Thursday, May 21, 2015

A Call to Prayer

I'll go ahead and preface this post with an acknowledgement that I may be overstepping here.  However, I literally have not been able to get these thoughts off of my mind for days.  As usual, that ends up in a new blog post.

For more than a week now, I have been overwhelmed with the conviction that our community needs to be on its collective face before God, crying out for His strength, wisdom, and general intervention as we seek to find ways to bring hope into the lives of a people who are, as a whole, feeling overwhelmed by the struggles around them.

I look around me and see so many people battling addiction, family struggles, money problems, work problems- conflict that is tearing at their very souls.  My heart breaks.  I try to find answers and offer hope and usually end up feeling like I've fallen short. I have.  All to often, I walk away from the conversation and realize that I didn't begin to stress effectively the need for the Holy Spirit and His strengthening hand in their search for hope!

I realize that many of my friends don't share my faith and probably find me a bit "preachy" as I share scripture and the stories of how God has worked in my life. I'm sorry if I make you uncomfortable, but the fact is: The only story I have a right to tell is mine and my story is so tightly woven with the Gospel that it would be impossible to tell one without the other.  I am ashamed of who I used to be. I was completely self-centered and very rarely had a second thought about anyone else. As I have grown in faith and grown closer to God, I find that I am much more concerned about helping others avoid the traps I've already been lifted out of! Sometimes, silence isn't an option.

So... (Finally!) the reason for this post:  On the traditional church calendar, this Sunday, May 24th, is Pentecost Sunday.  It's also Memorial Day.  I know that most churches will take a moment and remember those who've given their lives in service to our country- as well we should!  I am asking all of my friends to consider adding another component to their service.  On this Pentecost Sunday, set aside a few moments and challenge your churches to pray earnestly for a move of the Holy Spirit in our churches and community.  Pray that God will empower us with the boldness to step into the fray and proclaim His love and the power it gives to break the chains of spiritual bondage.  Pray that the Spirit will move ahead of us and make people receptive to the word of God we proclaim.  Pray that we will remember that we serve a sovereign God who is able to do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine!

I am convinced that we are living in a time when the power of God can be made manifest by a complete turnaround of this community.  I am convicted that the body of Christ needs to put aside the differences that divide us into smaller factions and simply take up the cross which should unify us against all enemies!  I claim the promise that His people, joined together, crying out in humility will be heard and that healing is possible!

At the last supper, Jesus prayed:
"I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me."

Let us be "one" with each other and our God carrying His love into world that so desperately needs it!
Please join me in praying, now and especially on Sunday, for a movement of God and for true healing in our community.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Lead Me in the Paths of Righteousness

This past Wednesday night, we had a joint youth event with three churches from our community.  We played "Underground Church" which, in a fun setting, tends to highlight the ignorance of many of us in the American church when it comes to the idea of religious persecution and "counting the cost."  We have it so easy!  Perhaps, at times, too easy!  We are free to gather together and worship without fear.  Proclaiming the name of Christ may, occasionally, bring some ridicule on us but, usually, only in the form of criticism for our "unenlightened" views.  We have generations of church-goers who have been told that, if they'll only say a simple prayer, eternity in paradise is theirs.  We give lip-service to "taking up our cross" but rarely think about the implications of actually doing it. In short, we can't truly imagine what it would be like to face death every day simply because we believe in Christ, crucified and raised, as our redeemer. Jon Walton, spoke to the youth and reminded them of the importance of regularly praying for the persecuted church and challenged them to start each day in prayer for other Christians around the world.

On Thursday morning, I woke up and turned on the news.  A college in Kenya had been attacked and more than 100 people were dead.  Christians were singled-out for killing. The events of our "game" had taken place in real life. Only, in reality, instead of being taken to jail, these believers were killed on the spot!  I really couldn't even wrap my mind around the reality and brutality of the story I was watching.  I prayed, I grieved, and then... I started another day of real-world living for me: Breakfast? Check- although the drive-through line was too long at my usual stop so I had to settle for another one; Early Education? Check- VCR problems for the Easter Story movie, VeggieTales retelling on DVD instead; Help with Egg Hunt? Check- 800 candy-filled eggs for 30 kids; Paperwork for State? Check- at least the first packet; Easter Sunrise Service planning? Check- Sound system laid out & generator tested; Supper? Check- steak cooked perfectly and good salad. 


I woke up in the middle of the night with tears in my eyes.  How can I stay so insulated from the tragedy in this world? How can I settle into my comfort when so many are in need?  How can I take my faith so lightly when, for so many, faith, communicated, is a death sentence? How can my heart remain so hard when I claim to follow Christ who wept with compassion when he looked at a broken world? I say I desire to follow Christ but fall so very short of his example!

Today is Good Friday.  We remember the suffering and anguish of the Cross.  We remember the compassion Christ had even to the condemned man hanging next to him.  We remember his death and burial and the heartbreak of those who followed him.  We remember that he cried out with a loud voice, "IT IS FINISHED!" We remember and we celebrate because we know what comes next in the narrative: HE IS RISEN! We claim the promise of salvation: Sins forgiven, past wiped clean, strength to face what stands before us, eternity with our God.  We claim these things yet we often don't live as if we believe them.

I have been struck recently with an illustration that won't let me go.  I was reading a novel set in medieval Wales.  The author describes watching a field being plowed by a yoke of oxen. Behind them in the plow and the man who is steadying it. In front is the ox caller.  This young man stays always in front: encouraging, calling, directing.  There is no whip. There is no punishment from the man in the back.  There is the constant presence of the one calling them forward to accomplish more that they believe they can.  The one who keeps them from getting distracted by their surroundings. The one who will greet them at the end of the day with a reward and his physical touch. The one who believes in them and their abilities.

I immediately took this image to heart.  Too often, we get caught up in the image of a God who beats us into line or doesn't care what happens to us.  We get distracted by the things of this world or caught up in the comparison game- "As long as I'm better than so-and-so, I'm ok." We take our eyes off of the one who has laid the groundwork before us and will direct our paths if we just follow! He is there. Encouraging us.  Leading us. Rewarding us when we reach our goal. He is there having walked every step before us. As his children, we should know his voice and follow!

Today, I choose to follow Christ: to love the unloved, to minister to the heartbroken, to sit in the company of children and embrace their simple joy, to step into an "unclean" world and point people to the hope I've found- with compassion not judgement.  I choose to carry my faith with me every step of the way never forgetting the love and sacrifice that has borne me to this point. I choose to be God's every minute of every day. I choose to focus only on my relationship with Him and to avoid the temptation to compare myself to others.  I choose to be God's child.

Psalm 23: 3 says:
"He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake."
Father, restore me and lead me as I carry your name. Amen

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Avoid This Dangerous Article!

I have been struggling with a thought for quite a while now as I have watched the social media response to many things going on in the world. I am not sure I can articulate it clearly and, because of this, I have been hesitant to add my own noise to the mix.  However, I can no longer bear to have it roll around in my mind without some sort of sounding board. I am talking about a very dangerous article.  Not an article as in a publication, but an article as in parts of speech.  That article is the word, "the."

Every day, I am overwhelmed by posts online or opinion pieces cloaked as reporting that use this article to generalize things that simply cannot be understood through generalizations.  My mental wrestling began with the events in Ferguson, Missouri and all of the things that have come after them.  I cannot begin to list the number of reports and opinions I read that started with a generalized "the" that effectively minimized whole groups of people in order to make a point.  The black people, the white people. the police, the poor, the rich, the Democrats, the Republicans, the social activists, the right-wingers: Each of these thrown out with a scathing (or glowing) analysis of the role of that group in the activities of the day.  Every time I read one of these pieces, I wanted to ask, "Have you REALLY talked to those involved?" There is no way that we can truly understand what is happening until we look through the eyes of those who are in the midst of the events at hand.

This past Sunday, Pastor Samuel Dzobo gave the message at our church.  We had a joint service with our church and the members of three of our local African American churches.  One of the stories he told was truly the motivation for me putting these words on the screen.  He is from Zimbabwe.  Now he pastors a church in rural East Tennessee.  Culture shock for sure! He said he was amazed at some of the questions he had been asked about Zimbabwe: "Do they have houses there?"; "Did you wear clothes?"; "How did you get here? Did you drive?" His response was amazement.  How could they not know more about the world than that?  Then he told us this: "The only answer to ignorance is conversation. If you want to know me, ask me!"  I walked away knowing that this truth is one we need to embrace if we are to survive as a nation.  We need to get to know each other. We need to get away from lumping people into faceless "the" groups.  We need to sit down and dialogue.  At the end of the day, we may still disagree about many things but, hopefully, we'll at least be able to see more clearly from other perspectives.

When I heard about the response to the situation in Ferguson, I was taken back to an incident in my own life:
I spent 3+ years at Scott AFB in Illinois a short distance from St. Louis.  While there, I spent most of my off time with a group of guys who called themselves the "Blacksheep" a group of black guys with a couple of random white guys along for the ride.  I'll preface by saying that I was not living for much of anything but myself at that time. I'm not proud of many of my actions, but God has certainly used that time to shape my worldview.  I grew up in rural Missouri in a town that literally had to import minorities to work at the company there in order to meet affirmative action goals.  I had never been around anyone from an urban, black background until I joined the Air Force.  On my first day at Scott, the shift leader asked me what they called me.  I told him I'd answer to anything.  His response, "OK, I think I'll call you Rahiem."  For the next three years, my name was Rahiem.  I quickly discovered that running with a bunch of black guys took me to a very different place.  In East St. Louis, (East Boogie, according to my friend, Al) I was welcomed, somewhat skeptically but welcomed nonetheless, into a world that was almost exclusively African American.  When we crossed the river, my friends were watched closely and often harassed by reveled at Laclede's Landing and also by the police. This came to a head, when my friend Al was tackled, handcuffed, and thrown in a police car after he hollered back at some white girls who yelled at us from the sunroof of a limousine.  He was held for hours before the police would even acknowledge that they had him.  He wasn't intoxicated and was eventually let go with the strong encouragement to stay away from the Landing. In short, he was arrested for being black.
I realize that the specific circumstances of the case in Ferguson were very different but, I also know that the historical distrust going both ways in St. Louis shaped every response from that point forward. I think it's important to note that the vast majority of those protesting never expressed a violent thought or participated in any rioting.  If we're honest, we'll acknowledge that there is a small number of people who will use any excuse to wreak havoc: Won the championship? Let's burn something and steal some stuff.  Lost? What the heck, let's destroy some things & get a tv.  Pumpkin Festival? Let's tear this thing down! (Yes, that did happen- Keene, NH this fall). However, it's much easier to just say "the protesters" and lump everyone in the anarchist group.  I have family in St. Louis and know that there has been positive dialogue taking place as people from all over the City have come together to highlight changes that need to take place.  Mutual respect can change the face of a city. That can only occur through honest dialogue.

Another area that I see the article "the" cause problems is in a seemingly benign usage.  This problem has been highlighted by the release of "American Sniper" this weekend. We Americans spend a lot of time talking about "the troops."  Pray for the troops.  Remember the troops. Support the troops.  All, certainly, positive sentiments.  Unfortunately, it seems that oftentimes the faces and stories of the individual soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen get lost on the generic, "the troops." Most people I've talked to who left the theater after seeing the movie said they were left speechless as they processed the events portrayed. Most had never, really, thought about how intense war really is!  I fear that most of us, unless we have firsthand experience with someone who has been at war, fail to understand the psychological impact on those called to serve and their families at home.  Nothing is ever the same. We need to stop throwing out generic slogans and begin to identify specific ways we can pray for, remember, and support the individuals who are put in harm's way as well as their families at home. We need to demand appropriate mental health services and make ourselves available as a support system.

There are countless other examples from my life, of late, that point to the potentially false images that come from a generic "the." The nursing home. The elderly. The schools. The church. The gays. The muslims. Preconceived notions often prove to be flawed at best upon personal involvement with any topic.  I pray that, before I form an opinion about anyone, or any circumstance, I make the time to get to know the details and the individuals involved and know their story. We may still disagree, but I will at least be operating from a position of love and respect rather than a position of ignorance and/or arrogance.  I hope there are other who will join me as we shift the article from "the"
to "a" and as we learn more about the individuals with whom we share this earth!

P.s. I wrote this whole piece only to learn that, apparently, "the" is now considered just an adjective. Avoid it anyway if it's being used to vaguely describe a group of people!