Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Beginning to Understand

Some say you're not supposed to have favorites when you are doing things like teaching school or leading a group, but I just can't help the way my heart goes out to different kids in tutoring. One young man in particular is someone that I long to see freed to become all that he can be, and I wish that I could establish a good relationship with him. He likes me OK, but when I try to invest in him more intentionally, he pushes me away by not showing up and acting indifferent. Yesterday I got a glimpse of why.

I was picking his sister up for Bible School and giving their mom a ride home, and I met this young man's father. He was on a bike, talking with D's mom and sister, and then he rode off as we left. I thought he acted a little strange when I complimented him on what a fine young man his son was, and as we drove off, D's mom told me that his father had not seen him since he was four years old. We were not three miles from D's house, and obviously the father still had some contact with D's mother, and yet for almost 10 years he has been gone from D's life for no good reason.

I know the statistics and I know the realities of kids without dads. But to meet one of the dads, to see how close he lived yet for all intensive purposes was across the country, and to realize that D must know that his dad is close by but doesn't want to see him - this gave life and flesh to the statistics.

No wonder D doesn't trust me when I try to build a relationship with him. Yet all the more reason to keep trying.

The Third Year Swimmin' With the GUPY's

My summer interns arrived on Sunday night, and have already blessed me and Diane with their love and their enthusiasm to be here. I think that each of them feels called by the Lord to be here this summer, though they may not know why they’ve been called. They are asking excellent questions, and seem to really want to know the in’s and out’s of the city, and are eager to engage one another as well. One of the students is from Greensboro (well, the past 6 years) and it is really surprising her to discover a side of the city that she has never seen before. Another student attends our church when in school, and is noticing things that she hadn’t before in her drives into town.

This week in our devotionals and group Bible study time, we are looking at our identity in Christ. Not surprising, given my last 8 months of study on the subject, and it is great to watch the different responses and struggles with the materials. God is really at work in their hearts, and I believe is laying the only sure foundation for ministry – Christ in us, the hope of Glory.

During the morning we are helping with Vacation Bible School at my church, as over 1/3 of the 180 kids attending are from Glenwood. As I have reconnected with the kids from my neighborhood, I am reminded of how much I love them, how much I miss some who have moved to another part of the city, and how chaotic some of their lives are when they go home. It’s easy to go through the motions of VBS and just get them through the week, but today the Lord gave me a gift of being able to sit down with a Brother from church and pray in the sanctuary for the kids. Going through the motions is self-protective; it keeps me from being disappointed because I don’t hope and I don’t give my heart too deeply. But most of all it leads me to believe the lie that this is merely a week of VBS, a four-hour distraction, and God can’t do anything in these rough home-life situations.

But prayer is a sounding of hope’s trumpet, a declaration of faith that says there are seeds being sown, the Word is going forth, and the destiny of these kids is not settled. There IS a God who loves Him – my church is proof of that as we, His body, go out and pick kids up each morning, and as we, His body, teach them that Jesus is our friend and Jesus is life. Prayer is a reminder to me that God IS at work, even when we go through the motions, and that we always have hope because we always have the Lord.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Just Another Punk On The Street

My time with my young friend yesterday underscored my conviction about the importance and blessing of relocation as a strategy to reach the people that you feel called to minister to. Had I not lived in Glenwood and I had seen Sherman on the corner, he would have been just another punk on the street, a small-time dealer that I wish would get lost. But knowing him, having some semblance of relationship with him, changed that. It led me to talk to him, to have lunch with him, and by doing that, I got to know his friend as well, moving him from “punk” to “person” in my categorizing mind. Also, I keep thinking about the other guys on that strip, their life consisting of dealing and getting by, and I am so sad. I know, now, that they use to be little kids. They have moms and dads and grandmas. They want a better life than what they have. They are not faceless dealers, problems to be erased.

And it’s interesting how these guys who are dealing, supposedly to get paid and make money, don’t seem to have the best living situations. It’s not like their business is moving them out of the projects, into nice houses or better cars. The guys on the street level persist in the same circumstances while those over them, I imagine, prosper.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Culture Shock in the Post Office

Today was another unusual day for me in the neighborhood (funny how those things happen after Diane and I pray together for ministry there). As I was out and about near the house, I saw a group of guys on the corner, most likely doing what guys in my part of town do on the corner. But as I looked, I recognized a guy who used to live on my block, and so I pulled up to talk with him, and later, just felt led by God to back and invite him to lunch. He accepted and so a couple hours later I picked him up, and he wanted to bring a friend with him. Now this particular kid was a bit disconcerting when he was 12 years old, and now as a 17-year-old with a fellow street guy in the backseat, he made me pretty nervous. I’m driving down the street with these two, and my fears begin to get the best of me, so upon arrival at the restaurant, I phoned in for backup (my pastor, Will Dungee), who rode on out there and sat with us.

Our lunch went as well as one could expect. Worlds were colliding on all sorts of levels from race to class to religion, and I am sure the new guy was wondering what in the heck he’d gotten himself into sitting with me and Will. After lunch, my friend was asking me for $25 for court costs, as though I owed to him which really annoys me. But eventually he offered to work for it at the house, so he came home with me and cut my grass, and did a great job. (Incidentally, it was really interesting to see how he treated Diane when she came home – very respectful, lots of yes ma’ams and a genuine smile. Shows that he may have involvement in his life from mother figures). I paid him and took him home (about a mile up the road) and as I waited at the light with my window down, a guy on the corner said, “You need anything or did Sherman get you straight,” and I assured him that I was good to go before heading out.

Ten minutes later I was in the post office on a trendier side of town, talking with a friend from church who works for a multi-million dollar home builder, and we were surrounded by well-off people who I was very comfortable around. And it hit me – what just happened? I’ve gone from hanging out with two poor drug-dealing teenagers to being in a place that feels very safe and a million miles away. As I drove off, I saw a couple of young kids walking, and I wondered if they even knew that the world on the other side of town existed, and could not help but be struck by how far apart two neighborhoods separated by four miles can be.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places

Well, I want to get back on the bloggin’ horse with a post about a man that more people should get familiar with. Eugene Peterson has been a mentor and pastor to me for years now through his books and his translation of the Bible (The Message), and I have GOT to commend one of his newest books to anyone who will listen to me.
Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places is the first in a five-book opus for Eugene, with which I believe he is seeking to leave a legacy for the church after he has gone. In this first book, he divides it into three parts – Christ plays in creation, in history, and in community. I have only read the creation and half of the history parts and it has floored me.

For those of you unfamiliar with Eugene, one of the best things that I think he brings to the table is an awareness of the presence and activity of God in the ordinary, everyday events of life. Making a sandwich in the kitchen can be on par with reading your Bible if it is done in a spirit of knowing that God is alive and active in that moment. For a culture (even a Church culture) that lives for experiences and feelings and moments, this is a clarion call to remember that God is not a magician or a circus monkey, here to poof away our troubles or entertain us until we get to Heaven. He is God and He is always actively pursuing His creation.

Two of the things that have affected me most in this book are his thoughts on the Sabbath and a seemingly obscure sentence in the history section. For the Sabbath, Eugene makes a winsome and convincing case of the need for a rest to be built into the rhythm of our weeks. Rest frees us from the idolatry of work; it is good for our mind, heart, and soul; it is a gift from God and commanded by God; and it helps frame our weeks. A Sabbath gives us a chance to celebrate and reflect on God’s presence with us in the past week, and reorients us to have Christ-healed eyes through which to see the coming week. This weekend I took a 24-hour Sabbath from checking email and working around the house, and to know that I had made that decision almost made me feel like I was on a mini-vacation. I want to establish this as part of life’s rhythm for me and my family, and I very testing season of life is upon us with GUPY beginning next Sunday.

As for the obscure sentence that seemed to scream at me, Eugene was talking about reading the Old Testament accounts and stories before Exodus, and he describes different people that we have read about. Then he says, “We are getting a feel for the ways of God among us.” Now I know you might be saying, “Whoo, that is sooooo amazing.” But don’t lay on your sarcasm too thick just yet. What I realized through this (and through his teaching in general) is that I read Scripture to get a feel for the ways of God for my life. I read Scripture in good ol’ inductive Bible study mode and I emphasize that APPLY part, or “What does it mean for me?” But is Scripture about me? Or is it about God? And if I get a feel for the ways of God, will I not better understand myself? Because God is life. God is the source and author of faith and of love and of all things. To get a feel for the ways of God is to see myself correctly. The ways of God in calling obscure shepherds to leadership and fatherhood; the ways of God in using a talking donkey; the ways of God in somehow using my feeble efforts to love Him and love my neighbors; the ways of God in playing with my daughters or driving down a busy street. I need to recover a feel for the ways of God in Scripture and in life.

I urge you friend to check this book out. If you are in vocational ministry, Eugene will teach you to be a better pastor, and if you are in the ministry that comes from being a disciple, Eugene will remind you of the wonder and the presence of God in the things of your life that you find the most ordinary and most un-God-filled.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Final Roar = "MEEEEEEEEEEEE!"

Sorry to my legions of fans who have breathlessly awaited my next post. I have been on vacation for a few days in Boone, and it has reinforced my desire to move the city of Greensboro up 421 North.

My last post was kind of a downer, and I think that God has shown me some things about that load roar. As you can see in the title, the roar I was hearing was "ME!" After two weeks of intense pouring out at Rockbridge (and drained, I think, from the amount of prayer we did in our track) and then moving right into a week of intense class work for my Grace Life training, I was zapped. Zapped, plus spiritually spent, plus physically spent means that I was trying to find life anywhere I could, and that made life all about.... ME. MY needs. MY wants. MY feelings. MY tiredness. And the harder I looked inward for satisfaction, the more I lost the life I craved. I didn't want to admit it. I put the blame on everyone else, judging, finding fault. But it was ME that was the problem.

Thankfully God broke through, as He usually does, and revealed the backwardness and brokenness of my heart. And when I saw it, I was surprised (though I shouldn't have been) and saddened. Of course there is always grace and mercy when sin and self are revealed, and my Heavenly Father was good to me in His revelation.

So many lies to fall for. Such a crafty teller of lies that wages war against us. Sometimes with bold and obvious lies that we just buy into anyway. Other times with subtle, smoother lies that we fall for bit by bit. But he's so good at it because it's his native language. The father of lies knows how to communicate.

Thank God for the truth and the freedom that comes from realizing that the way out is to consider ME dead and to live in the reality of Christ as life. The more I try to save and find my life, I lose it. The more I lose my life, I find it. Crazy.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

A final roar

In The Two Towers there is a scene in which Gandalf frees King Theodin from being controlled by the evil wizard Saruman. Saruman fights letting go of his prisoner, and with a tremendous snarl, lunges one last time at Gandalf before being silenced and forced to release Theodin. That makes me think of how satan works in the world in the life of Christians sometimes. Through different ways and means, he gets hold of us and ties us in knots, either in our heart or minds or in the consequences of our sin, and as we try to fight out of our own resources (or not fight), it becomes apparent that we need someone bigger than ourselves to save us. As the Lord works that salvation out, our foe does not always go quietly.

For the past couple weeks I have felt like I am in the midst of that final lunge, final roar. I have seen the Lord offer me great freedom and truth, but my sin and flesh and the evil one have dug in their heels for a “last stand” and the struggle is not ending as quickly as Theodin’s did. There are days when that roar has been more intense and pronounced, and I think, “That was the end of it,” only to find that not to be the case.

Now, I know that this side of heaven we will always struggle, and I am not speaking of a once-for-all lunge, after which I will be free from trial forever. Rather this roar is at a certain season, and I am ready to move into the next one. At this point, there is not much "joy in the margins" for me. I’m not very excited about our summer project coming up in three weeks, I don’t really want to live in my house or on my street. I feel overwhelmed by financial worries and by the prospect of wading into some very murky waters at my church as I come on the elder board. I feel very sad to not be in my Grace Life Training class, losing the community I had with my classmates. And I am still tired from camp because I have not taken any time off yet. All of that combines to make a bigger fight than I can handle and a louder roar than I can silence.

And yet the hymn “In Christ Alone” continues to call me to hope. His love and life are firm through the fiercest drought and storm. He has won victory and freed me from the grasp of sins curse. And as the places that I seek to find life and hope fail to bring me those, I am reminded and encouraged that I am to find those things in Christ alone. He knows my weakness and does not despise me for it, but accepts and loves me in it and is working to redeem it for His glory and purposes.

In some ways, this post feels like a Psalm. Often the Psalmist will spend a bunch of verses crying out, struggling, but usually in the middle or by the end, he orients himself to what is true about God and God’s character. Praise God that He and His truth are unchanging!

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

New blog for your perusal

One of the reasons I began JITM was to talk some about what's going on here in Glenwood. Some of my neighbors here who go to my church have some wonderful thoughts on life and ministry here, and so there is now a Glenwood community blog which we can all post on. It is a little more focused on life here and the questions and problems that arise. You can check it out at http://g-wood.blogspot.com/.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Obedient? It's who you are

Note: My good friends Alex and Macon and I have been talking about what is the proper motivation for obedience. Before reading my response, it might be helpful to read their thoughts. Alex's can be found at http://piebaldlife.blogspot.com/ (look for the four posts on obedience), and Macon's can be found at http://paulstokes.blogspot.com/ on the Wed., May 31 post "Whither Gratitude?")

What is the proper motivation for obedience? Is it gratitude? Faith in future grace? Both? Or are we asking the wrong question?

As I hear us talking about a motivator for obedience, it sounds like we are giving ourselves a lot of credit and lot of responsibility. I believe that obedience as it is being discussed here is a secondary choice that can be accomplished in the flesh, and it is not the primary choice. (*Note: When I say “accomplished in the flesh” I am defining flesh as any way that we meet our needs or live our lives apart from God. Our obedience from God can be accomplished on our own effort, not in dependence on Christ, and all that we do of our own strength will be judged and revealed for what it is. See 1 Cor. 3:10-15. A non-Christian can be obedient and follow Godly principles.)

When presented with a problem/temptation, we tend to see it as, “Hmm, should I take my kid’s last piece of candy while they sleep and hope they forget about it in the morning or should I not?” In this discussion, our current options for obedience would be to leave the candy for our child, and we would use our chosen motivators to obey. On one hand, we could say, “Jesus, thank you so much for loving me before I even knew you. Thank you for your love for me, and now I respond to that love in obedience.” On another hand we could say, “Jesus, thank you so much for the hope that I have in you. I believe that by dying to my desire for candy, there will be a provision of future grace in some way for me as a result of that choice, and now I obey in that hope.” Or we could combine the two and say, "Lord, thank you for loving me and saving me from sin. Because of that love you showed me, I trust that you will continue to be good to me as I obey you now and in the future."

But the ultimate issue at that point is not whether or not I choose to obey. It is whether or not I choose to abide and trust Christ as my life. If I am abiding in Christ, believing Him to be my life, then I will obey. Every time. Without fail. Period.

Now, before you think I have gone Gary Birdsong on you and am preaching sinless perfection, let me assure you that I am not. I do not obey perfectly; I certainly sin. But my sin has very little to do with whether I make the right choice or whether I had a good enough motivator, and has everything to do with what I believe about my identity in Christ and how seriously I take verses like Galatians 2:20 (I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. This life I live in the body I live by faith in the son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me) and 2 Corinthians 5:17 (if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation, the old has gone and the new has come). To choose sin is to act inconsistently with my nature in Christ and is to choose to believe a lie that there is something in this world that can give me the life that only Jesus has. And I already possess that life of Christ in me. (Note: These are only two of the verse that I could cite about the Believers identity in Christ and participation in His life now; see also Romans 6:1-13, which speaks of our death, burial and resurrection with Christ; 2 Cor 4:10-12; Colissians 3:1-14).

Alex referenced my love for 2 Corinthians 5:14, which begins, “For Christ’s love compels us.” I certainly love hearing and teaching that verse from a gratitude perspective, remembering the love of Jesus and letting that lead me to respond in loving obedience. But perhaps we could read that verse even more literally, remembering that the very life of Christ is in us. Christ’s love literally does compel us, because He is in me and I am in Him. His love is now my love. I am loving because Christ in me is loving.

The book of Ephesians is a wonderful presentation of the Gospel and all that we have in Christ, and Paul spends the first three chapters reminding us of the Good News, the love of the Father through the Son. And then in chapter four he begins calling Believers to live in response to that good news, aka obedience. This could seem a lot like a motivation of gratitude, but in chapter 5, verses 8 and 9 he says, “For you once were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord – live as children of light.” Paul calls us to obedience from our identity – light should not behave as darkness. It is hypocritical and inconsistent with our nature. We are light in the Lord, so live that way.

For years the verse “Be holy as I am holy” (1 Peter 1:15) motivated me to seek holiness because I needed to measure up to God’s standard (who ever could do that?). But in Christ, it is no longer a command to be followed but a reality to be expressed. Jesus is Holy. Jesus is in me. Therefore, I can BE/LIVE holy, as He in me is holy. (Many thanks to Shawn Morrison for showing me this a couple years ago)

So if we are new in Christ and holy in Christ, why do we still sin as Believers? The reason is that for years we have learned to meet our own needs in independence from God’s life, even when we have known Christ. We have not realized and believed that Christ is our life and that He will supply all of our needs, according to His riches in glory. And so we think that obedience is up to us, just like the rest of our lives, and this is a form of independence from Christ, not trusting in Him and abiding in Him as life. We, in a sense, have daily the same choice that Adam and Eve had way back in the garden – we can eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and try to motivate ourselves to obedience, or we can eat from the tree of life, Jesus Christ, and allow His life to be ours which will lead us to obey.

Alex cited Galatians 5:19-21, a long list of sins that could keep us from the kingdom. Paul has a similar list in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, listing sins that keep the wicked from inheriting the kingdom. But then in verse 11 he says, “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. " Their identity had changed.

Obedience flows from identity and exposing lies with truth. I don’t have to live like the wicked anymore because that is no longer who I am. So, going back to the candy analogy, the Believer’s response is, “Lord Jesus, I know that your life is in me, and I trust you to live through me as I yield my will to yours. I trust that you alone have the life that I long for, and so I ask that your obedience be mine as I depend on you for all things.”

There was only One who was obedient, the Lord Jesus Christ. He was obedient on our behalf so that we could have access to His perfect obedience at any time, if we would but ask and believe.