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...