Archive for the ‘Poverty’ 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.

I can’t do the work that God has called me to without your help. Your prayers, financial support, encouragement and accountability make my work possible. If you think this ministry is worthwhile and God is leading you, please contribute to this small witness to God’s Kingdom.

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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.

If you would like to find out more about my ministry and how you can support me, please read this letter. You can also give by clicking on the donate button below. Thanks!

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Feeding Others for Lent

February 12, 2013

I like to eat, a lot! That is why the idea of fasting from any sort of food has always made my stomach a bit nervous.

I, like most folks who are reading this, have enough to eat. Unfortunately though, the facts about hunger remind us that others are not so fortunate. We know that 868 million people are undernourished, and 25 thousand men, women and children will die today of hunger related causes. That means by the time you finish reading this post about 17 people will lose their lives because they could not get enough to eat.

This bag has two full days worth of healthy meals!

This bag has two full days worth of healthy meals!

So, what does this have to do with fasting for Lent? Well, Isaiah 58 tells us that the sort of fasting that God desires involves fighting injustice, including giving food to the hungry. So, I have decided to join some friends in a fast that will get nutritious food to those who need it most. We will each be forgoing our normal diets and joining in solidarity with thousands of people around the whose only nutritious meals come from the organization Stop Hunger Now.

I will be trading in my typical American diet for Stop Hunger Now’s nutritious rice, dried veggie, soy protein, and vitamin powder packaged meals. I will eat these packaged meals (at 200 calories a piece) for each meal for all 40 days of Lent. Now for the part about how this helps other people eat.

My meals for 40 days!

My meals for 40 days!

I am asking that you join me in this effort by sponsoring my fasting journey through Lent by matching the $40 (a dollar for each day of Lent, or however much you can give) I invested toward funding a meal packaging event at Asbury Seminary for Stop Hunger Now.

Each meal packaged only costs $.25 and will be sent to hungry people, primarily children, all over the world. My $40 will feed me for 40 days, but every matching sponsor sustains the life of a child suffering from chronic hunger for over 5 months!

Please consider joining with me in this act of service by matching my monetary investment, or by giving whatever you can.  Every dollar you give will provide four meals to hungry people around the world. Your action can save the life of one on the brink of death, break the cycle of poverty by improving educational performance and opportunity, and help stabilize families made vulnerable by extreme poverty. You can donate securely here throughout Lent to help us reach our goal of 25,000 meals.

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.

Poverty and Advent

December 1, 2009

Its rare for me to hear a new Christian song these days that really hits me right in the gut, but today in Chapel I was introduced to just such a song. The service was focusing on the eschatological hope that we have in the birth of Jesus and his  return, and the lives we should live as a result. This song, by Jason Upton, closed out the service.

There’s a power in poverty that breaks principalities
And brings the authority’s down to their knees
There’s a brewing frustration and ageless temptation
To fight for control by some manipulation

But the God of the kingdoms and the God of the Nations
The God of creation sends his revelation
Thru the homeless and penniless Jesus the son
The poor will inherit the Kingdom to come

Where will we turn when our world falls apart
And all of the treasures we’ve stored in our barns
Can’t buy the Kingdom of God?

Who will we praise when we’ve praised all our lives
men who build Kingdoms and men who build fame but heaven does not know their names

What will we fear when all that remains
Is God on His throne, with a child in his arms,
and love in his eyes
And the sound of his heart cries

You should have heard my buddy Drew sing it as well. It echoed through the chapel and straight into the hearts of my fellow journeyers and I.

Human Trafficking Conference- NFS Video

October 13, 2009

This very short video, from last weeks Forum On Human Trafficking, powerfully conveys the message that slavery and human trafficking are a grave reality in our world, even this very day. Watch it, then check out my previous post to see what you can do about it.