to transfer his Boy Scout membership to a troop down here. We did that and he took to the regular meetings and camp outs easily. A few months ago he was actually inducted into the Order of the Arrow, a local honor society for scouts. He is now considered leadership in the local troop, teaching newer scouts to start fires, set up their tents, and learn skills from the book. His love for scouting has proven much more than a passing interest. He’s fully invested, and can be counted on to be on time in uniform, willing to do whatever is needed. The beautiful thing to me in all this is that my son has followed a longing, and it has grown into a love for something that is bigger than he is. If he had given up on himself that evening when he couldn’t start the fire, and had just thrown away his interest in survival, he would have never continued Boy Scouts and certainly would have never excelled in it. For my part, I could not force him to keep trying. Demonstrating the right way to hold the striker and the magnesium didn’t work. He had to come to it on his own.

There is a big difference between longing for something, and becoming the kind of person capable of self confidence, patience, and faithfulness in Christ. It takes time, it takes commitment, but most of all it takes a willingness to admit I need help. Jesus does not expect me to take on my enemies alone. I am only capable of loving my enemy in the context of a loving Church that is obedient to God. One of the most amazing love passages in the gospels is where Jesus looked at a young rich man and loved him. (Mark 10:17-31) Why is this so amazing to me? Well, let’s look at the story.

A man suddenly falls on his knees before Jesus, calling him a good teacher, asking him what he can do to inherit eternal life. And Jesus asks the man why he called him good, because only God is good. He directs him to the law, saying “You know the commandments,” do them. The man replies that he always has done them, since childhood. This is where Jesus look at the man and the text says he loved him. Jesus said, “OK one more thing. Go sell everything and give it to the poor so that your treasure is in heaven.” Then we are told that the man’s face was fallen. He came to Jesus on his knees, willing to do anything. But he went away empty. Why? Because, as the story goes, the man had great wealth.

Jesus looks at his disciples and says that it is very hard for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. And his disciples get the message. They got it and we today very often miss it. His disciples were not rich, but they asked the question, “Who then can be saved?” And Jesus words are the ones on which we pin our hope. “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

Jesus loved the young man so dearly even though he could not get past his longing for more, better, faster. And today we must realize that we are all like this rich man, desiring eternal life but not at the cost of losing everything we’ve achieved, earned, fought for, and accumulated, certainly not at the cost of getting more. Some of us lose everything and are convinced that its only a matter of time until we get it back again. But Jesus is saying, “Your treasure is in heaven.” But don’t forget that Jesus loves us even with our misplaced desires. He’s calling out now, “Forsake all the longing and receive my love.”

There is a price in longing for things that are not God’s will. If we want it bad enough, the love that is in us that is meant for God becomes a love for this world’s order instead.  “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them.  For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.” 1 John 2:15-16 (NIV) In the gospels Jesus says similarly, No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will stand by and be devoted to the one and despise and be against the other. You cannot serve God and mammon (deceitful riches, money, possessions, orwhatever is trusted in).” Matt. 6:24 (Amp)

There is a spiritual reality behind the American Dream. The four freedoms outlined in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address: Freedom of Speech and Expression, Freedom to worship God in our own way, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear, reflect a modern liberalism that is an end in itself. There is no need for an all powerful God within these human rights. We may have freedom to worship, but no need to worship anyone but ourselves and the freedom itself.

Now that statement might make me a lot of enemies, but I would submit that the longings inherent in this expression of the American Dream have no real limits, because we humans have no way of curbing our appetites. We can live with a guilty conscience, knowing a lot about ourselves, but refusing to change. And this is the predicament we’re in today.

We are rich with rights like no other nation in the world. Everyone is entitled to everything, and yet our prisons are full to capacity, the gap between rich and poor has never been greater, and there is no end in sight for the War on Terror. Nothing can save us now, but the Agape love of God in Jesus Christ. But in order to receive it we have to give up looking elsewhere. The economy of God is all that we need. It is an economy of abundance for all who would work within it. This economy has the whole person in mind because we love God with our whole person. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Matt. 22:36-40 (NIV)

This kind of love is not possible when we’re only partly present. There was a time in my life when I was so overcome with self pity, shame, and fear that I could not be present physically. I went to my factory job and put in up to fourteen hour days and I came home and slept and got up and did it again every day. I didn’t talk to anybody, I just wanted to be left alone. And alone was what I got. The money didn’t make me happy. All I wanted was to watch TV and movies and be left alone. And my life was a living hell. For six months I was walking in a daze. I drove a forklift in a daze, I soldered galvanized gutters and scuppers. I cut myself and bled and laughed about it. And then one day, when confronted with my true self by my coworkers, I admitted that I had a problem and I started on the road to recovery. I dare say there are many people today who live that way. Numb in their senses, no context for right or wrong, living in their heads but calling it freedom to be what they want.

I don’t ever want that kind of life again. I’m learning that the kind of life worth living takes a lot of work and a lot of help. I’m becoming the kind of person willing to receive help. I’m not a terribly patient person, but I’ve had a lot of patience shown to me and I want to become that kind of person.

If you want to be what God wants for you, pray this prayer with me now, based on 1 Corinthians 13.

“Father, I receive the fullness of your Love in me today, for without your love I am nothing! Regardless of all I do or all I give, without your love I am nothing!

I receive from you, a supernatural love that is patient and kind – a love that is not envious, jealous or boastful – a love that is not arrogant, conceited or displays itself haughtily or rude.

I receive your love in me that does not insist on its own rights or way, for it is not self-seeking, it is not touchy, irritable or resentful, it takes no account of the evil done to it. I receive your love that does not rejoice at wrongdoing and injustice, but rejoices when right and truth prevail.

I receive your love that bears up under anything and everything that comes – it is ever ready to believe the best of every person – its hopes are fadeless under all circumstances and it endures all things!

Father, I receive your Love in me that never fails!”

Nita Weldon

Yours in Christ,

Rev. Chris Rice

NLEC

Leave a comment

Filed under love, lust, NLEC, religion and politics, theology, work

From Shame and Resentment to Gratitude and Service

From Shame and Resentment to Gratitude and Service

Rev. Chris Rice, Sermon 1/4/11

Dear Friends,

How can we move from the ever present shame and resentment that stalk us on a regular basis into a place of gratitude and service that allows God to really have his way in our lives? Jesus Christ has come to set the captives free and the Word of God shows us how.

Some of you may not like to hear this message today. I’m going to talk about being wronged, specifically, how to handle it when you’re dealt with unjustly. Maybe you feel like your anger is the last defense. The very last thing you still have. And that with your anger is bound your dignity as a person. I understand that feeling.

Our recollection of our memories, and our ability to tell our story is central to our dignity. If we can prove we’re right when we’re wronged, we can prove to ourselves the truthfulness of our daily claims. We can say, “Yes, I’ve still got it. I’m not crazy. I’m still trustworthy.” But life is full of incidents that test our decisions, and cause us to question our way of seeing things. There’s not just one way to see an event. There may be three or four. And very often, to get along we’ve got to compromise.

I love stories about redemption. Where someone wrongly accused, someone society has long lost behind bars, is set free and the story is set straight. Cornelius Dupree, Jr. was accused in 1979 of rape, robbery, and abduction. He was picked up two miles from the scene of a crime, paraded through a witness lineup, and locked up for 30 years before being paroled. But something else was going on. In Dallas Texas they were keeping their DNA samples. Through the work of the Innocence Project in New York this man’s case was reopened long after sentencing and DNA testing revealed his innocence. Dupree was not the only man accused in the case. Anthony Massingil was also found innocent but is still serving time for a different offense.
Jennifer Emily of the Dallas Morning News writes:

“Dupree was paroled in July – two weeks before preliminary tests came back clearing the men. A second DNA test confirmed the results of the first test in December.

The day after Dupree’s release, he married a woman he met 20 years earlier while in prison. He and Selma Perkins Dupree held hands as he spoke to reporters after the hearing. His brother, Steven Dupree, who was 8 when his brother went to prison, stood behind them.
“I’m kind of having mixed emotions. I feel that words won’t make up for what I lost,” Cornelius Dupree said, adding that both his parents have died. “It was only by the grace of God that I was able to sustain the long wait.””

Here is a man who claimed his innocence from the very beginning. He was at the wrong place at the wrong time. A young black man headed to a party. He spent three decades behind bars. His younger brother was a child when he was locked up and now he stands behind him a grown man. If anyone has the right to be crippled by hate it is Cornelius Dupree. But he says somehow God’s grace sustained him through the waiting process. There was something more important than getting back at those who wrongly accused him. It was living life as a free man.

Perhaps the most difficult lesson to learn in life is that it really doesn’t matter what other people say about you. What really matters is what you know about yourself. If you are your own best defense then you can see where you’re going. If you are your own worst enemy then it doesn’t matter what you do, you are out to destroy yourself one way or the other. How can a person be their own worst enemy? By poisoning every hour of their day with resentment toward other people. By acting out of the shame they feel toward themselves. Some people have been so abused throughout their lives that they see any gift given to them as another con. When they hear tell of the grace of God in Christ they think they know what that means. That means listen to a lot of pleasant words and then get ready to give your money or your time.

Real spiritual conversion happens first with the admission of complete powerlessness, the belief in a God greater than myself, and my decision to turn my will over to God with complete abandon. There is no easier softer way. Admitting that I really don’t know what’s best for me runs contrary to every pore of my being, but that’s only the beginning. The real stuff of life involves navigating the 1001 reminders that I am not in control. Cars that don’t start. Broken door handles. Drafty windows. Dog poop on the shoe. Whiney children. Bad breath. Bubbly personalities. This is real life! It’s downright irritating and exhausting.

Life on the advertisements promises sunny landscapes with beautiful people and products that fix everything from spots on the clothing to incontinence to a beer that will make the work week worthwhile. There’s something downright appealing about the idea that a pill or a drink can make all my problems go away, beginning with the fact that I really don’t have to do much to receive it. I would dare to proffer that following Jesus means staring down the fact that there is no easy way out of life’s everyday problems. Jesus calls us from our shame and resentment out into the light of gratitude and service.

The Bible has strong words regarding resentment. “Resentment kills a fool, and envy slays the simple.” (Job 5:2) “The godless in heart harbor resentment; even when he fetters them, they do not cry for help.” (Job 36:13) “Mockers resent correction, so they avoid the wise.” (Proverbs 15:12) In serving the Lord there is no place for resentment. Paul reminded Timothy, “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.” (2 Tim. 2:24, NIV)

In my own experience, resentment and shame go hand in hand. When I feel slighted or wronged by another person’s actions it usually goes hand in hand with fear and shame. If I’m in a new place and I feel dependent on others, I feel at their mercy because I don’t really know what’s going on. I go inside my head with resentment and shame in order to find a safe place where I’m in control. Then things spiral downward from there.

Resentment keeps me in my head, trapped in fantasy that believes wrongly in God’s inability to protect me. In my resentment I became convinced anew that I’ve been wronged, dishonored, abused, and that nothing will keep this from happening again in the future. I feel self-righteous, vindicated, noticed, justified in my anger. My recourse is to imagine what I’ll do next time, how I’ll violently react and be justified.

Resentment keeps me from the truth in the present moment. God changes people and he sees them as they really are, not as I imagine them to be. Resentment blinds me from seeing God’s good work in people and believing the best about them. In resentment I lose the gift of forgiveness. I need forgiveness everyday. I need to give it to receive it. Resentment blocks that.

Resentment keeps me from prayer. Instead of praying for the person who wronged me, I’m once again caught in justification and revenge. He needs my prayers as I need his. Our proximity is no simple accident. I have much to learn about patience and forgiveness. I need it from others and I need to give it. God help me.

Resentment keeps me from God. Where God wants to use me in peace, hope, faith, love, resentment isolates me from all others (masks itself as humble and peaceful) and makes me a slave to fear. God’s perfect love casts out all fear. So really I’m a slave to self, shame and pain. All God wants is for me to be free and allow Him to have His way.

Even just a little resentment is toxic to me. I can’t handle a taste. I want to imagine more and then I’m gone in a rage fantasy where I assume I’m the overlooked entity of real value or I’m the despised one who could’ve have saved the show. Either way it’s all about me.
Now I know, this is just my own experience. If you can relate even just a little bit then bear with me. The Bible doesn’t just give us cute little warnings to stop resenting. It gives us powerful redemption stories, where given the opportunity to do great wrong, men and women of God love in return. In the book of Genesis Joseph is one example.

Sold by his brothers into slavery, then wrongly accused of trying to sexually abuse his master’s wife, Joseph gets placed by God into one of the most powerful positions in all of Egypt. Though he’d been mistreated by the Egyptian system, he accepted God’s call to save this pagan land and all the surrounding areas from famine. Given the opportunity to get back at his brothers because of his position and their need for help, Joseph tests them and then finally reveals who he is. After their reconciliation he receives the blessing of their father before he passes away. They have a huge beautiful funeral and then the brothers once again get scared. They think their brother now has the power to get back at them and so they send a message saying that their father sent word before he died that he wanted Joseph to forgive them all for all the wrongs they’d done to him. Then they finish with, “We are your slaves.” Joseph’s response was to weep before them all. What he says next is so powerful.

“’Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.’” (Gen. 50:19-21, NIV)

Given the opportunity to exact justice for himself, Joseph demonstrated mercy. Why? Because Joseph was living his life as a man for others. He saw himself as simply a steward of God’s will, and his many gifts as tools for responsible service. God uses sinful broken people to accomplish his work in the world. Everyone here in this room is full of God given potential. Maybe you’ve seen him use you today to help someone else. Don’t take that for granted. Take stock of where you’ve come from and know that God loves you and has not left you alone.

Your story matters. Everything that has happened to you in life can be used by God to share his faithfulness with someone else. God is not done with you yet. But what he is doing in you is not for you alone. You may feel that like Joseph you are in a strange new place. You didn’t ask to be here. And you’re just trying to make sense of what’s going on. God knows. If you’re willing to let go God will use you to help someone else. It often happens in places where you least expect it. Let me share a secret. Unexpected gifts are everywhere when we have grateful hearts.

Now here’s another story, and this is more of a cautionary tale. In Luke 15:11-32 Jesus tells a story of two lost sons and their father. You may remember the first son. He says to his father, “Give me my share of the estate” and then he gathers his stuff together and leaves for a far off country where he squanders the money in wild living. Then a famine strikes the land and he’s forced to hire himself out feeding pigs. He was so hungry that all he wanted was what the pigs had to eat, but no one gave him anything. You may remember that it says he came to his senses and then had a plan to go back and divest himself of all his rights as a son and simply become his father’s slave.

He thought this would be just. He believed he had given up any right to his father’s respect because of the way he treated the household. This was his plan just to stay alive. But what happens in the story?
“So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.” (Luke 15:20-24, NIV)

The son does not get to finish his prepared statement. His divestment is interrupted by the father’s command for the party to begin. Instead of getting the dung scooping duty he gets the royal treatment. And this is completely unexpected. You’ll remember this is the story of two lost sons. There is an older brother who is none to excited about this son’s return. We all love this story of the young prodigal returning. We can obviously see that we’ve all done bad things to run away from God. But we need to see ourselves in the older brother as well.
The older brother, returning from the fields, hears the music from the party and asks what is going on. He hears that his brother has returned and that his father has honored him like a royal guest. He gets so angry that he won’t even go in to the party. So the father comes out to him to plead with him.

Henri Nouwen writes,
“The more I reflect on the elder son in me, the more I realize how deeply rooted this form of lostness really is and how hard it is to return home from there. Returning home from a lustful escapade seems so much easier than returning home from a cold anger that has rooted itself in the deepest corners of my being. My resentment is not something that can be easily distinguished and dealt with rationally.
It is far more pernicious: something that has attached itself to the underside of my virtue. Isn’t it good to be obedient, dutiful, law-abiding, hardworking, and self-sacrificing? And still it seems that my resentments and complaints are mysteriously tied to such praiseworthy attitudes.

This connection often makes me despair. At the very moment I want to speak or act out of my most generous self, I get caught in anger or resentment. And it seems that just as I want to be most selfless, I find myself obsessed about being loved. Just when I do my utmost to accomplish a task well, I find myself questioning why others do not give themselves as I do. Just when I think I am capable of overcoming my temptations, I feel envy toward those who give in to theirs. It seems that wherever my virtuous self is, there also is the resentful complainer.” (The Return of the Prodigal Son, pgs. 75-76)

Where do we find our freedom from this resentment? In the father’s love. The father’s final words to his elder son in the story are, “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (Luke 15:31-32, NIV) The father’s love and his house is largest enough for both wayward sons and resentful ones.

In my own life how do I get unstuck from resentment? When I notice particularly nasty thoughts and possibilities of thoughts coming in my head I will stop, surrender before God, pray for the grace to forgive, use the Lord’s prayer or the serenity prayer and then reach out with a phone call or by speaking to someone else.

Getting unstuck involves first being vigilant, taking resentment as seriously as lust, and second, reversing course to seek help. My thoughts are not just thoughts, they are potential actions revealing my heart and my need for God.

I have often thought that I played a good game by being so introverted. I enjoyed my thoughts and feelings more than being with others. I thought I possessed all I needed and I grew to like all my thoughts to myself. Now I’ve come to see the dark cave of resentment as a special kind of hell. I look around and see that my lack of desire to interact with others has affected us all. Others go on without me. They learn by my isolation to count me out.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Henri Nouwen says,

“Resentment and gratitude cannot coexist, since resentment blocks the perception and experience of life as a gift.”

Gratitude is a conscious choice. Some of the most helpful advice I’ve ever received involved simply sitting down and writing out two lists on a piece of paper. On one side I was instructed to write down everything I was afraid of. On the other side everything I had to be grateful for. I have done this many times and it has never failed to help set my thinking straight. In a very short time I come to remember that most of the things I’m afraid of are not matters I can control anyway, and everything I’m grateful for is because of the grace of God! Since I’m not in control, and all of life is gift what have I to get resentful for?!!

If we really want God to change us we have to let the Word of God renew our minds and change us.
“Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” (Eph. 4:30-32, KJV)

Let’s pray together now:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen (Prayer attributed to St. Francis)

Benediction:
Peace be to you all and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all who have an undying love for our Lord Jesus Christ. (Eph. 6:23)

Yours in His Service,

Chris Rice

Leave a comment

Filed under Bible, love, NLEC, Personal

On being a lifelong volunteer

It was on a very average evening worship service at the end of the year last year that I must have realized for the first time that all these people I knew so well were doing what we do best, just being together in the adoration of Christ. We were back at the Source together. I had been there with them for well over a decade at countless such services. We were a family and in the end it wasn’t about all the work we’d done that looked good under letterhead for potential donors. It was about adoring Christ together in small and big ways, in ways that can’t be quantified but only lived. And as I think of these hundreds of faces I call my family in Christ I realize we have something that the miles that will distance us in coming days can’t take away. We have a Lord who loves us. Our adoration for Christ extends beyond the time and space we share or don’t share. He is working in us all his perfect Will which we know in part.

I was an election judge here in the city of Chicago during the last election. During one of our long moments without any activity one of my fellow judges, an attractive young black woman who I’d call full of inspiration and charisma asked the other four of us an excellent question. “If money was no object what would you be doing with your life?” She began with herself. She said that her hearts desire was to give children the opportunity to see beyond their current situations and achieve their fullest potential. She was given that opportunity in life and she wanted to pass that on.

The next woman (who later traveled with me that night to the receiving station to return the unused ballots, election results, and so on) said that she would love to teach children with special needs full time. She was working two jobs just to make ends meet. She had to rise extra early every day and drive her daughter out to the suburbs for work and then pick her back up in the evening and bring her home. As I got to know this woman better I realized anew that the bigger dreams in life aren’t just for wealthy people. Regardless of one’s situation you can give of yourself.

I intentionally saved my turn to share for the last. I was so inspired by what I was hearing from others that I really didn’t want to stop the spirit in the room. I explained that for me (and this was true for my fellow judge Chris Ramsey who had just shared previous) money really wasn’t an object. I found life a great blessing where I’ve lived. Chris and I weren’t rich of course, but we were living full time at this Christian community called Jesus People USA here in Uptown. The other judges asked us to explain a little more about what this was like. Chris worked at Cornerstone Community Outreach, which has many homeless shelters and outreach services. I worked for Lakefront Supply, a roofing business that used all it’s net income (after expenses) to support JPUSA. I also mentioned that I had grown up in a small Christian community in St. Louis before moving with my wife to Chicago in 1996. For us our dreams involved simply living for Jesus faithfully, trusting Him to meet our needs and reaching out to others, believing Jesus had enough for them too.

I think everyone wants to know that they have a purpose in life. They realize that on some level life has meaning to just about the extent that they have known love and can love in return. This does not come without a struggle however. As people, we’re a mixture of motives and agendas, many of which we only come to see in time. We want to be loved completely, but are only able to open up parts of ourselves. We strive for complete fulfillment, but always feel like something is missing. Here in America many people give their time as volunteers as part of that search for significance.

We volunteer our time without payment for a lot of different reasons: to promote a greater good, to improve human quality of life, or maybe to improve skills, meet other people, look for employment contacts, or just to have fun.

As I mentioned, I’ve had the privilege of belonging to two churches that have used outside volunteers in their activities for close to forty years. These volunteers have provided a wide range of services, from preparing and serving meals to providing medical attention and counseling. Both of these churches also use communal living and intensive discipleship training as a way of allowing volunteers to commit themselves for longer terms.

If you were to stand in the main lobbies of these two church organizations as I have done over the years at different times, and just observe the people coming and going, talking and interacting, you might be perplexed. They represent all ages and races, all kinds of personalities, and backgrounds. Some are tall and some short. Some have walkers and move slow and some are young and scamper quickly, always in a hurry. Some sit and look bored and some are moving too fast trying to do too much at the same time. Both of these churches use their facilities for multiple purposes.

At New Life Evangelistic Center in downtown St. Louis the lobby will be used to give away food, and then it will be swept and mopped and chairs will be set up and the lobby will have women and maybe children who will go through intake and then be taken to rooms on the third floor where they can sit and talk or watch TV or read until bedtime. Then, shortly thereafter the lobby will be full of single men. They may listen to a short sermon, or some music, they may watch TV and talk, and then they too will go up to the fifth floor to sleep. On a different day the lobby will be full of fourteen to sixteen year old white kids from a church in the suburbs. They are there to volunteer for the day and hear about what NLEC is doing.

Later that same day a young man will be sitting in the lobby waiting to see Rev. Ray because he knows he needs a place to get sober from alcohol. He walks with a limp and he needs a cane to get around. His face is red and weathered from the sun. You may see him practice a golf swing with his cane and then laugh and talk to someone you can’t see.

In Uptown Chicago, walking distance from Lake Michigan, you can sit on a bench in the lobby of Jesus People USA and witness people going and coming for various reasons. It’s obvious there is a renovation going on. The carpet has seen a lot of use. There’s a large stain just in front of the door. A large crucified Christ hangs over you, painted on old US Mail bags. This image is left over from an in-house festival the church put on over Passion week in the spring. Three young women are huddled around the front desk chatting and others walk up with questions and short little interruptions. The top three floors of this building provide housing for seniors and people with disabilities. The management of this small business is provided by members of the church. They cook, clean, do laundry, case management, and even church service on Sunday. But it’s very apparent that the seniors are at home in this multi-use facility and take advantage of the whole life of the community.

The second through seventh floors of JPUSA have living spaces for families and singles. Each floor has a kitchen for individual use. Community happens floor by floor, room by room, person to person. People join and stay for varying lengths of time. The number ranges from 450-500 people. There’s a central laundry room in the basement. So much is going on at a given period of time that individuals work to keep track of one another, with their immediate families being their primary connection.

Both of these churches began the same year, 1972, during the Jesus People Movement. Being born in 1974 and growing up at New Life Evangelistic Center, I took a keen interest in the vibrant life and constant activity I witnessed on a daily basis. The community shared a common purse and at the time members took a vow of poverty, raising support through our ministry in churches and various mailings. I felt connected to a large family of believers who were willing to sacrifice whatever was needed to do the will of God. Growing up, I bore witness from afar the work that JPUSA was doing in Chicago. The two communities swapped publications, NLEC sending The Zoa Free paper up to Chicago and JPUSA sending Cornerstone Magazines down to St. Louis. Some members knew of the other’s work and on a few occasions managed to visit.

I visited JPUSA for the first time at age 16. My mom dropped me off for the weekend while she visited family in the suburbs. In 1991 JPUSA was still moving into the hotel it has now fully renovated. I documented my first visit on video and I still have it to this day. I took the wild excitement I witnessed that weekend home with me. I mopped floors at the homeless shelter. I worshiped with them on Sunday morning. And I hung out in the rooms where people enjoyed the New Year together. Best of all was the story telling in the dining room. Here were people who could laugh at themselves and use memories of even difficult moments (like accidently stealing a car or doing a job very wrong) to laugh and enjoy each other’s company.

I came home that weekend with a new energy and a new excitement for ministry at NLEC. Five years later I was at a very different place in my life. I had married and we’d just learned my wife was pregnant. We needed support and accountability, and so my wife Martha and I moved from where we were serving at NLEC in Missouri up to Chicago. Fourteen years later, Martha and I have three children and we are answering a call from God to move back to NLEC in St. Louis. The community there is providing a house where we can live and is ordaining me as one of its pastors.

As a lifelong Christian volunteer I’ve learned a few things about giving and receiving in the art form that is Doing Mercy. I observe that jobs come and go, but the actions of love, when done for Jesus, remain. Living out of a calling to ministry, which involves giving from a replenished source, is the only way I can stay sane, sober, and involved. I’ve seen volunteers come and go. I’ve made many wonderful friends over the years. But the most enduring relationships, that I know will remain even as I move locations, are those with friends who identify with Jesus rather than the job.

What’s the difference? I know from experience that when I take on a task, I put my whole self into it. And that’s biblical right; being fully committed? Well, I’ve learned that I can easily put the task before my people, before my family, before coworkers, and yes, before God himself. When in the end I want to see that project finished more than I want to eat, more than I want to hold my kids, and quite frankly more than I want to pray, the job has become an extension of my ego rather than a service to God. The kicker is that the kind of tasks I’m talking about are the ones I’m most passionate about. Where I feel like my gifts can really shine. Where people can really know what I’m about. Something I can really take pride in.

This is where volunteering gets difficult. How much time can a person put into a task before they want it for themselves alone? How many hours of labor will finally make me want to take over and leave you out? This is the conundrum that I believe points back to the question: “Why am I doing this?” and really “Who am I doing this for?” There is nothing so unsatisfactory in the end as a task done “for Jesus” that is actually in reality for me. Far fewer people want to clean toilets for Jesus than write books. Far fewer people want to mop floors and change diapers for Jesus than host seminars and share the great wisdom Jesus taught them personally.

So what I’ve learned in community the hard way is that in order for voluntary action to be truly meaningful, I have to identify myself with Christ rather than the particular task. How do I do this? In an attitude of surrender. When I wake in the mornings I have to clear my head of all the ambition, the hope, the fear, the half-awake frenzy for whatever and just lay it down. It was on a very average evening worship service at the end of the year last year that I must have realized for the first time that all these people I knew so well were doing what we do best, just being together in the adoration of Christ. We were back at the Source together. I had been there with them for well over a decade at countless such services. We were a family and in the end it wasn’t about all the work we’d done that looked good under letterhead for potential donors. It was about adoring Christ together in small and big ways, in ways that can’t be quantified but only lived. And as I think of these hundreds of faces I call my family in Christ I realize we have something that the miles that will distance us in coming days can take away. We have a Lord who loves us. Our adoration for Christ extends beyond the time and space we share or don’t share. He is working in us all his perfect Will which we know in part.

Now I’d like to come back to the original question my election judge friend asked, “If money was no object what would you be doing with your life?” Her question points back to the fact that for most of us money is the object impeding what we really want to do with our lives. And I would add, not just the money itself but what it represents to the people who care about us, like our families. She couldn’t just empty her bank account and spend the money doing what she most wanted to just because it was her hearts desire. What would her family think? And the other woman I mentioned had so many legitimate bills and needs in her life, she couldn’t get the job she really wanted because it didn’t pay what she needed. And this is the reality that most people of good will face.

In the case of the two churches I’ve been with, the founders really didn’t have much to lose. My parents married and went into ministry around the same time without much thought as to how they’d get money to live and do ministry. They only knew that they had to have faith that God would provide. At JPUSA the founders were literally surviving by faith in those early days. They prayed every day and God provided food and money seemingly out of nowhere. It appears fool-hardy by today’s economic measurements, as it was then. The principle regarding voluntary service and money was simply that the worker is worthy of his hire (Luke 10:7), freely you receive freely give (Matt. 10:8). Be faithful with what God provides and God will provide again (Matt. 25:23). Now this kind of hand to mouth existence doesn’t leave much laid up for the future. It leaves the onus back on God to somehow provide. And you know what? I consider myself a living testament to the fact that somehow God always has.

In this way, life becomes an adventure of faith. The ordinary gets transformed right where the need is. As long as the eyes of faith see that ordinary sack of potatoes as God’s provision, God keeps providing. It’s only where the work becomes drudgery, the mouths become the same warm bodies in line, the feet the same dirty shoes to be mopped after, that our vision is lost and we fear how on earth we’ll make it to tomorrow.

I have learned that recovering alcoholics and addicts make some of the most faithful and spiritual people you’ll ever meet, simply because they found they had nothing else to lose and everything to gain from a loving God. In the book Twelve Steps & Twelve Traditions and in discussing the Twelfth Step which involves this spiritual awakening and carrying the message, they zero in on the fear of financial insecurity I believe is common to most wage earners in our debt absorbed society. They noted that they’d been spendthrifts when it came to pleasing themselves and impressing others. They’d acted like the money had no end, but then acted miserly between sprees, unknowingly saving up for the next binge. Money was about pleasure and self-importance. As the addiction progressed it became the means for the next drink and “the temporary comfort of oblivion”.

Upon getting sober and working in recovery they found that when a job was only a way of getting money and having independence, they were the victims of unreasonable fear! But they became free when they saw it as an opportunity for service. “In time we could lose the fear regardless of our material prospects. We would cheerfully provide humble labor without worrying about tomorrow.” They learned that their spiritual condition mattered more than their material condition. Money finally became the servant and not the master. It became a means of exchanging love and service.

“When, with God’s help, we calmly accepted our lot, then we found we could live at peace with ourselves and show others who still suffered the same fears that they could get over them, too. We found that freedom from fear was more important than freedom from want.” (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Gift Edition, 1980, pgs. 120-122)

How can we move from money being the object that keeps us from doing what we want with our lives? Well, I think faith and trust has everything to do with it. Over the years I’ve witnessed a number of people come up to my dad and ask for prayer in the following way: “Please pray for me. I know God wants me to _______, but I just can’t do it right now because I’ve got so much going on.” He would pray for them, but I know that they just still went away miserable because it was the money thing, you know? What is the one thing Jesus said made it hard to enter the Kingdom of Heaven? Riches. (Matt. 19:23-24) I can’t help believing that it is that fear of financial insecurity, that way of seeing money as the big impassable wall, that keeps Americans from really giving their all to God.

It seems so unfair doesn’t it? Money symbolizes our voluntary activities. We can say we believe any number of things, but how we eat, what we wear, what our house looks like, what our children expect, all of these relate to the way we spend our money. For some people it is obvious that the money has them. The debt has them. And it’s obvious that unless something drastic changes they know how they’ll spend the rest of their days here on earth and where they’ll be buried and how they’ll be remembered. It’s all quite predictable. But for others, it’s clear that the money doesn’t have them. They’re a more rare breed. They get tempted like everyone else, and they’ll have junk they don’t need, but when it comes down to it they’re able to give spontaneously. They’re able to share their lives with people they wouldn’t otherwise meet in moneyed circles. They use money to serve and it’s because they believe in a power greater than money.

Living in these two church communities has not been easy. I’m a pretty strong willed guy to be around and I’ve suffered all the necessary blows to my ego that come accordingly. But in looking back over my life not too long ago, I know I had a lot to lose every time I stubbornly refused to open myself up to others. Yes, in church it’s very easy to lose focus, to lose the eyes of faith and open up to resentment. My right actions have not always been for the right reasons. But as Johnny Cash sang, “I’m living the right life now.” And I’ve got so much to be grateful for. That life is apparently for many other people I’m grateful to know; and it’s there for you too if you don’t already know it.

Leave a comment

Filed under 12 Steps, Community, homeless, homelessness, JPUSA, love, work

Guest Post: Freedom from Animosity!

By Jeremy Nicholls

As Phillip was talking, I started visualizing a scene similar to “Taxi Driver”. A transient hotel. Tight stairways. A trail of blood. A very angry man and two extremely scared men trying to get away, and just LIVE…..

Janice invites these two homeless men into her apartment. She knows them well. She has a case of beer and wants some drinking partners. Being alcoholics and homeless, they oblige. They’re drinking, laughing, singing and telling stories. After a few hours, the alcohol is gone, so Janice steps out to go to the liquor store.

JD has been out all day, steps into his apartment and finds Phillip and Drew chilling in HIS apartment. They were laughing, yelling and intoxicated in HIS house. He knows them, but he does not want them in HIS house. It doesn’t matter that his girlfriend invited them in, he simply does not want them there; they were drinking up HIS money, the money he received being a respected Vietnam vet and a prisoner of war.

JD walks into the kitchen, grabs two knives and starts going absolutely ballistic. He advances toward Drew, but the smaller Drew starts using Phillip as a shield and escapes. His arms and chest get slashed. Dripping with blood, Phil manages to bulldoze out the door and stumble down the few flights of stairs.

Exhausted, Phillip gets outside and breathes a sigh of relief. The wounds aren’t too bad, but he looks up and sees his attacker charge at him with his two knives. Somehow JD had beat him down the stairs. As Phillip continues the story, I picture St. Peter’s attempt to protect his Lord by chopping off the guard’s ear. JD brings his two knives down upon Phillip, viciously slashing the top of his head. With this sudden increase of blood gushing from his skull, the violence finally ceased.

The police arrived. An ambulance came. JD was arrested. Drew appeared from behind a dumpster telling Phillip how he was on his way back in to rescue him. Phillip is exhausted and bleeding. He is mad at his friend’s cowardice, but decides not to argue. He was simply glad and relieved the traumatic event was over and takes the ride to the local hospital. He is thanking God he is still living!

As I sit there listening to Phillip and the other 2 guys talk about JD and the psychotic aftereffects of being a prisoner of war. I listen to how Janice is someone who continually stirs up “mess”. I sit there astounded by the severity of what happened. I am thankful Phillip is still alive to share his stories. I am wondering if there was any revenge bought on by the resulting hatred and nightmares. I don’t want to ask!

Phillip continues with words similar to these….
“About a year later, the prosecutor finds me and is trying to charge him with attempted murder or aggravated battery. He wants me to testify in court. He wants to bring him down. I look at him and laugh; ‘man, if you had come to me a week or a month after the fact, I would have had him fried on the electric chair. But it’s been almost a year man! It’s been a year! We’re cool! Let him be! Let him be free! How can I hold animosity in my heart toward him?'”

Phillip told this story in a local hospital’s Intensive Care Unit, where we were visiting another victim of pointless and unprovoked violence. These 3 men were viewing me as their pastor or priest, so they had asked me to pray over Ron and someone else I didn’t personally know, who was being kept alive by machines. We had held hands and prayed to the God who heals, forgives and endured the cross.

Stunned! This amazing story had left me sitting there; absolutely stunned! I think of all the pain, nightmares and trauma he suffered because of that dark night, and he just let it go. He laid it in the Lord’s arms! I look at Phillip and tell him, “what an example of Jesus – you are an example of Jesus!”

I had come to bless a brain bleeding and blackened Ron, yet ironically, an unusual source had blessed me through a horrifying dramatic story. After years of working with homeless folk, I have come to realize that I see more of Jesus in them (with all their struggles, addictions and sin), than they see in me. So I shared this with them….

“Rich and middle class Christians have so much to learn from you guys and the homeless community. Churches and families are too often divided by petty differences, financial matters and hurt feelings. It is easy to dodge and avoid when we see each other once a week and can vacate to the luxury of our homes. There can remain a bitter silence, and it can last for years. When someone lives in a shelter or on the street, dodging one another becomes almost impossible and the emotion comes to the surface. Vicious fights, threats and incidents do happen and, in my mind, I think reconciliation is an impossible dream! But, I love the fact that I am frequently proved wrong, because among the poor and homeless, forgiveness is ever present! Bitter enemies fellowship! Mercy is given! Grace is received! Love occurs!”

Today, Phillip and JD happily share meals together and all I can say is: Thank you Phillip for showing me what forgiveness truly is!

Leave a comment

Filed under Community, Conflict resolution, homeless, homelessness, love, money

Musings on Home

home sign

On Friday I drove down to St. Louis for a long over due weekend of ministry. I got to stay with my sister and her family that first night. My dad came out and we celebrated his birthday together with home made cake and raspberry sorbet. I brought dad a present I made him on the plasmacam at work. It was a sign that illustrates the word Home. The words on it are Dwelling, Place, Home, Healing, and Permanence. In the middle is a little image of my wife and daughter, a stamp made from a photo I took with my cellphone. The sign took far longer to make than I’d anticipated at first. I’m still getting used to the software, and art concepts don’t come easily to me. But homemade gifts still mean much more than buying them.

My sister keeps my mom’s journals which date back to when she was in high school. I borrowed the years 1969-1977 and am working my way through them. From the time I was a teenager I had an interest in what got my parents involved in ministry. Though my parents were very different people in their early twenties what I’m learning is that the Charismatic and Jesus Movements were fostering in them a commitment to Christ and to service that would sustain them for the next three decades. My mom writes about very simple things. She likes lists. She writes about what she did that day, her health, the people she hangs out with, the classes she’s taking in college, the letters she gets from my dad. She writes about witnessing and possible witnessing opportunities. She wrote about what she watched on television. She is very discreet and seems aware that someone will want this information later. Her journals were used years later to write about the history of their ministry.

My kids seem in awe that it’s okay for me to read their grandmother’s diaries. They know that their own diaries are off limits to each other. Don’t I feel weird going through her personal writings? Well, yes, I admit, I don’t want my own journals read by anyone after I die. But I don’t write the same way my mother does. I write for the most part about how I’m doing with the Lord, my personal failures, my fears, etc. This kind of thing shows up rarely in mom’s writing.

So anyway, what I’m doing right now is trying to compile a picture of the kind of people my folks were when they were in college, got married, and then started ministering together. Its an emotional journey for me, but its inspiring, largely because they seem such unlikely candidates for heading up an ecumenical charismatic non profit spread out across three states helping homeless and poor people and utilizing television and radio to spread the gospel. Their ministry grew sporadically and slowly, they never had enough finances to rest secure, and only enough to step out in faith in the next way. Now, close to forty years later my mother is gone and the work continues.

I find that inspiring because now that I’m grown and married with kids I see how easy it is to lose sight of what a miracle every day is when you have a routine. When you’re young all of life is an adventure. You have no idea what’s coming next. You don’t want to predict where you’ll be but you’re excited to see anything new happen. As I get older and I’ve lost my mother and grandpa and some good friends I start to wonder if all change is not loss. I know change is a good thing but I’m less eager for it. I know a bit about what more money and growth entails. I know a bit more about the costs involved in media exposure and public attention. But I have also experienced God’s faithfulness, clear answers to prayer, and miracles big and small. Like my parents I have an expectation that when I align myself with God’s Narrative of time and history that there is real Hope. Hope is being on the way, not content to stay put because what God gives is truly good. In this life we are promised struggle, opposition and persecution. We also get misguided praise, personality worshipers and people along for the ride doing the right things for what later prove to be the wrong reasons. All in all the final truth is that there is no way to be in control in this life. It’s hard wired into us to try to be in control as much as possible, and to get frustrated when our efforts fail.

But to follow Jesus is to know that taking up your cross means you’re not in control! This whole idea of carrying the cross alone because I have to just like Jesus is silly. What is a cross for God’s sake? It’s a cruel form of execution. Who put’s themselves on a cross? Nobody. The thing we can’t seem to wrap our heads around is that the God of the Universe became incarnate and then let Himself be cruelly executed by the state like a common criminal. The only thing more insane than that would be that that God would call us to that same sort of powerless vulnerability. Even worse, Jesus gave this impossible commission that we preach to all the world to do the same thing! Whoa!!! Surrendering control seems downright unChristian. Where’s the part about Jesus wanting to make me into a better person who can then make a better world by being nice to everybody? I hope you “catch my drift” here.

What makes a theology of the cross possible in any sense is the understanding that God is for humanity to the point of kenosis, self-emptying, and that that self-emptying is a sign of God’s faithfulness, that even death itself does not annihilate Hope. Someone might argue that it was easy for God to empty himself only to be raised again later. He might say further that such posturing is not truly an example to us humans. I heard that line of reasoning all the time growing up among fellow church kids. “Of course Jesus resisted the devil’s temptation, he was perfect!”

There’s an endless loop in that reasoning, and an inherent refusal to see God as part of His creation. As a follower of Jesus I believe God has never left the world alone. I believe that God is present in all of life’s cruel and miraculous reality, and that we are not alone and forgotten. My life’s meaning, my story is one that I share with all those who have God’s promises.

A further note about the sign I made dad. Those words Dwelling, Place, Home, Healing, and Permanence, are descriptive words in faith. Its hard to think of home as permanent when your mom dies while you’re young. It’s hard to dwell in a house where the residents are at odds or are not truly present when they’re there because they’re on the phone or watching TV or are planning on being elsewhere in the coming moments. It’s hard to think of home in terms of healing especially when we all know that some of our worst emotional wounds have been inflicted there, by people who love us and whom we love. Home is the stuff of dreams in this life. It is what I hope for, what I try to make, and yet what I know I fail to give and receive. Home is where God is. It’s where relationships happen. It’s where foundations are built and virtues are fostered. I want that.

Leave a comment

Filed under Community, ecumenism, Evangelicals, love, Personal, race, work

Frost Bitten, Social Anxiety and a Kingdom That Loves

Guest post from Jeremy Nicholls

Millions of ghosts wander helplessly throughout our mega cities, remaining invisible and ignored. People are lonely. People are lost. People are forgotten. People are alienated. The Kingdom of God calls us to open our eyes and love these distressed individuals that live among the masses. Opening our eyes requires us to use our spiritual imaginations to address the different needs we see and the different personalities we encounter. There is a wonderful array of talents that have been drastically forgotten and there are the addictions and struggles which torture and hold in bondage countless souls.

The ongoing question that lingers in my mind is: How do I use my spiritual imagination to embrace and love (that being the love shown in God’s Kingdom) these roaming ghosts?

The gospels show Jesus taking time to embrace the forgotten. He would not let the bleeding woman go unnoticed. In a step of undeniable faith, she touched the hem of his garment and was instantly healed. She was judged and deemed unclean, and was therefore considered a social reject. With a love that was so compassionate, Jesus called this woman to himself addressing her 12 years of devastating alienation by assuring the masses that she was now clean. Jesus continually stopped his busy schedule to focus and love the disenfranchised. Amongst the bustling crowds he found an individual and healed him or her completely and holistically! Jesus accepted the Samaritan woman at the well, when she was planning and expecting to be ignored. Kingdom love squashed that assumption. Jesus loved and showed compassion to Legion, Bartimaeus and many other people who suffered isolating infirmities. This love is kingdom love, agape love; a love which reaches beyond our social circles and steps into the shaky and risky ground of lepers and tax collectors.

We need to keep our eyes open. We need to see the destitution that lies stagnant around us. A neighbor may hardly get out of bed because he suffers from depression. A classmate may be ostracized because she is haunted with delusions or schizophrenia. A person at work may silently be a helpless victim of an abuser. A reclusive lady riddled with paranoia may be living in abandoned buildings. Every night, a teenager at church may be trying to escape his suicidal tendencies, by drowning his sorrows with a bottle of vodka. The scenarios are plentiful. In my life, the Ahmed’s and Dan’s (who I’ve previously written about) continually knock at my door, but there are many restless quiet souls wanting relief, yet they are unwilling, ashamed and far too frightened to knock. That is where we need to be! Reaching out, and with creative instinct, compassionately love them with a love flowing forth from God’s kingdom!

Daily, I would walk past this 66 year old man named Fred! He would be slouched on the corner smoking cigarettes, playing lottery cards and quietly greeting the crowds that wander by. Freddie, a very gentle caring man, has an unappealing look: he has one eye, rarely changes his stained clothes, never showers, fingers are colored yellow by his endless smoking and he is an incredibly skinny and small man. Freddie also refuses to ask for help and does not want to be a burden. As a result of being an invisible person, his appearance was rapidly deteriorating.

It was late 2007, the weather was starting to freeze and Freddie’s coloring looked awful, he was thinner than usual and seemed very sickly. Beth, a few JPUSA’s and I had noticed this decline. People would come to me and they expressed a lot of concern about his well being and his apparent homelessness. I had known him for years and he had always told me he stayed at friend’s house and that I needn’t worry about him. One November morning, as I walked to work, I couched beside Freddie and asked him about his housing situation. Surprisingly, Freddie admitted he was sleeping behind a local dollar-store; he was concerned the approaching winter and feared being a victim of pointless violence.

Freddie accepted my offer and I took him to a warm and sheltered bed. Many at Cornerstone knew him and accepted him with open arms into our little homeless community. Ahmed was so elated that he actually gave him new clothes!

Thankfully, Freddie did not freeze to death that winter, which could have been the case. Through active pursuit, much talking and case management we discovered that he was entitled a pension. This was money that he could have received when he turned 65! Today, Freddie lives in his own apartment in JPUSA’s senior program. He pays rent and is getting three meals a day. Though he still doesn’t like to shower or change his clothes, he look’s a lot healthier and is experiencing the radical affects of kingdom love.

Some of my homeless friends, along with Bernice from a local agency, kept telling me about this quiet guy called Aaron. They feared his well being and kept telling him to come see me. He had been homeless for over 15 years and had lost 6 toes due to frostbite. He slept on a local loading dock and tried to make a few dollars hobbling around the neighborhood collecting cans in a broken down rusty shopping cart.

One autumn day, Aaron nervously came up to see me in my office. He was only 41 years old, but I thought he was 65. He used a walking stick, had on multiple layers of clothes and desperately needed a shower. I was unable to house him that day, but I encouraged him to meet with me on a monthly basis. We met a couple of times and we exchanged a disjointed and mumbling dialogue about his sleepless nights. He spoke how he would continually pray he wouldn’t freeze to death. Mental illness probably accounts for his severe lack of motivation, yet I was proud of his effort to come and see me. We set a few goals in an effort to escape this life of bondage. He was desperate!

These encounters haunted me. I was praying! But the prayers a few of us were praying needed legs. Aaron needed caring people around him and a warm bed. The Lord laid this burden on me. Beth stayed at home praying, as Darrell and I ventured out into the cold night to seek and find him. We had numerous hot spots to hit, starting with the loading dock. We expected to be gone for hours. Yet, only two minutes later, we find him a single block away pushing his cart. We walk him to the shelter and give him a bed. We speak of a plan to better his circumstances.

Fellow homeless shelter residents greet Aaron with open arms. They are thanking God (and us) for bringing in Aaron. I get hugged repeatedly.
There is a joy in seeing a bed-less brother now having a bed.
A helpless brother now has help.
A hopeless brother now has hope.
A cold and weary brother now has warmth and rest.
A lonely brother now has a bunch of guys giving him the beautiful reality of community.

That night, I left the shelter with remarkable peace. God had allowed me to be part of his miracle. I walk past Aaron smoking his cigarette, fellowshipping. He humbly thanks me and praises the Lord for His Almighty Goodness and Love!

Aaron’s story did not stop there. Through patient persistence, we pursued SSI with him. He managed to meet with doctors, outreach personal and mental health workers. He has a tendency to procrastinate, forget and ignore, so we continually nagged him, reminded him and drove him to his appointments. Over a year passed and he eventually starting receiving his benefits. In a surprising flurry, Aaron immediately moved into his own apartment and started paying rent. He remains there till this day.

The stable housing situations of Freddie and Aaron are modern day miracles. I also believe it was a miracle just to get them into our shelter. But we need to look, and we can’t let the Freddie’s slip through the cracks. Think of your Freddie! Think of your Aaron! These 2 are just 2 of the millions ignored and forgotten, who wander this world, as if born as ghosts.

Beth was sitting at church, when Antonio wandered in and sat next to her. It had been raining throughout the night and Beth noticed his musty smell and damp clothes. Living as a 60 year old ghost and battling Chicago’s outside elements for well over 10 years, Antonio did not want to burden a soul. We approached him, spoke and tackled some of his fears. He took a very courageous step by receiving a warm sheltered bed that night and he experienced the reality of kingdom love. This was a simple miracle that came through the observant loving eyes (and smell) of Beth.

This cannot just be a function of various individuals seeking and finding deserted loners. Kingdom love needs to stem from community. We need to use our eyes, ears and noses to recognize the need that flows ruggedly through the harsh terrain. Together, using our God given gifts, we can lift our sisters and brothers from the gutters. When people see and experience this sort of love and unity, we will be seen and known as the salt and light Jesus spoke about.

The silence of the Ghosts, who simply exist in the crowds, will never stop crying out. Despite the stories of Freddie, Aaron and Antonio, I live with the realization that I have bypassed too many ghosts. I repent at not heeding the Spirit’s cry to embrace and love a brother or sister in suffering turmoil. When I walk in my neighborhood, I am always flooded by the endless needs of extroverted personalities. It has become my challenge to look and see those silently screaming individuals waiting to be embraced with a word, a hug or a simple smile. As Christians, it is our calling to walk amongst the masses, find that invisible man or woman, and show them the love that can only come from the Kingdom of God.

How many people are longing to be noticed?
How many people are longing for love?
How many people are longing for another person to see their inner tears that are being wept?
The loneliest people are the ignored folk living in midst of the crowds. As Kingdom dwellers we need to pray for open eyes and an imagination to provide the help needed. We need to reach out, as there are many lost and lonely souls waiting for us to notice them and gaze into their vacant eyes, recognizing them as a person and truly love them; as someone beloved of God!

Leave a comment

Filed under homeless, homelessness, love, Pastoral Ministry