Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Thrill of Hope

Think about it – when Jesus was born, the Jews had not heard from God in about 400 years and they were occupied by the Roman Empire. Songs like “Joy to the World” and “O Holy Night” are exuberant and worshipful because they reflect that sense that Christ has come to bring hope into hopeless places. I think we are losing some of our Christmas hymns, because Christmas here is packaged as a happy time from start to finish. Part of that is because we already know that the Lord has come. But part of it is because happy people buy more stuff, and it’s not fun or good business to look at the bleak parts of life and the world around us (and it doesn’t make for happy blog posts all the time, either).

For me, songs of hope are so, well, hopeful, this season because life around us in Glenwood isn’t always cheery. The Friday before Christmas was a really hard day, and would have been even if we had not put Joe to sleep. First, we had a visit in the morning from one of our friends in the neighborhood who has been struggling for years to get her life on track, to get off of crack and off the streets. She had spent over 6 months in a stable environment, but she has recently lost her father, which send her and her family into a bad place and she has wound up back walking our streets. I believe that Jesus lives in her, and she is closer to freedom than she was a couple of years ago. When she saw me, she said, “I just need a hug and for you to pray for me,” and so we prayed arm in arm on the street, and then she spent an hour or so pouring out hear heart to Diane. She never asked us for anything, and eventually, she left, back into the cold, trying to figure things out.

From there I delivered presents from our church to a family who lives in one of the harshest projects in Greensboro. Though I had agreed to be there at 1:00 and had called their cell phone several times as I drove over, the mother and her sister were not home when I arrived, and I suspect that it was because it’s not easy to receive help for Christmas. Instead a young guy let me in, yelling upstairs that the “adoption guy” was there. There was no furniture in the living room, no lights on, and lots of yelling upstairs.

When I got home, Diane told me that another family had called our friend Melissa, desperate for help. The mom had saved money for Christmas, but their car had to be repaired and the Christmas money had to go to that. Thankfully our church had grocery store and gas station gift cards to help out, and we were also able to find a Wal-mart card for them as well. And in the midst of this, I was also forced to look at selfishness in my own heart as I was reluctant to pass on some of the money that God had freely and graciously given our family, above and beyond what we needed, my unthankfulness showing up dark against the generous Christ who lives within me.

This Friday before Christmas is an example of why it is both a blessing and a heartache to live in Glenwood. The heartache is clear (and there are more stories that I could tell), but the blessing is that the hope of Christ is joy and it is a thrill of hope. Without Jesus coming, we are all lost. If my friends and I don’t prepare Him room in our hearts, we will be forever desperate and wanting.

But the Lord has come, He has come to beat back sin, to bring life and light to all, risen with healing in His wings. God is with us, Emanuel. That is joy to the world.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Beautiful Joe

Today we had to put our boxer, Joe, to sleep, as his hind legs were giving out, crippled by arthritis. He had stopped eating and would not come to me when I called, and I think he was just ready to go. I really appreciate the kindness of the vet and the vet tech who put him to sleep - the process could not have been smoother or sweeter, and I had the chance to say goodbye and have a good cry as Joe went to sleep.

Thinking back on our six years with Joe has been very sweet. We bought him two days after moving to Glenwood (two days after 9-11), and we were actually looking at another boxer at the rescue when Joe came bounding down the steps. He always was a funny looking dog, and he won us over immediately. For a young couple who were scared to death of their neighborhood, having a big, mean-looking dog was such a comfort. People would move to the other side of the street when they saw Joe coming, though they had nothing to fear from him. Joe was a source of courage for me, helping me feel OK about walking through Glenwood, and owning him also forced me to get out in the neighborhood before we had a fence. I would also give Joe a lot of credit for getting our tutoring program off the ground. As we took our early morning walks, he became a favorite of the kids who were waiting for the bus, and while they didn't know my name, they would be screaming "Joe! Joe!" when we were still way down the block. He was my best way of getting to know them, and I can still see Kendall, one of our first tutoring participants, hugging Joe on the corner in front of his house.

Joe was a great dog for our work here because he was very gentle and patient with kids, yet he was all the alarm system we ever needed. Eliza has been a little sad today as she has realized Joe is not coming back, and she cried pretty hard a couple of times, which surprised me because I wasn't sure how much she could understand. We will certainly miss Joe and are thankful that God provided such a good companion for us here.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Gospel Diagram

Here is a video of me drawing the diagram based on the gospel explanation I recently posted. Please give any thoughts or critiques or questions. I know that there is no perfect representation of the amazing work of Christ, but I want to know if this would be helpful/useful in moving people towards Him. (The video is 5:12 long) Thanks to Diane for her camera work, standing on the couch looking over my shoulder!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A New Way to Present a Timeless Truth

I’ve been training students in evangelism for several years now, and one of the things that we teach them is a simple illustration that helps explain the basics of the Gospel to a non-Christian. The bridge diagram is a classic evangelism tool, and very useful because it visually shows the need of all people to have the gap between us and God “bridged” by the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. But last month I was having lunch with some pastors in Charlotte, and we began to talk about what people really need to believe or understand in terms of salvation. And what it boiled down to is that Christians usually explain the Gospel in terms of people’s need for forgiveness of sin. The main problem that we present is that sin has separated us from God, and that Jesus died on the cross to fix that sin problem. We also present the Gospel as a one-time transaction, a decision that we make to accept God’s forgiveness and “cross the bridge.”

However, I do not believe that sin is the main problem that God came to address in Jesus Christ. Rather, the main problem with all people is that because of the Fall (Genesis 1-3), we are born dead in our spirits, and we need life. Therefore, we sin because we are grabbing life from any place we can get it, except for depending on God. I do not believe that people become sinners because they sin. I believe that people who are not in Christ sin because they are sinners – they are spirit-dead and lifeless in their core. (Incidentally, Christians sin for much the same reason - we are grabbing life from sources other than God. The main difference is that Christians have free and instant access to God's Life at all times, giving us the choice to depend on Him as our hope and life rather than try and produce it on our own.) Jesus said, "I have come that you may have life, and life abundant," and He told Nicodemus in John chapter 3 that the way to see the kingdom of God is to be born again, i.e. to be born with new life in our spirit.

If this is a more faithful statement of the main problem, the bridge diagram is not the most faithful illustration of God’s solution or even His end-goal for all people, because it’s main focus is on the sin of the unbeliever and posits the purpose of the cross as simply forgiving our sins and that God's goal is for us to accept His forgiveness. We have a Life problem, and Jesus’ death on the cross cleared the barrier of sin so that God might give us what we really need- His life.

And I while I do believe that there is one specific moment of salvation (rebirth) at which the Believer becomes a permanent member of God’s family, believing and experiencing the Gospel is an ongoing process in our lives. Believing the Gospel is not simply a one-time assent to the truth of the work of Christ, but it is a daily, moment-by-moment belief in our need for the Life of God to fill us, lead us, and move through us as we depend on Him for our acceptance, worth, and purpose – really, depend on Him for all things. Again, the bridge diagram would lead us to believe that belief in the Gospel is something we do one time.

While the bridge diagram is simply that, a diagram, it points to some fundamental flaws in traditional methods and beliefs about evangelism, and I think that those hampered Christians’ ability to articulate the Gospel to others. These flaws have also severely limited the depth and scope of our own understanding of our need for Christ and the ongoing work of His Spirit in our lives. Thus we try to give away in evangelism what we ourselves are not receiving. So, I have endeavored to come up with a simple illustration that Christians might use to show the Gospel to someone who does not know Christ, being faithful to the main problem of spiritual death and how the cross and resurrection of Christ give us what we really need, forgiveness which paves the way to life. In the next day or so, I hope to draw this out and post a video here of what that might look like.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Breaking the Urban Trance

In October, Diane and I had the chance to attend a consultation of urban IV staff from around the country. One of the things that we talked about there was how often times people in the Church go into an urban trance where we look right through, look right past, the problems in our streets and in our cities. It just seems too overwhelming to pay attention and to care, and so we keep the poor and marginalized faceless and nameless. As we talked, I realized that I had been doing that in Glenwood. My heart had grown numb, and I basically went from my car to the house to my car to work and on and on. I lived in the midst of some hard things and broken people, but I didn’t see them anymore. I had become accustomed to prostitutes walking my streets, to kids with messed up families, to the same middle-aged men with no jobs who walk around day after day, and my heart no longer broke.

And so I decided that one way to break the trance was to get out of the house, back out into the neighborhood, to prayer-walk my block and ask God for His leading and His heart. On my first time doing that, I heard the Lord speak one word to me – Relationship. And as I thought about that, I realized that I had not been building relationships with my neighbors. I was too tired, too busy, too scared, too numbed by the urban trance. Just after He spoke that to me, a woman and a man were walking down the street, and so I asked them if I could pray for them. She was in need of a more stable housing situation and he needed work, and so we held hands in the middle of street and prayed. When I finished, she said, “Believe it or not, I feel a little better.” I told her that I definitely did believe it – when we connect with God, things change and we sense the light of His presence.

I haven’t been the same since then, because my heart has been reconnected to my neighborhood. The faces I see aren’t just faces – they are people, precious to God whether they know it or now. And I've also been feeling sad. In many ways the urban trance is easier because it doesn’t hurt. It’s easier because I don’t have to get in touch with my helplessness.

But seeing a prostitute on my block that I have known for years and feeling my heart break for her, rather than ignoring her, makes me aware of my need for Jesus. Stopping my car in the night, getting out and telling her that Christ loves her and has so much life available to her, and then watching her receive that with cool indifference makes me feel helpless. "Jesus loves you" is the most powerful concept in the world, but in the face of a hard heart it seems so weak.

But relationship leads us to pray, to love, to care, and to need. And in those places, we find Jesus, and in those places, He begins to live His life through us. Maybe the words seem simple and the acts of kindness seem pointless. But our job is not to produce results, but simply to be faithful and live with His heart beating in us. Relationship with neighbors and relationship with Jesus breaks the urban trance.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Kingdom is advancing, one "fist pound" at a time

A few weeks ago, Will Dungee (a friend and a pastor at my church) and I went prayer walking in a part of Glenwood that had been hopping with drugs and recent violence (someone had been robbed and then shot and killed at a convenience store in that area). Our hope was to pray over the neighborhood and also to talk with folks there and ask them how we could pray for them and see where the Lord might take it from there. Eventually we happened upon “Rick”, who was hanging out with a couple of other guys and appeared to be concluding some sort of deal involving either bootleg CD’s, drugs, or both. I suggested we go talk to him, and Will agreed, and so I practically ran up to "Rick" (I didn’t know him at that point) while Will walked much more coolly behind me. We struck up a conversation, during which we learned that his mom was an evangelist, that he wouldn’t consider himself a Christian because of how he was living, that he had been shot at least once, and that he figured that each of us is supposed to be the best we can be at what we are doing – if you are a Christian, be the best one you can be; if you are a dealer, be the best one that you can be (seriously). We asked him how we might pray for him, and he said just to ask God to let him live another day (which honestly seemed pretty generic), and so we did that and went on our way. I wasn’t sure I would see him again, especially since my prayer walks in Soflo (South Florida Street) were not a regular part of my week.

About a week or two later I was walking my dog Joe around the block and was passing by a different convenience store that is notorious for shady folks hanging around outside. As I passed by a car parked on the street, I look in and who do I see but "Rick" ! So I stopped and we did the whole “fist pound” thing (if you’re not from the ‘hood like me, you might not be as hip as me on that {sarcasm}). The first time we met, "Rick" had guessed that I didn’t live in Glenwood, and so on this meeting, I asked him what he was doing in my part of the ‘hood (neither of us took me seriously as I said that). Then I told him that it looked like God did answer prayers. He looked confused for a moment, and I reminded him that we had prayed that God would let him see another day, and well, here he was. He smiled and said, “Yeah, that’s right,” and I could tell that something flickered inside, the part of him that was created to know God and connect to Him.

That was the extent of our conversation, and as I walked away, I couldn’t help but think that I had just taken part in a Kingdom moment. Will and I meeting "Rick" had transformed him in my eyes. I normally would have ignored him, not even noticed him on my walk with Joe, or just dismissed him as a punk dealer. But because I had a relationship with "Rick", I saw him that day, and so we talked again. I think it also transformed me in his eyes. He normally would have ignored me, once he saw I wasn’t interested in buying, not even noticing me on my walk, dismissing me as a rich white guy. But because he knew me on some level, he saw me, and so we talked again.

The kingdom is advancing, one "fist pound" at a time.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Let's talk Christmas music!

So I have held off as long as I could and have inaugurated my Christmas music listening tonight with Andrew Peterson's album Behold the Lamb of God. So to celebrate, I thought I might list my top five Christmas albums (#1 being most favorite, but #2's a favorite, too, just not as much favorite), and then invite my legions of loyal readers to share your lists or comment on mine. I'm always looking for new music, so show me the way!

5) Harry Connick, Jr When My Heart Finds Christmas - This album takes me back to some good ol' days when I was at Carolina, and I just continue to enjoy it year after year.

4) Martha's Trouble Christmas Lights - I love how mellow and soothing Jen Slocumb's voice is. I actually listen to their rendition of O Come All Ye Faithful year-round on my "Relax" playlist in iTunes.

3) Ed Cash, Bebo Norman, Allen Levi Joy! - These three guys are really talented musicians and singers, and they really do have joy on this album as they perform many classic Christmas hymns. Plus, their original songs are super, and it's just a cool blend of three unique voices.

2) Elf: Original Motion Picture Sound Track - Elf is definitely my favorite Christmas movie, and this soundtrack has some awesome version of Christmas classics, including Brian Setzer's "Nutcracker Suite", and Leon Redbone and Zooey Deschanel singing "Baby It's Cold Outside."

1) Andrew Peterson Behold the Lamb of God - This is an amazing original CD which tells the story of Christmas beginning in Exodus and moving through the Gospels. The songs stand alone, but are meant to be listened to as a whole body of work. All of the songs are originals, and in true Andrew Peterson form, the lyrics are profound. One of the highlights is "Matthew's Begats" which is simply the geneology of Jesus sung to an upbeat tune. If you have the chance to see this concert in person, I would take it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

All I needed to know about margin I learned from my four-year-old (eleventh in a series)

From my wife's blog:

The other day as I was having a quiet time, Eliza asked me to do something with her. Used to being interrupted, I said, "Not right now, I'm spending time with Jesus. When I'm finished talking with Jesus then we can play." Her response was, "I pray sometimes too, Mommy." I said, "Really, when do you do that?" Thinking she was talking about prayer time before bed or at the dinner table. But she answered, "Well, I just close my eyes and bow my head and pray to God alone in my room." I said, "What do you pray about?" "I just sit quiet and pray, Mommy." "I know, but what do you talk to God about when you pray?" "Nothing, Mommy, I just sit quiet and listen to God."

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Psalm of Margin (tenth in a series)

You know, it seems like the only time I ever hear Psalm 23 is at funerals. But is that all it’s good for, to remind us of God in the midst of the valley of the shadow of death? It has become such a somber Psalm to me, repeated by rote.

But as I have grown in margin, I am finding great comfort and margin from this short oldie-but-goodie.

The Lord as our shepherd gives us hope that it’s not all up to us. There is someone greater than ourselves looking out for interests, pastoring us. There is a roominess in knowing that with God as our shepherd, we shall not want. Even in the midst trouble, of things not looking all right, of financial questions, God says that He is there for us with protection and presence and provision. God not only wants us to eat and to move, but also to rest, and as our shepherd, He loves us enough to make us lie down because He knows our need for rest more than we do. He leads us to green pastures and quiet waters, simple evidence of His goodness and love.

And what has stood out to me over anything else in this psalm has been, “He restores my soul.” Our souls are our mind, will, and emotions, and this verse reminds us that God doesn’t just desire for us to have physical provision and rest, but He cares about our inner life as well. He wants to redeem our ways of thinking about Him, restoring our mind. He wants to heal the ways we feel about ourselves and our circumstances, restoring our emotions. He wants to transform our choices to reflect a trusting, love relationship with Him, restoring our wills.

Backing all of this up is the Lord’s goodness and mercy, following us, urging us on towards our good home with the Lord. In the midst of our messes, in the midst of our forgetting, there is a quiet assurance that goodness and love will follow. And we are reminded of our future home with the Lord forever. Knowing that our future is secure gives us freedom and margin in the present to stop striving so hard.

The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He makes me lie down. He leads me. Surely goodness and love will follow me. This is not a somber psalm. It is a psalm of confidence that allows us to take a step back from our hurry and our efforts at self-provision and self-protection, allowing us to make room for margin.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Simple steps toward financial margin (ninth in a series)

1) Make a budget 2) Establish an emergency fund 3) Pay off debt

Make a Budget: One of the best defenses against marginless finances and one of the best ways to ensure that we can give generously to God’s work is simply to have a budget. In fact, I don't know how people manage their money and have funds to give without having a budget. Having a plan for where your money is going before you even get it and knowing where you are spending your income allows you to establish margin from the get go. If giving/tithing is a priority for us, then rather than waiting to see if there is anything left at the end to give, we ought to make “Giving” a line item in our budget (perhaps THE line item) and adjust our "want-to" spending around it. Diane and I have determined a percentage that we want to give, and so we adjust our giving percentage-wise to the amount of income that comes in.

We use two tools to help us budget. One is a simple excel sheet on which we list every conceivable area of spending. There are line items for personal spending money for me and Diane, money set aside each month towards Christmas presents, vacation, and car repairs, money for clothes for our kids and more. We do a "zero-balance budget", which means that we have a place to put every dollar that is coming in, even if that place is "extra funds."

The other is an online program called mVelopes ( The way that mVelopes works is that it allows you to put money from your bank account into virtual “envelopes” so that you know where every dollar is going. So when you use your debit card at Food Lion, for example, mVelopes downloads that transaction from your bank account. Then you drag and drop that into your envelope for “grocery store” and it subtracts that amount from what you budgeted for the month.

This system enables you to budget for many different areas of life, it tracks every dollar that you spend, and it helps you know when to say when. For example, when you have used up all of your “eating out money”, your envelope is at $0 and you know that it’s time to pack your lunch for the rest of the month. For us, mVelopes has been nothing short of amazing, and I would highly recommend the free, 30-day trial you can get online.

An emergency fund helps with margin because if you know that you have $1,000 set aside for nothing but Murphy’s Law, it makes things like a busted radiator ($600 for my 1995 Honda Civic, I found out last month) be nothing more than a blip on the radar. It’s covered. Financial advisor Dave Ramsey suggests that after paying all of your “have-to” bills (including minimum balances on credit cards), putting all extra money towards building a $1,000 emergency fund that you DO NOT TOUCH is a necessity for margin. Having that margin allows for a measure of peace in times that could easily feel like crisis.

The Debt Snowball: Once that emergency fund is established, if you have non-house debt your extra money should go towards the principle of your lowest amount owed. Then when that debt is paid off, take its minimum payment and apply that, with any extra each month, to the principle of your next lowest debt, and so on. This is what Ramsey calls the “debt snowball.” Eliminating debt removes some of the “have-to” payments and allows us to give more and save more. It’s also wise to not incur further debt, so for example, don’t buy a more expensive car than you can afford to pay off immediately (or within a few months).

Now, let’s say you have your $1,000, you are putting all your extra money into your debt, and then an emergency happens and you dip into your fund. Focus next on replenishing your emergency fund, then back to debt.

Diane and I have been following this 3-step plan for a few years, and we have reduced our non-house debt by over $12,000, and have experienced a great deal of financial peace and have seen our ability and desire to give increase. While we don’t have tons of room for all the “extras” that we desire, we have found our way to having joy in the financial margins.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Margin in Finances (eighth in a series)

Having margin is not just relegated to having time to relax and room for relationship. Financial margin is having some space between our income and our outflow, which allows room in our finances for giving, for saving, and for emergencies that inevitably come. This is another area where margin is key for us to have peace, and it’s an area where so many in our culture and in the Church are way out of whack.

It’s hard to have financial margin here in America. Advertisers are after us from the time we are pre-schoolers, telling us about one more toy or cereal that we can’t live without, and they don’t ease off as we get older. In fact the “toys” and “cereals” get more expensive, and the benefits that they promise seem more and more alluring, because they promise us beauty, status, happiness, sex, and fulfillment.

And so we are encouraged to live right up to our financial limits, spending every dollar as soon as we get it, and even to go beyond our limits, charging things on credit. We make choices to have payments and bills for things that we may or may not need, and spend a lot of time worrying about how to pay those bills or spend more time working in order to afford what we bought.

One of the costs of living this way is that our ability to participate financially in building God’s Kingdom is severely limited. Many times, in our heart of hearts we want to give more than we do, but there is just not room left when we add up what needs to go out plus the things that we want.

Another cost is that our time and attention is taken up by a focus on money, giving us less and less of those things to give to resting with God, being in relationship with others, and more. Financial stress is one of the leading causes of stress in America and is one of the leading causes of divorce. Such a premium has been placed on money, and it has been elevated to such a place of delivering hope and happiness that when we don’t have as much as we think we should, it can consume us.

But the Lord doesn’t want us consumed with money and worrying about that. Jesus said, “Why do you worry about clothes and food? Your Father knows you need those things. Seek God and His kingdom first, and everything else will fall into place.”

Financial margin gives us room for that seeking. Next we will look at three simple ways to move towards financial margin.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Shameless Self Promotion

We interrupt this series on Margin to let me plug a short piece that I wrote and was published on InterVarsity's national web site: Open Air Evangelism Still Draws a Crowd

Back to our regularly-scheduled series soon!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Margin gives space for vision (seventh in a series)

A couple of weeks ago, one of my church’s pastors met with some of us who live in Glenwood. One thing he asked was, “What is your vision for ministry here?” And I had nothing to say. I was weary, overwhelmed, and honestly, it had been months since I had thought about having any vision for my neighborhood. Ironic, since in that span of time I had led a summer missions project here in Glenwood.

As we continued to talk, I realized that a major reason I had no answer for the vision question was that I had no time or space to think vision thoughts. For the most part, I was in survival mode, making it week to week and day to day. Remembering what “had to be done” was enough for my brain to handle.

Without margin, busyness and a full life can act like a fog, allowing us to see only a few steps ahead. The problem with living like this for long periods of time is that we spend our lives living reactively to whatever comes up, not thinking proactively in the long term. Instead of charting a new course, we just dodge ruts and potholes.

I believe that vision is important for everyone's life; it’s not just for business people who want to increase their bottom line or vocational ministers who are trying to hear from God. I think that God wants us to make time and space to hear from Him about our relationships and our purpose in life. Maybe He has more in mind for us than simply paying the bills and making life work. Maybe He has a special call for us in loving people in our neighborhood or work place. Maybe He has a call and a purpose for your family and your role in their lives. Vision helps us see beyond what is good to what is best.

Having vision gives us clarity about why we are here, where we are headed, and moves us to new places of partnership with God and dependence on Him, transforming a life of simply surviving into a life aiming at the building of God’s Kingdom in small and large ways, and margin gives space for us to hear God's voice in the vision-seeking process.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Margin is necessary for relationship with God (sixth in a series)

For years now Isaiah 30:15-30 has been one of those “anchor passages” in my busy, often margin-less life (it might help to skim it right quick). This passage is so counter cultural, because it tells us that in repentance and rest is our salvation, in quiet and trust is our strength. That seems like crazy talk to me. Resting, being quiet, trusting – those things don’t get anything done! They’re so passive, just sitting there.

Waiting….... quietly…... trusting.

What I’d rather do is handle life myself, get busy fixing the problem and helping God get things sorted out. Isaiah says, “God offers you all this, but you would have none of it.” He calls this “jumping on my horse”, riding swiftly away from my problems (or to solve them). But at the end of the ride, the problems are still there, waiting, always one step ahead.

What God often does through this passage is calling me to margin, to make space for relationship with God. See, I can talk God’s ear off while I ride off on my busy horse. I can ask Him to bless my efforts, tell him all about the things I am doing. But relationship requires listening, reciprocity, and time. It requires me being quiet, listening for God’s voice. It means repenting of thinking I can get it done, and asking God what, if anything, He wants me to do. It means resting, hanging out with God. Relationship.

When I don’t have margin, relationship with God becomes very one-sided, a monologue rather than a dialogue. I read the Bible quickly, looking for nuggets of insight about me, rather than looking for deeper relationship with God (here's a great post about how to avoid this). Without margin, the things that are urgent (or seem urgent) overwhelm and drown out the thing that is best and most necessary. Margin gives me opportunity to commune with God, the God that Isaiah says “longs to be gracious to you, who rises to show you compassion.”

And what is the key to receive this gracious compassion? Time and space. “Blessed are those who wait for Him.” Waiting…quietly…trusting.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Margin is necessary for relationship (fifth in a series)

In response to some things God showed me at a recent Urban Ministry conference, I took a prayer walk on Monday in my neighborhood. One of the things that I heard God say to me in that time was, “Relationship.” See, my life had gotten so full with kids, elder board, regular job stuff, fantasy football, exercising, taking kids to preschool and more, that I had lost touch with my neighbors. Time felt so scarce that I would go from the house to the car before work, and car to the house when I got home. No time to walk around the block with my dog. No time to talk with people on the street as I pulled up. I worked right up to my margins – I need to be home by “x” time, and so I pull up right at “x” time (or a few minutes after) and know that I need to run in the house and help with the kids. There was no time for relationship – what if people wanted to talk or pray or complain or laugh? That would take time and I was already late.

But today as I walked and prayed, I knew that I had time and space set aside. So when I saw a man and a woman walking down the street, I asked them if I could pray with them, and we prayed (in the middle of the street). On my way to an appointment later that morning, I was 15 minutes early. I was dropping something off at a friend’s house, and felt the Lord telling me to go and pray with their next-door neighbors. Because I had margin in my schedule, I did, and it was a special time.

Diane got to go to the aforementioned conference with me and it was just me and her for the first time in a long time. Being there with no kids for 4 days gave margin for our relationship, and we talked and laughed and spent time together in ways that we just don’t do when there are kids to care for. Margin gave room for relationship to grow, even in the midst of a packed conference schedule.

Margin is essential for relationship. When I am careening from one meeting to the next, I have no choice but to pass you by if I am going to be on time. Without margin, people are "one more thing" instead of precious ones created in God’s image. When my heart is crowded with worry and details, I cannot give you my full attention, and friendships feel draining. But when there is margin, I have space to care, plenty of green grass for Jesus to have us sit down in, space for Him to work.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Why don't we have margin? (fourth in a series)

Diane and the kids and I were recently invited to go the beach for a weekend with two families that we have not hung out with in a long time, and everything in me wanted to go. I didn’t want to miss out on what is sure to be an awesome time; I feared not being included. But looking at the calendar, that weekend would be the fourth straight weekend for my family where one or all of us had at least one major event (more than four hours long), and the weekend after that I am scheduled to go on a retreat with our church youth group. And so we reluctantly said no. This was a big moment for us, choosing wisdom and what was best for us over fear, urgency, and what seemed very good.

Margin requires choice – this means turning off the TV or the computer and going to bed at a decent hour. It means stopping work even when there are things undone, trusting that they can be done tomorrow. It means saying no to perfectly good events and opportunities so that you can just be at home, reading or talking with a friend. It means doing without a "want" item so that there is room to bless others.

Margin can also be costly – working less means getting paid less which means having less stuff. Saying "no" means risking disappointing people or possibly missing out on something. Being quiet and still means we might have to actually deal with things that have long been stuffed down inside.

Margin is counter-cultural - when we have it, we feel like we are falling behind, as though we are less-significant. Everyone else is running at breakneck speed and seems to be finding life and joy in the things that fill their lives, and so we want to keep up.

Plus, for the Christian, having no margin seems so spiritual – who wouldn’t want to be busy for Jesus? Who isn’t impressed by the ministry leader who gives countless hours to the church? Shouldn’t we work hard for Jesus to show Him how thankful we are for all He has done for us (so the logic goes)?

But, returning to John 6, Jesus does not call us to feed all 5,000. He calls us to give Him what we have, and in His hands, our less is more than our striving could ever provide.

And I am finding that the benefits of margin far outweigh the costs, as margin gives space for relationship, vision, financial peace, and rest, all of which empower and impact the world for Christ in great ways. And talking about these benefits are where we are headed next.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Why all the fuss about margin? (third in a series)

So why all the fuss about margin? Why is our housemate Dayna about to strangle me if I say the word “margin” one more time? It’s because for too long my life has felt overloaded and overfull. It seems as though I am just awakening to the reality that my family now has three children in it, not just two, and that significant amounts of time and energy have been necessarily taken by this change, but I have continued to accept responsibility at the same pace as before. I often feel like my mind can’t hold another thought, that my heart can’t take another disappointment, and yet I still feel compelled to say “yes” to things that add to those loads. Sound familiar to anyone?

I know that I’m not alone – I read a blog by a former GUPY and found that she was drowning in a sea of schoolwork and ministry. I listen to my neighbors down the street talk about the toll of a workday that begins at 6:30 am and ends after 9:00 pm. I realize that in a recent sharing time at my elder meeting, 7 out of 8 of us on the elder board feel overloaded by work, life, and family. And while there will certianly be busy seasons of life, I just don’t believe that this is how Jesus would have us live week after week after week.

It’s so tempting to live a marginless life. The things that we add seem so good, necessary even. Isn’t it good to teach a Sunday School class, to give someone a ride to church each week, to go to the beach for a weekend with friends, to visit family who live out of town? Isn’t it nice to have a late-model car, even if it means more debt? Aren’t the things that we spend our hard-earned money on the things that we feel are important and valuable? Sure they are. But one more thing plus one more thing plus one more thing equals three more things, which are added to what is already there. And at some point, we have to admit that there are limits to our time, our emotional reserves, and our finances. But you’d never know it by looking at typical American culture. We live as though there is plenty of room for more, that our days are 27 hours long and that we earn several hundred more dollars per month than what actually shows up in our bank accounts.

I’m making a fuss because I agree with the author of the book Margin when he says that marginless living is a disease that is robbing our nation and the Church of spiritual, emotional, physical, and family health. I think that while most people know that life ought to not be so overfull, few of us have diagnosed the problem correctly, instead thinking that there must be something more that we need to do or buy in order to fix it. And of those who have diagnosed the problem correctly, taking the step of making the change proves to be very hard, almost impossible.

But as an elder, I don’t want to shepherd my church into busyness and overload. As an IV staff, I don’t want to develop leaders for the Church who accept burnout as just part of what it means to be a Christian. And as a father and husband, I want to have more to offer my wife and children than the scraps of my life at the end of the days and weeks. There truly is joy in the margins, but right now myself and many of my friends are missing it.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Margin is a key to joy (second in a series)

Continuing with the John 6 passage from my last post, another thing that my friend pointed out was the small detail of “there was plenty of grass in that place.” John's gospel is the only one to note this about the grass, and this small detail has a big impact in thinking about margin. Jesus had plenty of space to work, plenty of space for a miracle to happen. I so often go through life running from event to event, meeting to meeting, task to task, and rarely is there space or time for me to allow Jesus to speak or really work. There is not “plenty of grass” where He could lead me to a random person, where He could have me sit down for a time of listening to Him. There is no room for a miracle, and really, there is functionally no need for a miracle because my life is so controlled, filled right up to the limit or the breaking point.

But watching Jesus in this story reveals no hurry, no pressure, no crowding. There is room to love, room to provide. And in this place of roominess and margin, there is enough. Actually, there is more than enough. We see phrases like “as much as they wanted” (not needed), and “they all had enough to eat”, and “they filled 12 baskets with the pieces left over.”

Think of it – we see five loaves and two fish (“two small fish", Andrew says), which represent our lives with limited time and resources and we say, “It’s not enough, Lord, in the face of such a fantastic need, so let me try harder and do more.” But Jesus only asks that we give Him what we have and allow Him to make it enough.

Andy Stanley has recently preached a series on margin called “Take It to the Limit” (you can download the podcast for free by searching Northpoint Ministries on iTunes), and one thing he posits is that our lack of margin is primarily driven by fear – fear that we will miss out on something good. Whether it is a good material thing (so we spend all that we have), or it’s a good social thing (so we overload relationally), or it’s a good ministry thing (so we say yes to every opportunity that comes our way as long as Jesus is involved), we are afraid to miss out on the “good life.” The irony is that life with margin and space is not the good life, it’s actually the best life. It might not be full of “stuff”; it might not be full of people; it might not be full of "ministry" for the church resumé. But there is room for real relationship with God and with people. And there is plenty of grass for Jesus to work miracles, both in our hearts and through our meager offering of our lives.

Here is a great article on margin from the IV student site,

Margin is a key to joy (first in a series)

The other week my wife and I were invited over to watch a TV show with some friends, and when she called to remind me that we were going that night, I crumpled inside. It had nothing to do with our friends, whom we love. It was just that I felt so overloaded with my life that even doing something fun like that felt like a burden; I wasn’t sure that I could even enjoy it. If ever there was a sign that something was wrong inside me, that was it.

Perhaps you can relate on some level to this experience – my bet would be that most people in the Western World could, as I hear more and more stories of overloaded people being crushed by their schedules and their finances and continuing to feel the need to add more and more to their lives. Those who have spent time with me know that for about a month I’ve been beating a drum called MARGIN, and now it’s time to put that beat onto “paper” in the blogosphere.

To start this series, I want to share a place in Scripture that God has used to encourage me to make room for more in my life. Jesus feeding the 5,000 is the only miracle (besides the resurrection) recorded in all four Gospels, and John’s account of this event comes in chapter 6. I recently spent a day looking at this passage with some other InterVarsity staff in a guided retreat, and as we came together and shared at the end of the day, a fellow overloaded staff had some great insight into the passage.

She first noticed that Jesus asks, “Where can we find bread to feed all these people?” and Phillip replies with a “how” answer – “Six months wages couldn’t buy enough.” Andrew answers the “where” question correctly (“Here is a boy with 5 loaves and a few fish), but doubts that what is “here” is enough (“but how far will they go among so many?”). If I were a disciple, I may have answered like Andrew (on a good day) and then I would have made every effort to add to what was “here.” Maybe try and bake some bread, or run to town and get some bread to add, whatever I could do. But ultimately, it would never have been enough to feed 5,000.

Attempting to do more or create more than what we have “here” erases margin. Cramming more in an attempt to help Jesus accomplish His work erases margin. Well-intentioned efforts to fix the brokenness of the world can erase margin.

Simply giving Jesus what we have, recognizing and accepting the limitations, and trusting Him to make it “enough” is the beginning of having space and rest in our lives.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Glorious Ones

Last week during a time of prayer with another staff, we were praying through John 17:18-23, where Jesus prays for all Believers. The part that stood out to me the most as we read and re-read it was verse 22. Jesus says, “I have given them the glory that You have given me, that they may be one as You and I are one: I am in them and You in me.”

As I prayed through that verse, it seems that Jesus was saying that somehow giving us glory was connected to our unity with one another, but why? Then God began to speak to me about my own heart and about certain relationships where I have been unwilling or unable to forgive those who have hurt me. He showed me that most of those wounds were a result of my feeling rejected or unimportant, or in other words, those people had not given me the “glory” I thought I was due. The result of this was that there was disunity between us because my heart was hard and guarded around them.

If I lived my life as one who had already been given glory, then perhaps the opinions and acceptance of others wouldn’t hold such a place of power. Perhaps I would love simply to love and not to gain something in return. If I lived my life as one surrounded by Brothers and Sisters who had already been given glory, perhaps I would treat them with more honor and love. Imagine, living as glorious ones could bring the thing that Jesus was asking for, unity and one-ness.

And why was Jesus asking for unity among Believers? “So that the world may believe that You sent me.” And, “ to let the world know that You sent me.” Our love for one another, our treating each other as glorious ones, reveals Jesus to the world.

Jesus, who had all glory, gave it away. He didn’t need to hold onto it, because He knew who He was and Whose He was. I’m not sure yet what it means that I have been given glory. I certainly don’t often feel glorious. But I think that there is freedom here, freedom from seeking my own life and glory from others or from my own abilities, and as that freedom flows, so will forgiveness, unity, and the power of Christ in our world.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Jesus draws a crowd

As Mike (campus staff at UNCC) and I walked towards Belk Tower on the campus of UNC Charlotte, the sound of “Hells Bells” by AC/DC drifted through the air. There was an international studies fair planned at the tower, and we knew that a controversial open-air preacher was there as well, but where AC/DC fit into that was beyond me. The answer became clear as we approached the tower, which has a small hill at its base. The preacher, Bible in hand and wearing a baseball cap that read “REPENT”, argued with a crowd of students, while above him on the hill, a student played heavy metal on his guitar, amp cranked to “11.”

It was a chaotic scene to say the least. The preacher hollered about homos, and the students hollered back and even videotaped his rants to post on YouTube. Some laughed, others seethed. Cell phones were out, snapping pictures and calling friends to come and see the show, and over it all, the student dressed in black whaled away, moving from Jimi Hendrix back into AC/DC, this time playing “Highway to Hell.”

Admittedly, it was entertaining in its circus-like nature. But it also broke my heart. Here were students that were eager to talk about Jesus, to engage religious ideas, but they were being taken to places of anger, cynicism and untruth. They were being yelled at and condemned and the beauty of Christ was being distorted into a crude caricature. Occasionally, in moments of calm, the preacher would say something that was spot-on, and he even said it with respect. But mostly it was a saddening chaos.

I tried to talk with some of the students in the crowd, and most of them professed to be Christians (not a surprise here in the South). One guy that I talked with attended church sometimes, kind of on an as-needed basis, and seemed reluctant to consider that his need might be greater than he suspected. He was much more interested in laughing at the preacher than talking with me.

This was the fourth day of the preacher-show at the tower, and I think that for many there, the novelty was wearing off. Besides, he was merely confirming their stereotypes of fundamentalist Christians anyway.

But what if someone had stood on that hill and yelled at people as they walked past, “You! Young woman – you are created fearfully and well by God! You have been made beautifully!”

“You, young man – you have been loved from the beginning of time. You have a good Father who adores you!”

“You, who struggle with sexual brokenness, there is healing and wholeness available for free!”

“Rejected, unloved, confused – there is peace and freedom and acceptance. It will cost you everything but will give you so much more than everything!”

“Hey, you who are burnt out on religion, burnt out on life – there is another way to connect with God, a way that is real and true!”

Would this draw a crowd? Would people stop to hear more? Or would they walk away, averting their gaze from the crazy guy with a weird message?

It seems that Jesus can still draw a crowd, but doing it in a way that is refreshing and surprising, filled with hope – that is a skill we need to learn, providing an alternative to the caricature.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Help Me, Obi-Marshall, You're My Only Hope!

"Dear Marshall, please do me this favor and bail me out for $100... I could be here from 3-5 months and I receive a monthly social security check, and I'm afraid that if I'm not there, someone may help themselves to my money....Please, I really need your help. I have nobody else to depend on, please."

"I would like for you to check in on my daughter. She just got her place. She doesn't have any furniture or pots and pans. She has three girls, 2 yrs old, 1 yr old, and 3 months old. I know that Christmas time is coming and she'll need help in that department, too."

Diane and I received each of these requests in the same envelope, sent to us from the Greensboro jail this week. Both people who wrote have known me and Diane for years, and we have tried to help them in various ways from prayer to food to money. As I read, I felt overwhelmed; I mean, one of them has no one else to depend on and if I don't come through, they are going to be in jail for months and lose their money. If I don't come through, this single mom with 3 kids will be in a house with no furniture or pots and pans.

Everything in me wants to respond and fix these things, but not for the right reason. I'm driven by a voice that says, "You have the $100. You have plenty of household things. You owe it to the poor to help them every time that you can. You're a Christian, for crying out loud. You have the resources, so help them. Now!"

But is Jesus leading me to help? While I have known these two for years, I have little to no ongoing relationship with them. One of them I saw for the first time in 5 years this summer. The other only comes around in times of need. Will transformation happen if a band-aid is applied without ongoing commitment and care? Can I provide that? Do they want that? Why is the first person in jail and is it better for them to get out right now and be saved from consequences or could the Lord have something He wants to do in them by making them face their choices? My church has worked with the single mom before, to no avail, no transformation.

I know that there is a time and place for emergency help, for RIGHT NOW aid. But so many needs that we see seem to be RIGHT NOW, and you just can't go around putting out fires and trying to stem the tide by putting a piece of chewing gum over the leak. Yet saying no seems mean and un-Christian. I have to remember that there is one Savior, His name is Jesus Christ, and my call is to follow His voice, not my guilt or others' needs. There is plenty of work to be done, and in His timing, He will lead us to it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Courage of Reconciliation

Reconciliation is a nice word. It’s a happy concept. Lately in the Church it’s often been linked to crossing racial or cultural lines. But when the rubber meets the road, when it’s time to move reconciliation from concept into action, reconciliation requires courage.

It’s a messy business, because there is no reconciliation without brokenness coming first. No two people see their brokenness the same, and the layers of hurt and interpretations are deep and intertwined and confusing.

It’s a risky business, because parties on both sides are opening themselves to being hurt again, giving one another permission to wound. You risk reputation as people who are not ready to forgive call you reckless or uncaring.

It requires humility, admitting wrongs and relinquishing the right to be right.

Frankly, it’s easier to be cynical or bitter, to believe that you are right and the other is wrong, and to live as though there are some things that the cross of Jesus Christ cannot handle this side of heaven. It’s easier to move on, pretend the hurt doesn’t matter, to not bring things up again. It’s easier to let relationships just fade away and find a way to make life work.

Reconciliation requires courage, believing the cross of Jesus Christ to be bigger than all sin, and that its power extends to the deepest and crappiest places of our hearts. It requires us to believe that as we walk in faith towards the life and forgiveness of Jesus, He will meet us’ to hope that He will show up in our places of fear; to trust that He will supply the many things that we lack.

But as we walk courageously towards one another, with Christ as our guide and anchor, God is glorified and Christ is revealed, and we have the opportunity to not just talk about the power of the cross but to live it, to experience it, and to meet Jesus in ways we never dreamed. Courage has its rewards.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Normal for Glenwood, Weird in General

On Saturday I spent a few hours outside in our neighborhood painting our fence and then taking my kids to the park with my father-in-law. The things that occurred all around me were normal things for Glenwood, and it was surreal in the way that it seemed normal to me. Across the street at a house that is home to at least one prostitute and several drug users, one guy talked on the phone to his mom, handing it off to one of the prostitutes for her to talk for a few minutes ("Hey, mom," she said, "nice to meet you over the phone.") My neighbor from across the street, who reminds me a good deal of the lead guitarist for the Muppet Band, shuffled home, and both prostitutes and addicts were coming in and out of his apartment (he talks with me a lot about all the people that have come to Christ through his preaching and healing ministry, but I am not sure that he is not addicted to crack himself). A man that I could not see yelled for about 5 minutes around the corner, hidden by the bushes, telling someone that this was "his bleepin' 'hood", and continued to drop f-bombs by the dozen, as another addict made calls on his cell phone and paced the sidewalk. My friend Ben, who makes his living by going through garbage cans and recycling the metal he finds, stopped to give Joe some vienna sausages that he dug out of the trash up the street. A young man who had been kicked out of his house for the third time in three months stopped by with the car that he had bought for $100 (not having plates for it, insurance, or a driver's license) and asked for a couple of bucks to buy a burger at McDonalds. As we walked to the park, we passed lawns that were immaculately groomed and even decked out with artificial flowers, houses that were boarded up or trashed in the front. We passed a houseful of Hispanic workers having a beer and hanging out. On our return route, we had a drug deal go down right in front of us, passed a Latino man heading to the store (as a prostitute called out to him, "Hey, Amigo!"), were asked about the tutoring program by a guy who was drinking a 40 with his buddies, and passed a houseful of college students who would later have a party that went into the wee hours of the night. As we walked up the hill to the house, I said to my father-in-law, "My neighborhood is so weird." Where else do you find all these people and contrasts? And not only is it weird, but when I think about it, it is broken and sad, and I wonder what more we could be doing, need to be doing. And in some strange way, I am thankful for this "normal."

Monday, September 10, 2007

Why We Have Tutoring

Our Glenwood Tutoring Program kicks off its 6th year today, with over 30 kids signed up and over 40 volunteers at the ready. This is something I shared last night at our volunteer orientation meeting.

Why do we do we have this tutoring program?

First off, you and I are not hear to save these kids. I was meeting with a friend and talking about" saving the Glenwood kids", and he said, “Marshall, what if God sent you to these kids so that they could save you?”

And they have. From selfishness and pride, from impatience and a hard heart, from stereotypes and racism. These kids have shown me love and Christ, and have been used in powerful ways in my life.

Tutoring is an opportunity to give and to receive.

There is a principle in science called the principle of equilibrium. It says that If a chemical system at equilibrium experiences a change in concentration, temperature, or total pressure; the equilibrium will shift in order to minimize that change. The principle is used by chemists in order to manipulate the outcomes of reversible reactions, often to increase the yield of reactions.

A practical example is that when you exercise, your body generates a high concentration of heat and energy inside. It wants equilibrium, so you sweat, releasing that heat and cooling the body until its temperature returns to 98.6 degrees.

There is a spiritual application to this as well. God has given people high concentrations of some things, that they might flow into areas of lower concentration, an opportunity to give.

I believe that our volunteers have been given a high concentration of love, of opportunity, and of education, and that our kids often have a low concentration of those things. This is an opportunity for you to bring balance, equilibrium, justice. Our kids have a high concentration of energy, potential, and smarts, and we need to channel those things so that they flow into positive, productive places, like college, like learning to volunteer and love others, like into their families.

Equilibrium also presents an opportunity to receive. Our kids also have a high concentration of struggles, from families who are poor to parents who struggle with addiction, to peer pressure that encourages them to settle for less. As you love them and spend time with them, those sufferings will flow to you, and as you receive that, God will develop in you compassion, love, patience, and humility.

Our kids have a high concentration of love to give, but there are few safe outlets for them to give it. Your presence in their lives, the trust that you build allows them to take a chance to love you, to trust you, and to let you be their friend. That is a gift, to receive their friendship and love.

Lastly, we do this because we believe that this principle of equilibrium was modeled for us by Jesus Christ. The Bible says in 2 Corinthians 8:9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

God looked at each person in the world, saw us in our place of need and poverty without Him, and He came to earth as man, giving up all the glory and power that was His in heaven, lived a perfect life, died an innocent death, and was raised so that we might know God and have true life. God did not hoard His love, but gave it away freely to us. And so this program was begun as a response to that love which was given to us first.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Finally, Back to Giving

Well, you may not remember that way back in June I posted a couple of times about giving. (For review, you can check them out here and here.)

I've written several times about my struggles with consumerism. Its rampant in our culture, and I fall prey to wanting the same things that everyone else does. There seems to be very little motivation to live any differently from the rest of the culture and very few of us live counter-culturally with great joy. I know that often times when I make decisions to live with less, I think more about the sacrifice than the benefit.

But God is not bound by our culture, and He has something to say about what we do with our resources. His Word reorients us to understanding how to see our blessings appropriately, and I think that His Word is an anchor for us when everything in us tells us to take care of #1. Remembering that the Spirit leads us in joyful giving, giving throug us, let's take a quick look at a short Old Testament passage (we'll check out a New Testament passage next week).

Genesis 12:1-3 The LORD had said to Abram, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. 2 "I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you."

Simply put, we are blessed in order that we might be a blessing to others. There is a Hebrew word picture associated with this passage, and it is of a camel kneeling to receive a burden. The camel has no use for the spices, gold, and other goods that it is carrying, but its job is to take those things somewhere else for someone who needs them. Abraham is receiving blessing, but it is not for him. It is to bless others, to be given away, that all the nations will be blessed through him. Next up, the principle of equilibrium.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

A Post for Mommies, in honor of Diane

My wife doesn't get weekends off. The life of caring for our children, loving them and instructing them, molding us into a family, doesn't take a break between Friday and Monday. The weekend simply means that I am more readily available to help and ease the load (unless I am preoccupied with moving furniture or re-routing plumbing, as I was this weekend). And I know that for her it is easy to see her work as menial, ordinary, and having little or nothing to do with "building the Kingdom." In her head she knows that's not true, but in the midst of day-to-day "clutter control" and diaper duty, the eternal gets a bit lost in the shuffle. That is why I am so thankful for a song on the new Caedmon's Call album (Overdressed), called Sacred. The lyrics are below, and I hope that it encourages moms (and dads) out there to remember and see the holy work before us each day as we care for our kids. Diane, if you're reading, thank you for the holy work you do each day with such grace and love, even when you feel like you've lost your patience too many times or just can't pour another glass of juice. God is using you in a great and wonderful way.

"Sacred" by Caedmon’s Call

This house is a good mess, it’s the proof of life
No way would I trade jobs, but it don’t pay overtime
I’ll get to the laundry I don’t know when
I’m saying a prayer tonight cause tomorrow it starts again

Could it be that everything is sacred
And all this time
Everything I’ve dreamed of has been right before my eyes

The children are sleeping, but they’re running through my mind
The sun makes them happy, and the music makes them unwind
My cup runneth over, I worry about the stain
Teach me to run to You like they run to me for every little thing

'Cause everything is sacred And all this time
Everything I’ve dreamed of has been right before my eyes

When I forget to drink from you I can feel the banks harden
Lord make me like a stream to feed the garden

Wake up little sleeper
The Lord God Almighty
Made your mama keeper
So rise and shine, rise and shine, rise and shine

Cause everything is sacred
And all this time
Everything I’ve dreamed of has been right before my eyes

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Remembering to live soulfully

Today Eugene has me thinking about how easily we reduce one another into something less-than human. In the Hebrew language, the word for soul, nephesh, is a metaphor for the word neck. The neck is a connector, bringing breath from the mouth to the lungs and back again, connecting the head to the body, nerves to the brain, ideas to actions. To remove our neck would be to disconnect us - a head is no good without a body. Soul is a connecting word, implying relationship and connectedness with God, with others. To be a soulish being reminds us that our spirit is not unimportant to our body, and that God is necessary for conversation and vocation, for friendship and service. When we remove the soul from our view of ourselves and others, we are reduced to being consumers, people who are a resource to be used or people who are using others.

Peterson writes, "In our current culture, "soul" has given way to "self" as the term of choice to designate who and what we are. Self is the soul minus God. Self is what is left of soul with all the transcendence and intimacy squeezed out.... Widespread consumerism results in extensive depersonalization. And when depersonalization occurs, life leaks out."

As I thought about what this means for life and ministry, I realized how quickly I disconnect people. I can see the poor as a problem to be solved or a mouth to feed. I can be seen by the poor as a solution to their problem, a resource. InterVarsity students and staff can see new students coming to their groups as a resource to replenish leadership structures or to boost numbers.

And so, when everything in our culture has trained us to consume or be consumed, how do we go about our life and work remembering that people are more than what we see, more than their needs, more than what they can give us? The answer is Jesus and living by the Spirit. Jesus refused to see people as problems to be solved or a means to His own ends. His end was to glorify the Father, and He knew that the Father received glory when children came home, when men and women walked in right relationship to God and one another. Sometimes a meal of bread and fish was a way to move people towards the Father. Sometimes it was a hard word of truth. Sometimes it was ignoring the needs of many and attending to silence and prayer. People were not to be consumed, but to be restored to connectedness, head to heart, physical and spiritual hunger satisfied. Life infused rather than life leaked out.

I don't want life to leak out from me. Jesus has created us for life, life and more life, connected to God, connected to others. Spirit and body connected. Soulful living.

Monday, August 27, 2007

GUPY 2007 Recap in less than 90 seconds

Here is a brief look at our summer!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Spirit living, obedience and discipline

Galatians 5 talks a great deal about the freedom that we have as Believers to live by the Spirit, in the Spirit. Freedom from law, freedom from regulations and religiosity, freedom from things like having to have a Quiet Time every day in order to be in God's good graces. But in the midst of all this freedom, where does discipline come into play? Where is the room for obedience? When you talk about grace and freedom enough, those questions are inevitable.

Discipline and obedience have an important place in life and in discipleship. I'm trying, again, to exercise three days a week. It's not my body's preference to get up at 6:00 am and run several miles - I have to have a measure of discipline to make my body do something that it rebels against. Discipline and training are good, but our question should be, "What is driving it?" I can be proud of myself for getting up in the morning, but the reality is, I am praying that God would help me get up, that He would bear the fruit of self-control in my life so that I go to bed at a decent hour, that the Spirit enable me to get up when the alarm goes off, that in Christ I would press through my sore legs that balk at jogging. Seriously. I believe that jogging in the early morning is a Spirit work.

It's the same with our discipline and obedience in following Jesus. I often worry when I hear young couples talk about their strict dating guidelines to govern physical behavior, not because I don't think that their intentions are good, but because all-to-often their source and motive is their own will power and their desire to have a "Godly relationship." I worry when friends declare that they will spend time with God every morning of every day for a set number of minutes, not because that would be a bad thing, but because that can easily be a self-fueled exercise. When we discipline ourselves apart from the Spirit, it can easily have the opposite effect than what we desire. Our flesh, sin that is at work in us (Romans 7) rebels against the rules and laws that we set up, enticed to act against them. (In fact, Paul says that the law is the power of sin, 1 Corinthians 15:56).

Discipline and obedience led by the Spirit looks like this, according to Galatians 5:6 - "For in Christ, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision (religious obedience) has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love." So for the couple who wants to be godly in their physical relationship, they have faith that God has called them to love one another, and loving one another means that they guard their hearts and bodies from lust. So they ask the Spirit to show them ways to love each other and love God by bearing the fruit of Self Control in their lives and relationship, and that the Spirit would enable them to live as holy children of the Father who have all their needs met in Christ.
For the earnest Christian who wants to have a daily quiet time, faith says that his sonship is not contingent on how much Bible reading or prayer he does, and that God's love for Him is unchanging and perfect. Faith says that one way to love God is to learn His truth and live that truth in obedience and love, and asks the Spirit to give discipline to spend time in the Scriptures, that the Spirit illuminate what is read, and that the Spirit lead and energize the living out of those truths. Are these semantical maneuverings? I don't think so. Spirit living is not always a feeling, but is often a decision, a remembering the presence of God in every part of life, and a yielding to our need for Him in all things.

Functional atheism where God is a reality in some parts of life but in the rest of our days and ways we make it work on our own, is very dangerous to the Christian life. Life in the Spirit says that every moment is God's to orchestrate and our need for Him runs deeper than we would imagine, and His ability to give us all that we need, whether it is grace, mercy, freedom or even discipline and obedience, knows no limits.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Like a Sailboat at Talladega

Yesterday I was talking with a good friend about his frustrations with work. He used to be in vocational ministry, and now he's in a job that, in his estimation, is making very little difference for the Kingdom. We were talking about his possibly returning to vocational ministry, and he said that he didn't want to run to that like a crutch. But for this guy, I don't think it would be a crutch - I think it's what he was made to do, and so, searching for an analogy, I told him that maybe him doing this job was like building a sailboat and sticking on the race track at Talladega and wondering why it doesn't work right. The boat was made for water, not the 33-degree banking of my favorite NASCAR superspeedway.

As we continued to talk, the conversation turned to living in the flesh versus living by the Spirit. Living by the flesh (i.e. "making life work" apart from dependence on Christ) can be OK for a while. We can be successful or we can wink and nod at our sin or we can get proud of how religious we are. But eventually, things just don't feel right. We have a nagging sense that we are not operating the way we were created, that we are going against our soul's design.

Which takes us back to the sailboat on the racetrack. We, as Christians, have been recreated in Christ to live in dependence on the Father, through the Spirit, created to sail in water. We have been freed from making life work, from trusting in our own resources, and have been freed to living as God intended, yet we often choose to beach ourselves. Most times when life doesn't work we blame our circumstances or the people who just aren't meeting our needs, but for Christians, conflict and frustration are often God's mouthpiece, reminding us of who we are (and who we are not). Sure, there are rough waters even when we live by the Spirit, but there is a sense, even in the storms, that we are living life as we were created to be.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Spirit living, Eugene style

On the recomendation of my friend Doug Flatherty, I re-started Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places by Eugene Peterson, whose first chapter deals with the work of God's Spirit. At the same time, I was reading Romans 8, looking for God's leading in living by the Spirit. Living by the Spirit is such a balancing act, walking between two unhealthy extremes. On the one hand we have the obvious unhealthy extreme of blatant sin, indulging our "sinful nature" (NIV's translation) with all sorts of sinful things. On the other hand we have self-righteous moralism, in which we are in control of and in charge of keeping our heart and soul on the straight and narrow, managing our own sin. The Spirit leads us away from sin and away from self-reliance, leading us to.. dependence on God in all things.
I love how Peterson translates Romans 8:5-8: Those who think they can do it on their own end up obsessed with measuring their own moral muscle but never get around to exercising it in real life. Those who trust God's action in them find that God's Spirit is in them—living and breathing God! Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life. Focusing on the self is the opposite of focusing on God. Anyone completely absorbed in self ignores God, ends up thinking more about self than God. That person ignores who God is and what he is doing. And God isn't pleased at being ignored.

When I read this passage in the NIV, my focus tends to be on the words "sinful nature" and, really, on the "sinful" part. Don't we tend to think of being in the flesh as doing sinful things? But Peterson, bless him, doesn't define the flesh as "sinful" (though it certainly is). Instead, he equates it to a self-focused life. Self-focus inevitably leads us to measure our moral muscle without exercising it, which inevitably to making life work apart from God, either by sin or by religion. Thank the Lord that God's Spirit leads us into an open, spacious, free life. The trick is to believe that this freedom is true-er and better than the self-satisfaction of moralism or the fleeting pleasures of escape into sin.

Monday, August 13, 2007

You have to watch this

I don't often link to external, You-Tube-ish stuff, but you have to see this. In this video, a herd of buffalo comes back to rescue a baby buffalo that has been taken down by a pack of lions. It does have a happy ending (unless you side with hungry lions).
Hungry Lions Stay Hungry

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Back on the horse

Our time in Mexico at the end of GUPY was really wonderful. Even though most of us spoke little to no Spanish, we felt surprisingly at home in a strange culture, and felt very loved by our church family there. But coming back to Glenwood was surprisingly jarring for a number of us on the GUPY team, myself included. My neighborhood didn't feel like home - it felt scary, dangerous again, and it was strange. Perhaps it didn't help that our church van was flagged down on my street at 2 am on our back from the airport so that we could be offered crack (my weary reply was, "No thanks, man, we just got home from a missions trip"). For some reason it was strange for me to be around African Americans again (I saw only one person of African descent in our 10 days in Mexico), and I felt old fears come back.

And so I felt tempted to revert back to old ways of hiding out in the house, going to other parks rather than my local playground, and just not feeling at peace. But, as the saying goes, when you fall off the horse, you have to get right back on, and I knew it was important to get back out in the neighborhood, walk the streets, meet the neighbors. So I took my kids to the park around the corner to play. I went to get veggies from the community garden. I walked home from my church. Simple things, normal things, but things that can be avoided in the course of "normal" life.

Why was I not comfortable in my home of 7 years? Some of it has to do with the power of assumptions/fears/stereotypes about race and class that are still latent in my heart. Some of it has to do with the ways poverty plays itself out in America versus in Mexico City. Some of it has to do with spending our time in Mexico surrounded by Christians who loved us, laid down their lives for us, gave us their food, their beds, their homes, whereas in Glenwood, often times those that you try to help respond with a shrug at best, an insult at worst - not much payoff there.

I think that Mexico helped exposed further work that God has to do in me, and I hope that it awakened the GUPY's to the need right in our backyard for love and service to go out, received or not, in proclaiming Christ's love and presence.

Monday, August 06, 2007

You Run the Risk of Weeping if you Let Yourself Be Tamed

(this post did not, in fact, post, on Friday, so I am retrying; I'm feeling better today)

The heading is a line from “The Little Prince,” and describes the cost involved in loving deeply. In the book, the prince meets a fox on another planet, and eventually they become friends. The fox begins to cry when the prince has to leave, and when the prince tells him not to be sad, the fox replies, “One runs the risk of weeping when he lets himself be tamed.”

The GUPY students left yesterday, and I’ve been crying intermittently since Monday (when we left Mexico City). I have really loved these student and given them my heart (and they have done the same), and now it’s just too quiet here at the house without them coming in and out. Right now I don’t want to have GUPY 2008 because I don’t want to feel this sadness again next year. But I know that in time, the sadness will pass and what will remain will be the memories of how God used our 6 weeks in mighty ways, both in Greensboro and in the students.

For now, driving around town reminds me of all that we did together, and I wish that the students were still here with us, learning and growing, laughing and loving, being stretched by God to live out His word in faithful ways.

While tears are no fun (and having them come at random times, such as while taking out the garbage or walking into Harris Teeter, is inconvenient), they are a sign that I was tamed this summer, making 10 new friends and being a small part of God’s bigger work in the world. It is small price to pay, and there will one day be much celebration of the ways God continued to use GUPY 2007 long after this summer.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Shame, Identity, and Rest

Well, I am back for a brief moment, having lost my blogging energy and time due to our urban project (GUPY). I have loved being with our 10 students this summer and am looking forward to heading to Mexico City on Friday for 10 days with them. Below I am pasting a reflection that I wrote for my students. When I return from Mexico, I hope to resume my series on giving.
One of my “go to” passages of Scripture is Isaiah 30:15-26, and I want to encourage you to spend some time in it yourselves, because it talks about resting in the Lord in order to receive strength. As you all can tell, I am a “do-er” in my flesh, and I will go and go until I cannot go anymore. I want to apologize for leading last night’s Bible study in my own strength and my flesh. I felt like we needed to just get it done, to complete the agenda, and in doing so, I think that the Spirit was not as free to operate, and in your tiredness you may not have been as free and able to receive what the Lord had for you.

As I was spending time in Isaiah 30 today, I read verses 1-14, and in those verses, the Lord rebukes Israel for carrying out plans that are not God’s and for depending on Egypt for strength. And then I noticed something interesting – in verses 3 and 5, God says that their dependence on Egypt leads them to shame. Over and over I tell people that God’s heart for them is not to feel ashamed. (Quick definition: guilt = I feel bad because I did something wrong; shame = I feel bad because I am wrong). So why would God let Israel feel shame? I think that it is because the core issue here (as in all sin) is independence (or lack of dependence on God). When you or I depend on anything or anyone other than God, in a sense we become our own God, our own provider. This then leads us to put our identity and our hope in ourselves and when we fail, shame enters. “I failed and because it was all up to me, I am wrong.”

Even in doing good things for God, we can operate in independence. I sensed that in myself last night, but I plowed ahead anyway. When the study did not go as smoothly as I hoped (I felt like I just could not communicate in a way that was grace-filled), I began to feel shame – I am wrong; I did not do a good job. Shame is a consequence of self-dependence.

And so, back to Isaiah, God tells them (and us) in verse 12-14 that when we depend on things other than Him, in His grace and mercy He allows our sin to become a high wall that cracks and breaks, crashing around us. That is God’s goodness to us to not let us persist in independence. He offers another way, the way of the Spirit, the way of trust. And that leads into Isaiah 30:15-26, calling us to repentance and rest for salvation, to quietness and trust for strength. I get so caught up in finding identity (salvation/strength) in what I do, that it is easy for me to drive myself and others to do more and more. But God is calling us to rest. So whatever that looks like for you, do it. I would suggest taking time to be quiet with the Lord and ask Him what rest might look like for you. It might be Harry Potter. It might be playing guitar. It might be Nerts. It might be sitting under a tree. One thing that I am fairly certain of, rest for us all involved going to sleep by 10:30 (or heading that way). I need to be present to my kids and my wife, to watch an episode of Lost, and to go to bed at a decent hour instead of staying up to give Dan and Erin a lesson in how to play Nerts.

I love you all, and again hope that you see I am on a journey with you in learning who I am in Christ and how to not depend on my flesh but on the Spirit.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Published online

An article I wrote about being robbed in San Francisco has been published on IV's student web site, Student Soul. Look for the article "Tenderloin Adventure."

Monday, June 18, 2007

A helpful link dealing with our identity in Christ

In my previous post I talked about the Believer's being identified with Christ and Christ living His life through us. This link is a concise article that explains this very well.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Giving out of grace, not law

OK, so let's get first things first. Why do (notice I didn't say "should") Christians give? We give because it's our nature. We are give-ers because we are in Christ, new creations who have the very life of Christ living in us (2 Corinthians 5:17). Who is more giving than our God, who did not spare His own son but generously gave Him for us (Romans 8:32)? Who is more giving than Jesus, who though He was rich for our sakes became poor so that we through His poverty might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9)? The Lord does not change, and this same Jesus lives in us and has given us His very life and nature. So I am, by nature, a give-er.

So why don't I/we give more, then? Because we have been taught from birth to fend for ourselves, to depend on ourselves. It's the way of the world and the only way people who don't know Jesus can make life work. It's called "the flesh", and the flesh is any way that we make life work apart from dependence on Jesus. Once a person comes to Christ, they receive a new nature, but their flesh is still there. So Christ in me longs to give and be generous, but my natural instincts are to take what's mine, hang on to what is valuable, to save just in case I need it later. Living this way is self-provision, which is, more simply, sin. (Note: this does not mean that I do not have a savings account or that I am not planning for retirement or that saving is sinful. It does mean that perhaps I should worry about these things less and put my hope in them less).

Giving generously is a declaration of dependence on God, acknowledging that all we are and all that we have are from Him, and that we do not have to provide for ourselves. Its is an opportunity to live in freedom from our own efforts, freedom from materialism. It is an act of worship, declaring that we love God more than our stuff, and that we seek to honor Him by passing on the blessings that He gives us in order that others might be blessed.

Giving is also an act of grace - Paul prays that the Corinthians might excel in the grace of giving and even puts giving on par with faith, knowledge, earnestness, speech, and love (2 Corinthians 8:7). Giving is a spirit-empowered, grace-empowered act that reveals the goodness of God in our lives. It is a reminder that God is always the give-er, we always the receive-er. We would have nothing to give if it were not for God. We would not have life or breath or being if it were not for God the give-er (Acts 17:28). This not to say that we need to feel guilty about what we have but rather be thankful and from that thankful place, enter into the joy of our giving God by participating in this act of blessing.

To me, this is a grace-empowered, Spirit-led call to giving, and it is the place where we must begin.

Thoughts on giving

I've been thinking a lot about giving lately, and am not exactly sure how to post about it, so I figured I would just start writing and see what comes out. First off, I have to say that were it not for generous and sacrificial men and women, I would not be able to have the job that I have. Over my ten years on IV staff, many thousands of dollars have been given to enable me to minister to students and others full-time. Because people are generous givers, I have all of my needs and many of my wants, and I get to do a job that I love.

That said, I feel like I need to issue a call, a challenge to the Church (and myself) to reconsider how we give and how we live. We've fallen prey to the lie of Western consumerism and have allowed it to infiltrate our faith and how we practice it. This is a tricky issue, because I do not always practice what I preach in terms of simplicity and generosity. Also, money seems to be one of those things that we can't talk about or challenge each other on - it's our own private business and who is anyone to judge or tell us what to do with our finances.

But I think that the Bible inconveniently tells us a great deal about what to do with our money and what purpose it is given to us, yet we can be very selective in our reading and appplication of those verses and passages.

Before getting into those, let me outline my hopes for this little series. One is to call us to rethink how to live and how to give not from a position of guilt, shame, or law. I struggle mightily with living from those places, and can motivate myself and others from spiritual principles that are not rooted in grace and love. The New Testament does not set a specific guideline for giving, for instance. The tithe is a part of the Old Testament law, which all Christians are freed from following as a means of righteousness or finding favor with God. What we are called to give in the NT is what God puts on our hearts to give, and we are called to be generous and give joyfully. As Christ lives in us, He fulfills the law through us, and actually we often exceed the law's expectations (for example, the Law forbids adultery, but Jesus said that this extends past a purely physical act into the realm of what we look at and think about).

Second, I hope to bring Scriptures to the forefront which call us to generosity and sharing. My friend Alex Kirk has been blogging recently about the plethora of Scriptures dealing with justice, contrasting those with the verses dealing with sexual purity and suggesting that we overemphasize sex, though the weight of Scripture would call us to give more time and attention to justice. I think that a similar argument for simplicity and generosity can be made.

Third, I would like to share some strategies that have helped me and Diane to live more generously than is comfortable for us. A tension here is that I do not want to seem to be flaunting a form of self-righteousness or lifting myself up as a standard. The struggle is there, because one of the ways that I deal with my personal frustrations with the overall lack of giving in the Church is to become self-righteous in my anger. That is not living by the Spirit and it is not offering the grace and love that I have received from Jesus.

So, comments are welcome and I look forward to sharing more in the coming days!