Friday, January 23, 2009

A prescription against sin

If we are walking with the Lord and truly doing what Martin Luther wrote 500 years ago, "Love God and do what you please," then our life will be a reflection of the one who is Love. We will love our neighbors, we will seek justice, we will continually renew our minds to be more like the mind of Christ. Our outpouring will be one of peace, joy and love - the fruits of the Spirit. I believe that many in the Church are so focused on personal sin that we begin to lose the focus on anything outside of our own selves. We become inwardly focused towards a goal of holiness and become fixated on our own sin. There have been times in my life where this has been the truth. During my journey through alcoholism, drug abuse, and sexual addiction I became so focused on the sin that it overwhelmed me with shame and guilt and condemnation, it kept me from seeing God's grace for me. I became confused about who God was and why His Spirit inside of me wasn't eradicating all of the pain and sin. I believe Paul was going through something similar when he wrote:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. (Romans 7:15-20)

Personal edification and holiness is so very important, but I don't believe it can be done in a vacuum, we must get outside of our own personal journey and share it by outpouring in service to others. Only then can we fully be healed from personal sin. The viscous cycle of sin and condemnation is broken only when we refuse to look inside of us for holiness and focus on the call of Jesus to pour out our love onto others - believing His promise that we won't remain empty, but rather He will fill us back up.

I have been reading an excellent book titled Submerge: Living Deep in a Shallow World by John B. Hayes. In it, he comments on Isaiah 58:6-12 as being not a "legalistic job description" for those who work with the poor, but rather a prescription of a healthy relationship with Christ for all Christians. It is "written for our well-being, not our justification."

“No, this is the kind of fasting I want:
Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;
lighten the burden of those who work for you.
Let the oppressed go free,
and remove the chains that bind people.
Share your food with the hungry,
and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them,
and do not hide from relatives who need your help.

“Then your salvation will come like the dawn,
and your wounds will quickly heal. Your godliness will lead you forward,
and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind.
Then when you call, the Lord will answer.
‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply.

“Remove the heavy yoke of oppression.
Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors!
Feed the hungry,
and help those in trouble.
Then your light will shine out from the darkness,
and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon.
The Lord will guide you continually,
giving you water when you are dry
and restoring your strength.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like an ever-flowing spring.
Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities.
Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls
and a restorer of homes.

(Isaiah 58:6-12)

Serenity and I have both mentioned that we have went through quantum leaps in our faith since we have been on the road. The Lord had stretched our faith, grown our desire for Him, and multiplied our hope for His Kingdom. Through the struggles, the pain and the sorrow of working with the poor on this journey, we have been much more aligned with God. Not simply because we have helped the poor, but because we have stopped looking to "fix" ourselves and began to look to the Lord. I am personally no longer stuck in the cycle that Paul wrote about in Romans 7 (For what I do is not the good I want to do, etc., etc.), I have come to the point where "I do not even judge myself." (I Corinthians 4:3) The evil one wants us to stay focused on our sin, shifting focus inwardly into a cycle of confusion, distracting us from our call to love God and to love the least of these.

In Isaiah, the Lord promises that when we feed and clothe the poor, when we free the oppressed and give shelter to the homeless, our "wounds will quickly heal." Sin will no longer be our focus, rather glory and honor to the Lord. I think the last verse, Isaiah 58:12, speaks directly to our ministry:

Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities.
Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls
and a restorer of homes.

The Prodigal Son

We all have something in common with the parable of the prodigal son that Jesus told in Luke 15. To one extent or another, we have all run from God, tried to do things on our own. I find great encouragement in this parable that Jesus told to a group of "tax collectors and 'sinners.'" I think this story has spoken to me because of the Father's great and unexplainable love for His son. Sin separates us from God, but possibly just as impacting is that the evil one tricks us into believing that because of sin, God no longer loves us. The core of Jesus' message in this parable, once again spoken to a group of "tax collectors and 'sinners,'" is that there is nothing that will keep our Father from embracing us. Nothing!
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, can come between us and separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38-39
This was a song that was sung at a youth summer camp I used to go to in the Sierra Nevada mountain range of California. I now sing it to my kids every night I put them to bed. It is an important verse to me, one that allows me to believe that although I have turned my back on my Father, slept in pig sties, allowed pride to keep me from going back for so long to my Father's house, He will, and has, embraced me. He loves me - no matter what. Sin separates us from God, but nothing can put a wide enough canyon between the Father and his son to keep Him from loving us.

Twelve years ago the Lord spoke to me at one of the lowest valleys of my life and brought me out of the muck and mire I had been wallowing in. The evil one still had plenty of footholds in my life, and he has used them to try to bring me down, to return me to the pig sty, but I continue to rest in Romans 8:38-39 - nothing can separate us from the Love of God. The prodigal son was embraced by his Father, just like our Father embraces us. Not with a list of things we need to do better, or after we clean ourselves up, but just the way we are. Jesus tells us that when the son "was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him." (Luke 15:20) This is not a picture of a grey bearded Father wagging His finger at us in disappointment, wondering if we are ever going to "get it." This is a picture of a Father who embraces us with love and compassion, excited that we were "dead and are now alive again; [we] were lost and am now found," (Luke 15:24) and begins to celebrate, never burying us with condemnation or shame, tools that Satan tries to use to confuse us about the nature of God. Not only does our Father embrace us after years and years of transgressions, but when we turn to Him, as King David wrote in Psalms 51 after being convicted of his sins with Bathsheba, with a broken and contrite heart, He runs to us and throws his arms around us and kisses us. I'm not even sure if we can fully grasp this radical Love of our Savior for us, but if we can just embrace a slice of it, it can change our world.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Dr. King

In order to be true to one's conscience and true to God, a righteous man has no alternative but to refuse to cooperate with an evil system.

Martin Luther King, Jr. - In his book "Stride Towards Freedom" - 1958

The Reverend

True compassion, is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

Martin Luther King, Jr. - From his "Beyond Vietnam" speech, 1967

Martin Luther King, Jr.

The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.

Martin Luther King, Jr. - From his "Strength to Love" speech, 1963

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Stream of Consciousness

For we are not fighting against people made of flesh and blood, but against the evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against those mighty powers of darkness who rule this world, and against wicked spirits in the heavenly realms.

Ephesians 6:12
Back in Oregon, before we left on this crazy sojourn, Serenity and I went out on a date night to the book store for some coffee and some quiet time away from the kids. On our way back we saw a man about 45 sitting on the ground against the window of the store. It was obvious he was homeless simply because he had all of his stuff with him, in plastic bags and a large backpack. Halfway across the parking lot I felt the Lord call us to go talk with him. We greeted him with a smile and a big "hello." He was friendly and began talking - non-stop - about his health problems, his old job, his bike, his family, his friends, along with lots of other stuff. I would ask him a question and he would answer it quickly and then return to his monologue. This sort of thing isn't abnormal when working with the homeless, on many levels, it is the norm. I call it a "stream of consciousness" discussion. The guy was just saying whatever was on his mind, moving from one topic to the next, none of them connected, and at no time does he ever involve you into the flow of the conversation. At one point I broke into his stream of consciousness and asked him if he was lonely, he responded almost before I was done asking the question with an emphatic "yes!" but then just continued on talking about something completely off topic. After a while of this, I asked him if I could pray for him, and once again he answered with "yes," but just kept right on talking, not giving me the opportunity. Finally, I just interrupted him and began praying. He stopped, and listened. Many would just write this guy off as someone with a mental illness, or at best some sort of social disorder, which is partially true, living on the streets can create vast canyons of differences between someone and the rest of society. I've spoken to enough of these types of guys to know that there is much, much more to it than meets the eye. Scary stuff, stuff we cannot begin to attack without Christ and His Spirit.

On another occasion, under the Burnside Bridge in Portland where we were communing with our brothers and sisters, I noticed a guy about my age wandering around the fringes of the group, never making eye contact with me or anyone else for more than a split second. I would begin to approach him to start a conversation, and he would move away, seeing me begin to walk towards him. I left him alone simply so he would feel comfortable enough to come and get something to eat, but he made me nervous and with kids around I kept an eye on him. Finally I saw him begin to walk away with a sandwich and a bowl of soup, so I followed him. It was a little like Cloak and Dagger, he kept looking over his shoulder and picked up his pace. I started a slow jog and finally caught up to him near a tree. He hid behind it like I couldn't see him, I would go one way and he would go the other, not making eye contact, looking at his bowl of soup. I said, "can I pray for you." He responded with "would you still give me food if I said 'no.'" And I said, "Of course you can still eat," and he began to walk away. I followed him and prayed "In the name of Jesus, dark spirits be gone." He snapped his head around and looked at me from the top of his eyes, then, began to trot away. I didn't have the guts to keep chasing him.
“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me,
Because the LORD has anointed Me
To preach good tidings to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound"

Isaiah 61:1
I know it sounds like a funny scene, but when you think about it, there is nothing funny about what is going on all around us. The voice was his, but the words came straight from a "wicked spirit." I knew it right away, and I still believe it to this day, I wasn't speaking to that guy, I was speaking to a demon. Mental illness is a serious thing, thousands of homeless men and women deal with some form of mental illness, but for many, their only mental illness is that they are occupied by a demonic spirit. There isn't much that a counselor or social worker, or some homeless advocate can do for these people unless they are battling against the true source of the problem, and they are using the right weapon (His Spirit). The last thing that the evil one wants us to know is that there is more going on around us. If we are oblivious to this subtle fact, then we are rendered useless.
And when He had called His twelve disciples to Him, He gave them power over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease.

Matthew 10:1
The Lord gives each and every one of us the power to overcome these spiritual foes, we must cease the opportunity as funny as it may look (even if it means dancing with a homeless guy around a tree). "With God, all things are possible" (Matthew 19:26), with Christ's Spirit within us, we are more powerful than we can ever imagine.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Light in the Asphalt Jungle

an important poem by Vincent Harding


I had a dream.
And I saw a city,
A city that rose up out of the crust of the earth.
And it’s streets were paved with asphalt,
And a river of dirty water ran down along it’s curbs.
It was a city
And its people knew no hope.
They were chased and herded from place to place by the churning jaws of bulldozers.
They were closed up in the anonymous cubicles of great brick prisons called housing projects.
They were forced out of work by the fearsome machines,
And by the sparseness of their learning.
They were torn into many pieces by the hostile angers of racial fears and guilt and prejudice.
Their workers were exploited.
Their children and teen-agers had no parks to play in.
No pools to swim in,
No space in crowded rooms to learn in,
No hopes to dream in,
And the people knew no hope.

Their bosses underpaid them.
Their landlords overcharged them.
Their churches deserted them.
And all of life in the city seemed dark and wild, like a jungle,
A jungle lined with asphalt.
And the people sat in darkness


I had a dream,
And I saw a city,
A city clothed in neon-lighted darkness.
And I heard men talking.
And I looked at them.
Across their chests in large, golden letters—written by their own hands—
Across their chests were written the words:
“I am a Christian.”
And the Christians looked at the city and said;
“How terrible…How terrible…How terrible.”
And the Christians looked at the city and said:
“That is no place to live,
But some of our people have wandered there,
And we must go and rescue them.
And we must go and gather them, like huddled sheep into a fold;
And we will call it a City Church.”
So they built their church.
And the people came,
And they walked past all the weary, broken, exploited, dying men who lined the city’s streets.
Year after year they walked past,
Wearing their signs: “I am a Christian.”

Then one day the people in the church said:
“This neighborhood is too bad for good Christians.
Let us go to the suburbs where God dwells, and build a church there.
And one by one they walked away, past all the weary, broken, exploited, dying men.
They walked fast.
And did not hear a voice that said:
“…the least of these…the least of these…”
And they walked by, and they went out, and they built a church.
The church was high and lifted up, and it even had a cross.
But the church was hollow,
And the people were hollow,
And their hearts (their hearts?) were hard as the asphalt streets of the jungle.


I had a dream.
And I saw a city,
A city clothed in bright and gaudy darkness.
And I saw more men with signs across their chest.
And they were Christians too.
And I heard them say:
“How terrible…how terrible…how terrible.
The city is filled with sinners:
To save sinners,
To save sinners.
But they are so unlike us,
So bad,
So dark,
So poor,
So strange,
But we are supposed to save them…
To save them,
To save them.”
And one man said:
“Can’t we save them without going where they are?”
And they worked to find a way to save and be safe at the same time.
Meanwhile, I saw them build a church,
And they called it a Mission,
A City Mission:
And all the children came by to see what this was.
And the city missionaries who had been sent to save them gathered them in.
So easy to work with children, they said,
And they are so safe, so safe.
And week after week they saved the children
(Saved them from getting in their parent’s way on Sunday morning).
And in the dream the City Missionaries looked like Pied Pipers, with their long row of children stretched out behind them,
And the parents wondered in Christianity was only for children.
And when the missionaries finally came to see them, and refused to sit in their broken chair, and kept looking at the plaster falling, and used a thousand words that had no meaning, and talked about rescuing them from hell while they were freezing in the apartment, and asked them if they were saved, and walked out into their shiny care, and drove off to their nice, safe neighborhood—
When that happened, the parents knew;
This version of Christianity had no light for their jungle.
Then, soon, the children saw too; it was all a children’s game;
And when they became old enough they got horns of their own,
And blew them high and loud,
And marched off sneering, swearing, into the darkness.


I had a dream,
And I saw the Christians in the dark city,
And I heard them say:
“We need a revival to save these kinds of people.”
And they rented the auditorium,
And they called in the expert revivalist,
And every night all the Christians came, and heard all the old, unintelligible, comfortable words, and sang all the old assuring songs, and went through all the old motions when the call was made.
Meanwhile, on the outside,
All the other people waited impatiently in the darkness for the Christians to come out, and let the basketball game begin.


I had a dream.
And I saw Christians with guilty consciences,
And I heard them say:
“What shall we do?
What shall we do?
What shall we do?
These people want to come to OUR church,
To OUR church.”
And someone said:
“Let’s build a church for THEM,
They like to be with each other anyway.”
And they started the church,
And the people walked in.
And for a while, as heads were bowed in prayer, they did not know.
But then, the prayers ended,
And they people looked up, and looked around,
And saw that every face was THEIR face,
THEIR face,
And every color was THEIR color,
THEIR color.
And they stood up, and shouted loudly within themselves:
“Let me out of this ghetto, this pious, guilt-built ghetto.”
And they walked out into the darkness,
And the darkness seemed darker than ever before,
And the good Christians looked, and said,
“These people just don’t appreciate what WE do for THEM.”


And just as the night seemed darkest, I had another dream.
I dreamed that I saw young men walking,
Walking into the heart of the city, into the depths of the darkness.
They had no signs, except their lives.
And they walked into the heart of the darkness and said:
“Let us live here, and work for light.”
They said, “Let us live here and help the rootless find a root for their lives.
Let us live here, and help the nameless find their names.”
They said, “Let us live here and walk with the jobless until they find work.
Let us live here, and sit in the landlord’s office until he gives more heat and charges less rent.”
They said, “Let us live here, and throw open the doors of this deserted church to all the people of every race and class;
Let us work with them to find the reconciliation God has brought.”
And they said, “Let us walk the asphalt streets with the young people, sharing their lives, learning their language, playing their sidewalk, backyard games, knowing the agonies of their isolation.”
And they said, “Let us live here, and minister to as many men as God gives us grace,
Let us live here,
And die here, with out brothers of the jungle,
Sharing their apartments and their plans.”
And the people saw them,
And someone asked who they were,
A few really knew—
They had no signs—
But someone said he thought they might be Christians,
And this was hard to believe, but the people smiled;
And a little light began to shine in the heart of the asphalt jungle.


Then in my dream I saw young men,
And I saw the young men and women
Those who worked in the city called Chicago,
And they were weary,
And the job was more than they could bear alone,
And I saw them turn, turn and look for help,
And I heard them call:
“Come and help us,
Come and share this joyful agony, joyful agony,
Come as brothers in the task,
Come and live and work with us,
Teachers for the crowded schools,
Doctors for the overflowing clinics,
Social workers for the fragmented families,
Nurses for the bulging wards,
Pastors for the yearning flocks,
Workers for the fighting gangs,
Christians who will come and live here,
Here in the heart of the darkness,
Who will live here and love here that a light might shine for all.

I heard them call,
And I saw the good Christians across the country,
And their answers tore out my heart.
Some said, “There isn’t enough money there.”
Some said, “It’s too bad there. I couldn’t raise children.”
Some said, “I’m going into foreign missions, where things aren’t quite so dark.”
Some said, “The suburbs are so nice.”
Some said, “But I like it here on the farm.”
Some said,
Some said…
And one by one they turned their backs and began to walk away.
At this moment my dream was shattered by the sound of a great and mighty whisper, almost a pleading sound;
And a voice said:
“Come, help me, for I am hungry in the darkness.”
And a voice said:
“Come, help me, for I am thirsty in the darkness.”
And a voice said:
“Come, help me, for I am a stranger in this asphalt jungle.”
And a voice said, “Come, help me, for I have been stripped naked, naked of all legal rights and protection of the law, simply because I am black in the darkness.”
And a voice said:
“Come, help me, for my heart is sick with hopelessness and fear in the darkness.”
And a voice said:
“Come, live with me in the prison of my segregated community, and we will break down the walls together.”

And the voices were many,
And the voice was one,
And the Christians knew whose Voice it was.
And they turned,
And their faces were etched with the agonies of decisions.
And the dream ended.
But the voice remains,
And the voices remain,
And the city still yearns for light.
And the Kind who lives with the least of his brothers in the asphalt jungle…
Yearns for us.