Highways, Hedges, and Railroads

I first heard about George* from our husband-and-wife youth directors. They had recently met this new homeless man who moved into our area. A few months later, I finally met George in March 2015. Since our first meeting, I’ve washed his clothes, shared a meal with him at our kitchen table, and spent hours with him in conversation. I’ve invited him to worship with us several times. Occasionally, he joins us.

George has hardly ever asked me for anything, which is rare for the homeless I work with. But he does come to our church building every day to refill his water buckets.

George knows he’s safe on our property. He’s safe to use our water without questions from us or the police. Our city’s police department learned long ago we do not view homeless men on our property as a “nuisance.”

If I’m working in our church gym and suddenly hear the outside water spigot turn on, I know George is outside filling up his buckets. He uses this water to drink, bathe, and do laundry.  When his buckets are full, he walks back to his homeless campsite. For years, George has been content to live in homeless shelters like this. But George finally decided he’s ready for different life.

One of my pastoral colleagues, who serves at a different church, recently contacted me.

“Do you know George?”

Yes, I know him. Is he ok?

“Yes. He told me he wants help.”

Then this dear friend began looking for ways to help George. She contacted Catholic Charities’ Street Outreach Services. Their “SOS Team” would soon make a visit to George, and assess how they could best help him. In case they visited George’s tent when he wasn’t home, they would contact me. A few weeks passed.

One day a few weeks ago, two women arrived at Renovation Community‘s summer day camp and feeding program, Camp FUSE. It was the SOS Team. They tried locating his camp but couldn’t find it. They asked if I would lead them to George.

We crossed a road, knee-high weeds, railroad track, and more tall weeds. We finally walked up to George’s campsite, hidden on one side behind many overgrown bushes and a fence on the other side.

It strikes me that two pastors from Protestant churches and two women representing a Catholic organization all worked together to help this man. Clearly, God does not regard our human-made divisions.

I invite George and the two women to meet inside my office, instead of standing out in the heat. A few days after this meeting, George joins our church’ worship service. We all gathered around him and prayed God would free him from the addictions that have enslaved him many years.


In the Bible’s Book of Luke, Jesus tells a parable (a story created for teaching) about a man who plans a great banquet. He invites many people to his banquet. But the invitees all send back the (stupid) reasons they can’t attend.

Luke 14:21 says “The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.'”

The man’s servants obey and return with the new guests but explain there is still more room at the banquet. So the master again sends out his servants. This time, the servants have to travel outside the city’s walls to find guests.

I specifically remembered Luke 14:23 as I came upon George’s camp hidden behind the bushes. The New International Version of Luke 14:23 reads “Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.”

But it wasn’t the NIV translation I recalled. As I illegally trespassed on railroad property, traipsed through tall weeds, and passed overgrown bushes, I remembered that Bible verse as translated in the old King James Version:

“And the lord said to the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.”

The overgrown bushes reminded me of the “hedges” in Luke 14:23. But a “hedge” in Jesus’ day wasn’t a bush that needed trimming. In Jesus’ day, it was usually a low wall (picture something like an old stone wall in rural England). And highways in Jesus’ day were well-traveled roads outside of ‘city limits.’ Highways were dangerous places in ancient times.

It wasn’t advisable to travel on a highway unless you were in a large caravan of travelers. In the ‘Good Samaritan’ story, the man beaten and left for dead was found on the side of a highway. Robberies (think of ‘highway robbery’) often occurred on highways.

Yet the Master in this story tells his servants to invite disabled and homeless  people they would in the streets and alleys and those they would find along the “highways and hedges.”

Who on earth would hang out along dangerous highways and low walls?

Answer #1: Criminals and the homeless.

Criminals hung out along highways to rob people. Just like today, we tend to carry extra cash when we’re traveling long distances. So highway travelers were great people to rob. And, since most of the Roman soldiers were stationed in cities, deserted highways were great places to commit crimes, away from a soldier’s watchful eye.

The poor also hung out along highways. What better place to beg for money than a busy road filled with travelers with full money-bags? The more people who pass by, the greater the chance someone will give you money. It’s the same reason you often find panhandlers standing at the intersections of interstate off-ramps. But what about those hedges?

I don’t have much experience with homelessness, but I’ve learned a little in the last few years. The best place to sleep at night is somewhere with a roof over your head. If you can’t find that, the next best place to sleep is somewhere against a wall. Walls provide protection from wind and weather. They also provide protection from those who would do you harm. If you sleep with your back against a wall, you know there’s only one direction from which an attacker might come.

Answer #2- Gentiles (In the ancient Jewish mind, ‘people far from God.’)

To make sure this blog post doesn’t become as long as a book, I’ll keep this answer short. Jesus’ listeners almost certainly imagined “Gentiles” as he described these people. To many ancient Jews in Jesus’ day, Gentiles were “outside” God’s territorial walls, so to speak.

In Jesus’ parable, all the “normal” and “godly” people choose not to attend the Great Banquet. But the Master is determined. One way or another, people will fill his banquet hall. So he tells his servants to invite all the unwanted, disabled, poor, dirty, ungodly, and bad people to his banquet.


This is the God I serve. The Jesus who died on the cross loved the robber dying on the cross next to him. The Jesus who walked this earth touched the dirty homeless people of this world. The sinless Jesus of Nazareth invited himself to a dinner at sinful Zaccheus’s house. The “spotless Lamb of God” wasn’t afraid to gently touch the leper. The Jesus who invited me to his Great Banquet also sent me across the street, through the weeds, over the tracks, and behind the overgrown bushes to George’s camp, inviting him to rest in the Master’s House.

The Master’s Servants are called to this kind of work. This is what I try teaching the people I serve, both through the words I share and the ministries we plan. Renovation Community doesn’t officially launch as a church for several months, but we’re already working hard to set our new church’s identity. We want to be a church filled with the “outcasts” from that parable. We want to be a church full of ‘fixer-uppers’ – broken and run-down people transformed by God’s renovation work in our lives.

Jesus commands his servants to invite all the unwanted of this world to eat at God’s great Banquet Table. I’m learning that all the world’s “unwanted” are actually God’s “dearly beloved.”

They are out there. My Master calls me to invite them in.

 

*Not his real name.

Little Black Boys and Black Girls

The gun handle stuck out from his waistband as he stood by the slide. He quickly pulled it out, showing it to my son and me.
“It’s not real. See.”

Memorial Day. I took my oldest son to play at the park. I heard the music blaring before we opened the car doors. A large group gathered in the park pavilion. They brought a high-powered, professional sound system.. My 4-year old son and I were at least 600-700 feet from the speakers, yet we could clearly hear the N-word and F-word countless times over the speakers. The music was also filled with language about having sex with multiple women. An immediate reminder I live in an area very different than that of my childhood. Thankfully, my son paid no attention to the music and began playing with children on the playground.

A little black boy came from around a slide. He wore jeans and a white tank top undershirt. He fidgeted with the bottom of his shirt, pulling it up so everyone could see what he held in his waist band. He walked with a swagger, obviously trying to look like the tough guys he saw on TV (or maybe real life). The gun handle stuck out from his waistband as he stood by the slide. As soon as I saw it, I told him he shouldn’t play with a toy gun like that. I explained it was dangerous to make someone think he had a real gun. He quickly pulled it out, showing it to my son and me.
“It’s not real. See.”

But it looked very real. The orange tip on the end was only visible sign this gun was a toy.
It hit me how dangerous this situation could have been for this boy. Did you catch it?
He quickly pulled it out and showed it to me and my son. What if I had been a police officer? What if this boy had quickly pulled out his realistic gun to show the officer the gun was a toy? “This is how tragic accidents happen,” I thought. “I need to tell his parents.”
I look for the boys’ parents. I can’t find them. It appears he walked from nearby apartments. The boy quickly left. My son and I spent the next 15 minutes playing with other children on the playground. We played with two little black girls. Their loving father kept a watchful eye nearby. He soon had the girls stop playing so they could take big drinks of their water. It was hot that day. This dad and his little girls were not part of the loud party happening on the other side of the park. After I heard the F-word for the umpteenth time, I told my son it was time to go. We said goodbye to the little black girls and hopped in the car.


11 months ago, I shared my journey as a white pastor trying to faithfully serve and love my black neighbors.
I’m still playing “catch-up” a year later. In my formal studies, I ignored conversations and elective classes about racial diversity, holistic economic development, racial equality, etc. I recognized how important such issues were (or maybe I didn’t). But I naïvely believed God would call me to pastor in a setting similar to my upbringing…white and middle-class.
The same racial issues I addressed in that blog post last year are in the forefront of my mind today. I am a white, male pastor who came from a privileged, middle-class two-parent home. Yet, most of the neighbors on my street are Black. To my knowledge, our two boys are the only white children on our street. Our block has many duplexes and small apartments serving those in lower-income brackets. Few households seem to have two parents. Several on the street face unemployment, or under-employment.

God definitely called me to an area that looks different from my upbringing.

Our church attendance leans more to the “white” side than when I wrote that blog post last year. We’ve lost diversity for a few different reasons, most of them have nothing to do with Race. Some people moved away. Some weren’t happy about our church closing and preparing to re-start.

But I do think Race has been a contributing factor. Multicultural churches are a difficult environment for many. “Cultural Fatigue” is real; it becomes most evident around stylistic issues in church (music style, leadership style, clothing style, preaching style, etc). One thing hasn’t changed since last year…our summer day camp and feeding program.
In the summer of 2014, God called our church to step out on faith. On paper (especially our church treasurer’s papers!), our church had no business starting this ministry.  Our 4th annual summer day camp and feeding program is now in full swing. In partnership with the local food bank, we give breakfast, lunch, and a day camp to as many children as our volunteers can handle. Our goal for this ministry has always been the same…provide Christ-centered summer childcare for the poorest families in our community. Families of all socio-economic levels are welcome, but we started the ministry for our poorest neighbors.
Every summer our day camp (Camp FUSE, as we now call it), mainly serves non-white families. The vast majority of those non-white families are Black. Naïve white pastor that I am, “Race” never crossed my mind when we started the camp. I honestly never considered the demographic makeup of our camp attendees. But God has used our summer day camp as a beautiful tool to break down racial barriers.


 

I walked into the gym the other day during camp. Almost instantly, I received a surprise hug from a sweet little black boy. I scan over the group that day. Our white volunteer associate pastor and camp director is playing with the kids. Our two white ministry interns (a third intern is Hispanic) are at the check-in table. A mainly white church youth group is with us for the week. I see the teens throughout the gym, playing with our campers. I’m bothered by the “optics.”

It bothers others, too. A black mom, who sent her daughter to camp last year, emailed me. She asked, “Will there be any African-American adults there this year?” My reply is honest: I hope so, but we don’t have any African-Americans scheduled to volunteer with us; can you help us find some? The woman did not register her daughter.

I keep praying God gives us church and camp volunteer leadership that looks as culturally diverse as our camper attendance. One day God will give us that diversity.

I pry the little black boy’s arms off of my body. He loves giving hugs. He’d give hugs all day long, to every volunteer here, if we let him. He’s mildly autistic and doesn’t always understand expected social norms. This sweet boy asks us to make him paper airplanes. But if they’re not perfect, he throws the airplane away. He then returns and asks we make him another one.

But his autism is mild. My mind begins to consider hypothetical future scenarios. So mild, in fact, he may grow up to be an independent man…a man who can drive a car. But he would still be a mildly autistic black man driving a car. What would happen if he gets pulled over? He’s not good at making eye contact. Would that make him look suspicious? Could he obey the commands he’s given? A few years ago, such questions would have never crossed my mind. But Jesus called me to serve in a place where I’m now constantly thinking about such questions.

When almost all the campers have gone home for the day, I bring over our 4-year-old son. Our fair-skinned redhead plays on a chalkboard with a little black girl. He loves coming to play with the remaining campers. Every day, he asks Momma when he can join Daddy in the gym for day camp.

As my son is playing on the chalkboard, a few older black boys are playing basketball. They’re funny, kind, rambunctious boys. I have a shtick with them. I take the ball and tell them I’ll teach them how to really play basketball. I make an exaggerated granny shot, and completely miss the goal. They love to laugh at me.


An older black boy in our neighborhood is part of our church family. He and his two sisters hardly ever attend our Sunday services. But they rarely miss youth nights with our white husband-and-wife youth directors. 

We invited the youth directors over for dinner a few weeks ago. I live in the church parsonage (the church-owned house on church property). As we sat in our living room, our front door was open. This teenage boy saw our youth directors and came inside our house. We teased him about wearing a hoodie. He always wears a hoodie. It can be 95 degrees outside, but this boy will still wear a hoodie. He stays for an hour, talking and joking with us. Then he leaves… with his hoodie. I would trust this boy to house-sit for us. But I know others may judge his appearance and assume his stroll in the neighborhood spells trouble. I pray for him as he walks out into the evening dusk. Lord, please let him not be wearing that hoodie if he ever gets into trouble with the Law.


August 28 marks 54 years since Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech. Of late, I’ve thought much about one line in that speech. It’s the line where Dr. King dreams of a day when “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

My wife and I face “cultural fatigue” as we serve where God has called us. Following Jesus is good, but it is rarely easy. We’re in a setting dissimilar from our neighborhoods as children. I believe God called me to serve our church and community for at least 20 years. This means, our boys will grow up in a church, and on a street, where they will always have opportunities to join hands with “little black boys and black girls.” I look forward to the day when the church their daddy pastors (and the pastoral staff) is just as diverse as our neighborhood.

Social media fills my news feed with tragic stories. Black boys, black men, and some black women are shot and killed. Their faces remind me of the black boys, black dads, and black moms in our day camp. I read the stories of their deaths. I read the stories of the court cases to follow, and the rulings juries and judges give about those who caused the deaths. I am a white pastor, striving to lead a multi-cultural church, with a summer ministry that serves predominantly black families. And my heart hurts. I know God’s heart hurts.

I wish I had paid attention many years ago to discussions about Race. I wish I had more answers. I wish I knew how to help our white church members understand our black neighbors. I wish our black neighbors understood the heart of this naïve white pastor who desperately wants them to feel loved and welcome in our church, but who can’t figure out how to make that happen.


My mind daily swims in a sea of questions for which I have no easy answers. I think of Jesus’ disciples. One time, he told them to all get in the boat to travel to “the other side” of the lake. But then a great storm happened while they were on the lake. If they hadn’t followed Jesus, they could have weathered the storm from the safety of land, inside a dry building. Instead, they’re on a small boat, with hardly any shelter from the rain, in the middle of the lake.

I imagine those disciples on the boat each time a well-meaning friend recommends I pastor a different church, a safer church, a suburban white church. When denominational leaders or other churches with a strong budget (whatever that is) recommend I submit my resume for review, I picture Jesus asleep on that rocking boat.

Jesus does not call everyone to the same work; it’s dangerous to assume otherwise. Jesus has called others to serve in those churches; He has not called me there. Amidst the racial storms taking place in our nation, and in my own community, I see Jesus with me in the boat. No, I do not have answers to all the questions such racial storms have created. But know with certainty I am following the correct path Jesus laid out for me.
I grew up on one side of the “lake,” a side with people who all looked like me, lived like me, thought like me, and talked like me. I’m on a pastoral journey to the “other side,” a side filled with (sometimes, uncomfortable) diversity, serving and worshiping with people who do not look like me, live like me, think like me, or talk like me. Rarely is this journey easy.  But I know Jesus is in the boat with me, calling me to participate in Dr. King’s dream, one that involves being the best pastor I can be to “little black boys and black girls.”

 

Saving Makes Me Sick

I have 3 autoimmune disorders: Fibromyalgia, Celiac Disease, and Immunoglobulin A (IgA) deficiency. Apparently, I lived with the disorders for many years before receiving correct diagnoses.
I control the Celiac disease by avoiding gluten. That’s pretty easy. But the other two disorders are more tricky.
Immunoglobulin A protects your mucus membranes – eyes, nose, mouth, respiratory system, and GI tract. But I don’t have enough of it for adequate protection. This means I get sick more often, more easily, and more severely than the average healthy person.
Fibromyalgia is a nuisance when you’re a pastor with two young kids, trying to re-start a church, planning for a large summer day camp ministry [after losing our very accomplished day camp director three weeks ago], and managing 5 churches and a funeral home sharing one aging facility.

But (usually), it’s no more than a “nuisance.” I live each day with varying degrees of chronic pain, muscle fatigue, drowsiness, and mental ‘fog.’ But I’ve had about 10 years to adjust. So most days are fine…until I get a “flareup.”
Fibromyalgia flareups differ with each person, but mine tend share the same symptoms of a severe cold, minus the fever: extreme muscle fatigue, severe mental fog, body aches, and lethargy.

When I get a flareup, I’m dead to the world. Forget whatever I planned or committed to do. It’s not happening.
Like most people with fibromyalgia, some of my flareups are predictable…happening after overdoing life. Some flareups come out of nowhere.
I woke up with a flareup Friday morning. It was bad. Really bad. It didn’t fully go away until Sunday morning. And it was predictable. All week I’d stayed up late working on my computer, or in bed working on my phone. I spent a few days working on renovation projects in a hot gym. I spent a lot of time in the heat working on the lawn, because I’m vain about how my lawn looks. Thursday morning, I suddenly resumed exercise after months of ‘not having time to exercise.’ Thursday afternoon, I drove to a conference an hour away. My friend had generously given me a free ticket. But on the way back, I probably had two-days-worth of calories in my fast food meal.

I ABSOLUTELY believe God can miraculously heal me of my illnesses. But I don’t think I want healing, at least not now. My bodily frailties are God’s gift to me until I learn an important Biblical concept… Sabbath.

Even though my thoughts spur me on to more and more work, my auto-immune disorders force me to keep Sabbath. If I were as healthy as my 31 year old body appeared from the outside, I could just keep working, and working, and working. Folks, that’s sinful.
My fibromyalgia flareups become the ‘Sabbaths’ I sinfully refuse to take. How unfortunate for my children, my wife, and myself that these Sabbaths do not help anyone but my physical body. My body finds rest, but my soul and my relationships do not.

My achy body, mental fog, and fatigue make concentration difficult. It’s nearly impossible to read my Bible or pray. I certainly can’t hold a quality conversations with my wife or play with my children. “Don’t bother daddy because he’s sick” is a common phrase during flareups.

God has a better way.

“Sabbath” is a recurring theme throughout the Christian Bible. God’s people (Jewish or Christian) have a long history of misunderstanding, ignoring, and dishonoring Sabbath. Throughout much of Scripture, “Sabbath” literally referred to the seventh day of the week. And this seventh day of the week was always supposed to be a day of rest. “Sabbath” and “Rest” are inextricably connected in the Bible. In the New Testament book of Hebrews, however, “rest” also becomes a place [hint: it’s also a Person ;)].

In the third chapter of Hebrews, the writer sets up a metaphor between the “Promised Land” and the concept of “Rest.” Chapter 4 starts connecting the dots:

Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it.” Hebrews 4:1

Now we who have believed enter that rest” Hebrews 4:3a

“There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his.” Hebrews 4:9-10

My condition punishes my body every time I over work. It’s a physical reminder that Jesus has invited me to “rest from my works.”

Now, I’ve grown up in Protestant churches and received formal Biblical training at Protestant schools. I understand the doctrine that became a common catchphrase of Protestant Christianity… “Salvation by faith, not by works.”

I understand my works don’t save me (or do I?).

Yes, Jesus calls me to “rest” from a “salvation by works” mentality. But Jesus also calls me to rest from a “I can save it by my works” mentality. That mentality pushes me to over work:

I can save the church’s budget by my working harder in all things finance-related.

I can save our church’s image in the community by keeping a well-manicured Parsonage lawn.

I can save our summer day camp after losing our director.

I can save my family’s finances by bringing in more church members who give.

I can save my family’s finances by being a cheapskate.

I can save myself from leadership mistakes by attending one more church conference.

I can save refugees in the community who need help by personally furnishing their empty apartments.

I can save everything and everyone…until I can’t even get of bed.

Saving makes me sick.


Christ, and Christ alone, can save. Christ saves churches, church budgets, ministries, families, and people. So, the smart pastor would only “do the work he sees the Father doing.”

Christ, therefore, calls me to rest from my works. My work is heavy, burdensome, and leads to unnecessary illness. Christ’s work “is easy and his burden light.”

What will it look like to only do the work Christ would have me do? I’m not entirely sure. But here’s a few guesses:

  1. More prayer…prayer for help from others, prayer for wisdom on what work to do, prayer to know what I should leave undone, etc.
  2. More Bible reading – I’m not the first God-follower to faces similar situations. I should see how God advised them and how they responded.
  3. Working on tasks because God wants them completed, not because I (or others) want them completed. If I’m about to begin a task motivated out of fear, stress, peer-pressure, etc., I should pause and pray for direction.

God taught me this with two important lessons this week:

  1. Yet, another, flareup caused by over work and
  2. an unexpected $500 donation

While attending that conference an hour away from home on Friday, I saw a friend. We started talking about our summer day camp. Then, she suddenly surprised me with a $500 check for the church. That evening, and the next day as I rested in bed, God graciously reminded me of that check. God has the power to provide for our EVERY need. My hard work leads to exhaustion. Jesus’ work often leads me away from the crowds, into solitary places where I am refreshed and rested in God’s presence. The only work I need ever do is to follow Jesus.

Only Jesus has the power to save. Only Jesus can give me rest.

Provision For His Purpose

Want to read an amazing story about a loving God? Keep reading. 

I’m often asked (as recently as Sunday) how my family survives on my small pastor’s salary and how our church, filled with many poor members, can afford to serve so many poor in our community… especially since we never ask for money. In addition to my pastor’s salary and living in the church-owned house, my family is supported by generous extended family and friends, and the government (including food stamps and Medicaid). I also receive a stipend from another job, where my boss refuses to fire me for my poor job performance! God has provided our every physical need and given us a comfortable life. I’ve shared in detail on my blog how God has miraculously provided for my family. 

But today, I’ll share some events showing how God provides all our church needs to serve the people He wants us to serve. And God provides without us begging for money:

I recently posted on Facebook that I wanted to buy a used crib for an Iraqi refugee family. I met Gaaith and his pregnant wife when our church met at the park. They are from Baghdad. Now read how God worked…

My friend Christina read the Facebook post and tagged her friend Melody. I was looking to BUY a crib, but Melody offered the crib and mattress for FREE. I had never met Melody until today, when I picked up the crib from her house. 

I drove to Melody’s house in our church van, which we bought for a bargain from another church. 

We paid for the van using money from an insurance check. 

The insurance check was intended to repair water damage in some rooms we had planned to rip out anyway for future renovations. 

But a volunteer work group completed those renovations for us. I had never met a single person in this group before they came to work here.

They came because someone outside of our church recommended the group serve at our location. 

The group donated all their time and materials. So the insurance money sat unused in our bank account.

In addition to the van, we put the remaining insurance money towards replacing two large sanctuary a/c units for $14,000. Our church doesn’t even use the sanctuary. We meet in my backyard, in the gym, and at the park. But the church renting out space from us has now been blessed with working a/c. 

I left Melody’s house in the church van with the donated crib in the back and to Gaaith’s apartment. His wife’s c-section is Friday, May 12 at 3:00pm. Please pray for her. On my to Gaaith’s, I asked Jordan to meet me. Jordan is our volunteer associate pastor.

Jordan first visited our church on accident! He and his fiancé intended to visit another church one Sunday morning almost two years ago. But he received incorrect directions as he tried visiting a church with a similar name to ours. Once inside our building, he didn’t even enter the right worship service! They entered our main sanctuary, used by another church. After a few moments, some church ushers suggested they might be looking for our worship service on the other side of the building. One year later, Jordan told me God called him to serve at our church even though we couldn’t pay him. Jordan is our new summer day camp director and will volunteer at the camp every day for 9 weeks this summer. 

Yesterday, I posted on Facebook the exciting news about another refugee who called me. She has an apartment with no furniture. I didn’t ask for money or furniture, only prayers for this new ministry God seems to be starting through us. 

Lindsay saw my post and offered to donate a couch and some other furniture. I’ve never met Lindsay. We’ve only been friends on Facebook for about 48 hours. 

I connected with Lindsay through Karey. Karey and I used to be neighbors. Karey shared a Facebook post about our church’s upcoming summer day camp. Lindsay asked Karey more about it and offered to volunteer. 

Then Karey commented on yesterday’s post, saying she has an old kitchen table she’d like to donate. I’ll pick up Karey’s table and Lindsey’s furniture next week. 

And my friend Greg saw the post and connected me with an organization that can help us with funds and resources to help in ways our church cannot. 
Dear friends, I believe Jesus loves you and me more than we know. He’s a loving father who provides for his children. And he will gladly provide the resources for you to obey his purposes. If you need something in this world, Jesus is the first one to ask. You may find, as I have found, Jesus often uses others to answer your prayers. Just like any loving parent, he gladly gives to his children when we ask. 

Self-Righteousness Revealed at Supper

On April 8, 1855 the famous British pastor Charles Spurgeon preached these words:

“I slew him-this right hand struck the dagger to his heart. My deeds slew Christ. Alas! I slew my best beloved; I killed him who loved me with an everlasting love.”


There’s a phrase that’s made the American preachers’ circuit for many years: “If you were the only person on earth, Jesus still would have died for you.”

My Systematic Theology professor had his own spin on that phrase: “If I was the only person on earth, I would have killed Jesus.” 10 years later, that phrase fills my thoughts this Good Friday.

Do you see that picture at the top? That’s our kitchen table. God taught me a Good Friday lesson (and a good dose of humility) while sitting at that table last Monday. During supper our pre-schooler asked why people put nails in Jesus’ hands and put him on a cross. Great pastor and father that I am, I gave the fastest answer I could think of that required the least amount of thinking… “because they weren’t nice people.” Problem solved. On to the next topic.

But my wise wife saw the teachable moment I missed…

“Do you know why Jesus died? He died because people do bad things. That’s called sin. You sin, and Mommy sins, and Daddy sins.”

That’s right, Pastor Chris.

Jesus wasn’t crucified because those people “weren’t nice people” (how very self-righteous of me, by the way) Jesus died on a cross because I’m not nice people. Jesus died on a cross because people like me sinned against God. And people like me crucified God-in-the-flesh. Romans 5:10 states “while we were God’s enemies [i.e. people who would kill God if we had the chance], we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son.”

Why did Jesus die on a cross with nails piercing his hands?

Because I sin.

As I heard my wife’s words to our little boy, the second stanza from How Deep The Father’s Love For Us started playing in my head. The most piercing lines were “Ashamed I hear my mocking voice / Call out among the scoffers. It was my sin that held Him there / Until it was accomplished.”

Those words have played on repeat this Good Friday…


How deep the Father’s love for us

How vast beyond all measure

That He should give His only Son

To make a wretch His treasure

How great the pain of searing loss

The Father turns His face away

As wounds which mar the chosen One

Bring many sons to glory


Behold the Man upon a cross

My sin upon His shoulders

Ashamed I hear my mocking voice

Call out among the scoffers

It was my sin that held Him there

Until it was accomplished

His dying breath has brought me life

I know that it is finished


I will not boast in anything

No gifts, no power, no wisdom

But I will boast in Jesus Christ

His death and resurrection

Why should I gain from His reward?

I cannot give an answer

But this I know with all my heart

His wounds have paid my ransom

–Stuart Townend

FAQs About Our New Church

Thank you to all who have expressed support since my last post, Our Church Is Now Closed. But God’s Doing A New Work Here. If you don’t want to read that post, here’s the gist: We closed the church I’ve pastored for almost 4 years (Grace Tabernacle) and are starting a new church called Renovation Community, which officially launches October 1, 2017.

I’ll try answering some of the most common questions I’ve heard. I hope this helps you better focus your prayers for us.

Q: If Grace Tabernacle closed the end of Feb 26 and your new church doesn’t launch until Oct 1, what are you doing until then?

A: We’re inviting the public to join us as we prepare to start our new church. We’re hosting weekly community events. Last Sunday afternoon we had a cookout at a nearby park. We invited families there to eat with us and gave them information about Renovation Community Church.

Q: What about all the people who attended Grace Tabernacle? Where are they now?

A: They’ve known about this transition for a LONG time. Many have stuck around to help us start the new church, but some have left to find different church homes. We love all who no longer meet with us and pray they find the right place for them.

Q: If you closed, how are you getting money to pay for the facilities Grace Tabernacle owned?

A: I began preparing for this transition several years ago when I sought out groups to rent the building. The four other churches and funeral home that use our facilities subsidize many of our facility expenses.

Q: If you closed, how is your family getting money to live?

We’ll see how God provides. So far, those from Grace Tabernacle who stuck around are continuing to give when we meet together. Kelly and I work hard to manage our finances. But, as I’ve mentioned in other posts, God has also provided for us through others’ generosity. We have never asked for money, nor do we plan to begin asking, yet God has provided our every need (and many of our “desires”). Medicaid insures our boys and we receive food stamps. A day will probably come when we no longer receive government help. Until then, we thank the Lord for it.

Q: Grace Tabernacle was part of a global denomination called The Church of the Nazarene. Will Renovation Community be Nazarene?

A: Yep.

Q: Isn’t this just a name change?

A: No. I understand why people may think that… the lead pastor of the old and new church is the same person and many people have stuck around from the old church. But it’s not just a name change. All of November and December of 2015, I called our people to pray and fast about upcoming changes. I called them to pray about whether I should pastor them into the future and whether God wanted them to stay or go. I explained BIG changes were coming, changes that not everyone could handle. Changes continued to happen ever since then. In April 2016, I began an extended message series about “Becoming a Renovation Community.” The people who stuck around were those willing to help launch a totally different church, a church called Renovation Community. It just so happens that many of us attended the same church before choosing to start this new one.

Q: Can I start attending Renovation Community now?

A: If you’re not a Christian, the answer is YES!!  We’re having an Easter breakfast service at LeBlanc Park (6300 Granbury Cut-Off Fort Worth, TX 76132) this Sunday, April 16. And we meet Sundays from 4-6pm. But you’ll need to contact me or another member of our group to learn where we will be on a particular Sunday. We don’t always meet at Grace Tabernacle’s old building. You can also learn where each Sunday’s meeting location will be by following us on Facebook.

If you are a Christian, the answer is… MAYBE. We’re not interested in stealing people from other churches. Jesus didn’t come to earth and suffer death on a cross just so Christians could waste time jumping from church to church. If you’re considering joining us because you’re unhappy at your current church, I’ve got news for you…it’s only a matter of time before you become unhappy with Renovation Community. Every local church  consists of imperfect people (including imperfect pastors). We sin against God and others, we can mis-hear God’s plan for our local church, and we can make BIG mistakes. Consider this quote from 19th Century British preacher Charles Spurgeon:

“If I had never joined a church till I had found one that was perfect, I should never have joined one at all; and the moment I did join it, if I had found one, I should have spoiled it, for it would not have been a perfect church after I had become a member of it.”

In other words, one reason your current church isn’t perfect is you. Sorry. I still love you. If you’re interested in joining us and believe your motives are correct, I’m happy to talk with you more.

Q: Will you fundraise?

A: No. We don’t believe it’s wrong to ask God’s people to financially support God’s work. But we don’t believe God wants Renovation Community to ask for money. We’ve learned to walk by faith about our finances. Instead, we’d rather you volunteer your time and serve alongside us. Read more about that below.

Q: What other ways can I help Renovation Community?

A:  For now, our greatest need is finding volunteers for Camp F.U.S.E., our summer day camp.  Although Grace Tabernacle closed, Renovation Community chose to continue this one vital neighborhood service. For as little as $1/day, low-income families can send their children to a safe and fun environment for breakfast, lunch, and weekend ‘Snack Sack.’ Each week, campers will learn about Jesus and the Bible in a daily chapel, play games, make crafts, and learn from Career Day speakers, and learn in our all-new computer lab.  Learn more and sign up to volunteer at http://campfuse.com/volunteering.

You can help us repair the aging church building we have inherited. If you can find the time, we can find the supplies needed to make repairs. Everywhere you look, the building needs repairs – paint, drywall, tile, roof leaks, a/c repairs, tile, outside drainage issues, landscaping beautification, concrete parking lot repair, electrical work, deep cleaning, plumbing, etc.

We also need help establishing church ‘infrastructure,’ like organizing ministry teams, forming good church policies, training volunteers, etc. I’ll share more opportunities to help in coming months.

You can like us on Facebook and share our posts about how God is working through among us. We’d love to spread the news of God’s great work in our neighborhood.

You can sign up as a prayer partner at www.renovation1000.com. We want 1000 people committed to pray for us before our October 1 launch. Our prayer partners will receive special updates on how they can pray for us and how God has answered prayers.

 

Have more questions?

Contact me. The more you understand what we’re doing, the better you can pray for us. I’ll gladly create another post with answers to your questions.

Our Church Is Now Closed. But God’s Doing A New Work Here.

The church I came to serve almost four years ago is now closed.

Church closures can be nasty. Thankfully, this one wasn’t. It closed with dignity and grace. And its leaders gave me permission to do what I’ve felt called to do since I arrived…close this church and plant a new one at the same location.

Let me back up.

Our church had a truly beautiful history for more than 52 years. In the early 1960s, a group of people dreamed how God could work through a church on the far-west side of Fort Worth. The pastor most responsible for starting this church later went on to pastor one of our denomination’s largest churches in the country. God worked in mighty ways. He worked in the hearts of countless people who began following Jesus through this church’s ministry.
Time doesn’t permit recounting all the sweet memories that took place in this congregation for over 50 years. And I will always be incredibly indebted to the pastors who served before me.
But God made clear he is doing a New Work here. God has created new life. Many in our church have noticed the new life for quite some time. And, for quite some time, it’s like I have pastored two churches.
As one church neared the end of its life, it did so with beauty and humility. That church reminds me of the saintly grandmother, the strong and dependable family matriarch who lived a long and full life. Always thinking of others, she clung to life on the hospital bed until all family members have a chance to say their goodbyes.

After almost 4 years of hard work, prayer, ministry, and focusing on church health, we felt it was finally time to say “goodbye.”

People in the new church knew nothing of the older church’s long and storied past. Many also didn’t “look” like the average church member from the  came from different races and socio-economic backgrounds of than the majority of members from the old church. Many rarely showed up Sunday mornings at Grace Tabernacle…it’s like that church wasn’t their church.

Over time it became very clear. God was doing a new thing. And it just didn’t make sense trying to make this “new thing” fit into this 50 year old church.
So I asked our leaders permission to close and restart…
I explained there would still be a church in our building, and I hoped the people from the old church would join the new church. But it would be a new church, not simply a new name for the old church.

Thankfully, our leaders also noticed God’s new work. And they agreed to my bold request. Sunday, February 26 was Grace Tabernacle Church of the Nazarene’s last official Sunday for worship.

On Sunday, April 1 Renovation Community will officially launch.  Before October 1, we want 1000 people, the Renovation 1000, committed to pray for our new church. As I’ve shared in some of my other blog posts, God has taught me to walk by faith. He will pay all our bills. So I never need to ask for your money. But I will ALWAYS ask for your prayers. Will you sign up to pray for us?

To learn more about the new church or join our Renovation 1000 prayer team, go to www.renovationcommunity.church.

Or go to www.renovation1000.com for a direct link to our prayer team registration.

**If you have connections with Wedgwood/Grace Tabernacle Church of the Nazarene, please share this post and highlight our Celebration Service July 22. We hope to fill the building as we remember how God worked for 52+ years in that great church.*

 

 

 

 

 

No Room Inn: My Heart

Eugene Higgins: “There Was No Room For Them In The Inn”

Christmas Day marks the end of the season of Advent. I regularly remind our church that Advent is the time in which the Church remembers Jesus’ first-coming while we eagerly await his second coming. During this time I also try convincing my church family I remembered 3 years of high school Latin by explaining “Advent” comes from the Latin “Adventus,” a word describing the arrival of an important Roman leader (especially the Emperor, into a city). Christians who use liturgical worship elements [if you’re not familiar with that term, picture worship elements in so-called “high church” traditions such as Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, etc.] like the Lectionary. Lectionaries are ways of methodically reading through Bible passages, often in a 3-year pattern. Christians who follow the Lectionary read special Advent Bible passages during this time.
For many Christians, the days preceding Christmas are all about “Baby Jesus.” But the Advent Lectionary passages (and the season of Advent, itself) remind us about “Glorious Jesus”- when Jesus will return, not as a humble baby but as a king in all his glory. Language in passages like Mark 13, Luke 21, Isaiah 64, 1 Thessalonians 3, Psalm 72, and several more Advent Readings describe God as a King and a Judge (often synonymous in ancient times).

The last book in our Bible, Revelation, also mentions Jesus’ Second Arrival. It uses language reminiscent of an Emperor returning to Rome– Adventus– after a great victory. He wears a long robe, rides on a horse, trumpets blast, burning incense is in the air, attendants surround him and sing his praises, etc.
Christians live in the time between the two Advents: Our King came to town once, and hardly anyone realized it. But it’s understandable we missed his first coming. His arrival was so simple, so “lowly and meek.” For the first 9 months he was literally hidden away in his mother’s womb. And his mother was a poor teenage girl from a conquered ethnic minority. Of course, we didn’t notice or expect his arrival…at least not that way.
But we Christians won’t miss Jesus’ second Advent. How could you miss that? Trumpet blasts, coming on the clouds, apocalyptic horses, a sword coming out of his mouth. The imagery in Revelation just gets weirder and weirder. But the Bible clearly tells us his arrival will be a surprise. We may know (or think we know) what Jesus’ Second Coming will look like. We may think we know what world events must happen before Jesus returns. But Jesus often reminded his hearers our knowledge is too limited to predict his arrival. He will return “like a thief” in the night– in other words, when we don’t expect it.
This is why fasting was a Christian Advent tradition in some corners of the Early Church. In Mark 13, Jesus told his disciples to “keep watch” and “be alert” as they awaited “the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.” Few things keep you awake and clear away drowsiness than an empty stomach. Hunger pains during Advent kept Christians sharp as they awaited Christ’s return. Eventually, we Christians did away with Advent Fasting and replaced this season with a time of Advent Feasting. We now ingest twice our necessary calories from Thanksgiving through Christmas, ensuring a prolonged season of weight gain, sleepiness, and roller-coaster blood sugar levels from too many sweets. Our Christian forefathers didn’t know what they were missing.
We don’t need fasting to mentally and spiritually prepare for Christ’s return. We have the Left Behind books. Bible prophecy interpreters teach us understand how Russia’s most recent actions are clearly predicted from Scripture. [If you don’t know me well, the previous few sentences are Sarcasm.]
In spite of the Bible’s seemingly spectacular descriptions of Christ’s Second Coming, I wonder if some of us still might not notice his arrival. After all, the Bible has many miraculous events where other Biblical characters do not see or do not properly understand, even some God-followers. In 2 Kings 6, God sends “horses and chariots of fire” to help the prophet Elisha. The chariots line the hilltops surrounding the prophet. The scene could be something out of the book of Revelation. But Elisha’s servant, another follower of God, does not see the chariots of fire. Jesus comes to the Apostle Paul (then, still known as Saul) with a (literally) blinding light that knocks Saul off his horse. As Saul lies on the ground, he hears Jesus speaking to him. The two have a short conversation. But Acts 22 says the men accompanying Paul saw the light but “did not understand the voice of him who was speaking.” Presumably, thousands of people saw the Bethlehem star, but only a few wise men had a clue of that star’s significance. The ancient Bible scholars in King Herod’s court knew exactly where the Messiah was to be born, but they didn’t know the Messiah already was born.
Today, I’ll suggest one reason so many of God’s people didn’t see or expect Jesus’ first coming and why many may not see his Second Coming. A monk named Bernard of Clairvaux who lived from 1090-1153 spoke of Three Advents. The First Advent was the First Arrival of Jesus—Christmas. The Second Advent is Jesus’ future return. But Bernard said the Third Advent is Jesus’ daily arrival into our hearts, if we have room for him, that is. Bernard had a sharp tongue as he described others’ Christmas preparations. You get the idea he spent all Advent in prayer and fasting…and that he probably would have trashed your family Christmas card as an ‘unnecessary extravagance.’ Of Christians’ Advent celebrations, here’s this cheerful excerpt:
…the remembrance of this condescension is turned into pretext for the flesh. During those days you may see them preparing splendid clothes and special foods with utmost care—as if Christ at his birth would be seeking these and other such things and would be more worthily welcomed where they are more elaborately offered! Listen to [Christ] as he says… “Why do you so ambitiously prepare clothes for my birthday? Far from embracing pride, I detest it. Why do you so assiduously store up quantities of food for this season? Far from accepting pleasures of the flesh, I condemn them. As you celebrate my coming, you honor me with your lips, but your heart is far from me.… Unhappy is the person who worships pleasure of the body and the emptiness of worldly glory; but happy the people whose God is the Lord.”
I would not have invited Bernard of Clairvaux to my Christmas party. I’d also probably hide him from my Facebook feed.
I experienced a Third Advent a few months ago when a young, unmarried pregnant woman and her future husband needed help and a place to stay. I met the young woman as she asked for help in a grocery store parking lot. Jesus came to me when as she met me that day, but there was no room for Him in my heart. Or maybe I should say ‘No Room Inn: My Heart.’ To ensure I’m not one of those who miss Jesus’ Second Arrival, the way so many missed his first Arrival, you have to make room in your heart for his Daily Arrival. A few days after my encounter in that parking lot, Jesus also visited one of our church family members when she met that same woman. She lives 30 minutes from our church, but just happened to be in the neighborhood that day. Jesus found room in her heart when he didn’t find room in mine.
As you read the email I sent to our church family several months ago, remember another young unmarried pregnant woman and the man traveling with her who found no room in the inn.
[I’m so proud of this church member that I could shout her name from the rooftops. But I’ve removed all mentions of her name below She’s just too modest.]
“Almost two weeks ago, I was walking out of Walmart when a young pregnant woman walked to my car asking for a few dollars. I told her I didn’t have any cash, which I didn’t. She didn’t ask me for any other help. She only asked for cash. Maybe she did need help, but she didn’t ask for any other help. Since I didn’t have any cash, I couldn’t help her. It was simple as that. Then I quickly got in my car and pulled out. I immediately heard the Holy Spirit say, “Go find her and offer to help.” I made a half-hearted drive back one parking aisle to find her. After obeying God for all of 20 seconds, I gave up. I didn’t see her as I looked right and left while driving down that one aisle. Besides, I was in a hurry. We don’t have to obey God if it inconveniences us, right??
This Wednesday, ______ ________ called me. She asked if I could meet her over at the Whataburger by Kroger. ______ and her friend _________ met a young homeless woman who was in need. They then met her boyfriend. ________ and __________ took this homeless couple to lunch. When I arrived, the two women were both on their smart phones looking up motels and bus fare they could buy for the couple to travel back home to Phoenix. The man wanted to ‘pay it forward’ by giving ________ the bicycle he would not be able to transport on the bus. __________ called me to take the bicycle back to the church, where we could store it until we found someone who needed it.
I met _________’s new homeless friends. The man looked about my age. His girlfriend looked to less than 25 years old and…was pregnant. Have you figured it out yet? The young pregnant woman I didn’t have time to help was the same woman now sitting across from __________ at Whataburger. God found an obedient person willing to adjust their schedule and help this woman.
Well-meaning pastors have said things like, “you may be the only expression of Jesus a person ever meets,” or “if you don’t obey God and help them, no one will.”I disagree. God can use any “hands and feet” he chooses to administer his will in this world. In the book of John, Jesus reminds us his father is always at work. And make no mistake, God WILL work in this world.
Do you remember my last email, in which I asked you to prayerfully consider how God wants you to participate in what the Spirit is doing at our church? As you pray that prayer, be like ________. Don’t be like me. Obey God’s leading, even if it’s inconvenient or feels uncomfortable. God WILL reach people in our community with the radical power of a life-transforming Gospel. And his plan won’t be stopped. If you don’t participate, God will simply find others in (or yet-to-be in) our church to serve this community. Jesus wanted someone from our church to help that woman. Since I didn’t help, Jesus found another church member willing to obey. You and I have the privilege to join God in his plan, like __________. Or, we can miss a wonderful opportunity to follow the Holy Spirit’s direction, join God’s work, and serve the least of these. Thank you, _________, for reminding us to follow the Holy Spirit’s directions, even if those directions include “Buy them lunch, a motel, and bus fare home.” ________, I’m proud to be your pastor.

My dear friends. Jesus came 2000 years ago—the First Advent. Jesus will come again in glory—the Second Advent. But don’t expect to see his Glorious Arrival if you reject his Daily Arrivals The Third Advent. That day God reminded me if my heart is the “No Room Inn,” Jesus will find somewhere or someone else… be it a manger or another person. But He wants to find room in my heart and in yours.
Jesus is Coming. Let Him In.

Merry Christmas

“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” Revelation 3:20

 

 

Behold the Bridegroom cometh in the middle of the night,
And blessed is he whose loins are girt, whose lamp is burning bright;
But woe to that dull servant, whom the Master shall surprise
With lamp untrimmed, unburning, and with slumber in his eyes.

–“Behold The Bridegroom Cometh”  Trans. Gerard Moultrie, 1867.

He Knows My Name, So I Learn Theirs

 

man-with-cap-and-beard
We were backing out of the garage one morning when we saw a man walking to the bus stop. We turned right  on the major road beside our house. At an intersection, we saw another man crossing the road. My 3-year-old asked, “who’s that, Daddy?”
We saw two men, but my son only assumed I knew one of them. Both were the same ethnicity. Both were wearing jeans and a t-shirt. One looked like he would spend his day at a workplace with minimal dress code. The other man looked like he’d worn those clothes for weeks. One was homeless. The other looked like he had a job and a place to call home.
Interesting…my 3-year-old has already learned to guess who is homeless by their clothing. Even more interesting? My son assumes I know any homeless person we see.


Two weeks ago, a homeless man I’ve known for 3 years attended our church’s Sunday morning service. He was sober the entire service. About 3 minutes after he left our service, a deacon from a church that rents our main sanctuary came to find me. I was at home with a dozen other church leaders. I was about to start an important meeting.

The deacon (who knows the homeless man’s alcoholic past) says my friend is extremely drunk and had just been escorted out the front door. “Impossible,” I reply. I leave our church leaders to wait at my house as I walk to the main building. Someone else stops me and I’m caught up in a conversation. A minute later, another usher says people found my friend having a seizure in overflow parking across the street. They called 911. I walk across the street.
Several people stand gathered around him as he sits on the pavement. No one standing around knew who he was. I walk to my friend still sitting the ground and say his name. One of the passersby then asks me, “You know this man?”

I send a text to cancel the important meeting. The seizure temporarily disabled my friend’s speech abilities. He needs someone with him who knows his name. I know some of his medical history. I should share what I know with the paramedics.


My 3-year-old and our 100-pound chocolate lab are walking at the park by our church. We see the same man I’ve seen countless times in our area. Whenever he’s at the park, he’s always alone at the same picnic table. It’s the picnic table farthest away from people. Several bags lay around him. The man is wearing the same clothes I’ve seen him wear since July. He never talks to anyone. We’ve made two laps around the park and no one has yet spoken to him. Not even the other guys from the street know him, and that’s very unusual. It seems he is a true Loner.

I decide to introduce myself. I push the stroller off the walking path towards the picnic table. Even in the open air and with a light breeze, his odor is strong. A half-eaten box of iced Halloween cookies from the grocery store sits on the table. Halloween was last week. Guys on the street know store employees sometimes give away expired food to them instead of throwing it in the dumpster at night. I give him a big smile. His smile is weak and unsure.

He’s probably wondering if I’m just one more parent who will shew him away from the children. I introduce myself, my son, and our dog to him. He tells me his name but barely makes eye contact. I explain I decided to say hi since I see him so often. He nods. I ask him if he’s living on the streets. He extends his arm and says  “over there,” pointing towards a neighborhood filled with $200,000-250,000 homes. He mumbles something about saving money to buy a car. I say goodbye and we continue our walk.

During our short conversation, and the rest of our time at the park, the man keeps rubbing a shaving razor against his stubble. It reminds me of my sleepy son rubbing his luvee (a miniature blanket topped with a stuffed animal’s head) against his face. He’s not really shaving, just rubbing it against his face.

As I push the stroller around the walking path, my son asks why the man was sitting at the park.

“He’s homeless.”

“Homeless? What’s that?”

“It means he doesn’t have a home.”

“Why doesn’t he have a home?”

“I don’t know.”

“Oh. Okay. Can we play now?”

Before leaving, I loudly yell goodbye to the man from across the playground. I’m loud on purpose. I want other parents to hear me. It’s my way of saying, “This homeless man has a name and is not someone you should fear.” I hope other parents at the playground will see me, a white man with my All-American family dog and a pre-schooler, talking to this awkward black homeless man on the bench.

I hope my conversation with him encourages other parents to start conversations, instead of casting suspicious stares.  At the very least, I hope it discourages others from reporting him to the police for loitering.
Back at the house my son says, “Daddy, tell Mommy about the man at the picnic table.”


“Who is that man, Daddy?”

“That’s _________, son.”


“You know this man?”

“Yeah, I know _________. He’s my friend. He attended our church this morning.”


“Daddy, tell Mommy about the man at the picnic table.”

“We met ____________ today at the park.”

 

In the New Testament, the Gospel of Luke tells a story about Zacchaeus. I can’t type his name without thinking of the children’s church song describing him as a “wee little man.” He heard Jesus was on his way and wanted to see him. But Zacchaeus was short and couldn’t see Jesus over the crowds. So he climbed a tree. When Jesus came to the tree, “he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today” ” (Luke 19:5). Verse 7 says,  “All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He [Jesus] has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” He calls the notorious tax collector by name and invites himself to dinner.

I’m sure everyone in town knew Zacchaeus’s name. Many families living there had to interact with him, or one of his employees, when they paid taxes. But hated people like Zacchaeus are often called by more…colorful terms. Ask a homeless person all the hateful names thrown at them. But Jesus has no use for the mean terms and labels of this world. He simply addresses Zacchaeus by his name.

I’m also sure plenty of taller people on that day knew Zacchaeus was trying to get a peek at Jesus. How do you not notice when a notorious and hated tax cheat is standing in your presence?? But they probably did what we do with “distasteful” people in our society today, we pretend they aren’t there. If you pretend the “wee little man” isn’t standing there, you don’t have to step aside for him to see Jesus. It’s that easy. Completely ignore him.

Recently, I laid out a list of important life practices with our church family. I’ve encouraged our people to go where Jesus goes, say what Jesus would say, and do what Jesus would do.  One item in the list of practices is “Teach others weekly how to be Jesus’ disciple.” A few posts ago, I mentioned I need to practice what I preach. We preachers are often bad at practicing what we preach. But you already knew that.

So I’m teaching my son what it means to be Jesus’ disciple. I do it in simple ways a 3-year-old understands. The same day we met the man at the picnic table, I told my son how Jesus gave us great weather for walking at the park. Jesus’ disciples thank him for simple blessings. We prayed together, “Thank you Jesus for the good weather.” It’s disciple-making, 10 seconds at a time.

I NEVER thought I’d be a pastor who spent much time befriending the homeless. I wasn’t against the idea. I just literally never thought about it. But there’s a lot of things I now thing about as I pastor in a diverse community.

Thankfully, my son is also learning one more way to be Jesus’ disciple…learning the names of people our society considers “the least of these.” For my sweet 3-year-old, meeting a homeless man is an exciting part of life with daddy, not something distasteful or annoying. He wants to tell Mommy who we met. He now thinks Daddy knows all the homeless men.  I believe Jesus would take the time to learn their names, so I take time to learn their names. And I’m teaching my son their names.

I cannot solve Homelessness. But I can befriend the homeless in my community, as Jesus has befriended me. As Jesus speaks with his disciples in John 15:15 he says, “I have called you friends.” And what friend doesn’t know your name?

Jesus befriended me, so I befriend them. Jesus knows my name, so I learn theirs.

 


“When first I heard His bles-sed voice,

Sin filled my heart with shame.

But now, forgiven, I rejoice–

He knows my name.

–“He Knows Me By Name” William M. Lighthall, 1908

 

Pastor With A Plunger, Practicing the Presence


I woke up yesterday morning on the couch. A fussy, swaddled two-week old is finally asleep on my chest. Our 3-year-old sits next to me. He’s been watching train videos on the iPad for 30 minutes…while I slept. Whoops. Don’t tell his mother. She’s asleep in the bedroom, recovering from a very long night.

I hurriedly get our red-haired train fanatic ready for Mother’s Day Out. Momma does this faster than me. But she’s busy nursing the baby. I hear crying from the back seat during our entire 8 minute car ride. He wanted to stay home today. We arrive 10 minutes late.

On my way home, I stop by a homeless hideout. It’s behind a row of businesses. A man I’ve been working with is in his sleeping bag. He doesn’t think the help I’ve offered him is enough. So he’s back here again, trying to make it on his own, sleeping by the dumpsters.  I wake him up and we talk for a while.

A few weeks ago, a drug dealer came here and offered one of the guys $1,000/week, an apartment, and a BMW. All this homeless man had to do was make some weekly “deliveries.” He rejected the dealer’s offer and immediately called my cell. He needed encouragement that he’d just made the right decision. Fast food employees go in and out a back door, taking trash to the dumpsters. They recognize the homeless man, but not me. I wonder what they’re thinking as I see them steal furtive glances my way. Who do they think I am? Another drug dealer? A friend? 

I try having a meaningful conversation as I sit on the dirt. But I’m also watching out for ants that may bite my leg at any second.

My offer of help is politely refused today (but accepted later that night, before the rainstorm comes). I get back in the car and head for home.

I see I’ve missed two phone calls and two texts. I’m needed at church. A storage closet is locked and I’m the Keeper Of The Keys.

I pull into the garage just as someone else is pulling up to our front door. It’s a kind friend who’s donating her double stroller to us. She shows us how to use it, then asks me how to best help when people ask for money on the streets. That woman yesterday in the grocery store parking lot…should she have given her money? Is that just enabling addictions?

I encourage her to ask the Holy Spirit for guidance in each interaction. Lancaster Street has three organizations that can truly help them. Beyond that, I have no good answers.

Two more missed texts. I forgot about the locked storage closet. I’ve now kept a person waiting at church for 45 minutes. Whoops. I go unlock the door.

I’m now talking with a homeless man who’s working inside. I’m paying him a little to help us at church. We’re interrupted…The women’s bathroom in our building’s old section flooded.

A sink won’t drain. A slow stream of water filled the wash basin all night, even with the faucets turned off. And the shutoff valve underneath is rusted stuck. It’s a trifecta of plumbing woes.

As weird as it sounds, this is a pretty normal morning for me.

I grab a plunger. The wet carpet sloshes beneath my feet. I begin plunging the sink.

Down. Up. Down. Up. Down. Up.

Nasty brown debris comes out of the drain. It’s just rust…I hope.

I suddenly remember Brother Lawrence, a 17th century monk. A priest compiled a list of Lawrence’s personal resolutions, from what we would call ‘journal entries.’ The man also transcribed several conversations he had with Brother Lawrence. Lawrence’s writings and conversations became known as a work entitled The Practice of the Presence of God.

Brother Lawrence served as a cook in his monastery for many years. An old injury and limp eventually forced Lawrence to take a job with less standing — mending monk’s old and sweaty sandals. In a hot kitchen, Lawrence first learned to “practice the presence of God” while preparing food, cleaning pots, and cooking over fires.

My sink plunging continues. Am I plunging the way my preaching professors taught me in seminary?

Down. Up. Down. Up. Down. Up.

Brother Lawrence once said:

“Men invent means and methods of coming at God’s love, they learn rules and set up devices to remind them of that love, and it seems like a world of trouble to bring oneself into the consciousness of God’s presence. Yet it might be so simple. Is it not quicker and easier just to do our common business wholly for the love of him?”

Renovating and repairing our church’s old facility is “common business” for me. Can I plunge this sink wholly for the love of God?

The lowly kitchen monk also said:

“Nor is it needful that we should have great things to do. . . We can do little things for God; I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for love of him.”

The sink is still clogged and now the water looks disgusting. I stick my finger down the overflow drain near the sink’s top.

Now my finger stops the plunger from pushing dirty water up through that hole and making a bigger mess.

Lawrence said:

We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.

A church leadership expert would probably say I should delegate work like this. Maybe I should. But the carpet is wet now. It’s too late to delegate this. Didn’t one professor say I should spend 20 hours a week preparing my sermon? Whoops. No time this week.

My hands are filthy. Water splashed on the fake marble sink and wallpaper. We really should renovate this bathroom. 

The humble monk encouraged us:

“Along with this total abandonment must go a complete acceptance of God’s will with equanimity and resignation. No matter what troubles and ills come our way, they are to be willingly and indeed joyously endured since they come from God, and God knows what He is doing.”

I’m not there yet, Brother Lawrence, but I’m getting closer. I’m learning Jesus uses these broken items in our church building for his glory. In my last post, I mentioned how Jesus gives me a new story to share each time an a/c unit breaks. This man sold us refrigerant at cost, this company gave us an amazing deal on labor. The pastor of the newest church to use our building just told me his buddy owns an a/c repair company, etc, etc.

As I stood on soggy carpet plunging the sink, a Facebook message was waiting for me in my inbox. It was from a licensed plumber. I’ve never met him. He doesn’t live in my neighborhood. We have no Facebook friends in common. Yet, he somehow heard about our church’s past plumbing problems. He messaged to say he was available this week to work for us. As I write this sentence, he’ll be here in two hours.

I’m finally learning to obey Jesus’ command about not worrying. I’m doing exactly what Jesus called me to do. I’m serving his Church. This church building is simply one more tool God uses for his Church. And Jesus will build his church. We strive to faithfully use this old, dilapidated building in ways that glorify Jesus. So, of course, Jesus would put a plumber’s random offer of help in my Facebook inbox!

Just like Brother Lawrence said, “No matter what troubles and ills come our way, they are to be willingly and indeed joyously endured since they come from God, and God knows what He is doing.” My God knew what he was doing when he allowed that trifecta of plumbing woes to come my way. He knew what he was doing when he put it on a plumber’s heart to seek me out and offer his services.

As long as I continually follow where Jesus leads, he will provide my every need. I’ll keep doing my best to love people like Jesus loves. I’ll keep seeking out the homeless behind buildings. I’ll strive to be a husband and father who honors Jesus in all I do.

I’ll continue to be a pastor with a plunger, practicing the presence of God in all I do. I haven’t reached my goal yet, but I’ll keep practicing. I’ll keep inviting God’s presence into my daily, sleep-deprived and hurried pastor’s life. And I know he will never reject my invitation to join me.