Monday, December 21, 2009

A Working Philosphy of Life and Ministry

In a fast-paced culture where individuals and organizations seek power and success, I want to…

- Structure my life and ministry in a way that identifies with and therefore lifts up those who are lowly in the eyes of the world or in the eyes of the Christian community. This principle will guide such factors as where I live and with whom I spend time.

-Make a conscious effort to be with people whose lives are slowed down by grief and pain. It is important to meet people at the painful places in their lives and show empathy by being there with them and lifting them to the Lord in prayer. Also, filtering ministry through the lens of suffering grounds a leader in reality and constantly calls him or her to connect theology with day-to-day happenings, a task always challenging those who carry regular preaching or teaching responsibilities.

-Live with a posture of humble, prayerful awareness to where and how the Spirit is moving in the greater community where I live and serve, and shape my ministry accordingly. This is not a fast-moving philosophy. It does not offer immediate yields and requires a flexible and available schedule. It also reaches beyond the scope of official ministry carried out as a paid Christian worker to encompass one's entire lifestyle.

-Understand ministry as a process rather than a product and live accordingly. This particularly relates to spiritual formation for the individual. Though a person embraces the truth of Christ’s death and resurrection, repents of his sin, and is thus reconciled to God, it will likely take a lifetime for him to understand how God’s salvation story bears significance to the fear, shame, and insecurity in his own life. Walking with others through this process takes work, prayer, and time.

In a culture of relational shallowness and individualism, I want to …

-Invest in the spiritual formation of others by structuring my life and ministry in a way that always prioritizes relationships above money, projects, programs, security, comfort, and convenience. This approach necessarily leads to a simple lifestyle and long-term focus on a small number of people at a time (a.k.a. discipleship). It also erases the line dividing private and professional life, and it calls for spending more face-time with people than in meetings or in the office planning lessons or sermons. As Bonhoeffer aptly states, “One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it.”

-Do as much ministry as possible from the home. Hospitality speaks volumes to people. It is an avenue to express Christ-like self-sacrifice and love, and it can break down barriers between lay Christians and leaders. Furthermore, in order to live as an example to the flock (I Peter 5:3), a leader must invite people to be close and see his or her day-to-day behavior.

-Bear witness to unbelievers through the day-to-day conduct of a small Christian community. As the nation of Israel was to be a light to surrounding peoples, the church today is called to speak and to live the message of the Gospel. As the redeemed community of the church age, Christians are called to live as an alien people whose entire lifestyle is markedly different than the world’s way, thus beckoning those around them toward repentance and salvation in Jesus.

In a Christian culture marked by division and factionalism, I want to…

-Live out the fruits of the Spirit, showing humility and love to both parties of any doctrinal or relational dispute while maintaining the integrity of the gospel message.

-Live out the spiritual reality that, in Christ, other believers—regardless of their local church membership status or church attendance—are my family. Thus they require the same kind of patience, devotion, sacrifice, and prayer as my earthly family.

-Embody a lifestyle that encourages others by modeling the two great commandments: loving God and loving others. These two simple commands transcend many areas of life, including time management, vocation, participation in social structures, interpersonal relationships, self-understanding, spiritual disciplines, and more.

-Stay informed about important cultural trends, movements within American religious life, and global issues. The goal is to structure my life and ministry in a way that is biblical and also based on a wide perspective encompassing much more than the happenings of my particular place of ministry.

In a culture of pluralism and tolerance, I want to...

-Share and defend the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection according to the witness of the Old and New Testaments (I Cor.15:1-4). This task requires sufficient time to study and meditate on the Scriptures.

-Actively face the challenge of living an inclusive lifestyle while holding to an exclusive message. As Jesus welcomed and befriended sinners on their own turf, I also should go where unbelievers are. I should offer friendship and offer myself, not merely an invitation to a local church event. In addition, I must be aware of the temptations that accompany close proximity to sinful lifestyles and maintain accountability with other Christians. Approaching evangelism this way also serves as an example to other believers in the flock.

In a Christian culture of racial division, I want to…

-Live in a way that challenges me and others to overcome prejudice and understand structural factors relating to race and poverty.

In a culture of imbalance and instant gratification, I want to…

-Embody regular spiritual disciplines in my life and ministry. A monthly day of prayer and weekly Sabbath is a good starting place. As Bonhoeffer says, the most direct way to others is always through prayer to Christ. Intercessory prayer for the flock is thus foundational, for it is only God who forms and moves his people. Ministry is a formational process for a leader as well as those to whom he or she is ministering; therefore, sufficient time to live out spiritual disciplines, including rest, is paramount. It is not a mark of selfishness or laziness.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Late Night Prayer

God, what's the point of my life? Help me to be patient but also to take action when I sense your movement. Oh Spirit, please take away my fear, that I may serve you without its restricting force! Please give me energy, initiative, and assurance where I lack it. Please fill the dark ambiguity in my life with the light of your truth! Please lead me to places of sweet fellowship with Christian brothers and sisters. Please instruct me how to give myself away to others.

Lord, be close to me in moments of stress and difficulty! Help me in those weak times to see and know and trust your promises. Grant me peace of mind, oh God, and refine my vision to see your blessings.Remind me that I am but withering grass; comfort me with the truth that my life is a mist. Enable me to live my fleeting moments well, oh Creator God! May I not waste them in fear, hopelessness, indecision, or self-obsession. When I am alone, fill me with yourself. When I am still, may my ear hear your voice. When I am among others, may your words be on my lips. Every hour, Lord, lead me on the path of righteousness in your grace and deliver me from evil.

I long to hear the story of your salvation again and again, and I hunger for you, my Sustainer! You open your hand and satisfy every living thing. You alone know what is good. Oh my Father, fill me and be my help!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

To Springfield!

I've always written myself off as politically inept, but a recent trip to Springfield affirmed my growing suspicion that one can understand the most important things about politics without understanding politics.

We were there to advocate a tax increase that would prevent social service cuts in order to help the state make up its deficit. The house and senate and governor had been arguing back and forth about it for a long time without reaching a conclusion. By the day of our trip it was a month into the new fiscal year. One enthusiastic rally-goer carried a sign that said, “Tax Increase: So easy a caveman could do it!”

Understanding why it would take so long to set a budget requires one to ask why do politicians do what they do? Generally, the answer eludes the public and is only truly known in elite circles. The rest are left making conjectures, reading newspaper articles, and chasing legislators around the capitol building, which is what we were doing when we met Representative Lyons.

He was a tall guy with glasses and short hair, and he was headed for the elevator when a woman from our group of about ten people recognized him and called out to him. He knew what was coming. He was busy and didn't want to deal with another upset voter. He didn't want to explain why he voted no on the tax increase (which is the same as voting yes for major social service cuts). In short, he was immediately annoyed.

Aside from his generally unpleasant demeanor, I remember two things from the ensuing conversation.

First, he did explain his vote against the tax hike. He said, essentially, that he had been planning to vote yes but "got off it" when he realized the bill was not going to pass anyway. He reassured us, as other anti-tax hike representatives had, that if his vote were the deciding one, he would be there for us. If that should happen, he continued, we would all owe him thank you cards for making such a politically risky move.

In other words, he told us quite blatantly that his foremost concern is not the ideas behind legislation or even the effects of legislation on the lives of the public. What he cares most about is how his relation to certain bills affects his standing with his own constituents, and thus his chance for re-election.

Call me naive, but I found this shocking. 

Even more alarming, however, was another phrase he spoke during our five-minute interchange. When we first approached him, he prefaced his defense of his vote against the tax increase by saying, “It’s easy for you people to come and tell me where the money needs to go, but you don’t understand what it’s like to be in my situation.”

Hearing these words was like getting flicked in the eyeball. Again, I’m no expert on politics, but this made absolutely no sense. I was under the impression that it is Representative Lyons’ job to understand our situation. Isn’t that why he is called a representative? Why was he scolding a group of voters for their inability to empathize with him? Why was he telling us we would owe him something if he advocated legislation that would best serve the needs of low-income citizens? It seemed a bit backwards. 

But then again, in light of the bigger pictures of social organization and human nature, it makes perfect sense. History tells us plainly that people with power do what it takes to keep power. This equation is likely the basic rule that drives every social system, be it dictatorship, monarchy, theocracy, or democracy. Different structures allow for different means of keeping power-for example, most likely a state senator could not get away with killing his political opponent and marching his body through the streets-but at the core it's all the same.

It would be foolish to not acknowledge the blessings of living in a democratic nation. As I've worked with refugees from places like Burma, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia, I've become increasingly grateful for things like peaceful transfers of power, free expression of ideas, and the ability to secure basic provisions for self and family. However, perceptiveness and a healthy degree of skepticism must accompany our enjoyment of those blessings. Otherwise, we will remain content with backwards systems.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Understanding Isolation in the Natural Realm


I’ve been thinking a lot about Native Americans, land, systems of organizing people, personal and collective heritage… well it’s a lot of stuff that’s not easy to list out. I’ll start with a Wendell Berry essay I read recently called The Body and the Earth, taken from his book “The Unsettling of America.”

In this essay, he talks about rites of passage, wilderness, and what it means to be human. The point of bringing all that up, of course, is to provide a meaningful critique of American culture. Rites of passage, he says, are a human tradition by which an individual faces his or her smallness (really mankind’s smallness) in relation to the created order and then comes out with a better understanding of mankind’s place in it all. Another way to say it is that one goes into the wilderness to face death and be reborn.

His point is that we don’t have any wilderness left; therefore, we cannot place ourselves meaningfully within creation. Rather than measure ourselves in relation to nature, we measure ourselves according to the manufactured world. By disconnecting ourselves from the earth, we have made it that much harder to understand what it means to be human. Thus, we further disconnect ourselves as we build a society centered on industry and information.

Reading this essay made me think about the couple days I spent in the Sierra Nevadas last summer. I’ve never understood why being in nature stirs me like it does, but part of it, I’ve come to realize, is because nature itself is counter-cultural.

Let me explain.

The environment which shapes our way of living and thinking and understanding our experiences is contrary to the natural order. Therefore, alone in nature, you have to understand yourself through a different rubric. You are not only removed from the modern infrastructure, but also the modern mindset.

The things around you are foreign. They do not depend on gasoline. They are not producing anything to market or sell. They were not put in place by a human thinking human thoughts. A tree does not measure its progress as it grows. An ecosystem does not study itself to figure how to maximize profit.

To be isolated in nature is to dwell in a realm not dominated and shaped by man's ambitions.

Technological advances in the last couple centuries and urbanization have created a world where a lot of people live their entire lives farther removed from nature than ever. We mostly live, as Berry says, in the world we have created. Basically everything we come into contact with has been fashioned by other people, most of it by some kind of business.

Just sitting here looking around my bedroom, I see products brought to me by Shwin, Dell, Work ‘n Sport, Basic, Bic, Morgan, Panasonic, Mirra, and a bunch of others. We forget that all the stuff these companies use to build their products comes from the earth, one way or another. Sometimes, we even forget this about the grocery companies!

Someone told me the other day that scientists have figured out how to grow meat! Imagine that! A slimy chunk of meat sitting under a plastic bubble in some lab, growing from the tubes stuck into it!

No wonder it felt so strange to spend two days by myself in the mountains last year—away from the sight and smell and sound of all our crazy inventions. No wonder if felt foreign to a mind shaped by such a conundrum from 23 years! We have so removed ourselves from the natural realm and the humility and wisdom it holds for us, that is feels un-natural to spend any significant amount of time within it.


Friday, July 17, 2009

Sierra Nevadas

The next couple of posts are basically adapted journal entries dealing with nature. As my own understanding mankind’s relationship to creation develops, I look back on experiences I’ve had over the last several years. (Or maybe it’s the looking back itself that develops my perspective). The following paragraphs were written in August of 2008, when I went out to California to visit my friends Dan and Rachel and go to my friend Eric’s wedding.

I spent a couple nights in the mountains by myself. It was the coolest thing I’ve ever done, probably. Dan dropped me off where the Pacific Crest Trail comes real close to I-80, right near Donner Summit. He had packed me a bag and let me use all his gear. He and Rachel were having a family gathering and Donner Lake, and the pass sits right between their house and the lake. So he dropped me off Friday night and picked me up Sunday afternoon.

The first night I stayed up on a place called Castle Peak. I found a little nest thing that somebody had made underneath a pine tree. In the morning I followed the trail, which goes north along this big ridge with huge valleys on either side. The valley on the east side had lots of ridges, big open grassy fields, pine trees, and huge rock formations jutting up within it. One big hill in the middle was covered with pines that seemed to lead up to a perfect point, like the spot in a painting or photograph where your eyes are naturally drawn by leading lines. As you walked further on the trail, you could see a little lake on the valley floor, surrounded by swampy green grass, trees, and white rock faces. That’s where I camped the second night.

I climbed down through a lot of scratchy bushes, wild flowers, and chunky rocks. The further I descended, the more isolated I felt and the more I questioned each step I took. Hundreds of potential disaster situations played through my mind. “If I slip and break my leg, nobody is going to find me for a long time. I will be a stupid hiker statistic. If I’m alive when the rescue crew finds me, they’ll say, ‘You’re damn lucky, kid. You almost got what you deserved wandering down there by yourself.’”

Well, I made it down. I only realized how huge of a hole I had climbed into once I reached the bottom and stood on the rocks by the shimmering lake water. What had looked like a big hill full of pines from up on the ridge was now a mountain of its own. This side of it was sheer, white rock faces that jutted up at least 200 feet. In fact, from where I stood by the little lake, I couldn’t even see Castle Peak where I slept the night before because this rock mountain stood in the way.

I got naked and swam in the lake (what else do you do when you’re alone in the mountains?) I wrote in my journal a bit, found a perfect place to sleep, made some food, went to bed as the sky was darkening. The next morning, I climbed out. Back up on the ridge, where you could see the whole valley, I realized I had taken a very difficult and steep route. There was a trail that led up a gentle, grassy slope that sat on the backside of a steep rock face. How was I to know from way down there?

Anyway, the point of this isn’t to relay every detail of my experience. At times during these 42 hours I felt this strange sensation that I was in the wilderness, but not really. Sure, I was more alone than ever in terms of access to people. Down in the valley, the number of people within a one-mile radius of me was probably the smallest it’s ever been. And it wouldn’t have been easy to get to any of those people. However, as I perched on huge, silent rocks looking over the valley that stretched to the east, I felt at the same time that I was at home and that I was a foreigner.

The mountains around me and everything growing on their surface—it all seemed comfortable with itself. The trees were comfortable to sit in stillness and let the wind comb through their branches. The boulders were content to rest as they had rested for thousands of years. Part of me blended so naturally into this life, adopting its posture of silent reverence, taking water from the cool streams to nourish myself, absorbing the sweet scent of wildflowers and taking shelter from the sun beneath the pines.

Yet I knew that I was carrying civilization inside myself. I knew my thoughts were not the thoughts of one who has lived long in the mountains. They had been molded by modern conventions—computers, cell phones, consumer centers, the music industry, automobiles, television, ect.

But you can’t blame it all on technology. I spent a good deal of time thinking about this girl who I’m supposed to see next week who I took on a date a year ago—you know, wondering what it’ll be like to see her, making conversations in my head about what we’ll talk about, thinking of where we’ll go and what we’ll do. I spent some time journaling about women in general, and something about it felt strangely perverse, like it was a shame to be cluttering the valley with all my goofy thoughts.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Inspiration from a Child's Perspective

The last time I rode my bike from Manteno to my house, I stopped briefly at the state park. Next to the suspension bridge, I stood for a while looking at the stone memorial commemorating Rockville, a settlement established there in the 1830s. I looked down a path that leads to the bike trail, and something made me think about how exciting the sight would have been to me when I was eight years old.

When I was a kid, simple things like an over-grown path surrounded by trees and leading down a hill inspired me. The trees were filled with Indians and I was a cowboy. The trees were filled with dinosaurs and I was a Jurassic Park ranger. Things in nature were bigger and grander when I was a kid.

I remember getting stung by a bee down the gravel road from my house when my mom and grandma were picking some kind of flowers that used to grow there. There’s just a little hill where the flowers grew, but back then it seemed huge.

I remember building a fort in the woods between my grandparent’s house and ours. The thrill of constructing a shelter in a wild, unsettled place nearly overwhelmed me.

Now, the woods is just a dinky splotch of dying trees, cut in half by ComEd’s power lines that stretch overhead. The state park is just an over-trodden patch of land, full of people seeking leisure next to the river.

But as I’ve learned about my town’s history and what the land held for the Indians and the early settlers after them, I wonder which perspective is more accurate. Perhaps it takes a child-like imagination to see the beauty and wonder that time and development have slowly covered up. With that understanding, what remains of the natural order still offers a wealth of resources and lessons.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Trump's Tower

Anyone who has viewed the Chicago skyline with me lately knows of my distaste for the Trump Tower. I cannot look upon the thing without sneering and muttering something under my breath. Riding past it on my bike, I do not look up in awe; I do not celebrate the architectural accomplishment. Instead I compose a private monologue:

"Up till now, Donald, I've been able to ignore you. For most of my life you were just a name that flashed past in headlines; you were just that super rich guy from New York with bad hair and a worthless TV show. But now you're stretching your empire into my city, and I don't like it. What business do you have naming giant buildings after yourself, anyway? Can't you settle for New York, Las Vegas, and Dubai? Do you really have to come creeping into the Midwest?"

Some of my friends have had the pleasure of hearing this whiny litany while approaching the city on the Dan Ryan with me or walking together downtown. Indeed, the tower's very sight evokes in me a disdain so strong that I do not myself understand it. Isn't it irrational to have such emotions toward a man you've never met? Aren't there dozens of other buildings in Chicago funded by resourceful businessmen? Why don't Sears and Chase boil my blood so?

It is not Trump himself who angers me. His 93-story tower points to problems with the world and with human nature. When I see it, my mind thinks back through a hundred other depressing observations I've made about mankind, and the lesson learned from all of them is this:

People do a lot of things that don't make sense, thereby creating systems that don't make sense and perpetuating senseless activity.

Thoreau articulated this truth, writing from his cabin next to Walden Pond in Massachusetts in the 1840s. He digressed from answering the question of how a person can live most sensibly to discuss the construction of another architectural wonder, the pyramids. He writes:
Most of the stone a nation hammers goes toward its tomb only. It buries itself alive. As for the Pyramids, there is nothing to wonder at in them so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have been wiser and manlier to have drowned in the Nile, and given his body to the dogs. I might possibly invent some excuse for them and him, but I have no time for it. As for the religion and love of art of the builders, it is much the same all the world over, whether the building be an Egyptian temple or the United States Bank. The mainspring is vanity, assisted by the love of garlic and bread and butter.

This passage made me laugh out loud, and I immediately felt validated in my my disgust for the Trump Tower. I do not advocate drowning Donald Trump and throwing his body to the dogs, but Thoreau's point could not be heard more clearly. The way people live does not make sense because they are short-sighted and predisposed to foolishness.

It does not make sense to become rich, especially if it is by building giant towers full of luxurious accommodations that no one needs. It does not make sense to contribute to such an operation by offering your skills and labor in exchange for a paycheck. It does not make sense to buy a condo overlooking the Tribune clock tower for $2.4 million.

How far all of that is from the simple wisdom of the Psalms. Describing the greatness of the works of the Lord and how he provides for his creation, from the small animals that live in the crags of the rocks to the leviathan who frolics in the depths, the psalmist writes:
They all wait for You
To give them their food in due season.
You give to them, they gather it up;
You open Your hand, they are satisfied with good.
You hide Your face, they are dismayed;
You take away their spirit, they expire
And return to their dust.
You send forth Your Spirit, they are created;
And You renew the face of the ground.
Let the glory of the LORD endure forever;
Let the LORD be glad in His works;
He looks at the earth, and it trembles;
He touches the mountains, and they smoke.

Why not take joy in the basic provisions so graciously supplied by the one who gives you breath? Why not take only what you need? Why not recognize that when your breath is taken away you will expire and return to dust? Why not live with the understanding that you and your race are a small part of the created order?

Instead, people lust for power, and the ones who gain the most- be it pharaoh or his modern descendants- memorialize themselves with needless and expensive structures. They gobble up money and human labor that could be put to use in a thousand other reasonable and decent ways.

The Daley administration, for example, encouraged Trump, who has currently sold units amounting to $600 million in his Chicago tower, to spend an extra $1.5 million to include a 326 foot decorative spiral. This spiral would make the building taller than the Sears and give Chicago claim to the two tallest structures in the United States. Trump declined after some residents in the building said they did not want to live in the nation's tallest building for fear of a terrorist attack.

Thank goodness! I wish such a ridiculous project would be turned down out of common sense, but I will settle for fear. If Donald Trump offered me $1.5 million dollars to help build a $1.5 million dollar antenna that poked a few feet further into the air than the antenna of the building next door, I would kindly refuse. I would hand him the Psalter and a book full of pictures of AIDS orphans and meat-packing plants and strip mines and refugees and landfills and people dying of famine.

To clarify and summarize, the problem is not the man himself or the tower itself. They are two small symptoms of a sickness that infects mankind and hinders people from living rightly. In Christian vernacular this is called sin nature, and it manifests itself in many forms over the centuries. The giant Trump Tower, as handsome and slick as it is, will always cause me to ask giant questions. So if you ever visit downtown Chicago with me, be prepared for a monologue.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Psalm for a Tree-Hugger

I came across this one this morning. It challenges me and affirms that the environment is something Christians should care about. It’s not just hip to green; it’s also biblical. Much of the “developed” world lives so far removed from the natural order that we are unable to appreciate the Lord’s simple provision or to take joy in the ways he cares for his creation.
This little Psalm is a good reminder.

Lord Jesus, create in us a longing for the coming kingdom, whose beginning was marked by your work upon the cross! With the rest of creation, we are yours; and we long for renewal in you.


Bless the LORD O my soul!
O LORD my God, you are very great!
You are clothed with splendor and majesty,
covering yourself with light as with a garment,
stretching out the heavens like a tent.
He lays the beams of his chambers on the waters;
he makes the clouds his chariot;
he rides on the wings of the wind;
he makes his messengers winds,
his ministers a flaming fire.

He set the earth on its foundations,
so that it should never be moved.
You covered it with the deep as with a garment;
The waters stood above the mountains
At your rebuke they fled;
At the sound of your thunder
they took to flight.
The mountains rose, the valleys sank down
to the place that you appointed for them.
You set a boundary that they may not pass,
so that they might not again cover the earth.

You made the springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills;
they give drink to every beast of the field;
the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
Beside them the birds of the heavens dwell;
they sing among the branches.
From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.

You cause the grass to grow for the livestock
and plants for man to cultivate,
that he may bring forth food from the earth
and wine to gladden the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine
and bread to strengthen man’s heart.

The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
In them the birds build nests;
the stork has her home in the fir trees.
The high mountains are for the wild goats;
the rocks are a refuge for the rock badgers.

He made the moon to mark the seasons;
the sun knows its time for setting.
You make darkness, and it is night,
when all the beasts of the forest creep about.
The young lions roar for their prey,
seeking their food from God.
When the sun rises, the steal away
and lie down in their dens.
Man goes out to his work
and to his labor until the evening.

O LORD, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom have you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
Here is the sea, great and wide,
Which teems with creatures innumerable,
living things both small and great.
There go the ships, and the leviathan,
which you formed to play in it.

These all look to you,
to give them their food in due season.
When you give it to them, they gather it up;
When you open your hand,
they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath,
they die and return to their dust.
When you send forth your Spirit, they are created,
and you renew the face of the ground.

May the glory of the LORD endure forever;
may the LORD rejoice in his works,
who looks on the earth and it trembles
who touches the mountains and they smoke!
I will sing to the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
May my meditation be pleasing to him,
for I rejoice in the LORD.
Let sinners be consumed from the earth,
and let the wicked be no more!
Bless the LORD, O my soul!
Praise the LORD!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Serving the Poor: A Cultural or Biblical Understanding?

“Most churches are a one-sided disaster,” says Ronald Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, in his book Good News and Good Works: A Theology of the Whole Gospel. I laughed out loud as I read the statement, amused that Sider has the guts to summarize the situation so bluntly. He is a qualified writer who has made it his life goal to see more Christians live with an equal zeal for evangelism and social action.

I’ve never thought of the suburban church I grew up in as a one-sided disaster, but Sider has a point. Politics and denominational distinctions have polarized Christians when it comes to serving the poor. To over-simplify the situation, liberals focus on social action while negating evangelism, and conservatives do the opposite. In the following paragraphs I speak to fellow conservatives, arguing that we must learn to see past mutually exclusive, man-made structures in order to rightly understand Scripture and live out Christ’s call.

The Social Gospel is a good starting point. This movement at the beginning of the twentieth century was a response to the massive poverty that accompanied industrialization. According to John Atherton, Canon Theologian of Manchester Cathedral, the orthodox theology of traditional American Protestantism did not provide answers to problems like the exploitation of factory workers. Those who were sensitive to this reality, such as William Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch, reached into emerging liberal theology to fuel the movement of the Social Gospel.

Unfortunately, in doing so, they wed the biblical mandate of solidarity with the oppressed to heretical theology that frowned upon doctrines like substitutionary atonement. They claimed such doctrines only internalize faith and render it useless for a society.

In 1910 the Presbyterian General Assembly reacted by establishing five fundamentals of Christianity. According to Kenneth Collins in his book The Evangelical Movement, this statement was re-enforced by a twelve-volume series called The Fundamentals, written by leading conservative scholars of the day. Christians needed this reaction in order to guard orthodox teachings such as the virgin birth and Christ’s bodily resurrection; however, the Fundamentalist movement fostered a school of thought that downplays social action because of its association with liberal theology.

To this day, people at places like Moody Bible Institute (where I attended undergrad) look suspiciously at social action because they automatically label it as liberal.

For example, during Moody’s 2008 mission conference, I attend Bread for the World’s workshop. The representative, a woman who looked to be in her late 20s, spoke briefly about her background as a social researcher in Africa. Then she presented loads of information about poverty and hunger in Africa and how we could help solve it by promoting legislation to ease world hunger. At the end she passed out forms to send to our congressmen in order to encourage the government to take action.

One student raised his hand and said, “This is a cool idea and everything, but I’m not sure if I can participate because I’m conservative and this seems kind of liberal.” Everyone chuckled at the student’s apprehension, but it is living evidence of a serious and deeply rooted problem with the way many people think within mainstream Christianity.

I am not saying that Christians need to abandon theological concerns in order to devote all their energy to making the world a better place by serving the disadvantaged. The desire for greater unity among confessing Christians has its place, but because we swim in the water of pluralism and tolerance it can also be dangerous. Kevin DeYoung, co-author of Why We’re Not Emergent, gave a powerful reminder in a recent message I heard. He said that we abandon the cross if we make the ethical teachings of Jesus the supreme call of Christianity.

Along with DeYoung and the long-deceased writers of The Fundamentals, I agree that followers of Jesus must never loose sight of the gospel as a message of historical assertions calling for belief that leads to transformed lives. In maintaining that belief however, conservatives must admit their tendency to label some things liberal that are actually biblical, especially when it comes to serving the poor.

What we are left to ask ourselves, then, is not which political camp we belong to or what movement we identify ourselves with. We are left to look at the Scriptures and our lives before God and ask; “Am I modeling God’s concern for the poor and bearing verbal witness to the death and resurrection of his Son?”

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Why the Hood is Good

This is something I wrote during my internship with Innerchange in New Orleans last summer.

I've always heard people talk about encountering Jesus in the poor, and now I've experienced it for myself. There was no physical manifestation of the Christ in a cardboard shelter under a bridge, no divine message from a dirty man warming his hands over a burning trash can. I simply realized after talking to a homeless man that, through the poor, Jesus speaks to us like he spoke to those he encountered while on earth. For example, by drawing a line in the sand, he revealed the inward sin of each person in a blood-thirsty crowd. By telling a young man to sell all he owns and give the money to the poor, Jesus disclosed his disabling selfishness. By telling a story over a meal, he brought attention to a Pharisee's self-denied neediness and guilt.

To put it plainly, Jesus leads people to truth by challenging the way they look at themselves and at the world. Provided that we don't ignore the poor, Jesus speaks through them to us in the same way. If we have ears to hear, the Lord will use people who are marginalized and overlooked to challenge us, disarm us, and leave us with brooding questions that lead to truth. The following paragraphs tell a story that illuminates this process.

Calvin is a homeless man with a beard growing white. He was holding a cane in one hand and shaking a plastic cup of change in the other when I met him in front of the Marriot on Canal Street one evening. He was trying to get seven more dollars in an hour so he could get into a shelter before it closed. If he made it, he could stay there for a week. Otherwise he'd be staying again in tent city underneath I-10. Calvin was playing the "friendly neighborhood homeless man" routine—standing on the sidewalk cracking jokes at businessmen and tourists and making off-color comments at women. Some smiled, and some looked away. A few put money in his cup, but most ignored him.

As I stood with Calvin, he let me in on some of his secrets. He explained that he knew which kind of people to mess around with and how to make people laugh. He bet me a dollar he could get these two businessmen to crack a smile. As they walked by he said, "Hey fellas, some change to help the homeless? I also take MasterCard, Visa, and American Express! " They passed him like he was invisible. "Alright, the Lord bless you," Calvin said, waving to their backs. My heart sank, and similar encounters occurred at least two-dozen times in the 20 minutes I stood with him.

During that time I learned a few things about Calvin. He was born and raised in New Orleans. He has no family in the city; his parents had passed years ago. He was homeless before Katrina and was evacuated to Texas for a year with several other homeless folks. While there, they stayed in boarding homes. "They packed us up like sardines," he told me. Calvin is Baptist, he but enjoys spending time at the Catholic shelter. He even taught a Bible study there for kids one time. I leaned against the wall next to him, and we watched the activities of the street while the evening deepened. He talked to me, interrupting himself to ask for change and crack jokes at passer-bys. I gave him a dollar and 15 cents because that's all I had in my wallet, then I walked on towards the Square.

When I returned after about an hour to catch the street car Calvin was still there. As I walked toward him, a guy was giving Calvin the finger as he walked away from him. I remember the look on the guy's face as he held up his middle finger over his shoulder towards Calvin. His expression said, "Screw you, you goofy old black beggar. You're a joke." and he was looking around at people like he wanted them to think the same thing. The dude looked like a typical college-aged tourist—board shorts, flip flops, a tight white T-shirt to show off his build. You know the type. He is in New Orleans to get smashed and party and go to strip clubs on Bourbon. He'll go home to his very small world with his buddies and they'll tell everyone about how sweet New Orleans is. Such disgusting ignorance! Such contemptible pride! I wanted to punch the guy's teeth out, but I knew my anger wasn't really caused by him. It was conjured up by a lot of things, and besides, who am I to cast a stone?

The hateful action this tourist showed toward Calvin was sort of the straw that broke the camel's back. After three weeks in New Orleans, we are starting to see how sin manifests itself in this city—division among churches, racism, objectification of women, materialism, faulty systems driven by selfishness, drug and alcohol abuse, political corruption. These all play their part in producing a lot of sad stories that have never been told. Most people don't listen and even fewer ask. But, for one reason or another, the Lord has put me and Lyndy here.

With a heart growing heavier, I learn these stories one at a time: the cemetery worker whose 7-year-old son was killed in a drive by shooting; the 23-year-old mother of four who gave birth to her firstborn at age 12 and offers her body to her landlord for rent because she doesn't know any other way; the high school senior who bragged to me about the guns he owns and told me he can't go too far down the street in the daylight because he'll get shot; the 70-year-old woman living in a gutted out home who calls an emergency line to ask for nothing more than a mattress so she can quit sleeping on the dirt. We lift each story to the Lord, asking Him somehow to be with people who are broken. We ask also that He will break us of our own pride. It may not be as ugly as it was in that tourist who gave Calvin the bird, but it's there, Lord! Lead me to truth and change me, that I may see myself and others with your eyes...

I don't think Calvin got his seven dollars. I talked to him again, and he was exasperated. The shelter closed its doors in a few minutes, and he was going to try until the very last second. Yet we both knew he wouldn't make it. He would spend the night sleeping on cardboard in a concrete alcove about four feet long behind a little tree. I gave him my nalgene, half-full of water, and he gulped it down. I pondered getting some cash for him from an ATM, but he handed me back the bottle and turned to keep begging. So I just walked to the street car.

Perhaps Calvin was conditioned by the welfare system to depend on handouts. Perhaps you think I should relax and remember that Jesus said we will always have the poor with us. Perhaps the dollar and 15 cents I gave Calvin will only perpetuate a cycle of hopelessness.

You can claim those ideas and use them as excuses if you want. But I know if I had walked past Calvin like everyone else did, I would have missed something crucial. My evening may have been easier had I passed by, and my summer may have been more fun if I'd spent it in the suburbs or with my friends somewhere. Instead I am encountering the Lord in new ways through the poor of New Orleans. And I spend my nights wrestling with deep questions about my own character and about what Jesus the Messiah calls me to do.

Lord, you want me to recognize and confess the same sin in myself that I condemn in shallow tourists? You want me to give to Calvin in a way that causes me to sacrifice? To recognize that poor young mother as better than myself and seek her healing? To overcome evil with good while making people aware of their sin?

These are lessons that won't be learned apart from the needy, so don't be afraid to turn aside, to give, to ask questions, and most of all, to listen. Jesus speaks through the poor.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A Land of Heavy Timber

I read recently in a local history book that the land along the Kankakee River, as it cruves through what is now Kankakee, Bourbonnais, and Bradley, used to be covered with "heavy timber". It made me think of the following Wendell Berry passage, which is taken from The Art of the Commonplace, page 26:

In the centuries before its settlement by white men, among the most characteristic and pleasing features of the floor of this valley, and of the stream banks on its slopes, were the forests and the groves of great beech trees. With their silver bark and their light graceful foliage, turning gold in the fall, they were surely as lovely as any forests that ever grew on earth. I think so because I have seen their diminished descendants, which have returned to stand in the wasted places that we have so quickly misused and given up. But those old forests are all gone. We will never know them as they were. We have driven them beyond the reach of our minds, only a vague hint of their presence returning to haunt us, as though in dreams—a fugitive rumor of the nobility and beauty and abundance of the squandered maidenhood of our world—so that, do what will, we will never quite be satisfied ever again to be here.

I wonder also what bounty my native land displayed in prior ages. Many times I've sat on the banks of the Kankakee and soaked in its simple beauty. I've watched the easy current carry sticks and leaves westward, passing a backdrop of oak and birch trees. In the winter I’ve perched upon a rock and found solace as I looked over the motionless chunks of ice stretching between banks. If I could sit there long enough, I’ve often thought, perhaps the signals of the modern age—the hollow sound of passing cars, the distant blinking light atop a cell phone tower, the rumble of jet planes, the beer cans and candy wrappers poking through the leaves on the ground, the fishermen buzzing past in their boats—maybe these would fade away for just a moment. Then, perhaps, I would be able to see and taste, in a small way, the nobility and maidenhood of the natural order that Berry describes.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Isaiah Prayer

7:15 a.m.
Caribou on Eerie

This is what the LORD says—your Redeemer, who formed you in the womb:

“I am the LORD, who has made all things,
who alone stretched out the heavens,
who spread out the earth by myself,
who foils the signs of false prophets and makes fools of diviners,
who overthrows the learning of the wise and turns it into nonsense,
who carries out the words of his servants
and fulfills the predictions of his messengers,

who says of Jerusalem, ‘It shall be inhabited,’
of the towns of Judah, ‘They shall be built,’
and of their ruins, ‘I will restore them,’
who says to the watery deep, ‘Be dry, and I will dry up your streams,’
who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please’
he will say of Jerusalem, ‘Let it be rebuilt,’ and of the temple, “let its foundations be laid.’”

-Isa. 44:24-28

Lord, thank You for the book of Isaiah, for the promises within it. Please plant its truths deeply in my soul, and bring them to my mind hour by hour. Sometimes it’s easy to trust in your promises and sometimes it’s hard. Teach me to be faithful through the small struggles in my life, the ones that are actually quite laughable, so that I may know how to trust you when big problems come.

Powerful and loving God, I cannot comprehend your greatness! I sit in a coffee shop on the side of a spinning planet that you created, pondering my life and reading your promises. I am small, and my life is small—a mist that appears for a while and then vanishes. This is comforting, Lord. I’m not such a big deal after all, so I shouldn’t worry so much.

Lord, I ask for your renewal, for fresh faith and fresh perspective on the situations I’ve been thinking about day after day. Please help me not to get caught up in selfish thinking, but rather to entrust my worries to you minute by minute and model Jesus by looking outward to the needs of others.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

My Liberal Agenda ?

Here is another conversation with RRW. Judyw's response to this post is here.

April 26, 2009 at 4:42 pm

Along with many others who have responded to my posts on this website, Vanishing American uses the phrase “people like you.” So I want offer some personal information that hopefully will clarify who I am and point out a problem in the way that people dialog on RRW.

I work with refugees and speak up for refugees because I am motivated by my faith. I make a serious and honest effort to live out an ethic consistent with the teachings of Jesus as they relate to the Old Testament. My values include helping people who need help, honoring the risen Jesus with my words and deeds, living in purity from personal and communal sins, loving people who are not easy to love, caring for people on the fringes of society, and studying, understanding, and applying the Bible.

These are the convictions that lead me to actively care for refugees. These are the convictions that cause me to get upset when people’s loyalty to their own way of life blinds them to the human element of the refugee story. I do not have any allegiance to a liberal attack on Western values. I do what I do and say what I say because of my faith and my personal ties to refugees.

If I have to use partisan terminology to identify myself, here’s some more evidence that I am not who you think I am: I did not vote for Obama. I am pro-life. I do not support gay marriage.

What is the point of me saying all of this? I am not merely defending myself as an individual. Rather, I put myself forward as an example to show that people who work with refugees do so out of a wide range of motivations. To assume that we are all liberals with a plan to destroy conservative values is incorrect and damaging to constructive dialog. Likewise, for me to assume that Vanishing American and all who think like him/her are ignorant, prejudice rednecks would be foolish.

I don’t know the ages of all the people who contribute to this site, but my guess is that there is also a generational issue that contributes to the friction and the emotions that come through in many conversations.

Altogether, I’m doubtful about how much people can learn from each other through this medium of communicating. Too often it’s just two camps throwing words at each other and trying to prove each other wrong. But this site does have potential to lead to meaningful exchanges if people actually listen to each other and are slow to anger.

One of the results, as RRW claims to desire, should be that refugees themselves are better cared for by governments and volags and better received by communities of informed citizens.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Day of Judgment, Day of Promise

What will resurrection day be like?

I think of the place where my body will someday rest, Maple Grove Cemetery.
What will happen on that little patch of land on the Day of Judgment, the day
when all are raised, some to eternal life and some to eternal punishment?

My ancestors and I, how will we come out of our coffins? How will we come up
through the earth? Will the ground explode with light? Will we look like zombies?

Those of us who are in Christ, will we waken peacefully, as from sleep,
to see our risen Jesus, the firstborn from among the dead?

That day will be our day of rest, as the Israelites finally had rest in the
land of promise. After a long and painful history since their birth as a
people under Abraham—400 years of slavery in Egypt, 40 years of
wandering and dying in the wilderness, repeated sin and failure and
breaching of the covenant, endless violence and struggle in warfare—after
all that, they had rest in the fulfilled promises of Yahweh.

How they must have longed for that day!

How deeply satisfied they must have been when it came:
the day when they lived on good land over which they did not
toil and ate from vineyards and olive groves they did not plant.

Oh Lord, stir in me a longing for the day of rest and wholeness,
the day when struggle ceases and the redeemed commune with You!

We will be with You resting in the peace of your promises as never before
and made certain, beyond all doubt, of your goodness and faithfulness.

Lord, stir our longing for that day! Waken our desire for those we
meet to share our hope of resurrection, of divine promises fulfilled.

Grant us the courage to speak, rightly and wisely, the good news of
Jesus the Nazarene. He is the Son of God who died and rose and will

Our hope rests in you, Jesus. Draw us ever closer to yourself.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Conversing with RRW

I've been posting on a site called Refugee Resettlement Watch. It's been a frustrating dialouge, but it's also helped me think through how my faith informs and shapes the work I do with refugees. Since I put a lot of time into my posts, I decided to put one here also. Go here to see the whole conversation.

From what I can tell, one of the ideals that drives this website is a belief that one culture can be superior to another. For example, in response to my April 15 post discussing refugees’ desire to preserve cultural identity, acorcoran said:

“Yes, they want to “preserve” their culture, but the difference is that I am not trying to “preserve” my culture in the midst of another country’s culture and expecting that country to change for me. And, frankly, I happen to think our American culture is superior to most, all!, of the cultures that are coming to the US and if that were not so, they would be staying in their part of the world and trying to improve it instead of beating down the door to get here.”

Also, RRW recently endorsed an opinion piece by John Press on Somali immigration. Discussing an immigration mechanism called the Diversity Lottery, he says:

“Somali immigration exemplifies the cultural and physical dangers of such a policy. It invites a foreign and hostile cultures onto our shores. We should, at very least, stop Somali immigration until their piracy of our ships stop. Such culturist immigration policies would remind us that we have a culture as well as a duty and right to protect it.

Multiculturalism is an unthinking philosophy. It blocks thought by asking us to celebrate all cultures. President Obama’s formulation says we must “respect” all cultures. This means that we have no judgment towards them. This limits the use of our reason. It means that considering values, in fact, becomes a thought crime as it might invoke choosing some and not others. Our immigration decisions should consider mores, language, and the cultural ability to honor our Founding Fathers and the principles for which they fought.”
Later, Press continues,

“We should ban all Somali immigration until the piracy stops. Then we should make a review of Somali culture, its compatibility with western culture and the progress towards assimilation of Somalis currently in the U.S. This would protect us and punish the Somali pirates. The multicultural idea of not noticing the Somali tendency towards piracy, attacks on U.S. interests and affinity for Jihadi warlords is dangerous. Not recognizing their polygamy, treatment of women, and female genital mutilation lends credence to the multicultural vision of diversity not being important. Not recognizing the enormous financial costs of caring for such a culture reifies the ignoring of economic realities in the name of ‘international rights.’

Banning Somali immigration would codify culturism. That is, it would legally acknowledge and privilege our western cultural identity. Symbolically it would restore the values and cultural touchstones of honor we have sought to emulate and protect. It would affirm a cultural base into which immigrants could strive to assimilate. It would also discourage their Somali’s brazen refusal to assimilate. It would end our multicultural confusion about our being an international entity on the order of the United Nations. Even if the immediate impact were not great, symbolically, culturist immigration policy would realign our relationship with the world, our immigrants and ourselves in a very healthy way.”

First of all, I’ll assume that by “culture,” acorcoran and Professor Press both refer, more or less, to a set of collective values and the formal or informal traditions by which a group of people live out those values and thus form a communal identity.

To claim that one’s own culture is superior to another is not only myopic, but also illogical. Every culture is deep, complex, and multifaceted. Every culture has virtues and vices.

For example, our nation was founded with the assertion that all men are created equal and endowed by God with the unalienable rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. All Americans should be grateful for that conviction of our founding fathers. Indeed, the very notion of accepting refugees for resettlement is consistent with this ideal, if America really believes that these rights belong to all men and women. These are American virtues. But it only takes a bit of honest investigating to see the longstanding flaws in our national character, or culture. The genocide of Native Americans and the institution of slavery are two symptoms of a sickness called greed that has infected us since Jamestown. Today our greed is manifested in materialism and combines with a hyper-individualized lifestyle to slowly destroy our communities, families, and the environment.

The point is that it is unfair to speak only about the beauty of your own culture and only about the ugliness of another. This is what RRW does when it has hundreds of headlines and links that say things like this: Somali Jihadist Recruitment; reluctance to assimilate; getting into the US by lying; terrorist training camps; Somali gangs; polygamy; Somalis still arriving in Greeley, looking for work; defending Somali rapists; Omar Jamal headed to New York to help Somali Pirate; Somali Cyanide Death Case.

This also is what Professor Press does when he rattles off a list of “polygamy, treatment of women, and female genital mutilation.” With or without intention, he paints millions of individual people the same nasty color with one stripe, with a single sentence.

I’ve spent a good deal of time with Somali Bantu refugees who are far from being terrorists, rapists, polygamists, or pirates. They are not hostile; they are hospitable, generous, persistent, and loyal.

Professor Press and RRW, when you pin labels on Somali culture, you pin labels on my friends—Ali, Halima, Said, Abdi, Hassan, Fatuma, Mako, and others.

I can assure you, acorcoran, that they did not leave “their part of the world” and “beat down the door” to get to America because they love our unhealthy food, our crass media industry, our obsession with personal property, our disregard for the elderly, our impatience, or our industrial waste.

They came to America because prejudice people who believe their own culture is superior to Bantu culture killed their family members and chased my friends away from their homes. Then somebody offered them a chance to start a new life in a place where people believe that all men and women are created equal with the God-given right to pursue liberty and happiness. They did what you would have done if your part of the world was a war zone and you fled for your life.

Inform your readers, RRW, but please be careful with your language. We can guard our heritage and culture without promoting the belief that others are inferior. The fact is, whether everybody likes it or not, a lot of refugees are here to stay. So take issue with policies, but don’t stir up negative sentiment against entire people groups.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


The still, quiet emptiness of an urban cemetery always grips me. Today, I passed by St. James on my bicycle, and, being native to a still and quiet patch of farmland, I was drawn to the solace the graveyard offered. So I locked up my bike and sat for a while with the dead, soaking in the wild contrasts of the scene the tombstones look upon hour after hour.

I sat silently and motionless and penned this proverb:

Our eyes look ever forward
Making plans for days to come
Our calendars, PDA’s, and cell phones
Are the instruments with which we severe
Our ties to those in the grave

Having done so, we are left without them
In our ignorance
And the city’s constant motion
Beats into us the lie that movement
And sound will never cease
And that someday our mouths
Will go on jabbering
Beneath the soil

O dead ones who can no longer speak
Teach us to listen to your silence

O dead ones who can no longer move
Teach us to be still

For we are your children
And soon we will join you

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


I feel a deep connection with much of Wendell Berry’s articulate and pointed writing. Though born in vastly different times and regions, he and I are both the descendents of farmers, and we both have been stirred by a vague but deeply personal sense of debt to the past and to the earth. Because of these allegiances, I have felt the same frustration and sadness over people’s wastefulness and neglect—what Berry calls the tragic manifestations of our “national character.” In general, Berry uses language to flesh out concepts that I have pondered for much of my life without attempting to articulate. Following is one example.

My first job was washing dishes at the Cracker Barrel restaurant when I was seventeen. Each night when we closed, my Hispanic co-workers and I poured pounds of “extra” food into garbage cans, which we then hauled to a dumpster and laboriously lifted and dumped. The senselessness of it sickened me. I remember the drab shades of the dish room and what it felt like to dump gallons of hot gravy over steaming mashed potatoes plopped into the bottom of an industrial sized trash can. Following the gravy and potatoes were biscuits, green beans, and any other hot sides that could not be kept overnight. The logic behind this sickly ritual was simple: the food was unable to be sold and therefore had no value. So we were ordered, by other “corporate underlings (69)” and upon condition of receiving our paychecks, to send it in bags to a landfill.

In Racism and the Economy, Berry points out the similarities between industrial society and the institution of slavery. In short, he asserts that modern consumer culture exploits power and misuses people just as slaveholders did. There is hard, physical work to be done, and the wealthy don’t want to do it. So they purchase human labor to build a personal enterprise. Though this system does not violate human rights as blatantly as its predecessor, it makes a mockery of the dignity of human labor by assigning workers to degrading tasks like throwing away perfectly good food. Such tasks have no value aside from the need to clean up the muck left behind by profit-driven businesses.

As a high school junior trying to make some summer money, I lacked the intellectual and spiritual capacity to understand societal sin, but I felt the guilt of participating in it. Complacently, but not without unease, I sold my body and my labor to an irreverent and destructive force controlled by greed. It sobers me to think that the nightly taking-out of trash at the Cracker Barrel is a case study of similar misdeeds committed a million times over each day across the world.

(quote taken from The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Sacrificial Giver

Leaving a store one November day, he gave his scarf to a begging crack addict. He felt good about it, because Jesus tells us to care for the dirty ones. All week, he thought of the smelly man sitting and begging with a warm scarf wrapped around his twisty beard. He felt like a good Christian.

But soon the temperatures turned sub-zero, and the giver lost his other scarf. He walked around the city with deadly wind slashing his face and drying out his skin. He imagined the feel of fleece on his cheeks; he longed for the soft fabric moistened by his warm breath.

One icy day he stood waiting for a bus. The roads were covered in snow, and his normal ten-minute wait had extended to half a hour. He paced. He bounced up and down. With numb fingers, he held the collar of his coat close to his mouth and breathed into it. The cold wind cut through his jeans, and is mind whirred with vicious thoughts.

"That irresponsible goon," he whispered sharply through his cracked lips. "He probably lost my scarf already. Passed out drunk on the train and some other druggie stole it. I hate crack addicts."

Soon the warm bus came and carried him to work.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Maple Grove

This is a new tune I wrote but have yet to record. It's based on a cemetery about a mile from my house where many of my ancestors are burried.

I have tended Maple Grove for thirty-nine years
Quiet cemetery in the fields northeast of town
Many hours I have labored in sunny silence
Many friends and neighbors I've laid into their graves

Alice Smith, Edgar Jones, old Ray Stevenson
Whose bones filled up with cancer
When he was fifty-nine
Mildred May, her husband Robbie, Jim Evans
Good heavens, has it really been ten years
Since you passed, old Jim?
I remember when you and Betty Anne were married
and bought the farmhouse
out on Old Chicago Road
Now as I cut the grass and pull the weeds
And trim the trees I pray you're pleased
With the way the living world remembers you

Old friend, you rest now beneath the soil
This land's produce filled the bellies of our ancestors
It seems like only days ago
When you were standing next to me

I have tended Maple Grove since I was young and strong
Back when the railroad still came run'n through our town
Now cars go speed'n by out on the highway
While silent headstones whisper wisdom to my ear

They say, "You can burn and bury your dead
Time and time and time again, but that don't mean
They're through with you
The elders of your clan joined us long ago
I hope you listened to them well
Or you may not know just who you are."

And they tell me, "Old man, you stand now upon the soil
And this land's produce filled the bellies of your ancestors.
It may be only days away when the earth receives you back
and you lie below with them."

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Thanksgiving and Supplication

Lord, thank you for your profound and mysterious love. Thank you for your faithfulness and for the promises you’ve made to mankind since creation. Thank you for your patience and your justice and for the means of grace you have secured in our lives—your word, your saints, the avenue of prayer, the ability to use our gifts and our bodies.

Guide me today, gracious Lord. Hold me near and grant me courage to walk as you have walked, Jesus: to share your truth, to love my enemies, to be pure inside and out, to act compassionately and decisively, to touch the untouched, to empty myself unconsciously for the sake of others, to maintain faith in the Father and in his will in the face of uncertainties.

Forever faithful God, humble me! Save me from self-obsession, arrogance, and judgmentalism. Lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from evil in all of its forms. Grant me the grace to remain in you, that I may be transformed.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Waking up Twice

I've taken to writing down my dreams on occasion. Dreams are funny things, and they will forever intrigue me. One senses that dreams are pulled from a place so profound and personal and mystical, yet they leave behind only vague impressions, an inaudible sense of longing, fear, peace, confusion. At least that's how this dream was. It was in the morning after I hit snooze several times and went back to sleep. More than the details of the dream itself, I pondered its lingering sensation.

I was at home, lying on a cot in our backyard. I was waking up slowly as the morning sky’s beauty overwhelmed me, also slowly. There were streaks of pink clouds. I remember a woodpile sitting where ours usually sits, but it was bigger and faced west instead of north. I remember looking towards the house, which was lit up serenely by the rising sun, and through a door I could see my mom doing laundry with a steaming cup of coffee sitting next to her.

Then I was crossing the road, where the little hill used to be when the road was still gravel. I was looking at the sunrise, then I turned around and noticed my dog running towards me from the evergreen trees. She was young and strong and running like she used to. I could see the white streak on her chest, the muscles behind it pumping her legs, which carried her across the ground. I was scared. “Jesse’s dead,” I thought as she came running. "What is going on?"

She didn’t run to anywhere. In my memory, she simply passed by, more a message than a being. And fear gave way in an instant to understanding. I’m not sure exactly what I understood, except that I was at home with my family and my dead dog was young again and sprinting across our yard. These things, combined with the colors cast by the morning sun, gave me a sleepy peacefulness that carried me back into consciousness.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Communion Prayer Inspired by the Gospel of John

Jesus, be our bread. We come to You for life, which You offer freely to those who would believe and follow. We have feasted before on hollow things—things that wore out and left us hungry. Forgive us for our unbelief, and help us to love each other.

Risen Lamb, be our drink. We come to You for life, which You gained for the world when raised upon the cross. As Moses lifted the snake and those who looked upon it did not die, so we look to You for salvation. Enable us to trust always in the Father’s saving movement, that we may remain in You and on the last day be raised unto eternal wholeness.

Messiah, be our hope. We come to You for truth. In partaking of these elements, we recognize our need for You. We have received Your invitation in symbol; help us now to look to You hour by hour. Lord, make our fears small in light of Your truth! The bread and cup remind us of Your gracious covenant. Keep the taste of Your promises always on our tongues, and increase our trust.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

a good reminder

An excerpt from Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Man was created a body, the Son of God appeared on earth in the body, he was raised in the body, in the sacrament the believer receives the Lord Christ in the body, and the resurrection of the dead will bring about the perfected fellowship of God's spiritual-physical creatures. The believer therefore lauds the Creator, the Redeemer, God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for the bodily presence of a brother. The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile sees in the companionship of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God. Visitor and visited in loneliness recognize in each other the Christ who is present in the body; they receive and meet each other as one meets the Lord, in reverence, humility, and joy. They receive each other's benedictions as the benediction of the Lord Jesus Christ. But if there is so much blessing and joy even in a single encounter of brother with brother, how inexhaustible are the riches that open up for those who by God's will are privileged to live in the daily fellowship of life with other Christians!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

At the Road Show

Earlier this summer I attended the Church Basement Road Show, a book promo tour put on by some guys from Emergent Village. The show was creative and engaging, and I embraced many of the general concepts—looking for God in unfamiliar places, creating an environment where Christians feel safe asking tough questions, recognizing that ministering the gospel involves more than reciting four spiritual laws, and emphasizing God’s presence and involvement in the world’s affairs. Overall, however, the supreme emphasis on Christ-like conduct in the here and now overshadowed sacred and central truths of the Christian faith. The following paragraphs explain why this made me uneasy.

Sharing an excerpt from his book Soul Graffiti, Mark Scandrette posed this question: Is loving someone only a means to an end, or is the meaning found in the act itself?

He proceeded to tell of his friendship with The Emperor, a crazy, old transvestite guy who lived in a bus on a hill in San Francisco. Mark and a friend met The Emperor, and at first he hated them. Yet they decided to continue being his friend. Over the course of several months, they would visit his bus frequently, eat food with him, and talk to him. They put up with his goofy antics and nasty habits, such as concocting healing potions from his own bodily fluids. They were careful not to preach to The Emperor or even mention the name of Jesus, because they knew he would immediately have a tantrum and banish them from his domain.

At the end of the story, The Emperor attempts suicide but fails. Mark and his friend show up and take him to the ER. When he wakes up, he is furious. He yells at them, demanding to know why they didn’t let him die. This is the point in the story where you would expect to hear that Mark shares the gospel message with him, The Emperor embraces the truth of Jesus, and all their work in loving him finally pays off. Instead, at the end of the story, Mark and his friend buy The Emperor his favorite food and enjoy it with him while he lies in his hospital bed. In my understanding, Mark intentionally left out any kind of conversion experience, crafting the story to emphasize that loving people indeed is not a means to an end. We don’t do it so that people will convert.

I agree.

However, as I reflected, I felt this tale was quietly communicating something else. With or without the author’s intention, it seems to say that if you do verbally present the gospel message (I Cor. 15:1-8) to a person, that automatically means your relationship was only a tool all along. So I asked myself, if I urge my friend to believe in the risen Jesus, does that rule out the possibility that I actually care about him and will love him even if he doesn’t ever believe? Mark’s story (combined with some of the other material presented at the road show) answers this question with an indirect “yes.”

Again, I agree that the gospel is more than a simple formula. It needs to be lived and communicated daily through our actions. But it is words too; it is a message! As God’s people, our actions should be a testimony to his redeeming work. But that work, the climax of which is Jesus’ death and resurrection, needs to be explained. Christ had a lot to say about how his followers should live, but he also had a lot to say about who he is! (The gospel of John, for example).

It’s cool that people are recognizing how we’ve cheapened salvation with the jargon we use to present gospel truth. Yes, sharing God’s truth with people involves more than reading four laws from a pamphlet. It must be displayed in our conduct. But in rediscovering how to communicate the gospel in word and deed, some people, in practice, erase the message. I agree wholeheartedly with Mark: to overlook people’s physical needs and take interest in them only as a means to an evangelistic end is offensive to the nature of Christianity. However, if we overcorrect and love people without telling them of the saving work of Jesus, then we are nothing but a bunch of people being really nice. We are dissolving into our pluralistic culture.

In the opening pages of Soul Graffiti, Mark writes, "It takes courage and work to investigate the message of Jesus beyond the hype of an overly religious culture…We search for what it means to be human and how to connect with our Creator in the context of our relationships with one another.” I left the road show hoping that Christians across the spectrum will listen to each other and search broadly for God’s truth, giving our humble loyalty always to Christ himself.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Many parts of scripture tell us not to fear, but recently I asked myself why. Why should we not fear? I can quote a verse when I’m feeling worried or nervous about something and try to will myself away from fear, but there must be something deeper for such a command to rest upon. The following paragraphs show from scripture that Yahweh himself is the basis of the comfort he gives. God does not offer ungrounded consolation to his people.

In Zechariah eight, the Lord reassures the Israelites three times (vs 9,13,15). He speaks through the prophet to those who have returned from seventy years of exile to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem (also called Zion). Chapter eight begins in the middle of God’s long answer to a simple question asked by the elders of the people in 7:3. They ask, “Should we keep fasting and mourning every fifth month, like we have the whole time we were exiled?” Eventually God tells them that what matters most is for them to obey and be formed by the Law (8: 16-17); however, before that he makes a bunch of lofty promises to the small group of disgruntled Jews.

In fact, it seems almost cruel that God would make these kinds of promises to these struggling people. Here they are, barely able to rebuild the temple's foundation (4:1-10), and God speaks to them of a day when Jews ripe with age will rest in Zion comfortably and the region’s produce will be rich. Furthermore, he promises that someday a king will reign from Jerusalem in peace over the whole world (9:10) and all Israel's present enemies will be silenced, or even brought into the covenant (9:2-8)! God tells them of a day when living water will flow from the renewed Jerusalem, which will then be free from its curse (14:8-10). Mixed in with such promises also come Yahweh’s words of comfort, “Do not fear.”

The same phrase appears again in the pages of Luke’s gospel. With a visit from the angel Gabriel, God promises another stage in his redemptive plan—a promise that again seems impossible. Gabriel announces to the Virgin Mary that she will give birth to a baby king from the house of David whose kingdom will not end. Later a whole host of angels delivers the same message to some Judean shepherds. “Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord” (2:12 NIV). In both cases, the news of God’s new saving movement is coupled again with divine consolation; “Do not fear.”

In summary, God gives comfort based on his covenant with man, which is manifested differently in different ages. For the returned exiles, it was the repopulation of Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the temple. For the Jews under Roman rule four centuries later, it was the coming of the long awaited Messiah. For the redeemed community today, it is righteous standing with God through Jesus’ work on the cross and the hope of wholeness through the resurrection of the dead. Lord, make our fears small in the light of your truth.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Two lights
One hangs somber in the northwest
Biding farewell and reminding us
that the dark has not yet given way
Its shimmer has grown pale
As it fades into the waking sky behind
Where it will wait again for familiar night

So long it says
I will see you again when the day
The mysterious day
has passed

We roll southward across the plains
As the stronger light reacquaints itself
With a land nearing the harvest
Through foggy glass I look upon
Divine provision's open palms
Now overlaid with highway
Now covered with a quilt of ornamental landscape
Sidewalks replace the Indian’s trail
Chemical sod covers an old frontier
And we drive

Yet at this hour something sings
And even a city dweller hears it
Clear and soft
The sacred earth-song rises still
Giving the urbanite a new ear
He hears now the prayers of his ancestors
Who rose and labored with the sun
Who lowered their dead into the soil
Who gave their sweat to the fields
In exchange for a living
In exchange for him

Away from the metropolis
Trapped inside a speeding bus
Crossing the land of two lights
I sing back in a sleepy whisper
I am your separated seed
And I will see you again
When the day
The mysterious day
Has passed

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A Sunday Visit

As soon as the knock on the door came, I knew who it was. Jack and I were sitting in the kitchen. I was chopping up an onion. I knew our homeless friend, Eddie had come to visit. He had a habit of coming by on Sunday afternoons, because his usual roost, the library, was closed. We had not seen him for over a month and were hoping had entered a 3-month residential rehab program for drug and alcohol addiction. Apparently he had not since he was at our door.

As usual, Eddie looked disgruntled and tired. His eyes said, “I hate that I have to show up on your door like this, but here I am.” We welcomed him with gladness, and the next minute he was sitting at our kitchen table. As I continued chopping onions and peppers, Eddie spoke a tragic and tender monologue to which Jack and I listened with heavy hearts. I’ve paraphrased part of his story. Be warned! There are a lot of cuss words coming up! The streets have their own language, which I’ve tried to leave intact. Why? Because when we befriend sinners, as Jesus did, sin comes close to us. It repulses us, makes us uncomfortable, and tempts us to try “cleaning people up” by ourselves. Instead we must introduce them to the risen Jesus so that he can do the job the right way. Here is what Eddie told us:

”Three years ago I lost everything. Man, if you could’ve seen me. I had a job working for the post office. I was making 50,000 dollars a year. I had a life. I’d been with my girl 18 years. Then she let me go. In court I cussed out the judge; I said I was gonna kill him. So they charged me with contempt in court and I was in jail for a month. When I got out I couldn’t go home cause she’d filed a restraining order. So what did I do? I just started drink’n all the time and doing drugs and fuck’n hoes. Man, she was my lady. I was with her 18 years. I miss her so goddamn much…You see, it’s like, I do things backward. I must be give’n God such a headache. I know the right thing to do, but I can’t do it. I fuck up over and over again. He must say, Eddie, why do you keep fuck’n up? Why would you get some money and walk right past McDonald's to buy booze, even though you know you’re hungry? Why would you do that? But I do that shit all the time. I get so drunk I black out just so I can sleep on the train at night. Man, who wants to live like this? Sorry, now I’m crying. See that’s what happens when I get sober…You know, I got six babies by six different women, but none of them wanna see me. They come around my momma’s place, but I don’t see them. They hate me. I’m almost fifty years old, but I ain’t even got my own crib. I smell like shit. I haven’t showered in two weeks. You know my sister, she’s the one who drove me to rehab. I’m gonna call her. But if I tell her how they put me out cause I don’t have insurance, she’ll just say I’m lying. She’ll say I just left cause I wanted to. How is that? I’m finally trying to get my shit together. I go to rehab and after two weeks they say, ‘You’re okay. You got to go back out on the street cause you ain’t got no insurance.’ Why? Why would God let that happen? How could they expect a man 30 years drunk to be sober after 14 days?”

Eddie passed the afternoon watching Jurassic Park II in our living room while Jack and I did homework and some other things around the house. That evening we did a lot more listening to him; when our other roommates and friends arrived we all ate pizza together. We cried with Eddie and prayed for him. Lord, reveal the truth of your forgiveness to a man unable to forgive his own self. His sin is etched deep into his core; now show him the hope of the new covenant. Jesus, whisper the secrets of your kingdom into his ear and heal him.

In the morning Jack took Eddie to a mission where he’ll have to check himself in clean every night for a month. If he makes it, he’ll enter their rehab program. Pray with us that God will guard our friend from evil and give him strength over the next month. We are grateful for Eddie, because through him the Lord has deepened our spiritual hunger. I hope the story blesses you in the same way and makes you consider who you welcome through your doors.