Archive for the ‘pain’ 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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A Powerful Vision

January 8, 2010

Recently I was talking to my little sister, who happens to be one of the most faithful, dedicated and wise Christian women I know, about a vision that she had a while back. I was so moved by her vision that I asked her to write it down so that I could keep it with me and share it with others. This written version is quite moving, but I wish you could all hear her share her experience personally. Maybe someday I can get a video of her sharing, but for now here is the short written version.

Pursuit of the Beloved
Sarah Bronson

I saw myself in a field covered in rags running from God. I was terrified. I knew that He had every right to kill me. My life was worth nothing and He was coming towards me. I had tried and tried to scrub myself clean, but it only revealed more dirt. I couldn’t let Him see me like this. But He was coming for me, and getting closer.

Suddenly I felt His arms around me. “NOooo! I can’t let Him touch me! He is perfect and I am unclean.” I struggled to get away. Like a little kid who knew they had done wrong, I didn’t want to face the consequences. His hold hurt as a tried to get away. The more I struggled the tighter the hold became. He wasn’t going to let me go. I stopped struggling and stood in his arms turned away from His face.
I was terrified, but the truth was punishment didn’t scare me. I knew I deserved death. But I couldn’t bear to look at His face. I wanted more than anything to please Him and to earn His love. If I turned, I knew that I would have to face the disappointment in His eyes. THAT was what I could not handle.

I stood rigid, vulnerable, and overwhelmed. His hold softened and became warm and gentle. He whispered into my ear, “I love you. Please, turn around.” I didn’t understand. How could that be? He had no reason to love me. I was uncertain and couldn’t turn around. He continued “I love you. Turn and see…I love you turn and see…” Could it be?

Trembling I turned my head towards Him, eyes closed. “Open your eyes, beloved”, He whispered softly. Slowly I opened them to see a face filled with light and life and more love than I ever could have imagined. I was transfixed by His face. I don’t know how long I stood there amazed but when I looked down at myself I was CLEAN!!! I was seeing myself through His eyes. I began to walk with him. When I strayed I saw myself dirty again, but He would always call me back.
On the walk we came across many people. He would wrap His arms around them as He had done for me. They were all afraid. I would try to encourage them and tell them my story. It was an amazing experience when they finally turned and saw themselves in God’s light. They really came to life! We rejoiced together.

But others we came across would not make that choice. He held them the same as He had held us. I saw the love in His eyes as he spoke to them. He longed for their hearts to be whole. They refused to turn, refused to believe. I don’t remember any specific point that He released His hold, but He when did, they ran into the wilderness, into the darkness, into death. I saw Him crumple to the ground weeping at the beloved He had lost.

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.

Cardboard Testimonies

August 13, 2008

This video demonstrates some of the beauty of being part of the family of God.

Jesus Wept

October 31, 2007

John 11:35. The shortest verse in the bible. A look at the humanity of Jesus.

Most of us know that this is on every bible trivia quiz ever created for children’s Sunday school class, but have we considered why the Lord cried?

I have been pondering this for a while. It hit me one night, perhaps through Divine revelation, that it might have been one of the best indicators of the way in which we should pursue a life of ministry.

I think it might be Jesus’ true compassion for the family of the deceased, and the feeling of hurt over the loss of friend that compelled the perfect Son of God to shed tears that day. He is truly sharing in the grief of the friends and family of Lazarus, even though He knows that He will raise the dead man to life again. If this is true, then how does it inform the way we minister? What does it say about ministry?

I think it reminds us that ministry is a lifestyle, not just an infrequent attempt to “share the Gospel” at a weekend outreach or your annual donation to goodwill. In every waking moment, of every day, we are to minister to people. Sometimes it is through a prayer, other times it is felt in a hug, and still others it is in the form of a hot meal or a shoulder to cry on.

Jesus, didn’t seem to need elaborate plans to minister to the community. He didn’t need to have a business meeting with his disciples every week to plan their activities for the coming days. Instead He lived a life of prayer, partying, and partnering with people in their good and bad times. These three things, I think, lead to his tears the day that Lazarus died. Because he prayed for these people, because he partied with them, and because he partnered with them in their joys, and in this moment, their sorrows, he was able to genuinely feel their pain.

That’s it, isn’t it? That’s what we as followers of the Messiah ought to do, to share in the joys and the sorrows of others. That is how we minister. That is how we love. That is how we show people the Truth of the Resurrection.

Now to the fact that Jesus knew that Lazarus would live again. Verse 36 says that the Jews saw how much Jesus loved Lazarus. He wasn’t a charity case. He wasn’t just another miracle that Jesus could add to his tally. He was one who was loved, and loved deeply by the Carpenter Christ. Jesus saw the importance of joining in the suffering of people even though He knew that He was going to fix the problem, even though He realized He was the solution.

Think about how much that says about our lives of ministry. We must join in with people’s triumphs and failures, joys and pains, dreams and wants. We must have compassion, and suffer with, those who hurt, even when we know we are there to bring healing, when we are there to fix the problem. We must first feel the affects of the problem ourselves. We must first join with those who it is hurting most and then we can truly show them they are loved, and that it is not just an opportunity for us to pat ourselves on the back for “making a difference in the world.”

Too many times I see ministries that are only “fixing” the problem, by handing out clothes or food, or donating money, or providing medical care without joining people in their suffering. Church, it is time that we put aside our pretentious attitude of charity and learn to hurt with those who hurt. Then they will see our good works and praise our Father in Heaven.

Jesus wept, do we?

Jesus a homeless bum?

July 17, 2007

Here are two articles about homelessness. One is about what homeless folks really need, and the other is about Jesus being homeless. These articles really hit close to home for me because I have had the great opportunity to work with several homeless ministries over the last few years.

The first article makes the point that ultimately homeless people, like all people, need others to acknowledge them and let them know they are loved. One of the my favorite homeless ministries that I have ever been a part of was just a group of college students who saw a need and decided to meet it. We went to downtown Little Rock every Friday night with bags full of cheeseburgers, which has since become bags full of healthier foods, and found people on the streets. We offered them a cheeseburger, and when we had it, we offered socks, water, etc. But that wasn’t the really great part.

The best part was that we got to sit down with them under bridges and beside train tracks and in alleys, and talk and play dominoes and hug and pray. We visited some homeless shelters too and sang hymns and praise choruses , handed out bibles to those who wanted them, and once again just sat and talked for hours. What was so incredible to me about his ministry is that it wasn’t some well organized church or non-profit organization, it was just a group of college students who truly believed there was no better way to spend a Friday night. Since I have moved to Nashville this ministry has grown by leaps and bounds, they go on Friday and Saturday now, they visit several more locations, they post prayer requests on Facebook, and sometimes some of them even spend the night on the streets with those who have become their friends. Praise God!

This is only one of the ministries I have had the opportunity to be a part of, the others have also been a real blessing because they were first and foremost about sharing the love of Christ by meeting people where they are and looking to meet more than just an immediate physical need.

The second article is about Jesus being homeless. The main thing that I took away from it was the way we church folk often ignore the humanity of Jesus. We talk about Him as if He floated around on a golden cloud all the time. While in fact He walked among the lepers, sat by a well and talked with a “half-breed” whore, ate at the same table with the most despicable people in society, and called people like me to follow Him.

So what do you think? Was Jesus a homeless bum? Do we too often dress the ministry of Jesus up with church language? How can we follow Christ by loving the “unlovable”?