Monday, December 29, 2008

Being a Better Friend

A few months ago, I attended a luncheon held by a prominent local church with a strong reputation for caring for church starting missionaries. As the program began, the moderator of the event, a seasoned church planting veteran with a deep passion for reaching people for Christ and a concern for the loneliness that church starters face in ministry, opened the event by encouraging those of us who attended the conference to learn all that we could and to take advantage of the time we had together by skipping the surface banter and "going deep" with the people at our table! I almost laughed out loud! Though I knew he meant well, and I knew that there is a serious need for deeper relationships among those who serve in ministry, I also knew that it was very unlikely, at least for me, that I would feel comfortable "going deep" with a table full of people I had barely known for 5 minutes!

I further contemplated the importance of going deep when a dear friend and colleague in ministry informed me of a critical situation a fellow partner in ministry was facing. We met for lunch and he had suggested that we might make a road trip together to visit our ministry compatriot who was then facing an incredibly difficult trial. When our colleague was approached about the idea, he graciously and lovingly communicated that perhaps it was best that I not be a part of the reunion as he really needed to do some deep sharing about his situation and my friendship with him just wasn't quite deep enough for him to feel comfortable sharing in the way he really needed to. His request wasn't at all difficult for me to understand, and I really appreciated his directness which prevented what might have been an awkward situation from occurring. His decision caused me to honestly evaluate my relationship with him and brought me to the understanding that any critical life test readily provides - that though our relationship was a friendship, it was not at a sufficient depth to warrant the kind of sharing one reserves for those closest to you as one deals with the Really Big Issues.

As I reflected on this honest interaction with my ministry colleagues and friends, I realized that it is very easy to paint all friendships with a broad stroke and to fail to understand the different characteristics and depths that friendships can assume. With that in mind, I invite you to consider my reflections on how friendships can be better understood, appreciated, cultivated and deepened.

As I examined my own friendships, I noticed that my friendships have formed from a variety of life experiences and seasons. I have friendships that formed during my childhood, friendships that developed during my educational career, friendships that formed in my professional life, and friendships that formed through a variety of specific events where a shared experience produced a valuable relationship. It is also evident in my own life that there are different levels of friendship. I have friendships that are comfortably casual, but not very deep. In these friendships, I know I'll have a good time and pleasant conversation on any given occasion, but I don't rely on these relationships as my "go to" friendships should I face a significant personal problem. On the other hand, I have friendships that are so deep, they have developed beyond friendships and have virtually become family relationships. One such friendship came up in a family discussion last week as we recounted funny family episodes over dinner during the Christmas Holiday. My daughters began telling stories about their Uncle Joe - whom I often refer to as "Bubba" - sharing how much they loved this brother of mine and how much he and others like him meant to them. My son-in-law was a bit confused and interjected, "I thought your dad was an only child?" "He is!" My oldest daughter responded, but these people are such a part of our lives that they have become family - not pretend family, REAL family!" Friendships like those are very special and are the hallmark of what friendship is all about.

Quality friendships like my friendship with Bubba stand the tests of time and distance, and are maintained without diminishing the intensity of affection or level of commitment. In fact, commitment is the cornerstones of such a friendship. It is the wilful bonding with another person that vows to remain connected regardless of circumstances, trials or the changing seasons of life. Commitment means effort - taking the time and energy to cultivate and nurture a meaningful relationship because the risk of losing such a valued friend is just too high of a price to pay for relational laziness.

We are fortunate to live in a time where technology has given us many tools that make cultivating relationships just a little bit easier. One of the reasons I love e-mail and I love to blog is that it gives me a convenient, almost instant and efficient way to share my thoughts with many friends, even friends who are geographically impossibly far away, on an on-going basis. A particularly favorite tool I added to my relational arsenal this year is facebook. When I first heard of facebook, I didn't think much of it and dismissed it as a youthful fad. It wasn't until my older daughters asked me to check it out so that my younger daughter could join in that I recognized it's value. More than that, when out of curiosity I did a search for a few old friends with whom I had lost contact - for almost 20 years - and I found them, I realized what a great way facebook was to keep in touch a reestablish connections with friends. With facebook it's possible to keep current on the goings on in a friend's life through pictures, video clips, music, short messages, e-mail accounts, instant messages, fun messages an more. Other similar sites like Linked-in, Plaxo, and Friendster provide similar opportunities for friendship maintenance and business connections as well. Of course, there's still connecting in through good old fashioned letter writing via "snail mail", and telephone calls. For the ultimate connection, nothing can replace face to face visits when "sending the very best" just doesn't quite cut it, and the ever-trusty "meeting over coffee" or a meal for friends who are geographically near.

As the New Year approaches, and you consider making some critical investments to enrich your life, don't leave out the precious investment of building and developing your friendships. The tools are all around. It's up to you to take the time and effort to make the friendships happen. It took a refused invitation to make me renew my efforts to invest in my friends in the coming year. Don't you let a "wake up call" be required to move you to "reach out and touch someone" you care about in your life. Write, call, e-mail or visit someone you care about today. There's no time like now to rekindle a friendship and to do all you can do to be a better friend. Until next time...


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

How Should We Celebrate Christmas?

Christmastime brings out the best and worst in the people who seek to celebrate it. Some look forward to the beauty and pageantry that have become symbolic expressions of the joy of Christmas. Decorated streets, elaborately lighted homes, and 24/7 Christmas music marathons create an atmosphere that sets Christmas apart as "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year." Others dread Christmas as a time that highlights their being left out, alone and in deepest despair without anyone to truly turn to for help. There are still others who embrace Christmas as a time to enter into a fantasy world, where they can escape reality and embrace a magical world where there is an abundance of all that one could desire and an opportunity to indulge oneself in excesses that would never be considered rational at any other time of the year. With these and countless other approaches to observing Christmas, what is an appropriate response to this Season which at its core is meant to be a celebration of God's Greatest Gift to humanity?

Those of us who follow Christ need to embrace the joy of Christmas and welcome others who feel that joy, but don't exactly understand why. At the first Christmas, when the angel appeared to the shepherds, though his presence initially terrified them, his words were comforting and encouraging to them.

Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord' Luke 2:8-11.

The angel came with good news meant to be a source of joy for all people! If one believes that God truly sent His Son to save humanity from the penalty of sin that first Christmas and that His intention was to leave an indelible mark on history that would forever change the way people think, live and act, it is no wonder that the time that has been set apart to celebrate Jesus' birth has impact that extends well beyond the Christian Community of faith. God's message of peace and goodwill so resonates with the deepest desires of the human heart that even those who are blind to the essential message of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ are hungry for the fruit of the message and seek out ways to claim the fruit for themselves at every opportunity. Christmas opens the door of opportunity for everyone, both believing and unbelieving, to partake of the fruit of God's love with gusto and unrestrained enthusiasm. This general openness creates a wonderful avenue for Christian believers to explain the Reason for the Season and to close the gap for those who are seeking purposefully or fumbling in spiritual darkness.

This gap closing can be best accomplished when Christians carry their joy beyond an emotive response and allow the light of faith to shine through them in powerful acts of loving service. A dear friend of mine who pastors a church in the Cleveland area launched a ministry outreach designed a number of years ago by another ministry which is called the Advent Conspiracy. The basic elements of this outreach ministry are this: Worship fully. Spend less. Give More. Love all! The Advent Conspiracy website has this to say about giving more:
God’s gift to us was a relationship built on love. So it’s no wonder why we’re drawn to the idea that Christmas should be a time to love our friends and family in the most memorable ways possible. Time is the real gift Christmas offers us, and no matter how hard we look, it can’t be found at the mall. Time to make a gift that turns into the next family heirloom. Time to write mom a letter. Time to take the kids sledding. Time to bake really good cookies and sing really bad Christmas carols. Time to make love visible through relational giving.

The great thing about the elements that make up this conspiracy is that they are truths that should characterize Christian action all of the time. Christmas becomes not an excuse for selfish indulgence, but an opportunity to put the foundational elements of Christian action to work in a more direct and focused way. All of the great Christmas stories from "A Christmas Carol" to "The Grinch who Stole Christmas" actually reflect the truths of the Advent Conspiracy. A Changed Heart refocused on God's glory and His truth that leads to less spent on self, more given to others and an abundant flow of love dispensed generously to all. This Christmas, don't allow yourself to sink in selfish despair or to become indulgent in self-gratifying excess. Let yourself get caught up in the great conspiracy that doesn't tear down or destroy, but instead restores and renews others who see the good work you do and as a result, begin to glorify the Heavenly Father. Have a Very merry Christmas and enjoy being part of the Conspiracy! Until Next time...


Tuesday, December 9, 2008

All Grown Up!

This past Sunday, our youngest daughter, Victoria, celebrated her 4th birthday! Any child's birthday is a big deal and a wonderful time of celebration, but each birthday is especially so for our Victoria! As most of you remember, Victoria was born very prematurely at 28 weeks gestation and struggled for her life for the first two months after her birth. The Lord graciously touched her body and she grew stronger and stronger until she was able to graduate from the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and venture out into the great big world that awaited her. Now that she is four, she is walking, talking, running and jumping and eager to do things on her own and to help any of us in our various tasks too whether we need it or not! It's so much fun to hear her exclaim, "I'm all grown up now! I can help!" It just brings smiles to all of our faces!

Even though Victoria is the most vocal daughter we have in declaring her womanhood, we have three other daughters who have the right to brag about womanhood, but refrain from doing so - Coco and Maris who are fully grown and out on their own, and Joana who is incredibly mature for her age and nearing the threshold of adult independence. I can remember when each of my three older girls were tiny too, and I often find myself feeling as if I'm caught in a time warp, remembering them in early childhood striving towards independence and seeing them actually having achieved mature womanhood right before my eyes.

I think what has most blessed me beyond any expectations I had when they were children, is their earnest concern for others, their eagerness to be of help whenever and however they can and especially their unwavering dedication to look after Luz and me. We all have problems and challenges, and I am no exception. My girls have been of amazing assistance to me, encouraging me, pushing me onward and even gently yet effectively giving me advice when I find myself "stuck" in search of solutions. I cannot adequately describe the joy and overwhelming gratitude of having a grown daughter hold your hand and offer to pray for you without your asking for it, or to have a teen aged daughter listen to a problem and offer a hug and a word of encouragement. There's just nothing so rich as having your own "little girl" listen to you ramble on about some problem and to have her offer sound advice on making things right and moving ahead past the challenge.

When Luz and I were busy raising our older girls in their early years, it never occurred to us that as they went on to live their own lives and deal with their own problems, they would actually present themselves again and again to help us whenever we needed it! Now, lest I be accused of false advertising, we do have our moments where the generation gap is evident in communication breakdowns and differences of opinion. Nevertheless, I have found that even in the midst of the times we don't see eye to eye, it is imperative on my part to acknowledge what the Lord is doing in the lives of my daughters and to be open to the possibility that the Lord just may have given them some pearl of wisdom or nugget of truth that could help to address whatever difficulty that faces me.

A dear friend saw a picture of my family taken during the summer and called me a rich man. He was right. I have so much to be thankful for - things that just can't be measured by a bank account, but things that really do give one wealth. I'm thankful for the blessings of daughters who are all grown up, not quite grown and who think their grown. My prayer is to treasure these wonderful women and the woman who gave them to me all my days and in everything I do to honor the love and blessings they have showered upon me ever since I became "Daddy!" Until next time...


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Avoid The Herd!

Black Friday. As someone who tries to be as sensitive as possible when I speak and write, I'm not exactly sure why this particular label has emerged to describe the day the shopping madness for Christmas officially begins, but it doesn't quite sit all that easily with me. Nevertheless, though I might opt for some other title to describe the phenomenon, I believe I understand the attempt to address the sense of dread that accompanies the start of the Christmas shopping season for retailers and shoppers. In one tragic example of what can go wrong, a major retail store worker was trampled to death as he opened the doors for the "Friday Madness". Apparently, as the doors were opened, shoppers entered the store with such force that doors were taken off the hinges and the store employee was killed by the onslaught that even seriously injured those who tried to save him! I understand that finding a good deal can be a real motivator, but stampeding to the point of killing someone? Outrageous!

This incident shows just how easily a "herd mentality" can take over an otherwise sensible group of people. Caught up in a moment and a "movement," people who would most likely not ever consider lifting a hand in anger against another human being to the point of murder, literally stomped a man to death! This is inexcusable. I have ministered in settings around the world and in this country where people faced situations in which their very lives were at stake because of some serious problems like a lack of food, shelter and adequate medical care. What amazes me when I consider what was at stake with these folks, is that they had to wait in line for hours, sometimes days, to receive help that literally prevented them from dying, and in very few cases did I witness anything close to a stampede or disorderly conduct! Most of the time, they merely waited their turn and received the help available with dignity and courteous regard for others. I believe this s the kind of example and perspective we must consider as we face the temptation to enter into the madness of the Friday free for all.

As a Christian, I am called to follow the Good Shepherd who leads a flock, not a herd. The Bible assures me that He knows what I need before I ask and, should I feel compelled to ask, I need not panic because The Good Shepherd is inclined to hear me and to help me as I need it. When I was in Seminary, I remember being admonished along with my classmates to consider why the Lord constantly used the example of sheep and a flock rather than cattle and a herd. Our instructor explained, "Cattle can be mindlessly driven. Sheep must be thoughtfully led."

My challenge to you and to myself as we enter the Christmas Season is to remember to go with the Shepherd and the flock, and to avoid the pitfalls of following a herd. With the Shepherd, we're challenged to put the needs of others above our own. Philippians 2 puts it this way:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature[a] God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature[b] of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross...

SO, let's slow down and take some time to consider how we might use this Christmas season to spread the love of the Lord through caring deeds of service and kindness directed towards others. I've heard some encouraging stories of individuals and churches who are taking some powerful steps to assist others during this season rather than focusing on themselves. Take time right now to help others and show that you're a member of the Flock, whether it's by donating money, food, time or ideas to an existing ministry or service organization or by serving others on your own who are not on any assistance or help radar. Just do it! Jesus said that His sheep know His voice. The Good Shepherd is calling all who claim to follow Him to not pursue treasures that will ultimately not last or satisfy. Follow Him and His example: be humble, courageous and kind, willing to go the extra mile that someone else might know the love of God through the light your kindness shows. That's life with the flock. Don't get sidetracked by the thunder of a herd. The Shepherd's still small voice and clearly written Word has shown us the best way.

Until next time...


Monday, November 24, 2008

Make a List - Check it Twice!

Our personal struggles tend to dominate our lives, often causing us to focus on our own plights to the exclusion of the problems of others. In the midst of our pain, however, it's more important than ever to make an itemized list of the reasons we have to be thankful. An e-mail from a dear friend, Cristina, who with her husband Rudy served as the primary sponsors for Luz and me at our wedding and have served as missionaries for decades in some of the most challenging settings imaginable caused me to step back and take inventory of all I have to give thanks for.

Currently, Cristina and Rudy are serving as church planter missionaries in the "Tenderloin District" of San Francisco - a place where one can find everything from cutting edge artists, to poverty, crime, and homelessness. Because of their extensive international ministry experience, Cristina was invited to teach a series of ministry seminars for 25 church leaders and pastors in a South Asian country. Here is an excerpt from Cristina telling a little bit about the pastors and leaders who have come to receive training:

1) One leader has been pastoring a church for 40 years - the oldest amongst the 25 participants. He seems so eager to learn, and he said, he never heard of Pastoral Care before. He only knows endurance and suffering, but has never had the time to develop and care for himself or the staff under him.

2) Some of the participants traveled 10 hours by overnight bus just to be here, and very keen to learn. Again they said, they never heard of our teachings before, they were taught "just to endure hardship" and they never heard of pastoral care.

3) Another leader travelled 2000 (you heard it right, two thousand) kilometers just to attend this seminar! He is so keen to learn and hopes to bring back the resources he gathers from this seminar to teach others.

Cristina also added that the region in which these pastors serve is dominated by other faith groups and many serve in areas extremely hostile to Christianity in particular. (If you've been keeping up with International news, you know that South Asia has been experiencing numerous outbreaks of extreme violence against Christians including forced "re-conversions" or murder when victims refuse to denounce their faith as well as the destruction of church buildings and anything found to be Christian owned. When I read the accounts of what these pastors must endure, I felt convicted in my heart about my complaining about anything I think I have to deal with. The recognition of the blessings I have received also drove me to my knees in a spirit of true thanksgiving. Here's just some of what I'm thankful for:

I am thankful for personal freedoms that not only allow me to worship as I choose, but to voice my opinion in any number of different ways, not the least of which is writing this very Blog!

I am thankful for the local church it is my privilege to serve and the support this congregation provides for me and my family.

I am thankful for friends who stand by me, check up on me and who are concerned about where I am, what I'm doing and how I'm feeling from day to day.

I am thankful for the parents who raised me - a mom who is now with the Lord, and a dad who is still with us in the Land of the Living. They didn't just go through the motions of parenting, they actively modeled and demonstrated what love is and what love can be when one dedicates oneself to parenthood in the love of the Lord.

I am thankful for my own immediate family - Luz, my wife, who stands with me and stands up to me to keep my paths straight and my conviction burning hot, and my children: Coco, Maris, Joana and Victoria who encourage, support, uplift, inspire and even advise me, pushing me to heights I could not attain on my own. I am also thankful for my son-in-law Mike whose commitment to do good to others, and whose love for life, love of my daughter and love for the Lord serve as a constant encouragement that God is in control.

I am thankful for my extended family, many of whom I saw recently for the first time in years at my grandmother's funeral. These loved ones reminded me of the great heritage and family history that I share and the responsibility I have to honor that history in the way that I live.

I am thankful for having a place to call home and enough provisions to not only meet my own needs, but to give to the needs of others who are struggling more than I.

I am thankful for the availability of health care to diagnose problems I can't see or feel, but have been exposed through state of the art testing.

Most of all, I am thankful for the Heavenly father, who loved me and the whole world enough to give His Son that we wouldn't perish in our sin, but rather have eternal life. I am further thankful that He has charged me with a ministry to reach out to others in love, compassion and selfless service so that His love might be practically demonstrated in the life that he has given me to live.

This condensed list from my deeply grateful heart brings to mind a detailed list of thanks that would truly have no end. What about you? Have you taken the time to make a list of all you have to be thankful for? 1 Thessalonians 5:18 admonishes us to
give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.

Take the time this week to give detailed thanks to the Lord. Whether it's for the little things or the big things, and even if you feel that you are in the midst of some trying times, I'll bet there is still a list that you can compile to let the Lord know that you are thankful for all you've been blessed with! Share your list with someone else and spread an attitude of gratitude to others and let it carry you through this Thanksgiving Week and beyond. Until next time...


Monday, November 17, 2008

I'm a Soul Man!

By the time I send this posting out, some of you would have already received an e-mail informing you of my newly discovered kidney condition and the ensuing battle that lies ahead. I want to say at the outset that my e-mails and postings regarding my condition are not a plea for sympathy - They are merely an earnest attempt on my part to be transparent about the realities of life that are being manifested in my personal experience and how my faith in Jesus Christ shapes my responses to those realities. My hope is that in some way I will encourage others as they face all sorts of personal challenges with the truth that Jesus loves them and Jesus cares and can see them through any situation. I also need to add that my condition will not be the primary focus of all my blogs, preaching, etc., but it will certainly increase the intensity of my focus and my desire to touch others in the Name of the Lord. Having said that, I will offer some personal perspective on my condition in this particular posting.

As word has spread, friends have been incredibly kind, supportive and encouraging in response to the news about my kidney ailment. There have been many commitments to pray for me and numerous offerings of comforting Scriptures and words of uplift and wisdom. One note that I received from a dear friend, Chris, whom I have known since seminary days and now serves as a missionary in Poland, particularly caused me to do some self-inspection. Aside from significant challenges he and his family must face on the field, his wife Kasia is battling Leukemia. It is an intense day in / day out, up and down struggle that would derail the faith and resolve of many. Chris and Kasia soldier on not in denial of their situation, but with an acute awareness of the sufficient grace and power of Jesus Christ in our most difficult situations. Chris had this to say to me and it helped focus my perspective in a marvelous way:
Thanks for sharing this need with me. I will pray for you. Kasia is also having trouble with her leukemia and we are looking at another round of chemotherapy. We also need your prayers. One thing is sure, that none of us can live one day longer than God has appointed or one day less. These things are bad for our bodies but good for our souls. They focus our heart on heaven, not earth and teach us greater and greater daily dependence on His grace and mercy. This is not a bad place to be. When all is well in our lives we tend to gravitate, although subtly, toward trust in our own abilities, means and efforts. Facing an illness which can result in our departure from this life, rightly focuses our eyes toward our loving Savior. On the other side of the coin we are all facing an appointment with our demise. It is just when someone puts it in some sort of concrete time frame that upsets us. Again, God can intervene and extend our lives according to His will.

What a wonderful balance of the reality of the here and now juxtaposed with the reality of eternity! These circumstances are "good for our souls!" "How?" One might ask. Well, as Chris stated, trouble generally helps us to focus on eternity and the Lord of Eternity. There's nothing like a troubling health report to remind us in an unmistakable fashion that our lives as we now live them are temporary - not just for the people who suffer tragedies in a headline or the names in the obituaries, but for each of us personally. These types of trials also focus us on making an impact on this world beyond ourselves. Facing our own mortality makes it clear that we were created to make contributions in this life that would bless others in a way that would outlive us. Even more importantly, however, these trials humble us to realize that we were created to need the Lord. We are not collectively or individually self-contained. We are only complete when we humble ourselves to the point of realizing we are here because of the Lord and He wants us to understand our dependence on Him and His call on our lives to bless and care for others. Trouble is definitely good for the soul - which brings me back to my trouble!

5 years ago, at my 40th Birthday party, my girls put together a slide show of snapshots of my life up to that point with the Sam and Dave 60's classic "Soul Man" playing in the background. Of course,it was meant to have a double meaning - I'm a "Soul Man" as a African American and a "Soul Man" as a minister of the Gospel. My current situation has served as a powerful reminder of the more powerful of the 2 definitions - I was put on this planet to be a "Soul Man" for Jesus Christ and to invest my time, talents and treasures in things that will outlive my natural body to bless others and to feed my spiritual body which will live forever! It's hard to be sad with great news like that - a legacy that will outlive me no matter what my lifespan will be and a naturing of my soul that will accompany me thorough an eternity I will spend with my Lord Jesus who loves me and gave Himself not only for me, but for the whole world! Being a Soul Man never felt so good! Until next time...


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Change You Can Believe In!

It's been over a week since the historic election of Barack Obama to the Presidency of the United States. As his inauguration nears, there is great anticipation of what strategies he will employ to make good on his campaign promise to bring about "Change you can believe in!" I am rooting for our new President-elect and I am extremely hopeful that he can initiate some desperately needed changes: I hope he helps to change the extremely partisan way politics is carried out in Washington. I hope he will change the way Presidents govern - rather than trying to ensure he has another term, I hope he will "go for broke" and lead from conviction and what he believes to be right, even if it would cost him the assurance of a second term. I hope that he can bring about the kind of change that can unite the country to truly be "One nation under God" and to heal some of the rifts that have divided us into a "red or blue" collection of electorates who can never seem to get along. Change in these areas would be oh so nice. BUT, it's not the kind of change one can count on to last from generation to generation.

Though I'd love to see the aforementioned change come about, as a Christian, my faith and my hope ultimately lie in the unshakable Rock of Jesus Christ. Over the last 2 decades, U.S. Christians have often appeared much more zealous about political banners than the "Royal Banner" of being a follower of Jesus. This tendency has yielded unsatisfying results that often divided Christians against each other politically and sometimes distracted Christians from investing the balance of their time in pursuits that more directly contributed to the building of the Kingdom of God. It seems that we too frequently forget that when pressed for political answers by Pilate, Jesus responded, "My Kingdom is not of this world." It therefore seems that it would make sense for us as Christians to spend the majority of our energies not counting on political saviors to rescue us, but rather to exert ourselves fully to tasks of sharing the good news and doing good work in the world so that people might see what we do and give glory to our Heavenly Father.

One conservative pundit who has heretofore heavily focused his energies to conservative political solutions to people's problems summarized what has convicted him to alter the way he thinks regarding bringing about change in this way:
[Christians]…have put too much faith in the power of government to transform culture…Partisan politics have not achieved the objectives of evangelical Christians…If results are what conservative evangelicals want,they already have a model. It is contained in the life and commands of Jesus of Nazareth. Suppose millions of conservative evangelicals engaged in an old and proven type of radical behavior. Suppose they followed the admonition of Jesus to ‘love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison and care for widows and orphans’…as a means of demonstrating God’s love for the whole person in order that people might seek Him…Evangelicals are at a junction. They can take the path that will lead them to more futility and ineffective attempts to reform culture through government, or they can embrace the far more powerful methods outlined by the One they claim to follow.”

I believe his observations are relevant to Christians across the political spectrum. Scripture is clear - true change comes from within as individuals are convicted by truth, confronted with the need to change the way they live by that truth, and transformed by having their minds renewed through a personal relationship with the Lord. The apostle Paul explains it like this:
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.

Changed hearts and renewed minds are the goal of Christian living and service. This goal precludes us from waiting for or even expecting any individual political leader from doing for us what God had called for us to do ourselves. So whether or not you found joy in the results of last week's election, if you are a follower of Jesus Christ your orders remain the same:
Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.
That's the kind of change I have seen occur time and time again and the type of change I can not only believe in, but devote my life to!

Until next time,


Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Mountaintop Experience

Yesterday, I had the great fortune of celebrating my 45th Birthday! It was a laid-back, low-key day, where I was able to sleep a little later than normal while enjoying some precious quality time with my family. Later in the day, I was blessed to share the company of a few friends over good food and good music all while reflecting on good times in days gone by. No 45th birthday would be complete, however, without some reminders of one's own mortality. The results from a recent physical came in within a week of my birthday with some important reminders that as I face the 2nd half of my life, I need to pay strict attention to some medical "warning lights" on my life's dashboard to maximize my opportunities to minister and serve for as long as possible. The day went back on the upswing, however, as I received numerous greetings from all kinds of friends who have been a part of my life from around the country and the world. As sweet as the day on the whole was for me, my satisfying celebration is not likely what I will most remember about entering my 45th year of existence on this planet as a citizen of the United States of America. I will certainly remember that on my 45th birthday, the person elected to be the 44th President of the United States was a man named Barak Hussein Obama - for the first time in US history a man has been elected President who is an African American!

Mr. Obama's election serves as one of the most important milestones in Unites States history. It affirms in fact what our founding documents have claimed for over 2 centuries in principle - "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." It sends a message to the rest of the world that American pronouncements of liberty and justice for all are more than words, they are true American values that the people of the United States hold in the highest regard and are willing to live up to when it counts, all the way to the polling booth! It is watershed moment that signals a new day in US politics and signals in plain view that the ultimate American symbol of power is now attainable for those for whom it has been unreachable for the longest stretch of US history.

In light of this historical moment, many Americans old enough to remember Dr. Martin Luther King and the beginning of the US Civil Rights movement could not help but reflect on his last public speech on the eve of his death - the "Mountain Top" Speech. In this speech, Dr. King seems to have sensed that he was facing the untimely end of his life and declared that he had been to the Mountaintop and peered over into the "Promised Land." He further proclaimed that African Americans as a people would indeed get to the "Promised Land". The question that remains for us is this: Is this moment in history the definitive national ascent to the mountaintop that Dr. King spoke of as he looked forward to the "Promised Land" experience to come? I would answer, to an extent, but more climbing remains to be done. Mr. Obama alluded to Dr. Kings words in his victory speech and seems to answer this question himself by viewing his individual achievement in light of the collective needs and challenges facing the United States today. President-elect Obama said this:
The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep… This victory alone is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change

As I ponder Mr. Obama's words and the whole issue of "Mountaintop experiences", it occurs to me that most mountains are not isolated peaks that stand alone, but they are peaks connected to other mountains that form a whole mountain range. Certainly,the summit of racism and racial tension is among the most prominent and long-standing peaks of challenges in the mountain range of US history. The election of the nation's first African American president has positioned us to confront new challenges, problems and difficulties with a new perspective - a perspective from the top of one mountain that has the potential to enable us to scale other mountains with greater vigor and integrity. While it is true that everyone may not have reached the top of even this particular mountain, it is also true that a path has been cleared that opens new opportunities and hopes for others even as the nation's leaders are called to blaze new trails on other mountains that remain to be scaled.

This particular "mountaintop" - the election of an African American president - shows that America's greatest ideals are realistically available on the widest scale in US history. Even the majority population is better off for this, because the American Dream cannot be a total reality to anyone, until its sweetest fruits are available to everyone. Our climb is a collective one. Our journey must be a united one. Mr. Obama said it wonderfully last night:
…It can't happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice. So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other.

My hope is that in the midst of critical global and national issues, our nation will unite in support and a desire for success for the new president. It is understood that when conviction and principle lead us to disagree on particular issues, we should disagree with boldness, conviction and with all the resources that are available in our imperfect, but amazing system of government. Nevertheless, as a Christian, the Bible calls me to pray for my leaders and to do all within my ability to use my gifts, talents and abilities to make my community, country and the world more reflective of the goodness and holiness of God.

So, wherever we may find ourselves on the political scale, let us not lose the momentum created by the fact that we have witnessed one of the most important mountaintop experiences in America History! Now that we've reached one peak, let's take advantage of this new outlook, roll up our sleeves and get to the work of doing all the good we can, for as long as we can, to the greatest amount of people we can so that we can attain the "must scale" mountaintops of goodness, righteousness and holiness in every area of life. If we can achieve these goals to a significant degree, then perhaps we'll be able to secure the blessings of liberty for at least a few more generations and reach a few more mountaintops in the process. Until next time...


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Candle Lighters

"Better to light one candle, than to curse the darkness." This old adage came to my mind as my family and I attended the St. John Hospital's semi-annual Neonatal Intensive Care Unit Graduate celebration. During this festival, children who began their life journeys with medical problems of every kind, gather together with the medical staff who treated them to celebrate life and all the victories of defying the odds as survivors of premature births.

There would be nothing to celebrate were it not for the hard work and dedication of the St. John NICU staff. Each member of the NICU Team contributes a critical part of the total care package that ensures that NICU babies get the absolute best medical care possible and that parents get the emotional and spiritual support they need during an extremely difficult period. In the deepest valley of a particularly discouraging stage of Victoria's NICU experience, the entire St. John NICU Team (doctors, administrators, nurses, tech personnel and support personnel) guided our family through an almost unbearable situation with compassion, wisdom, and excellence. We knew that the St. John NICU Team was not only treating Victoria, they were also rooting for her and they were encouraging us in a most uncertain and fearful time.

I often asked myself during that period, what kind of people devote themselves to take on the monumental challenge of treating babies born so early with a greatly reduced possibility of survival and a greatly increased possibility of loss and heart break? The answer is really pretty simple - people who care! This care is exemplified to the highest degree in the person of Dr. Ali Rabbani. Dr. Rabbani established the St. John NICU in 1970 when the survival possibilities for premature babies were extremely remote. It was evident from observing him as he interacted with the children who graduated from St. John's NICU and their families that he delights in seeing each and every child and the remarkable progress that has been made in their lives after their NICU experiences. I was deeply touched personally as I considered that every family at the celebration was able to experience the joy of victory over death because of the determined efforts of this man. Dr. Rabbani and his associates, were not content to be satisfied with the status quo of assuming that babies born prematurely were a lost cause, but chose rather to study, investigate, prepare and apply their efforts so that they could beat back the odds and give children a chance who otherwise might have become just another preterm statistic.

The love the NICU team has for what they do and for the ones they treat is the greatest testament to the difference a few dedicated people can make when they choose to light candles rather than curse darkness. Their examples serve a challenge to all of us. Are we willing to apply the very best we have to offer intellectually, emotionally, physically and spiritually in extremely difficult situations? Are we dedicated to strive to be overcomers or good rather than passive bystanders who allow evil to take root when the battle is long and arduous? Are we willing to struggle with the possibility that we may lose in a particular effort to do good on a specific day, but that if we persist at doing what is good and right, all will not be lost in the long run? The St. John NICU staff has lit a fire within my soul to renew my commitment to apply myself without wavering to be committed to do good. It may cost me something in the process, but it will cost others much more if I squander my talents, sit and do nothing. I challenge each of you to commit yourselves to do the same.

Until Next Time...

(Photo 1 : Victoria and NICU Administrative Supervisor Sandy)
(Photo 2 : Victoria and her very first NICU nurse, LaRae)
(Photo 3 : Dr. Casabar - Victoria's first NICU doctor, Dr. Rabbani, and Sam)
(Photo 4 : Dr, Casabar, Luz, Sam and Victoria in the front)

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Healing Roots

This past week, my paternal grandmother, Mrs. Lucille Noble, passed away at the amazing age of 91. She was the last of her generation of our family which included her older brothers and 3 inseparable sisters who were the epitome of what close sisters should be. As is the case with the passing of any pillar of a family, my grandmother's home going brought family members together who had not been in the same place for many years. I was privileged with the honor of officiating her funeral service and was struck by the presence of so many loved ones who had grown up, were raising families and who possessed countless family traits and quirks that served as subtle reminders of a shared heritage and a rich family history. As I interwove my own recollection of how our family history had affected me and my family, I had no idea of how my understanding of my family history was to be deepened and reshaped in a single afternoon.

After the service, we gathered at my cousin Claudine's home for some down home hospitality and serious Southern soul food. As we all talked and laughed and ate, my cousin Frankie began sharing about "a little family genealogy project" he had been working on. As it turns out, his "little" was serious major historical work which he has been pursuing since about 1977 and which had been published. Armed with hundreds of family photos and obituaries dating back years, Frankie began a quest that led him to trace our family lineage to ancestors born into slavery in the mid-1800's, a link extending all the way back to Africa and even to a slave owning ancestor born in the late 1700's! That's right! We have our own Jefferson/Hemmings saga right in out own back yard! We no longer had to guess about where that red-hair originated! It turns out that there was not only a name, but a portrait with a face that displayed features that were clearly definable as ours! Even more incredible was the fact that because this slave owner had no other children, he worked tirelessly after the civil war ended to pass on a part of his wealth to his descendants birthed by slaves he had previously owned! As Frankie shared this spellbinding history, I couldn't help but think of the words of Martin Luther King who in the most famous speech of his lifetime shared the following hope:

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.

I now had historically indisputable facts, not just anecdotes, with dates and names provided, that confirmed that I was both the son of a former slave AND the son of a former slave owner! It also occurred to me that this hidden heritage might somewhat explain the burning desire deep within me to see people of all sorts of backgrounds come together in love, fellowship and harmony - it is literally a part of who I am! Within the blood that runs through my veins there exists both the genes of one who cracked the whip and of the genes of one who endured the scourging! I was reminded of Acts 17:26 which states that "He [God] has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth." If we dig deep enough, we will find common roots. This commonality can serve to remind us that those we struggle most to understand and live with are part of a larger human family that shares the same beginnings and are literally more like us than we often choose to believe.

For me personally, the new discoveries of family origin place me in a position to be less likely to assign blame - knowing I have ancestors who helped cause and perpetuate problems blocking understanding and healing - and less likely to claim vitimhood. What a motivation to know that I have ancestors who in full knowledge of where they came from, overcame tremendous odds to produce loving families and wonderful individuals like my grandmother, who raised 3 amazing children - one of them being my father - who in turn overcame his own challenges to go on to raise me. What examples for me to pass on to my children!

Through the serendipitous discovery of personal roots, the Lord has blessed me with a new perspective that has helped to understand more about the complexity of history and its effects on the human spirit and made me more desirous to be a conduit of healing for others. It has shown me furthermore that the love of God can overcome even the most tangled roots! Isaiah 61 reminds us that the Lord desires:
To console those who mourn in Zion, To give them beauty for ashes, The oil of joy for mourning, The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; That they may be called trees of righteousness,The planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified.

I knew the weekend would be a return to my roots. I just didn't have any idea it would also be a call to produce better fruit and more glory for the Gardener! So let me challenge you not to be afraid to dig into your past. It will show you just how far God has brought you and challenge you to allow Him to take you even further than you thought you'd be able to go! Until next time...


Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Seeking the Kingdom First

Some love stories can't wait until Valentine's day! I especially love to share love stories about missionaries - Wonderful people who as a vocation, give selflessly of themselves for years on end, with little or no regard for acclaim, fame, recognition or even personal benefit. The Scripture says that he who finds a wife, finds a good thing and pleases the Lord. Over the last week, I had the pleasure of getting to know some new friends who reminded me of the true beauty of finding a good thing that literally is a blessing for the Kingdom of God and the work He calls His people to do.

Some missionaries choose to remain unmarried because of the difficulties of their assignments or the demands of their work. Others simply find themselves single after years of service due to an intense focus on the mission itself which often seems to preclude forming the type of relationships that might lead one to get married. Whatever the cause or motivation, and whether singleness is chosen or simply their appointed plight, there a numerous missionaries who fore go the benefits of marriage for the sake of the furtherance of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I have found most of these confirmed "bachelors and bachelorettes 'til the Rapture" full of joy and peace in their singleness not thinking themselves in a particularly difficult place or situation of service as single missionaries. It therefore generally comes as a great surprise to them when these dedicated people who have confirmed themselves in singleness, find themselves "head over heels" in love with another dedicated servant of the Lord who reciprocates their affection and reflects their dedication to a lifetime of service for the Kingdom of God.

My new friends Rob and Dee had both spent years of missionary service in their initial assignments - well over 20 years of service each - confident of the fact that they possessed the gift of singleness, and the Lord could use them better without the blessing of a spouse. Because of their singleness, they were able to throw themselves tirelessly into the work, pouring their lives into the lives of others and gaining a deep satisfaction that whatever difficulties or loneliness they might have experienced there could be no comparison to the benefits they were able to gain in the freedom of their singleness. They met each other after being led to change from their original places of service to an even more challenging missionary assignment. For a few years - yes years - they served together with no thought of anything beyond being coworkers for the Lord, putting their all into seeing people come to faith in Christ and helping new Christians to grow in faith and service. it wasn't until an intense time of ministry together, then some time apart, that they realized the flames of enthusiasm that burned deep within their hearts were not only a shared passion for the Gospel, but a deep and pure love for each other. By the time this revelation had arrived, Rob was approaching 50 and though Dee was a bit younger than Rob she was also a little older than she had been when she began her journey of missionary service. I won't get into the details of their romance, but let me just say, their story is one for the ages, involving an unique and tear-jerking proposal, lots of helpful and excited friends and most of all a confirmation that those who wait on the Lord experience joy and satisfaction that simply eludes those who refuse to wait and try to follow their appetites rather than God's will!

It's all beautifully summarized in Rob's words to Dee, which I will paraphrase, " I have spent my life seeking to collect crowns of service to lay at the feet of Jesus. I am now asking you to allow me to join you and walk at your side to help you in collecting crowns of service for you to lay at Jesus feet." His words caused me to think of a few other special couples who have exemplified this kind of love for the Lord in their marriages as Missionaries: Ruddy and Cristina, Phil and Karen, Craig and Terry, Sid and Marilyn - all couples whose unions not only generated sparks of romance, but ignited great works of faith that have in turn brought countless lives from darkness to light to the glory of God. In seeking the Kingdom of God first, they have had so much added to themselves that it has spilled over to benefit others for the Kingdom of God.

The next time you come into contact with a missionary couple in particular, remember that you are not just seeing the result of a typical love story, but a mighty and holy union that can teach us all just how much we have to gain by waiting patiently for the Lord and putting His Kingdom and the needs of others before our own. Remember, it's never too late for God to surprise us with something special if we're willing to wait on Him! Until next time,


Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Thin Line Between Victory and Loss

I had never heard of Lolo Jones before the final of the women's 100m hurdles in Beijing. The short bio-feature that highlighted her accomplishments in track and life and recounted the amazing real life hurdles she had negotiated to make it to the Beijing Olympics was stirring and her performance up to the final made her imminent victory a foregone conclusion. When the starting gun sounded, it was evident that Lolo's reputation was well-founded. She blazed through the hurdles with lighting speed, well ahead of the entire field and all was on course for a gold medal performance and the adoration, fame and perks that are part and parcel to such an attainment when the unthinkable happened. Two hurdles away from "eternal" Olympic Glory, Lolo hit a hurdle! She didn't just clip it, she hit it with enough force to break her stride, her rhythm and her hopes of obtaining any medal at all, let alone the gold. Showing courage befitting a champion, Lolo granted an interview after the race, handling the loss with dignity and class. The pain, nevertheless, was plain for all to see and even more evident when, after the interview, she went to herself and could be seen weeping bitter tears.

Illustrious WWII General George Patton had a strong opinion about losing and those who lost. He believed that any endeavor worth pursuing was worth winning and said that he personally, "wouldn't give a hoot...for a man who lost and laughed." I understand the general's disdain for losing and laughing. Sometimes in our pursuit of good sportsmanship, we are inclined to act as if losing in the fierce pursuit of a victory is something that should be smiled about and shrugged off in a gesture to "put on a happy face" and to "grin and bear it" in our humiliation or disappointment. I am a stickler for good sportsmanship in athletic contests and in life and I certainly admire the brave faces and congratulatory graces shown by those who lose in the pursuit of excellence. Nevertheless, I empathize with the tears of someone who has given their all to a quest that in the end, in spite of intense preparation and realistic expectation, falls short.

How can an athlete who has in all probability spent the majority of their adolescent and adult life pursuing a fete that will likely define them and set up a future of amazing opportunity laugh when that pursuit falls flat and they are left with nothing but an obliterated dream and might have beens? To quote Jesse Owens, it means having one's "entire existence justified in just 10 seconds!" Losing is serious business, especially when one expects to win. When the loss is a surprise, introspection is always a part of the process. Invariably, the unexpected loser will ask,"Why did I lose?" "How could this happen?" and "What now?" The answers are usually complex - a convergence of the improbable, the unfortunate, or the unbelievable that result in a "perfect storm" of dream destruction that send one's expectations "to the bottom" with no hope of restoration.

Perspective is also part of the process. Sometimes, the pain of loss is all on the loser and cannot be shared or understood by others. One competitor is just happy to get to the Olympics and takes pride in the fact that only a literal handful of humans can move faster, soar higher, or be stronger than they, while another is disappointed that their victories were merely silver or bronze and not gold. Consider this. Would Michael Phelps have been a "loser" if he had "only" won say, 7Golds at Beijing and "simply" tied Mark Spitz's 1972 Olympic record? It would have amounted to more cumulative golds than anyone in the history of the games, but many would have seen such an effort as a "failure" (Remember, Phelps "only" won six golds in Athens and "merely" qualified for the 2000 Barcelona Olympics - at the age of 15)! Nevertheless, when the bar is set high - so high that even one's failure outshines the "successes" of others - it is still viewed as a failure - one from which many never emotionally recover.

Most people eventually have to deal with personal setbacks which can eclipse even the greatest accomplishments and victories. For Lolo Jones, getting to the Olympics doesn't seem like enough. The Gold was lost and the memory of Beijing will possibly forver be a disappointment. "Real life" is even less forgiving. "Lucky" Charles Lindbergh became a legend and captured the world's imagination with his first solo flight across the Atlantic, but had to endure the agony of having his son kidnapped and never seeing him returned. How did he view his "luck" in light of his devastating loss, created by the very success that made him a household name? The trials of real life that visit everyone from the high and mighty to the weak and lowly and can distort the meaning of success and failure, winning and losing.

How can we cope when we lose something so precious that everything else in our life seems to be defined by it? The Bible offers encouragement and hope for even the deepest losses. The Scriptures warn against placing our intrinsic value in things that are unpredictable, uncertain and transient. This would include titles, wealth, accomplishments and the glory of fame. Jesus said,
Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

When we pursue the truly precious treasure of the Kingdom of God and the riches that come from that pursuit - riches of character, peace of mind, inner strength and deep and abiding faith - Jesus promises that we will not be disappointed. The great news is, though we are told to run this race to win, our winning is based not on the performance of others, or even our perfection but rather our winning is based on our faithfulness to the "course" upon which we have been placed. The book of Hebrews puts it like this,
let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

I hope that Lolo Jones has this hope and that she will view her heartbreaking loss in light of an epic race of much more importance than the amazing glory of an Olympic Race - the race of life where the course has lanes we all must negotiate, complete with obstacles, traps and challenges. God promises help even during the most difficult parts of the race. The prophet Isaiah has powerful encouragement for us, even when we hit the hurdles of our course.
Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary they will walk and not be faint.

This a race that we can definitely win if we focus on Jesus. It is also a race for which we will be rewarded - not with the perishing beauty of a gold medal performance that may not even be remembered after a generation or two, but with truly eternal significance that blesses others and earns the highest prize of recognition - The "Well Done" of our Heavenly Father! This is a race worth running, and a race that we can truly not afford to lose. Don't give up, keep your eyes on the prize! Until next time...


Monday, August 11, 2008

Fortunate Son

I am sure that some of you 60's music buffs recognize the title of this posting as the title of a rocking Credence Clearwater Revival Tune that laments the societal perks often afforded those born into privileged situations. All too frequently, these privileges are not accompanied by an appropriate sense of responsibility. The Biblical expectation of such privilege is clear - "To whom much is given, much is required."

The Mayor of Detroit's seemingly never-ending spectacle of misbehavior bring the Biblical admonition and the convicting message of the Credence Song to mind in an especially relevant way. It is relevant for me, because I feel as if I and many of those with whom I was raised are fortunate sons as well. This recognition causes me not to spend so much time looking at the mayor, though his misdeeds and the city's resultant suffering merit the most intense scrutiny and whatever consequences, moral and legal, are applicable, but it rather causes me to reflect on how my generation and I have used our gifts. Furthermore, it causes me to ponder how our action or inaction affects those a wee bit younger, such as the Mayor and those quickly ascending the ranks of responsibility and leadership for the years ahead. I don not have the luxury to view the Mayor's issues in isolation as if they said nothing about me.

Like the Mayor, I am African American. Unlike the Mayor, I am not a native Detroiter. I was born during the dying days of the segregated south to a career Army Paratrooper father and a devoted educator mother. I was fortunate to have my mother's heavy duty personal investments of time and effort in my education process, teaching me to read and write well before my preschool age and exposing me to the foundational message of the Scriptures at a time when such teaching was beginning to be viewed as "unsophisticated" or "old-fashioned." I was an only child. This designation is usually seen as a license of sorts, giving the child in question unlimited freedom to be self-centered, spoiled, and oblivious to the needs of others. My parents would have none of that! Among the nuggets of wisdom my mother passed on, and she was a virtual reservoir of wisdom, was this little axiom that she repeated as a determined mantra and drilled into reality in my brain for life: "You may be the only child, but that doesn't doom you to be only a fool!" I won't go into detail regarding how my parents guided me away form folly, but I will sum it up by saying I didn't get everything I wanted and they often told me "No".

As Americans, we haven't been told "No" often enough. Our lives of luxury and convenience have increased our feelings of entitlement and privilege. Many of our failings as a society are the result selfish pleasure seeking in the face of urgent community responsibilities. We are too eager for the ease which our standard of living affords us and not eager enough to exemplify the work and ethics that made that standard available to us in the first place. Those of us who are leaders are especially culpable. We are often too absorbed with the perks of power rather than focused on the opportunities that positions of leadership afford. We are too eager to "make our mark" for our fame's sake, rather than making a difference with hard work and less credit. Detroit's current Mayor is merely a reflection of societal trends on the whole. Too many of us look forward to a perpetual party and an early retirement, while not enough of us are anxious for dedication to a meaningful cause and a lifetime of work on the behalf of something greater than ourselves even at the possible cost of personal obscurity. Great people and great societies can only be produced by people who are committed to lifting up others, even at the cost of their own enjoyment or opportunity for self-promotion. Martin Luther King's ascent to the pinnacle of the Civil Rights Movement would have never happened had it not been for the consortium of Elder Statesmen Pastors in his city who were not looking for a platform to lift themselves up to greatness, but who were selflessly committed to laying the foundation for a true transforming movement in the fog of anonymity.

The refrain of the Credence song mentioned at the onset has this refrain:
It ain't me,
it ain't me.
I ain't no senator's son.
It ain't me,
it ain't me.
I ain't no fortunate one.

I may not be a senator's son, but I am undeniably a fortunate one! No doubt more than a few of you have been fortunate too! The present mayoral crisis in Detroit and other signs of deficient leadership across the nation provide us with a crucial imperative for reflection and adjustment - in ourselves and in the ones to whom we will hand the batons of leadership. In Psalm 139, King David ends his beautiful tribute to God's Omniscience with a blistering critique of those who are hostile to the ways of God. Just as David reaches the apex of his observations, his focus takes a dramatic turn. He ends his thoughts with an humble appeal to the Lord to see if there are any defective ways in his own life! We would do well to emulate King David's self-inspection.

The warning bells are sounding even now as each new scandal is discovered. What do these sorry tales of failure in personal integrity and societal values say to us and the way you and I live our lives? If you are a favored and fortunate one, as I am, are you part of a possible solution or part of a growing problem that seems almost unsolvable? As the long departed writer John Donne's meditation demands, "Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee..." Let's hope our diversions, entertainment and misguided priorities aren't drowning out the sound. Until next time.


Monday, August 4, 2008

Faith In The God of All Comfort

The past few days have been an intense barrage of emotions and ministry. In a seven day period I've been a part of the funeral proceedings for 3 families. The causes of death were varied, and one was especially unexpected. In the midst of these times of deep sorrow, I have been encouraged by the strong displays of faith on the part of the families involved. They have been able to utilize amazing reserves of strength all because of their understanding of the comfort available to them through faith in Jesus Christ.

The Bible contains many accounts of people in times of deep distress and makes a point to declare God's compassion and care for those who suffer. A verse that has always encouraged me during times of grief is found in 2 Corinthians chapter 1 and says this:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.

This week I saw this verse in action before my very eyes. I have had a few times of sorrow in my own life and I know others who were present at the funerals have had their own seasons of pain as well - some of which I had witnessed personally. It was a reassuring and powerful sight to see first-hand how people were able to appropriate the comfort of the Lord they had experienced in their own lives in reaching out to steady others who were in the midst of a great loss. I know that for me, the losses and pain I have experienced have made me more compassionate and better able to understand some of the struggles and losses of others. I certainly looked back to my seasons of difficulty and God's provision of His love and comfort during those times in my life to reach out to my friends this week in their hurts.

Perhaps the most uplifting example I saw of God's provision of mutual comfort among His people happened as I visited a friend I have mentioned in Previous blog entries. My friend Nelda, who is in the midst of an intense battle with diabetes and other health issues, had to have all of the toes of her left foot removed. This is an especially hard thing in that her right leg has already been amputated up to the knee! What has consistently amazed me about Nelda is her ability to immediately acquire God's comfort for herself AND to pass it on to others. When I entered Nelda's hospital room, there was no trace of self-pity sorrow or depression. On the other hand, her expression of her trust and faith in the Lord was matter-of-fact. Their wasn't a trace of false sanctimony or pretentiousness about her as she shared her trust in Jesus in her situation. I couldn't help but smile as she said,
I got up this morning as was just so happy with how the Lord has been with me. I didn't realize I had an audience, so my spectator asked, 'Why are you raisin' your arms like that and waving them around?' I told 'em, 'I'm just praising the Lord and asking Him what He wants me to do today!'

Her husband Dave, a wonderful person full of good humor and inner strength as well, joined us as Nelda continued sharing about her experiences, describing the amputation - amazingly done with local anesthesia - with grit, humor and a consistent emphasis of her trust in the Lord every step of the way! When I left the hospital, I felt as if I had gotten at least as much encouragement as I had given myself and thought back to 2 Corinthians 1 - God comforts us in our trouble so that "we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God."

Reciprocal blessings dispensed by a loving God Who has provided us with all that we need, even in our most troubled times. As you go about your way this week, and you find yourself facing someone who needs an uplift, call on the God of all comfort who promises to provide enough comfort for you and the person you are helping as well as many more you will meet in the days,months and years ahead. Until next time...


Sunday, July 20, 2008

A Taste of Heaven!

My family and I have just returned from a vacation we have been planning for the last 3 to 4 years. Our adventure took us from our familiar stomping Grounds in Detroit, MI to the majestic mountainous wonder of Western Canada where my wife's sisters and their families make their homes. It was the third such trip for Luz, my older 3 daughters and I, and the first for our youngest Victoria and our son-in-law Mike.

Plane rides are always exciting and we all enjoyed our flights, but did note that the cost of fuel was leading to a more "No frills" flight experience - no meals, a small glass of soft-drink or two and maybe a very small bag of 5 or 6 miniature pretzels - NO FRILLS! Nevertheless, we wanted our focus to be on our time with family in Vancouver and Victoria, BC and what a time we had!

There were over a dozen of us assembled in Luz's Sisters homes - first Liza and her husband Tim hosted us in Vancouver and later Lanie and her husband Mike hosted us in Victoria. As always, first came the screaming and unrestrained emotion from sisters who had not seen one another for a few years, followed by waves of sumptuous food. In Vancouver we were treated to the traditional Filipino delicacies, Pancit Canton, Adobo, fish and rice with the added benefit of some healthy alternatives of fruit salad, blueberry pancakes made with unrefined flour and numerous other healthy and tasty dishes added by Liza's husband Tim. In Victoria, we had more of the same thanks to Lanie and to Cousin Ruby, and we got to witness first-hand the amazing handiwork of Lani's husband Mike, who built their house by himself - 4,000+ square feet of it, an amazing display of craftsmanship that provided more than enough room of all of us to live comfortably for the week. This was capped by a spa day at Lanie's professional Salon, where our wives and daughters were pampered at Cerelina's, the spa Lanie has named in honor of the woman who gave birth to her and her 5 siblings. I know of three of us in particular who have been blessed by the fruit of Cerelina's labor as it has manifested itself in the lives of our amazing wives!

One aspect of British Columbian living that was a real fringe benefit, was the physical element to all of the fun. We were told that BC is the healthiest of all of Canada's provinces. Everywhere we went involved walking, hiking, lakes, beaches and hills. Talk about guilt-free indulgences! As soon as you ate, you burned it off with some kind of outdoor physical activity. Another characteristic of the area that struck a cord with us was its diversity. There are parts of Vancouver that make it difficult to determine just where in the world you are! For instance, when we visited one of the Asian Night Markets, the sights, sounds, tastes and smells were so overpowering that our youngest daughter Victoria exclaimed with loud and unrestrained joy, "Mommy,I love it here in the Philippines!" That phrase got me to thinking. Though what we experienced in the night markets was wonderful, it was just a shadow of what a market experience in the Philippines is like. Granted, it had many elements one might find in the "real thing" but it was only a faint reflection of a totally different reality altogether.

I believe that is a part of what the Apostle Paul was conveying about our understanding of eternal truths and perspectives when he stated that in our walk of faith we often "see through a glass dimly." There are times when we are blessed to enjoy amazing manifestations of God's love and purpose for our lives, but even at their best, these instances are but a "foretaste of Glory Divine." Our trip was wonderful, but it had to come to an end. Tears of joy were replaced by tears of melancholy as we embarked on the ferry leaving Victoria and heading back to Vancouver and the road back to Seattle, USA. Having family members in your sight gave way once again to wondering how they were doing and keeping them and their problems in prayer from afar.

As wonderful as our time was, it makes me remember that this world isn't really my home and that there is a place being prepared for me and others who have placed their faith in the Jesus Christ. We are promised inheritances that can not be denied and loving relationships that cannot be diminished by time, space or trouble. The little bit of Heaven my family and I experienced this past week made me yearn even more for the Real Thing that will never end. I am eternally thankful for the goodness of God who gives us good things in this world to help us appreciate the great things in store in the world to come! In the meantime, I look forward to another taste of heaven as soon as He allows it! Until next time...


Monday, July 7, 2008

God Can handle Our Tough Questions!

I don't typically base my posts on sermons, but the reaction I received from the message I preached yesterday has led me to share some thoughts I presented on July 6 during my Sunday Sermon to the Eastside Congregation. I believe this particular message hit home because everyone experiences setbacks, hurts and disappointments that cause them to ask tough questions. It's comforting to know that we aren't the first generation to ask tough questions and that the Scriptures are actually full of accounts of people of faith confronting God with some very candid inquiries.

Habakkuk is one of the minor prophets of the Old Testament - not minor because of degree of importance of who he was or what he wrote, but minor because of the brevity of the book he authored as opposed to the longer or major prophetic books like Isaiah and Jeremiah. Though is book is brief in length, it is deep in content and definitely major league in the substance of what he pens. Habakkuk began his ministry during a period that was the last great stand for godliness in his generation. The nation was ruled by King Josiah, who after beginning his tenure of service as a boy, discovered the then long-neglected scriptures and led a comprehensive revival in the land that dispensed with false worship and re-established the nation's commitment exclusively to the Lord God Almighty. When Josiah died, the momentum of the revival died with him and the land began to rapidly descend back into wickedness and a total disregard of the Lord. As Habakkuk witnessed this alarming retreat to godlessness and wickedness, he presents the Lord with a series of "why" questions that strike a cord even today with anyone who has a sincere desire and devotion to live for God. See if you can relate to these questions:


I know I can definitely relate to these questions! They are gripping,honest,and pertinent to the real world and the way it seems to work. I'm not going to attempt to answer these questions point by point as I did in my sermon, because this blog entry would either be too long or not long enough. Nevertheless, I will share some of what Habakkuk's questions tell us about the nature of God.

More than anything, Habakkuk's exchange reminds us that God is open and eager for us to seek a deeper relationship with Him. Do you have a complaint about your present life circumstances? Have you experienced a numbing loss that has caused you to have doubts and uncertainties? Has the daily grind of life spawned a cynical spirit within you and tempted you to think you never see justice for all the evil
in the world? God is ready to hear your complaint. Scripture has many examples of these kinds of questions from people like Abraham, Job and David to name a few. Though the Lord does not always give us the specific "because" answer, he does give us powerful faith-building reminders of His past faithfulness and comforting thoughts of promised strength to prevent us from losing hope.

God also wants us to keep eternity in mind. The Bible is a Book that doesn't merely address the life we presently live, but the life that is to come. This includes the promise of eternal justice, Heaven or Hell. It means an eternal reward for those who know the Lord, and even recompense for those who have suffered greatly for standing firm in faith during great difficulty. Revelation 20 informs us that everyone will give an account for how they have responded to the Lord. There will be no short changing those who have kept the faith and no bypassing those who have rejected the Lord. Everyone will give an account.

We must keep God's love and concern for our troubles in mind. God cares.
He cares so much that He wants to give everyone the maximum opportunity to turn from sin and to turn to Him. 2 Peter 3:8 and 9 states the issue like this:
But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. 9The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

In other words, if it seems like God is taking a long time to make things right, take into account that His desire is to give the wicked more time to repent. The righteous in Jesus are in good stead no matter what the situation. It is those who don't know Christ who have cause for worry. God is on top of the situation and is giving more people a chance to "come home!"

So when you find yourself getting tired of running the race and fighting the good fight, remember a few verses to keep your head high and looking for the redemption God has promised will come:

Isaiah 40:31 - "But those who wait on the LORD shall renew their strength; They shall mount up with wings like eagles,they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint." So...when life feels more like a kick in the gut instead of a pat on the back, look to Lord to gain strength and don't be afraid to ask the tough questions. God can take it and he can take your faith to new heights even as you struggle in this rough and tumble world. Until next time...


Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Life Long Lessons of Panther Pride!

On June 6, 2008 one of the most important pieces of my personal development and a tremendous source of my scholastic pride and identity faded into history and will exist no more except in the cherished memories of those of us who had the distinction and privilege to be part of the Mighty Black and Gold of Hanau American High School. As a result of a reallocation of U.S. Forces and the draw down of US troop levels in Europe, The Home of the Panthers closed its doors forever and the roar of the Panthers was silenced in an emotional ceremony highlighted in the Armed Forces paper the Stars and Stripes. It's hard to communicate or explain the special community that existed amongst the military personnel and their families who were stationed in Europe from the end of WWII until the collapse of the Soviet Bloc during the period which will be forever known as the Cold War.

In many ways, the communities that existed amongst the Cold Warriors formed the closest approximation to the American Dream of Unity that I have ever been privileged to experience. Thousands of miles away from home, and divided into sub-communities that were called Kasernes in Germany, American Military members and their families created a small town feel that was warm, inviting and supportive. Going to High School was a unique experience that I would not fully appreciate until finishing my High School career stateside where the school community was much more divided.

At our school, the children of community VIP's and what the civilian world might call management (officer's kids), walked side by side with the children of blue collar types and the formen (junior enlisted and Non-commissioned Officers) and formed life-long friendships that would be extremely more difficult to experience in corresponding social circles back in the "World" (U.S.) Friendships were formed without respect to race or culture in a world that produced some of the most spectacular varieties of ethnic togetherness one could imagine. One might see a boy whose father was African-American and whose mother was German, dating a girl whose father was Puerto Rican and whose mother was Korean. There were innumerable varieties, all kinds of friendships and everybody sat together in the lunch room. This unity showed itself especially strong during times of crisis. When Iran took US hostages and the rescue attempt to retrieve those hostages failed, there was no question about whether we should have attempted it nor was there any political division among us, only deep sorrow that the mission effort had fallen short. After all, those who died in the attempt were part of our extended military family.

At good ol' Hanau High we also had the typical joys of High School with a few special distinctions. Our Varsity football team was undefeated and unscored on during one unbelievable season. At the end of the following season when the team was placed in the toughest bracket possible because of their outstanding performance, they repeated undefeated and were only scored on a few of times over the course of the season. The JROTC program in which I was involved, mirrored this accomplishment, taking down the mighty Stuttgart High School JROTC Program in a drill team Championship causing everyone who competed and lost to us to wonder who this little team from Hanau High was. It was an impression so deep that a few years later when I entered West Point, one of the members of that fabulous Stuttgart team we managed to beat, shook my hand and refused to harass me though he was an upperclassman and totally within his rights to do so during my Plebe Year. Hanau High was a special time and place.

The import of this special place and time is indelible for me. My lifelong commitment to see people come together across barriers and my devotion to break down walls of division between people comes from having seen it work at HAHS. It can be done. Whether or not I see it repeated in the world at large, I will never relent from applying the lessons of togetherness I learned at Hanau in the Christian Community. The Apostle Paul said it in unmistakable terms - All are one in Christ Jesus. Until Jesus comes or I go to Him, I will doggedly pursue this vision of oneness in Christ that can model oneness for others. Thanks to my days as a Panther, I know it's not just an illusive dream, but a powerful and possible reality. I love you Hanau High, and I'll never forget the wonderful lessons I learned in your hallowed halls! Until next time...


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Importance of Remembering the Day After

None of us wants to be forgotten. We have been created with a deep need to know that we are significant to someone somewhere and that our lives have contributed meaningfully to something beyond ourselves. Yesterday was Memorial Day - a day set aside not so much for mattress sales and barbeque's, but to remember those who gave what Abraham Lincoln so eloquently called, "The last full measure of devotion" in service to the nation. It is a remarkable thing that outstanding people at the very height of their giftedness, potentials and powers are so often called upon to put themselves in harms way, sometimes willingly running headlong into the ugliest human situations imaginable for the benefit of others who may never care to remember their Herculean sacrifices. Nevertheless, the sacrifices are made by these oft-forgotten heroes- sacrifices which forgo personal comfort, safety and long term well-being for the acquisition of a higher prize that will serve to bless the common good.

I remember a particular time when I had the opportunity to pay tribute to heroes who were out of sight, but not out of the minds of those who witnessed their sacrificial deeds. During my Junior year of High School, as a member of Task Force Hanau, the JROTC program to which I belonged while attending an American High School in Germany, our program was selected to travel to several out of the way grave sites of fallen soldiers who died in service of the nation, but were buried in lonely grave sites away from the larger American Forces cemeteries often frequented by tourists. We were very proud of the opportunity we had to fire salutes and to sound taps at these grave sites and did our very best to honor the fallen with excellence and reverence. nevertheless, the full significance of what we were doing and the work it took to allow us to pay that homage escaped me at the time. Our instructor, CW4 Donald M. Lesch, a WWII, Korea and Vietnam Veteran who invested so much of himself into youngsters like me, had to seek out and find these grave sites, obtain permission from the German government to conduct the ceremonies and coordinate with the US Armed Forces to make sure everything was done according to protocol and arrange for our logistics in traveling to the sites and back. There were no crowds, no abundance of flags, no great speeches, but there was our Task Force, a handful of veterans and a strong sense of the importance of the task in which we were involved.

As I think of the importance of remembering, I am moved to remember selfless service beyond the battlefield. There are individuals who thanklessly go about incredibly important daily tasks in which the impact is not fully understood. They serve for years, are taken for granted and pass on only to have someone look past their accomplishments without even a casual consideration. (Ever pass by the pictures of former members and pastors of your church and smirk at how out of style their clothing is while ignoring the work they did to build up a congregation that passed on a legacy which now blesses you?) In our current tendency to celebrate the new and downplay the old, we forget that all of us stand on the shoulders of many who have gone before us and served without notice or acclaim for our benefit.

The Christian Faith is built on this kind of sacrifice. We are reminded of Jesus' total embrace of this level of service in the apostle Paul's letter to the Philippians. In the second chapter of Philippians, Paul sets the standard to which every Christian should aspire:
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross!

Christian tradition informs us that the 11 faithful Apostles took this standard seriously and each displayed a loving disregard of self so that others might be blessed by the Wonderful Message they carried. I am sure at the time they made their sacrificial decisions to serve, they had no idea that they would be remembered, but cared only that the message and the Messenger be remembered for the salvation of those to follow.

As you continue about your business today, the day after Memorial Day, I want to challenge you to remember. Remember that many people have suffered in anonymous service for your benefit and their sacrifices need to be honored. Remember also that God loves you and showed that love on a Roman cross over 2 thousand years ago through His Son, that you might receive the benefit of Eternal Life at no cost to you. We receive Glory at Jesus' expense. Don't limit your remembering to Memorial Day. Let Memorial Day serve a as launching point for a lifetime of humble gratitude that causes you to serve others with no regard for self and every regard for the blessings it can bring for years to come. Until next time...