Tear Down the Walls

President Reagan delivers one of his most famous speeches punctuated with one of his most remembered lines.

On June 12, 1987, in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, Germany, U.S. President Ronald Reagan called out the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, and challenged him to remove the barrier which had divided West and East Berlin for over 25 years. Reagan very pointedly said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” It’s time for Christian leaders to look around our churches (and maybe in the mirror), examine the religious culture we’ve created and say, “Pastor, sisters and brothers, let us tear down these walls!”
Now I’m not talking about the actual structures! Let me explain. I recently shared a devotional on Luke 15:1-7 for a clergy “Day Apart” with my colleagues from the northwest corner of Arkansas. One component of our discussion had to do with how we see “the lost” in our communities. In my own life and ministry I have often been looking over an institutional wall at non-believers while I reinforce both blatant and hidden requirements for one to become a part of the faith community. Religious institutions often have some peculiarities and rituals that do not favor the outsider. In fact religion (in its most negative sense) acts as a barrier. It repeats the mantra, “That’s not how we do it,” or “You must be new here,” or “Come back when you ______.”
There is a concept in the social sciences that compares two perspectives on seeing the outsider, the other, or in the language from this parable, the lost. It is the Bounded Set and the Centered Set.

When we should be joyfully guiding people closer to Jesus, discipling them to be all that God wants them to be (as a good shepherd would), churches have often been building walls, piling on burdens and requirements and systematically culling the folks who don’t fit in. Jesus shows us the danger of ritualistic religion and dogmatic attitudes in Matthew 15 and 23. He shows grace to a Gentile/Canaanite woman and praises her faith. Jesus calls the religious leaders “Hypocrites… What sorrow awaits you!” There’s some contrast and comparison too!
I have been going through a real learning and refining season as a pastor and one of the things that I see as most important in my role is to be one who removes barriers, breaks down walls and destroys any impediment to people finding the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Every now and then I fail and fall back into my old way of seeing things, but praise the Lord for His grace! He gives everyone an opportunity, “to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep His love is” (Ephesians 3:18). Faith in Jesus is a game changer that we should share with all humankind, not a secret recipe to be locked up for the chosen few.
If you are already a part of a local congregation, how do you and your church reinforce the Bounded Set perspective of seeing the lost? What religious barriers do you see that need to be torn down? How can you encourage those who might be a long way off but heading in the right direction? One thing I love about being a United Methodist Pastor is the privilege of saying “Welcome! There is a place at the (Lord’s) Table for you.” That’s the invitation no matter how far away you are. After all, we were all outsiders until, by grace through faith, Jesus joyfully guided us home.

A Real Power Play

Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un – who will come out ahead in this political power play?

North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and US President Donal Trump might actually be in the same room together for “talks” in the next couple of months. This would be an unprecedented event, one that I will have to see to believe.  It’s difficult to know what kind of power play the Asian dictator might be making. It’s possible President Trump might have some unknown motive (other than his ego) driving him. Regardless of who gains an upper hand in the power struggle over the Korean Peninsula, it will be surreal seeing the two men together in photos or videos given the two leader’s rhetoric this the past year. The desire for power will make people do crazy things.

However, this reminds me of a person who transformed Asia in the late 19th century, James Hudson Taylor. He is remembered as one of the earliest European missionaries to China and the founder of China Inland Mission (CIM). But when it came to power he took a much different approach.

“An easy-going, non-self-denying life will never be one of power.”

– J. Hudson Taylor

Would you post that quote on your Facebook page? Can you say, “Amen!” to that? Are you ready to give up every ounce of power and control that you (think you) have and deny yourself? That’s difficult because usually when people attain some level of power or control, they only want more.

Power, influence, wealth and security all seem to be our life goals in America, but every one of those is a house of cards standing one breath away from collapsing… unless faith is part of the equation, faith in Jesus Christ. But the power, influence, wealth and security that come from being a Christ follower look a lot different from what the world offers. That is the hard part.

That’s the struggle for me and my family right now. We are in a season of being patient, trusting the Lord and denying our own desires to serve His Church. Almost every United Methodist clergy person is going through the same experience. Being an itinerant pastor means that we can’t make a power play and at the same time honor God through this yearly process. We trust that the Holy Spirit and the faithful women and men leading the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church will do what is best for our local “mission fields.” After all, we need to practice what we preach! If this is God’s church, then faith must come first. 

James Hudson Taylor, (1832 – 1905) British missionary to China. Beard game, strong!

Today Taylor’s legacy is felt in every corner of Asia because he helped people in the Western culture see China as an uncharted mission field. Now, 150 years later, the church in Asia has emerged as its own powerful mission-sending organization… and God gets all the glory.

The more we wield our own power, influence and wealth, the more we look like the world and the less we look like people of faith. We can trust that God is in control. And if you want to see real power, look to the sacrificial servant leadership of Jesus. He flipped the world’s power structure on its head. He laid down his life for us, the ultimate sacrifice. But it was also the ultimate power play overcoming even sin and death. He’s proven himself worthy of our trust.

Bernie Madoff? A true son of…?

WallStreetTradersDo you have any savings in the bank? Perhaps you have investments in the turbulent stock market. Now imagine that a huge chunk of your money disappeared. Some people don’t have to imagine! They have experienced it first hand. Remember Bernie Madoff? He was once the chairman of the NASDAQ stock market, but he used his role as a financial advisor to cheat thousands of Americans out of billions of dollars. Yeah. That guy.

Now imagine hearing this… “Bernie!” Jesus says. “Quick, come here! I must be a guest in your home today.” What? After a meal together, Bernie’s heart is transformed by the unconditional love of Jesus and he repents and resolves to repay everyone that he has defrauded. “Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a true son of Abraham” (Luke 19:1-10). You know the story.

When my kids talk about Zacchaeus they sing the song, focus on his height and the “sycamore tree.” As adults we can easily dismiss it as a children’s story, but there is a powerful lesson here. God’s love has the power to transform lives! Thankfully my pre-schooler got that part right when I asked, “Why would Jesus go to his house and eat with him?” “Because Jesus loved him.” Yep. The mercy and grace that Jesus showed during His earthly ministry is the same mercy and grace that he shows us when we truly repent and begin living a Christ-like life.BernardMadoffMed

But it doesn’t stop with us. Our calling is to invite liars, cheaters, broken, depressed and forgotten people to experience God’s transformational love through us. And before we get too proud of ourselves, we need to recognize our own brokenness and our need for a Savior. Without Jesus Christ we’d be imprisoned by our sin and up a tree somewhere. “For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.” If God has truly transformed our hearts, brothers and sisters, loving others (even the Bernie Madoffs in the world), and seeking the lost should be our purpose too. That’s loving beyond!SignJRGBlack300

Darkness

Admit it. 2015 was a “heavy” year. I’m kinda glad to look back now and see it in the rearview mirror. I’m not even sure how to describe it, but it was a tough twelve months in a silent, indescribable, dark sort of way.

Neighborhood residents watch as police investigate a homicide scene after a 24-year-old man was found dead in the Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Neighborhood residents watch as police investigate a homicide scene after a 24-year-old man was found dead in the Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

I’ve experienced a similar, indescribable darkness in inner-city Chicago while working with Inner City Impact. Most of the young men and women that I met seemed to carry an invisible weight devoid of a clear sense of purpose, motivation or goals. These were smart, articulate kids! It wasn’t laziness or conformity. As I got to know a handful of them better, they had very little hope in the future because they doubted that they would even have a future. The darkness of violence, poverty, injustice and brokenness caused them to be cynical and callus. For some, the weight was too much and the best alternative was to give in and give up. That was a darkness I had never seen before.

Do you know someone who has been in prison? Chances are high that if they did more than a year behind bars, that they spent some of it in solitary confinement. Many prisoners who do long stretches in solitary do their time and face an additional sentence, the loss of one’s sanity. During the isolation what seeps in is overwhelming anxiety, irritability, worthlessness, and detachment.  Anthony Graves talks about being imprisoned for 18 years on death row in Texas for a crime he did not commit. When he was exonerated in 2010 he began telling his story. He made it clear that, “[Solitary confinement] is a system that seems designed to break a man’s will to live.” The loneliness, isolation and darkness are destructive to every part of our humanity.

Green, stagnant water fills the underground chambers of the Boesmansgat.
Green, stagnant water fills the underground chambers of the Boesmansgat.

If you never experienced that type of societal or internal darkness, there’s always the type found in nature. Take for example the Boesmansgat, or “Bushman’s Hole.” It’s a submerged freshwater cave in South Africa that is over 900 ft deep. When combined with it’s high-altitude location (4900 ft. above sea level), it’s relatively narrow opening, and the physics of water pressure, darkness is complete and total and more than just the absence of light. It gives me a chill just thinking about it.

How does your body and mind react to the darkness when all is quiet? I’ll admit that it’s nice at first, but after awhile my mind goes into hyperdrive. What brings hopelessness and anxiety in your everyday life? Have we become slaves to the darkness and our fears?

A lot of stuff has gone wrong in the world in 2015, in my opinion. Culturally it’s virtually impossible to find things that give me hope. “But we have not the right to despair, for despair is a sin. And finally we have not the reason to despair, quite simply because Christ has risen.” John Richard Neauhaus  I have hope regardless of how I’ve failed or seen humanity’s self-destruction. “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again,” our communion liturgy says. I have hope, peace and even joy …not fear.

The disciple John retells the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery in John 8. After that, Jesus speaks to the people once more and says, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.”

When Paul uses peace throughout his letters, it’s not synonymous with quiet. He draws a connection to security, assurance and ceasing from our striving (Romans 8:6). Paul would have also used the Hebrew word shalom (wholeness, and a lack of anxiety). Philippians 4 reminds us that peace comes from a heart of gratitude and an understanding that we can stop struggling. God is in control.

God’s proven that He can be trusted in all circumstances. Has he done things in your life that are “true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely…”? Fix your mind on that! Remember and celebrate. Then go be a source of hope and peace in a hyper-drive world… no matter what lies ahead.

Keep looking above and loving beyond.SignJRGBlack300

Making The Best Of A Vapor

Vapor-like clouds above Sitzenkirch, Germany
Vapor-like clouds above Sitzenkirch, Germany

It happened around the time I was 37.2 years old. How do I know that? …because I was on a spiritual retreat called and someone made a comment that the median life expectancy for an American male was 74.4 years. I did the math instead of listening to the speaker. Give or take a few days, my life was exactly half over! Sure that was only statistically, but it was a real wake up call for me. I barely heard anything else the remainder of the evening. I kept repeating in my head, “My life is half over. I only have half of my life left!”

It’s a humbling thought to consider how temporary and fleeting this life is. In James 4:13-15, the Bible speaks of our lifetimes as “a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.” Even Sting the pop star has a beautiful song with the repeating chorus “how fragile we are.” I’m not sure where I heard it, but I say this phrase a lot, “Life is terminal.”

So am I a fatalist? Am I a Debbie downer? No. I’m really a guy who’s very hopeful and optimistic. Those of you who know me well… help me out here! Here’s what I’m trying to say. If your life is half over, what are you going to do with the rest of it? Pastor Chip Ingram tells of a retired church member who long outlived the 74.4 year average. This elderly gentleman showed his wisdom when he told his pastor, “If I would have known I was going to live this long, I wouldn’t have spent so much time working on my golf game.”

Valerie and I will both be celebrating birthdays soon. It’s not easy continuing this journey toward full-time vocational ministry. But every day remaining is a gift from God that we want to give back to Him. Yes. We’re another year older. Yes. My half-way marker was awhile ago. But I love the Apostle Paul’s words paraphrased by Eugene Peterson, “So we’re not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace.”

2 Corinthians 4:16 [The Message]

No matter how young or old you are, not a day goes by without His unfolding grace. Not a day. I hope that you will join me on my journey here, that you see God at work as I step from seminary into a new phase of ministry, and that you will experience God’s grace in your life making the most of every day you are given!

Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift! Keep looking above and loving beyond.SignJRGBlack300