Archive for the ‘Grace’ category

The Weight of the World

February 14, 2014

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This past Monday at our Gathering service at Embrace Church I felt like the weight of the world, or at least our neighborhood, was on my shoulders. I am a fairly big guy, but my shoulders can’t bear that sort of mass. Heck, I can barely deal with my own problems many days.

On Mondays we open the doors a couple hours before our community meal, but on this particular Monday we opened even earlier so folks could join together in a service project. We made 130 pounds of laundry detergent to bless the low-income and unhoused folks in our community. Anyway, as we were were grating soap, measuring out borax, and shooting the bull the floodgates of folks’ grief broke open and poured right on me.

First, one of our regular guests brought a man to me who was plastered drunk and bawling. This man “Gary” shared with me some news that at once made me deeply outraged and profoundly sad. Gary told me that his best friend had recently frozen to death while sleeping behind a local church. I just wonder how it is that someone would feel so ostracized, or abused, or unworthy, or even self-reliant that they would choose to sleep in sub-freezing temperatures rather than go to a shelter. Are we that inhospitable?

I prayed with Gary. I put my arm around him. I tried to comfort him. Those efforts seemed largely futile. Not long after this conversation Gary started harassing other guests, as drunk people tend to do, so one of my volunteers had to have a conversation with him after which Gary chose to leave. Are we as guilty now as the folks who had pushed his friend so far to the margins that freezing to death was a better option than risking it with inside a church or a shelter? I sure hope not. Lord have mercy!

Soon after, one of our most beloved community members shared with me about the recent months in her life, particularly about why she had not been around much and what she was doing about it. I have shared about this lady before and I believe I called her “Ms. B” so I will use that alias again. Ms. B is a recovering drug addict who has experienced the love and power of God in some profound ways. At one point she was a spiritual leader in our small church community, always encouraging and praying with others. However, for economic and perhaps other personal reasons Ms. B had let her boyfriend, a crack smoker, move in with her. He, intentionally or not, pulled her away from our community. Then, praise the Lord, she was able to convince him to come to church with her one Sunday recently, and soon after she decided to kick him out of the house because she felt convicted about how this relationship was destroying her other relationships, most importantly her relationship with God.

Now, it seems reasonable to think that this is not a story of grief, but one of triumph. There is truth in that, but the story is still in process. Ms. B is still lonely. She still has financial problems. And, both of those things could easily be taken care of if she just let this man move back in with her. I am deeply concerned about my friend as she will struggle in the coming months to pay the bills, and to fight off loneliness as she lays down in bed alone at night because I know that in this neighborhood, in her world, there are many evil and destructive people and activities that might prove to be overwhelming temptations for her as she tries to keep her rent paid and stave off the residual effects of a lifetime of pain. Lord have mercy!

Not long after the conversation with Ms. B ended, one of our lead kitchen staff volunteers brought another distressed man to me. This particular guy, “Jim”, is someone for whom I have a special fondness. I helped he and his wife move, and they returned the favor. They have shared their gift for singing during our worship services, spoken words of encouragement to me and others in our community, and though they are decades older than me we have begun building a great friendship. Last week though Jim’s world was shattered. His wife was arrested, and she will likely spend up to the next year locked up. As this grown man, well-worn by tragedy, sat there with me and cried because the woman he loves is now in a cage, the many years of misfortune, hardships, and downright devastation all began coming out nearly as raw as when he had first lived them. He told me about how his young son was beaten to death, and how helpless he felt to stop it. He told me about drug abuse and years spent at the bottom of a bottle, including recent nights because alcohol was the only thing that helped him sleep. He told me about loves lost. He told me about being taken advantage of by landlords and friends. He told me about his life. What will my friend do now? Where will he go now that he can’t live in his current abode? Will he make good decisions, or will a 40 or worse be his release?  Lord have mercy!

Then, of course, there were the usual conversations about surgeries that people can’t afford, how there are bedbugs at one of the shelters, people desperately searching for any sort of work they can find, and still more conversations about intra and interpersonal conflict, including addictions and abusive relationships. Lord have mercy!

“Lord have mercy” is my continual prayer, and it is a prayer that I watched God answer on this very same Monday night and in the days since. After our community meal we all headed upstairs for worship service. It started off pretty normal though the feeling seemed to be a bit more solemn than usual. I made a few announcements, said a prayer then turned it over to our worship leader. As I went to my seat I realized I needed to run home and get something, and since my house is only a couple minutes from the church, I was back before the scheduled time for the sermon to start. I walked past my friend, Pastor Josh, patted him on the shoulder, and told him to keep is short tonight. Then I returned to my seat.

About the time I sat down I saw Jim head to the prayer rail and drop to his knees. Pastor Roz motioned for me to join Jim, so I quickly got up to the front and embraced this brother as tears poured out on to the altar. Soon others were headed that way as well. It became evident quite quickly that this was not going to be a sermon kind of night. Our worship leader, Luke, continued to strum his guitar and Roz invited others to come forward if they needed prayer (and it truly was an invitation, not a manipulative plea). Next thing I knew the front of the church was flooded. We had all the pastors and a couple interns and other prayer leaders praying for folks and there was still a line. Roz got a free moment then gave one more gentle invitation and still more people came asking for prayer. The atmosphere changed. I saw the promise that Yawheh gave to Jeremiah regarding Israel, fulfilled in a small but significant way in our community. “I will turn their mourning into gladness. I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow” (Jer 31:13b).

Yesterday I saw both Jim and Ms. B. They both looked happier and more at peace than they had been in quite a while. Jim even told me that he has slept more peacefully the last few nights than he has in a long time. All their problems aren’t solved, and even though we are now helping them shoulder their burdens, and thankfully doing it as a community, we have all certainly seen that they, that we, have been shown mercy. Praise the Lord!

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Stories to Tell – First Months at Embrace (Part II)

September 13, 2013

Stories Part I

Most folks who know me know that I am a pacifist. My first book even took on common questions about Christian nonviolence. I often speak about nonviolence, turning the other cheek, dying rather than killing. I used to think I was a good bible teacher, but I am not so sure anymore. You see, a while back I began leading a bible study through John’s gospel. One of the regular attendees, a guy named “J”, had proven to be inquisitive, enthusiastic, and he was always kindly offering to help in various capacities during our Monday night ministry. “J” was homeless, and he had twice been attacked, stabbed and robbed over a couple week period while out and about in Lexington. I think many of us could sense “J’s” frustration and hopelessness growing even as we tried to offer encouragement and point him toward hope. We failed, miserably.

A few weeks went by without “J” attending. We didn’t think too much about it because many of our guests drop off the radar for weeks or even months at a time, but we heard through the grapevine that “J” had been arrested for allegedly beating a man to death with a 2×4. Sure enough the news reports confirmed the rumors. “J” is now in prison. Likely he will be there for a while, perhaps the rest of his life.
barbed_safety_Fence_225577_lI sort of jokingly remarked on a few occasions that I must be the worst bible teacher ever. That may or may not be true, but I am beginning to realize that most of the change that happens in people’s lives does not happen because they sat in a particular class. There are a lot of ways in which God intervenes in the lives of people, countless different sorts of events that people can point to as places where they were changed for the better, but it seems that one of the most compelling reasons that people change is because they have others who love them through their mess. I will visit “J” in prison. I will let him know that he is still loved, that God still sees him as a person with infinite worth. I will pray with him, encourage him, challenge him to be a peacemaker and minister of reconciliation even and especially in the confines of concrete and barbed wire. I will declare over his life that Jesus does indeed set captives free and I will continue to trust that God has a plan for my friend “J” even though this detour has put him on an exceedingly more difficult path. I will challenge him to repent, to seek the forgiveness of God and the victim’s family.

Whether or not I succeed as a teacher, I am determined to be faithful as a minister of God’s redemptive peace.

Of course, not all of the stories of my time at Embrace are so dramatic, many of them are quite mundane yet eternally important. Sometimes they are even downright boring. A few weeks ago we had a baptism (that wasn’t the boring part), but since one of our worship gatherings takes place at a theater we have a portable baptistery. Our portable baptistery happens to be a plastic horse trough. Anyway, the theater does not have a particularly convenient way for us to fill the thing so I had to load it on to a small cart and wheel it into the bathroom. Me and two other guys took turns holding a small hose on to the end of one of the bathroom faucets. I know some traditions sprinkle water on congregants when a person gets baptized as a way to help others remember their own baptism. This was not a formal ritual, but we were sure getting wet as the water sprayed from the end of the hose since we could not get a tight connection with the faucet. We, I hope, remembered our baptisms as we prepared to welcome a new sister into the family.

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After about half an hour of watching water slowly trickle into the trough we decided there was enough water to dunk someone. Of course a horse trough with 30 gallons of water in it is no light object to move, but we couldn’t really baptize this young lady in the men’s room, so we had to wheel the trough laden cart down to the front of the theater and up onto the stage. It took 6 of us to get it off the cart.

The baptism, like all baptisms, was beautiful. There is always something good about getting a soaking wet hug from a new sibling in Christ.

Of course once the baptism was over we had load the trough back on the cart, wheel it out the back door of the theater and dump the water out on the sidewalk. It created a small tidal wave that ran out into the street. I almost want to reconsider my stance on sprinkling for baptism after this, but it was great to watch someone die to sin and be raised to life with Christ.

Other stories at Embrace are still very much in process. In fact, most of them rest in that uncomfortable place of ambiguity between hope and hopelessness.

A few weeks ago a young lady who has been attending two of our weekly services on a regular basis came forward to ask for prayer. With the requisite tears in her eyes she told me about her addiction to heroin, about how she couldn’t see her children because of the drug’s hold on her. She asked me to pray for her. I prayed that God would deliver her from this demon of addiction. During our meal time after service I pulled “A” aside to talk more. I told her that helping folks with drug addictions was pretty new to me, but that I wanted to covenant with her to find her appropriate help. I told her that I would find her the following Sunday with information in hand ready to help her out.

For the whole week I sent messages to local friends who I knew would be able to help me out. My friend Kelly, the pastoral care coordinator at The Lexington Rescue Mission, had been working on a list of resources for addicts, which she kindly shared with me. I began checking into each program to see which would be the best fit. On Sunday, though I was teaching at another church in town, I rushed back to Embrace’s downtown campus at the Kentucky Theater to make sure I kept my word to “A”. I found her and told her about the various programs as asked her to meet me the next day at my office so we could look over them in more detail and at least get her on a waiting list or two.

The time came for our appointment and she never showed. I was angry, disappointed, and honestly sad because I still believe that she wants freedom from these chains that bind her. That evening one of her friends told me that she had hitched a ride to another city to follow her drug habit. That sort of thing makes me wanna scream and kick kittens (of course to be fair I don’t really like cats anyway), but instead I pray that God will continue the work that God has started in “A’s” life. Last week her friend said that “A” is back in town. Next time I see her, I plan to give her a big hug then a piece of my mind, then remind her once again that I love her with the love of the Lord and that I still want to help her though this mess. I don’t know where it will go. I don’t know if she will ever be free of her addiction. I don’t know if she will ever get back custody of her kids. I don’t know a lot of things, but I do know that I will I be waiting for her and working on her behalf, and I do know that as much as I am doing so that God will be infinitely more involved in her daily life, whispering to her that his grace is sufficient.

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I have… Some Reflections on My Life

June 1, 2010

I wrote this a while back as a reminder to myself about how good God has been to me in my life and all the opportunities He has given to me.  I liked it so I thought I would share it here…

I have watched the sun rise over Mt. Sinai, walked on the Great Wall of China, waded in the black sea in Ukraine. I have climbed the great pyramid in Giza, rode a donkey up the cliffs of Santorini and watched the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. I have explored tiny villages in the mountains of Switzerland, hiked a glacier in Alaska and been lost in the grand Bazaar in Istanbul. I have devoured fried plantains in the Dominican Republic, gorged myself on sausages in Munich and munched on prosciutto as I meandered my way through Venice. I have ridden horseback through the jungle in Belize, held a giant stingray in Grand Cayman and scaled Mayan ruins in Mexico.

I have sat at the foot of the Parthenon in Athens, strolled under the legs of the Eiffel tower in Paris and perused the ancient Angkor Temples in Cambodia. I have ridden a camel along the Nile, motor biked the coastal roads of Vietnam and caught the river taxi in Bangkok. I have toured the Guinness brewery in Dublin, wandered the canal lined streets of Amsterdam and had a waffle in Belgium. I have traveled back and forth across the United states by car, plane and motor home, stopping to see Mt. Rushmore, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Statue of Liberty and countless more historic landmarks.

I have experienced the terrible sadness of Dachau, realized my own insignificance at the edge of the Grand Canyon and witnessed my religious heritage in Corinth. I have contemplated faith at Haggia Sophia, the Vatican and Westminster Abbey, imagined evangelism at the Blue Mosque, muttered prayers at the Buddhist temples of Thailand, longed for reconciliation at an ancient Jewish Tabernacle in Thessaloniki, and shared my love for Jesus in small apartments in China.

I have studied theology in Searcy, AR, Nashville, TN, and Wilmore, KY, ministered on skid row in Los Angeles and stayed at a hostel in Harlem. I have gazed at the Austrian Alps, skied in the Rockies and ridden my go cart in the foothills of the Appalachians. I have walked laps around the Coliseum, sat on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and crouched terrified in the top of the St. Louis Arch. I have been welcomed by the Statue of Liberty, stood in the freezing sea breeze of Kowloon Bay in Hong Kong and surfed the North Shore in Hawaii. I have snorkeled in the Virgin Islands, scuba-dived in the Florida Keys and floated leisurely in the Aegean Sea. I have had meetings with power brokers at the White House and Capitol Building, and shared meals on the streets with my homeless friends under the bridge. I have exchanged vows with a woman whose beauty is only rivaled by her character, and someday we hope to have kids together.

I have been saved by grace, washed by blood and called by name. I have been sealed by the Spirit, treated with grace and mercy, and loved beyond measure. I have been beckoned by Jesus and I have chosen to follow!!!

Christian Anarchy and Voting- A Recap

January 8, 2010

A lot of people have been asking me lately about my stance on voting and Christians serving in government offices. Since I have already written a good bit about my particular understanding of the Christian responsibility in political engagement I thought I would just compile all of those posts here so I can direct people to one place.

I thought I would start with this powerful song by Derek Webb.

This concise non-voting manifesto (and updated version) by Professor Tripp York is also a useful resource, and generally sums up my position.

Mark Van Steenwyk also offers his ten reasons for not voting at Jesus Radicals.

This is an excerpt by Andy Alexis-Baker from the book Electing Not to Vote, and this post is specifically about the 2012 election.

In this piece  Chris Smith writes about incarnational theology and non-voting.

Early American church leader, David Lipscomb wrote a great book on the topic of Christians and government. Here is an excerpt on voting. Historian Mcgarvey Ice briefly examines Lipscomb’s nonvoting stance.

Joshua Jeffery follows Lipscomb and talks about the choice not to vote.

Alasdair MacIntyre says in this piece, “The way to vote against the system is not to vote.”

There are often connections between nonviolence and the Christian anarchy. Keegan Osinski and Mark Caudill discuss some of those connections and their reasons for not voting.

I wrote a fairly popular series of posts a while back entitled Would Jesus Vote? The basic idea was to chronicle some of the reasons I believe Christians should be wary of participating in the government on any level. So here they are:  One, Two, Three and Four.

One of my ethics classes required that I write a paper about Christians and political engagement. It was one of my favorite papers of my scholastic career so I thought I would share it with you here.

The term Christian Anarchy understandably makes a lot of people uncomfortable  so I have this post trying to help people have a better understanding of the phrase. After all, as Tolstoy said, “The Kingdom of God is anarchy.”

Kurt Willems has a new series at Red Letter Christians on Jesus and nationalism. Check out part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4 and part 5.

For those of you who arent quite convinced, then at least consider this post before you vote.

I also have several posts that more indirectly get at the issues around the Christian Anarchy stance including this one on True Freedom which lists some of the most important basic understandings of being a part of God’s Kingdom. In a similar vein, this post attempts to demonstrate the radical differences between God’s Kingdom and the nations of this world.

Finally, there are some other issues such as war, abortion, immigration and poverty that play an important part in this discussion so I offer this post of some resources about these issues and this post specifically about war.

My request is that you prayerfully consider these ideas and search out God’s will in your life and in the world, and above all, declare with your life and words that Jesus is King!

Human Trafficking Conference- Day One

October 9, 2009

We arrived at the church and I confess I am already frustrated. This place is a mall, only nicer. I wonder how much money was spent on the fancy decorations and lighting and sound equipment. I also noticed that over 90% of the people here are white, probably middle or upper middle class, attractive,  wearing plastered on smiles. I too am these things, perhaps sans the attractiveness and permanent smile. Where are the blacks, the Asians, the natives and the Hispanics? Where are the poor? Where are the oppressed, impoverished? People are dressed in outfits that are worth more than my car. Is it all a façade? Is it a way to make ourselves feel good about our convictions and conscience? Are we just trying to create meaning in a world that often seems so meaningless? I am guilty too. Lots of words, and anger and guilt for the injustice around me, but very little action, maybe even less serious prayer. How do the wealthy, educated, affluent and powerful combat widespread systemic injustices? Do we meet in million dollar church buildings patting each other on the back and raising awareness or is there something more to this? How do we speak truth to power when we are the powerful?

On another note, this morning we met and had a formation in common session with just our group. We started with 15 minutes of silence, which was uncomfortable yet peaceful. The we read together from the Asbury reader and discussed, Lectio Divina style, what the text was speaking to us. Mostly I took away that I need to just rest in the peace of God’s presence and the joy of his salvation, but now I am struggling with how that is tempered with God’s lament over our condition, especially our unawareness of the fetters of wealth, comfort, self-righteousness and homogeneity that bind our souls and keep them from soaring. I want to live and work with joy and peace, but I also want to feel the sense of outrage that I believe God feels when he sees a bunch of rich white folks bantering about changing the world in our million dollar facilities when our battle should be more in the trenches.

God, I am sorry if I am being judgemental. I am simply trying to express what I see and feel. Help me love church folks. Help me love myself. Help me love in a way that I see the image of God in those who trying so hard to create it in themselves. Help me love myself. Help me love those who only fight injustice from the safety of their pew and the comfort of being a safe distance from the bleeding hands and feet and human slaves. Help me love myself. Help me love those who shed rivers of tears on behalf of the oppressed but never shed any blood. Help me love myself. Help me love the readers and speakers, those full of knowledge and vision but lacking in practice and lifestyles of redemptive suffering and love. Help me love myself. Help me love, Lord, help me love.

As I hear the speakers give their various spiels I am much more encouraged, but still skeptical about what each of us does when we leave this place. I love the creative ideas been tossed about and the deep concern on behalf of the presenters. I am impressed with the fact that more people than I would have imagined are actually getting their hands dirty. However, I am wary about the ideas being put forth that we msut somehow depend on law or government to end these atrocities. This simply isn’t true. I don’t think it comes down to prosecutions or threats or coercion. The change we seek can only come through changed lives and hearts. I don’t think it’s the governments job, its our job to see this through. We arent ultimately aiming to end slavery, we are seeking to particpate in and promote the new humanity of God’s kingdom. Prosecution isn’t the answer. Love is.

Some of the quotes that stuck out to me are

“People are willing to leave their theology at the door to come together and combat this issue.” We cannot and must not leave our theology at the door because it informs our actions.

“We should aim to make these grass roots movements a part of the establishment.” Really?!?!

I know some of these thoughts may be a bit disjointed, but there is so much information being thrown at us and I havent had much time to process and reflect on most of it. Look for more to come.

Human Trafficking Conference- Travel

October 8, 2009

I was given the chance to travel with a group from Asbury to the Global Conference on Human Trafficking in Carlsbad, California. Here are some of my thoughts from the trip to California. There will be more thoughts and reflections from the conference from myself and others in our group.

As we are flying to a conference on one of the great atrocities of our day, of any day, I cant help but wonder how my own lust, addictions, indulgences and apathy have contributed to the brokenness of this world where people think it is ok to own another human being for their own pleasure. How has my falleness rippled out in both the physical and spiritual realms, empowering the evil one and his minions while galvanizing the chains that hold his enemies, oppressed and oppressors, in bondage? Or do I give my own wretched, sinful existence too much credit? Are my contributions of deadly desires and limitless complacency enough to give an ounce of power to the dammed deceiver? If so, are the rare moments of surrender to God in me really destroying the wicked systems of the world by bearing witness to the true reality of God’s Kingdom?

It is my deepest hope, or at least my best hope, that somehow, someday I will live and act and speak like Jesus. My own damn vanity and pride, my indifference for the situations of others and my longing for momentary acceptance and my fear of both success and failure all act as the brick and mortar that imprison me. But, it is the destructive grace of God on which I depend, to keep razing the fortress in which I have held myself captive. I know that he will, his Kingdom will, destroy hell’s gates and let all of those who dare escape run free. It is this trust, that if God’s power can level gates of pure evil, He can and will overwhelm my pride and all of my best and worst intentions.

Lenten Posts from Fellow CC Bloggers

March 10, 2009

I feel very fortunate to have been selected to join the CC Blogs Network because it gives me quick and regular access to a variety of great thoughts from a wide range of Christian thinkers, ministers, writers and practitioners. Here is a list of links from the CC Blogs Network on all sorts of issues related to Lent.

Don’t Eat Alone      The Connection      Pastor’s Post

Faith at Ease      Holy Vignettes      I-YOUniverse

Where the Wind      As the Deer      The Other Jesus

Mark Powell      Getting There      Ellen Haroutunian

Theolog      Welcoming Spirit      Living Word by Word

Where the Wind      Faith in Community      When Grace Happens

Theophiliacs J. Stambaugh      Theophiliacs A. Hunt      Everyday Liturgy

Available Light      Work in Progress      Allan Bevere

A Diner at the End of Time      The Painted Prayerbook      Just Words

The Church Geek      Breaking Fast on the Beach      The Pocket Mardis

Reflectionary      One Hand Clapping      Unorthodoxology