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.