Archive for the ‘love’ 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 I)

September 3, 2013

It is difficult to know which stories I ought to share here. Though it has only been a couple months since I started at Embrace Church, and my work has largely been behind the scenes, there are many stories to tell. I would like to briefly (someone once told me brevity is a virtue, though I am not sure I agree) recount three encounters that are still weighing on my mind and shaping who I am.

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1) Josh, the pastor in charge of The Gathering service was taking a much-needed vacation, so I was responsible for preparing and leading the service. Along with the worship service we offer a free meal to hungry folks in the community and pass out bags of non-perishable food (and occasionally fresh veggies when they are available), so I spent the day leading a small group of volunteers and interns packing the food bags, stocking the food pantry shelves, and buying the food for the kitchen staff (also a group of volunteers) so they could prepare dinner. By the time service started I was exhausted, but I had a priceless moment with a lady that energized my spirit.

Ms. “D” came up during our prayer time at the end of the service to ask me to pray for some family matters. I held her hand and put my other hand on her shoulder as we prayed. When I looked up after the prayer I noticed she was tearing up a bit. She said, “You see how you were touching me? No white man would ever do that. White people are usually afraid of me.” See, back in 1991 Ms. “D’s” face was burned with acid when she was attacked in what seems to have been (at least partially) a racially motivated attack. Since then she has had a number of surgeries and her face is permanently disfigured. I stood there sort of stunned not knowing what to say. I just continued to hold her hand and look her in the eye in hopes that my gaze would reassure her that I was not only not afraid, but I was honored that she would share that moment with me.

Cafe 12) One of the prayer leaders at Embrace is brother Lawrence. Lawrence recently had a stroke so one of the other pastors, LeTicia, and I went to pick him up to take him to the hospital. We helped him out to the car and drove him to the emergency room then waited with him until he began to get treatment, in part because he has no insurance and the hospital had already discharged him twice in the previous few days, so we wanted to make sure he was actually cared for this time. Lawrence was transferred to a rehab hospital within a couple days. While at the rehab hospital a number of people from Embrace visited him, and other guests began asking why he had so many visitors. Lawrence told them that all these visitors were his family members.

This witness began to spread through the rehab facility. One day while Josh and I were visiting Lawrence around dinner time we sat with him in the cafeteria to chat for a bit. Soon the conversation turned towards prayer. We prayed for Lawrence, then he asked that we pray for everyone else in the place. The thing is, with Lawrence he didn’t mean sort of generically pray for folks, he meant he wanted us to go to every table and ask people if we could pray with them. How could Josh and I say no to this man who was recovering from a stroke? So, Lawrence began telling everyone we were his pastors while we began to ask folks if they wanted prayer. By the time we were ready to leave we had prayed individually with every person eating in the dining room that evening, including a lady who was about to be released the next day. This lady was scared because going home meant not having round the clock care. As we prayed with her her eyes welled up with tears and she seemed filled with a renewed strength and the courage to return to her home. I am thankful for a brother who has the audacity to push me into situations like that because it proved to be one of the most blessed experiences I have had in recent memory.

Marquee3) Not all of the stories I have to share are uplifting. Many of them are downright tragic. I often find myself heartbroken and feeling hopeless as I learn to trust in the God who brings life out of death. One of these stories that is fresh on my mind is about failure, my failure and the failures of our society. One morning at our Downtown worship gathering a man showed up who was released from prison just that morning. Mr. “C” had back and leg problems so he literally hobbled in to the Kentucky Theater to join us in worship and to seek help. I prayed with him then he asked if we could possibly get a cane for him since he was having trouble walking. I took Mr. “C” to a drugstore where he picked out a suitable cane. Then we began talking about where I would take him next. Mr.”C” was in prison because of an altercation he had with his roommate, so once he was released he had no place to go. He told me that he had a bad experience at one of the homeless shelters so he didn’t want to go there.

I have learned about many of the resources available to homeless people in Lexington, but I am still trying to figure out the idiosyncrasies of each agency, church and organization. They often have odd hours, particular eligibility requirements, and limited space. I took Mr. “C” to another one of the shelters only to find out that they did not allow people on the premises until later in the evening. We left there to go to the new day center in hopes that it would be a safe place for him to spend a few hours before the shelter opened. Unfortunately the center is closed on Sundays. Now here is the part where my excuses start. I lived in a different town and I had other things to attend to that afternoon, so after an hour trying to find Mr. “C” a place to stay I was ready to drop him off somewhere and move on to my other responsibilities. I still regret my attitude and decision. I ended up leaving Mr.”C” at the day center property. He said he would stay there until the shelter opened.

I saw Mr.”C” again a few weeks later and his face was covered in bruises. I asked what happened and he told me that soon after I dropped him off he was attacked by a group of guys for his pain medication. They beat the mess out of him. He spent several days in the hospital recovering before he ended up at the very shelter where he did not want to go in the first place. Mr.”C” doesn’t blame me, but I can’t help but know that I could have done more. I also can’t help but think about the ways in which our society, including the church, has failed. When people think it is ok to attack a handicapped man to steal his medication we really need to revisit some things. When there is no decent place for someone to go after they have served their time in prison we really need to revisit some things. When the church community is so scattered that we have no network to help the most vulnerable and marginalized people we really need to revisit some things.

I imagine that some readers may be wondering why I would end this post with a negative story. The reality is that though we have seen numerous people profess faith in Christ, be freed from addiction, and have their lives transformed there are far more cases when it doesn’t turn out the way we had hoped. For every story of triumph there seems to be a dozen stories of tragedy. That is the nature of ministry, especially the ministry in which I have found myself. If I only told the miracle stories or the stories that made folks feel all good inside, that would be dishonest. It is my job to plant and water. I trust that God will bring growth. Some hearts will be receptive to God’s work in their lives, others will not, but I will continue to be faithful to the calling I have received. Come Lord Jesus!

 

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Moving In – An Introduction to Embrace Church

May 21, 2013

I think I had a perfect introduction to my new ministry.

Last week I was moving some of my books into my new office at Embrace Church. As I was pulling boxes full of seminary texts, commentaries, and my talking Jesus doll (yeah, like you don’t have a Jesus doll that quotes the KJV) out of the trunk of my car I was approached by a man rambling pretty incoherently. I should back up a minute and mention that I really do not like hot weather, and it was one of the first hot days of summer. I had already taken in one load and I was covered in sweat. I just wanted to get the next load in and cool off for a minute without any distractions. It is fair to say that I was more than slightly annoyed.

I engaged the man, feigning interest in his mumbling at first. After a minute he asked me if I could take him in the building to get a drink of water. I closed my trunk, pushed the cart full of books up the ramp to the front door of the church and invited the man in. I asked the administrative assistant where I could get a cup for the man. He followed me into her office and started semi-angrily talking about how he had been kicked out of this church before. As best as I could understand he was trying to tell us that he was a good guy and that it was only a misunderstanding, but then he recounted the incident (still in rambling fashion). Apparently some weeks earlier he had brought a knife to church and taken it out. He told us that he meant no harm, but by this point I was thinking it might be time for me to ask him to leave as well.

I found out later that this man had indeed showed up one Sunday morning and barged into one of the classrooms, wreaking of alcohol. He then, apparently, took out a knife and started waiving it around. Fortunately, a wise, older lady in the congregation was able to calm him down by offering to pray for him and they were able to escort him safely out of the building.

On this day he didn’t show us a knife, nor did I feel particularly threatened, but I am pretty sure I felt compassion for him. As he drank his water and continued to tell me about “the misunderstanding” I looked at him with less annoyance than when he first approached me in the parking lot. I hope I looked on him with love. I am not entirely sure I did, but I know this: In this ministry, I am right where I am supposed to be! I am once again learning to love the “outcasts,” and being opened up to what God will teach me through their presence. May I have the eyes to see Jesus in each face.

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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!!!

Theology and Public Transportation

May 15, 2010

I wrote this a few months ago while I was living in Washington, DC and working at Sojourners. It is my hope to write more about my DC experience in coming days…

I heard a sermon in which the speaker asked a silly, but profoundly important question. He asked the chapel full of seminarians where the most important location was in the small town in which the school is located. Is it this chapel with its beautiful stained glass and singing? Is it the building that houses the classrooms where you learn theology and philosophy? Is it one of the local church congregations? No. It is Cluckers (the local gas station). The speaker went onto to posit that he believed that Cluckers was important because it was where the world collided in our small town to refuel, talk about the goings on, grab a drink and eat the best baklava this side of the Mediterranean.

Things are different for me now. I’m living in a major world city, where I often use public transportation. Like Cluckers, public transportation, in such a metropolitan city, is where the world meets. Rich and poor, powerful and powerless, young and old, all pile into buses and the metro. This is a great place to people watch and think and pray. One day as I was doing this I was reminded of the Joan Osborn song, “What if God Was One of Us?” There is a line directly following the title line, ‘just a stranger on the bus, trying to make his way home.’ I got to thinking about what Jesus would notice, and say and do if he were riding the metro. I began to think he would be pleased to see societies’ hierarchies and barriers temporarily removed as nearly every socio-economic background, religion and race huddled together trying not to fall down as the train jerked forward.

Though the more I ride, I notice something I believe would disturb Jesus and should disturb us. As I rode certain lines in certain directions the demographics changed. Instead of a multicultural mélange, the faces on the metro became more homogenous. One could almost know which stop was theirs by looking at the number of people in the car who did or did not look like them. I wonder how Jesus would react. Would he start flipping over the turnstiles or would he stand on a seat and preach? Would he heal the blind man standing by the door or would he multiply the amount of money still left on everyone’s ticket? I don’t know, but I’m sure that he would do something, perhaps something crazy, certainly something creative, to let people know that they were loved and cherished by God.

As people interested in reconciliation, the way of Jesus, this modern day segregation should sadden us, inform us and challenge us to keep working for a world where love and justice are the norm; a world where skin color, your country of origin or the language you speak don’t have to play a role in deciding which area of town you should live. I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with wanting to live with people who are most like you. There is however a terrible evil lurks just below the surface of this desire that works its way into our lives when we get too comfortable with where we live and with whom we associate. This evil is complacency and apathy towards the struggles of the ‘other’ and it is a structure, a principality in which individuals are content with being walled off with folks like them and failing to join in the journeys of others for more than a short metro ride.

What if our whole lives looked like the line for baklava and a soda, or the trip on the red line metro train? What if we were intentional about meeting people most unlike us and participating in their lives, helping them when they needed it and sharing our food, our journeys and our lives together? The moments we share when our paths cross on the metro, subway, or bus look more and more to me like our local church congregations ought to and the way heaven appears in Scripture. If we can get together to share our journeys to work and school and to restaurants and stores, why can’t we get together and share our journey into eternity?

Human Trafficking and Changing Habits

May 14, 2010

With all the talk about healthcare and war spending and other ‘politically sexy’ topics being discussed in Washington and the media it breaks my heart that we tend to forget about less attractive issues like human trafficking. Its mind boggling to think that last night 27 million people went to bed as slaves. Think about that. That means that well over two times the population of New York City spent their day today being forced to pick the cotton that we nonchalantly put on as socks and t-shirts, or mining the minerals that make up the components of our high-tech gadgets that we whip out to find the nearest coffee shop, where, as is often the case, we drink coffee and eat chocolate treats harvested by unpaid children.

I’m not trying to make anyone feel guilty, especially because I am complicit in all of the above, well except the drinking coffee part, but that’s only because I just don’t like the stuff. However, if you get a bit convicted as you read this perhaps you should assess the changes you may need to make in your life, just as I have to do in my own. Perhaps you are like I was only a few months ago, relatively unaware of the gargantuan problem of modern day slavery that seeps its way into every part of our daily lives. Its not popular to remind people that the food they are eating, the clothes they are wearing and the luxuries and comforts they are enjoying may very well be ‘stained with the blood’ of innocent men, women and children who are forced to produce those goods for companies looking to save a buck and consumers demanding those same savings.

Now there is another, often more sinister, part of the modern slave trade that has gotten some attention in the media, the sex-slave industry. I have to emphasize ‘some’ as I write because last century’s American idol runners up get more attention. Unfortunately it seems that when stories about these abuses air we seem to have moments of conviction that soon get overwhelmed by the grand scale of the issue at hand or by our own apathy and acceptance of the status quo that suits most of us so well.

So what are we to do with a problem of such a monumental scale, with so little public attention and such an ability to blend in to its surroundings? Well there are the usual routes of writing your congressman or protesting certain brands, but I want to encourage us all to try something a bit different. My suggestion is that we all, for one month, try to fast from any goods made by slaves. In tandem with this, I admonish each of us to start educating ourselves about the problem so that we can in turn educate others, and that instead of just boycotting brands that are notorious for their ‘bloody’ production line, we actively seek out ways to support businesses and non-profits that are working towards the new abolition. And assuming that none of you are sleeping with prostitutes, which I sure hope you are not, then a good way to help those in the sex slave industry is to buy jewelry and other goods made by women and children rescued from brothels. And most of all, we need to pray, to cry out to God as a people, the spiritual descendants of the Israelites, who were rescued by God’s almighty hand from the clutches of a tyrannical slave master.

Educate yourselves by checking out this list of resources and ideas, and  join the movement of modern day abolitionists. Also, keep the World Equestrian Games in your prayers as it is expected that thousands, maybe tens of thousands of people will be forcibly brought in to the Lexington, KY area to be sex workers for those attending the games.

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!