Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Living With Peace and Hope in Dangerous and Uncertain Times

Can you remember the message of joy and peace that emanated from the Christmas Season less than a week ago? You're surely familiar with the message - "Peace on earth, good will to men"? It seems to have been doused almost overnight. On Christmas Day this year,over 8 years after the terror of 9-11, air safety dominated the news as a man attempted to blow up an aircraft landing in Detroit. As troubling as that event was, the man boasted that he is not alone and that a virtual army of men just like him await the right opportunities to rain fear and death on travellers around the world. On top of that, the H1N1 virus seems to be running rampant. My sister-in-law informed me that in parts of Vancouver, BC, Canada, people are wearing masks in fear of contracting the disease which is spreading among the population there at a troubling rate with no one being certain of how severe its damage will be. And, if that weren't enough to disturb one's sleep, if the Mayans, Nostradamus and the History Channel are correct, we only have a little less than 2 years to "enjoy" our time on this planet anyway, since according to "prophecies" the world is going to end on December 21, 2012! Happy New Year, right?

The world is certainly filled with trouble and problems that can dash the hopes of even the most optimistic souls. When one's optimism is based on circumstantial evidence, disappointment is bound to occur and hopes are destined to be destroyed. When I reflect on last year's hopes for a Happy New Year, I cannot help but remember the untimely passing of two friends and good men, Jeff White and Paul Sorce, whose deaths remind me that tomorrow is not promised and even the highest of hopes can be laid low by the crushing realities of life. Nevertheless, even in the face of such loss mixed together with the sober perils of a fallen and mixed up world, I do have great hope and inner peace. How is this possible? The Bible abounds with answers. In one of the great Christmas verses not often associated with Christmas, the Heralding Angel informs Mary that the Lord is with her in her coming trials and that "...nothing is impossible with God" (Luke 1:33). Jesus reminded the disciples that the world is full of tribulation but not to live timidly when facing life's dangers. He said, "In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). He further encouraged them to understand and distinguish God's Peace from man's peace. In John 14:27 Jesus said, "Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid." With God, it possible to achieve the impossible - peace of mind and spirit though the storms of life rage about us!

The apostle Paul offered a tremendous reminder of where our peace lies and what our attitude should be as we are beset with life's troubles:
2 Corinthians 4:7ff
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves;we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed...Therefore, we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison,
18. while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.

As a Christian, I am called to spend myself to make this fallen world a better place, to champion peace, to spread hope and to defend the helpless in every way that I can as long as I have breath. Nevertheless, the reality is that evil exists, death doesn't sleep, and tragic setbacks riddle our everyday lives with pain and suffering. But, I won't give up or cease to try to do good and neither should you. Why not? Because, as the apostle Paul said, this is not all there is. We are more than visible flesh and life is more than tangible experience. There is an eternal and loving God Who cares for us, even as we have rebelled in our freedom against Him, and Who continues to reach out to us as the folly of our ways and the inadequacies of our wisdom play themselves out time and time again as history marches on. There is an eternity that will be inherited and for which each of us must be prepared. The great news is that God through His Son has made The Way for us, so that no matter what we experience today or might experience tomorrow - good or bad - We can have peace and hope knowing that His Power can be shown in our suffering and His love can be realized through our refusal to be ruled by our circumstances.

With the future totally unpredictable, but with God firmly established on His throne and completely reliable, I wish you His peace, His love and His joy knowing that with Him all things are possible and through my faith in Jesus, I can truly extend to you real hope for a truly "Happy New Year!" Keeping the faith and keeping true hope alive, until next time...


Monday, December 14, 2009

How do I know she was THE ONE? Reflecting on 20 years of knowing Luz

As Luz and I approach our twentieth anniversary, I find myself reflecting on just how we came to be a couple. Though I obviously know our story through and through, I still have to think about just how it all happened! It's an important process to consider, as in my duties as a pastor, I am frequently approached by individuals who feel they may have met, "The ONE", and want to know just HOW I knew when I met Luz? What was it that distinguished her from any other woman I had met and what made me so sure that SHE was the woman for whom I had been destined?

First of all, I prayed about it. When I was a little boy, it was clear to me that my mom was a very special woman and that my dad was very fortunate man. I asked my mom, "How did daddy find you and how can I find a great wife for myself?" Not that I understood all the dynamics, but I had observed enough from my parents and others to know that not all marriages were the same and that something that important couldn't just "happen". Mom's answer was instant and easy to understand. She said, "Pray Son, that the Lord will first develop the character within you to appreciate and know how to love a good woman, and then that He will give you the wisdom to recognize her when He brings you across her path. Also ask Him to give you the patience to wait as you will encounter many women that you could marry but shouldn't, because some of them will be great women, but not the right one for you or you the right man for them to consider for marriage." That was a lot for a youngster to digest, but I understood the praying part and just asked the Lord to help me with all the stuff I didn't understand.

Time passed, I got older and experienced some of what felt like the most jarring crushes in the history of mankind. Hormones surged, emotions ran high, and on a few occasions I was smitten to an extent that seemed to be beyond human endurance. Nevertheless, I was fortunate to have been surrounded by my parents and mature friends who gave me perspective and encouraged me time had not yet come and I needed to wait. I asked again, in frustration, "How do you know when the time is right?" "Keep praying" I was told "...and keep waiting!"

What was I praying for? To a great extent, I was praying for an understanding of my own heart. My mentors made it clear that I needed to understand who I was and what I was about before I took the step to join my life to someone else. I needed to grow, develop and mature into the kind of man who could walk through life side by side with an amazing woman and be the kind of man to face not only the good times, but the hardest times life would have to offer and not abandon my spouse in the process. I also needed to be patient enough to allow the Lord to develop and mold me into such a person and wait for His decision on when I was ready for such a journey, without leaping out of my own passions or desperation.

Of course, I was also praying for the type of woman I felt I wanted, along with a list of characteristics and traits that I felt were "essential". That list went through endless changes until I reached a point of saying, "Lord, you know me inside and out. Rather than me telling you what I want, give me the wisdom to know spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally when you have answered my prayer." The Bible describes our human hearts as having an amazing capacity for deception and wickedness even when our overall intentions are good. I know Sam and know that left to myself, my ability to make stupid choices for stupid reasons knows no bounds. For this most important of choices, I needed to have my mind clear, my heart cleansed and my will surrendered to what God had planned for me. That meant spending more time considering a woman's character than her curves and being a student of a woman's way in her walk with Jesus rather than studying her way of wiggling when she walked. By God's power and with the encouragement of many friends who held me accountable, I endured.

By the time I arrived in the Philippines 20 years ago, I knew that I wanted someone, but also knew that I was clueless in understanding just the someone I needed. I also knew that Scripture promised that if a person seeks God's Kingdom and His righteousness before all else, everything else that is needed will be added . With that in mind, I traveled to a place I didn't know much about, to serve in a ministry I didn't exactly understand, to be introduced to a woman I didn't know I had been praying for my entire life. How did I know that? Well, my prayer had been for God to let me know spiritually, intellectually and emotionally. I'm not sure it was exactly in that order, because in the words of the Beatles's tune "I Saw Her Standing There" "My heart went BOOM when I crossed that room!" Nevertheless, once my pulse returned to normal and I was able to get to know her and what God had done for her and what she was doing for Him, her character was undeniable. Furthermore, her love for people and her desire to minister in the most difficult places so that would know God's love were clear indicators of her devotion to the Lord and her unwavering commitment to serve Him with her life and not just her lips. After I was convinced that by some miracle she was also interested in me, and that the Lord was performing something special between us, we began to act on the informed opinion that we had each met "The One" and that the Lord had a plan for us to be joined in marriage.

Has our journey been nothing but roses and candy? Hardly. I am convinced that when we are seeking out a life partner, we are often seeking a companion for a pleasure cruise, when we ought to be praying for a shipmate for a war at sea. Fortunately, when the Lord guides the decision, He ensures that you have the right crew, ready, willing and able to fight alongside you through all the battles of life. Luz and I have walked together through the death of a parent, the death of a child, adventures in parenting, misunderstandings, firings, miracle babies, triumphs of justice and miracles all around. I know that we face many, many more challenges in the years ahead. Nevertheless, I have great confidence that the same God who brought us together will see our union through to its proper end when one of us or both of us, goes Home in death to be with Him. How do I know? I've seen what He has done in us and for us through so many of life's ups and downs and in the lives of others who have trusted Him, I have no doubt of what He will do in the future. His Word says it. By faith we're living it. I've also seen it in the lives of so many others and that's how I know! Until next time...


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Ichabod! - What Tiger's Fall Says About Us

One of the ugliest words I have ever heard is Icahbod - used in 1 Samuel to commemorate the capture of the Ark of the Covenant of the nation of Israel and meaning "The Glory has Departed!" This word came to mind as I was reading my friend Daniel Yang's Facebook reflections on Tiger Woods' recent problems. He warned, "Samson wasn't strong enough, David wasn't holy enough, Solomon wasn't smart enough & Tiger wasn't rich enough. Fellas, be humbled & beware." I am troubled by the contemporary trend of treating celebrity's personal problems as entertainment. We seem comforted by the notion that those who appear mightier than we are have severe issues that regularly bring them down a peg or two, exposing their vulnerabilities and humanity. While I believe it is important to recognize the limitations of fame and fortune, I believe it is more important to consider what celebrity problems say about our society as a whole and the implications their troubles have for "ordinary folks".

We have to acknowledge that no one is surprised that Tiger is apparently committing adultery. It's what sports figures do. In his book "Out of Bounds" Jim Brown, one of the greatest running backs in NFL history boldly proclaimed that the general public shouldn't be surprised by celebrity excesses and vices because the unwritten rules of life make it crystal clear that "Special people deserve special treatment." In the circles in which Tiger travels, adultery and an undisciplined sexual lifestyle are the norm - consider one of his prime personal mentors was Michael Jordan, a man whose unfaithfulness towards his wife ultimately cost him his marriage and much much more. It appears that Tiger's alleged escapades may prove costly to him in what may be the most damaging area of all - his reputation.

This issue of costs is what links us with the celebrity world. Sin costs. We can pretend that our actions don't have an impact on the lives of others, but they always do. A casual sexual lifestyle as a youth, can sew the seeds of irresponsible and unfaithful behavior in my adulthood. A "devil may care" attitude towards personal integrity as long as I am "good at my job" may seem to make sense when I want to party all the time, but the reality that my life outside of work has an effect on my life inside of work will eventually catch up to me and exact a painful price I am not really prepared to pay in relationships, health and wealth.

It's not my desire to get "preachy" here but simply to make the point that our celebrities are celebrities because they reflect values we hold dear enough to pay for at astounding costs. Tiger makes his living because we place great value on what he does and the image he presents, not necessarily who he really is. It's the same with any celebrity you see in the tabloids today from "Brangelina" to "J-Lo" we don't really care about who they are, what's going on with them, or what they truly represent, we just want to be entertained! Why can't we name the top 10 teachers in the nation? Why don't we know the names of service personnel who have distinguished themselves in service to the nation in the War on Terror? Why do the most helpful organizations in the world have to beg us to send $20 a month while their staff members often live in on the edge of poverty while we'll pay a celebrity $50 just for an autographed picture - A picture that we had to buy in advance which will only take the celebrity a few seconds to sign at a convention where he will probably have a "love connection" with someone other than his spouse? The problem is us. We value superficial human abilities more than meaningful human character.

Humanity has wrestled with this problem since the beginning of time. The prophet Jeremiah challenges us to adopt a different set of standards:

This is what the LORD says: "Let not the wise man boast of his WISDOM
or the strong man boast of his STRENGTH
or the rich man boast of his RICHES,
but let him who boasts boast about this:
that he UNDERSTANDS AND KNOWS ME, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness,
justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight...(Jeremiah 9:23,24)

Jeremiah challenges us to idolize God and God alone and to spend ourselves to know Him and to commit whatever gifts we have to be about His business rather than being caught up in our own transient abilities. How can we be about His business rather than caught up in ourselves? By using our intellect, strength and wealth to show kindness, exercise justice and demonstrate righteousness everyday of our lives. Later in his challenge, Jeremiah calls people to "spend" themselves to the service of others leaving nothing behind - 100% of what we have for God's glory and others' benefit! (Just imagine, for example, if Wilt Chamberlain's boast had not been that he'd slept with 10,000 women but that he had mentored 10,000 people who had no hope before his intervention. That's spending yourself for a worthwhile cause!) If this challenge was our focus as a people, it might change the kind of people we lift up and encourage them to step up as the role models their amazing talents enable them to be.

So, with Jeremiah's words in mind and as Tiger's story unfolds, remember that his ascension to prominence is a reflection of our own values and his fall is a cause for prayer not celebration. As you pray for him and other celebrities (nationally and in your own community) whose falls are to come, make a commitment for yourself to step up Jeremiah's challenge and seek to influence others to not glory in abilities that wane, but to use whatever abilities you have been given to grow in character that lasts and can live on to produce fruit long after the "glory days" are gone. Until Next Time...


Friday, November 27, 2009

I Can't Help Myself

I just can't help remembering. 20 years ago, I was sitting on a "Big Iron Bird" in the middle of a 22-hour + adventure, making my way towards my new bride-to-be and two beautiful little girls who knew me at the time as "Daddy Sam". After a summer of challenging ministry, a conviction that the Lord was changing my ministry focus and unexpectedly falling head-over-heels in love in the Philippines I returned the the U.S. with an unrelenting drive and determination that I would get back to the Philippines before Christmas. As a seminary student with no job, no house and a really, really beat up car, it seemed improbable that I was in a position to get married, let alone support an entire family, but when God opens a door he also provides what it needed once the threshold is passed!

There was quite a bit of concern that I had bitten off more than I could chew. My mentor's wife asked me with great concern in her graceful Southern Bell style, "Sam, I concerned about you Dear. How are you going to support a wife and TWO children?" I didn't know the details, but I had spent literally every day of my life since my 5th birthday praying for the Lord to lead me in my choice of a wife and now His guidance had led me to Luz. I didn't know the particulars, but I knew I would lead me step by step and He would provide the way.

My presence on the plane was proof that the Lord WOULD make a way. On the heels of returning from the Philippines, I had just raised support for a pretty costly mission trip and here I was convinced that the Lord wanted me to return to the Philippines in less than 4 months. A dear Brother from Brazil gave me some great advice - "Sam, tell the people you know what you honestly believe the Lord has done, and what you believe he is doing now. All the while work, pray, plan, do all you can, but leave the results to Him. If it's truly His will, you'll be on a plane by December." In the last week of November 1989, I was on a Northwest 747 headed for Manila. I can't help but remember how the Lord provided.

I can't help but remember thinking about those two little girls and how my dearest friends worked so hard to help me to communicate my love to them. These friends had helped me make some flip page picture books with sound for the girls describing life in South Carolina as well as helping me make some cassette tape recordings of children's stories Like "The 3 Little Pigs", complete with sound effects and supporting cast voices. Our dorm mates got more than a few laughs listening to us make silly voices and use sound effects from our record collections to simulate the Big Bad Wolf blowing down houses! I'll never forget the HUGE hugs I received from my girls when I got back to Manila and how my friends' support had helped me to connect just a little bit closer so that I could lay a foundation for the family God was building.

I can't help but remember waking up after my first night back in the Philippines in a mission house surrounded by missionaries from New Zealand who had heard bits and pieces of the story of how Luz and I met and who were so gracious in offering encouragement and support as brothers in the Lord even though we were so newly acquainted.

I just can't help but remember feeling the Lord's peace as a coup attempt erupted 2 days after my arrival and I politely declined an invitation to leave the Philippines until a "safer" time arrived. I remembered being told that there is "No safer place than the center of God's will." As planes flew overhead and shelling was audible in the distance, I knew what God was doing, and new that he would see us through.

I just can't help but remember the joy I felt as the 4 of us stood together in a Manila park and a friend took a picture of us as night fell. God had answered the prayer of a lifetime and an abundance of prayers for daily guidance, and I was right in the center of His will, enjoying the fruit of His provision.

Over the next month, I'll be sharing my thoughts of this special time of my life. Anniversaries are designed to help us to remember times of great importance and to reflect on the impact of those times on our lives. At the 20-year mark of my amazing life journey as a husband and father, I am compelled to remember a time when God blessed me in such a powerful way, that even the gleanings of that wonderful life harvest are producing more fruit than I can contain. I hope you'll indulge my testifying of God's greatness to me through this life changing time. I'm sorry, but I just can't help myself. I hope you'll remember something wonderful that God has done for you and perhaps feel moved to some spontaneous praise too! Until next time...


Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The New Kid In Town

Today the Lord has blessed me to reach my 46th birthday, and I am truly happy and thankful. But even in what is considered, "middle age" I find myself challenged anew being placed once again in the position of being "The New Kid in Town". Some of you remember a classic song of the same name performed by the 70's group The Eagles. At the time that "New Kid in Town" was hot on the charts, my family was in the middle of a major move that would ultimately find us in what was to become my most cherished High School experience in Hanau, Germany. At the time, however, the move was an unwelcome intrusion on what was to me a perfect existence. My father saw my displeasure and in a move to teasingly encourage me actually bought the Eagles album Hotel California, which included the hit "New Kid". I was not amused, but my dad played that song at every opportunity and would turn up the volume and sing along every time it played on the radio - If you knew my dad, you would realize just how funny that was - but at the time, I wasn't smiling at all. I had toughened myself and steeled my will to believe that I knew all I needed to know and nobody had anything to offer my of any value in any of the places we were heading. Well, once I got to good ol' Hanau American High School, the kindness heaped on me by fellow students, the excellent education passed on to me by the teaching staff and the amazing Military community in which we lived softened my heart and taught me that being the "New Kid" on the block can open up important doors of perspective and teach lessons that are sometimes more difficult to learn in familiar environs.

Now that I am approaching one month of service in a new ministry setting, I am finding that the Lord has once again placed me in a position of being "The New Kid" and is calling me to be still and allow Him to teach me important truths through the freshness of a new setting. As we arrived here in Racine, I quietly wondered if my breadth of ministry service and experience had hardened me beyond my ability to respond to things I knew should touch my heart and lessons I knew the Lord would teach. A series of events this week, reassured me that my heart was not yet beyond reach and my brain was not hardened to God's efforts to teach. As our senior pastor preached a powerful message on Philippians 4 about the importance of learning the secret of contentment, I felt something welling up within me and spilling out from me that I had feared I had lost the ability to produce - tears. Not tears of sorrow, but tears of affirmation, that a deeply held truth that had been confirmed by God's Word and found a place of conviction within my heart.

Last night as I began to consider my approaching birthday and my mother's selfless and tireless commitment to make me a man who stood for good, the tears were back. Again, not tears of sorrow, but tears of gratitude for a life well-lived and an example that continues to shine in the hearts of those who knew Georgia, even as my mother's earthly lamp has been extinguished for over a decade now. Then this morning, as I returned from delivering Joana to school, the worship song "Shout to the Lord" came up on the play list and tears of joy came to my eyes as I was reminded of past times I had heard that song and the ways in which I have seen God faithfully work over the years as that song has been sung and we served with it as our soundtrack.

I am convinced that the new setting has made me open and sensitive to humbly listen to what the Lord is saying and to allow Him to teach me and touch me in ways that can sometimes be harder to achieve when we are in familiar territory and feel we have it all together. Therefore, I'm sharing the present with you I believe the Lord has given to me in my 46th year of life. Isaiah 43 puts it this way:

18 "Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.

19 See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the desert
and streams in the wasteland.

God has a mighty way of transforming a place that seems impossible to navigate or find your bearings into a new and living way that transforms, inspires and restores. You may not be the new kid in town, but God surely wants to do a new thing in your life today. Don't fight it. Let the joy come and let the tears flow and allow the Lord to teach you new lessons that will change your life and the lives of others. Until next time...


Sunday, September 27, 2009

But Then We Fooled Around And Acted Out Of Love

Eight years ago, I found myself in the midst of a church life situation that proved to be one of the most intense tests of my commitment to basic Christian principles that I ever faced. Anger, mistrust and hurt among the leadership of the church in which I was then serving manifested itself in some truly damaging and hurtful ways, leading to the dissolution of unity, the breaking of relationships and the scattering of the church family. Having arrived at the ministry full of optimism and energy with the prospect of many years of ministry service a virtual certainty, I found myself in the midst of a firestorm and ultimately without a church n which to belong and without a ministry in which I could vocationally serve.

By God's mercy, Luz and I were able to follow His leading in starting another ministry, and to be joined in that endeavor by others who had a common vision to live in a caring, multicultural community for the Glory of Jesus Christ. Yet, because of the proximity of the former ministry partners with whom we had worked, and by whom we had felt so betrayed, we wondered for several years if the forgiveness demanded by Jesus and the restoration that is a hallmark of the standard Jesus has set for His church was really possible - not just on the part of others, but for us. Could we really EVER consider the people that had hurt us so deeply to be our real brothers and sisters in the Lord?

The answer came gradually. Luz and I had a deep conviction that we had to live what we believed in front of our children and try with all of our might NOT to drag them into the fray. Because churches blend the personal and professional lives of vocational Christian workers, the families of the workers are not necessarily shielded from the fallout of church rifts and difficulties. We made a promise to ourselves that we would encourage our children to continue their friendships formed within the church and to always treat former church members with respect regardless of what we may have thought their role might have been in the church debacle.

Luz and I were especially touched when we ourselves were treated with the respect we had demanded of our children by the children of people we felt had hurt us. It was a clear indication that there were others that were wrestling with the ramifications of the church's struggle and committed to apply the basic loving principles of the faith by trying to turn the tide of the situation towards healing. It showed us that sometimes, responses to deep hurts can be slow, but one must be alert for signs that changes of heart might be taking place.

More than that, there were individuals along the way who served as torchbearers in the process of trying to live like Jesus who, in spite of the hurts, stubbornly refused to take sides and just tried to love everybody into loving everybody else regardless of which "side" of the church split they might have been. With these siblings of faith in the mix, the walls of separation gradually began to wear down. People who were not speaking, began to hold conversations. People who had secretly vowed not to fellowship with other individuals began breaking bread with those very individuals they had vowed to shun. People like me, who thought they would never find themselves singing, worshipping and fellowshipping in the context of a Sunday service in the midst of that heretofore painful setting, found themselves singing, worshipping and fellowshipping in that same setting.

This Sunday, my family and I were graciously invited by friends to attend a worship service at our former place of service so that those who knew us might be able to pray for us and bid us a loving farewell. When we arrived, former co-laborers and church members practically mobbed us in love. There were hugs, tears, laughter, and the expression of some regrets but more than anything, a warm and overflowing display of acceptance. This acceptance was made possible by those who tenacious clung to the good - good memories of ministry: baptisms, weddings, comforted grief, and daring outreaches. The acceptance was also made possible by good memories of fellowship: funny stories, great times around food and good times just hanging out. Most everyone had grown in faith, grown in service, grown in humility and grown in love. It seemed we shared an understanding that God's Kingdom was best served when we patiently expected Him to live out His truths in us as He patiently waited for us to respond in loving obedience to His Truth.

As I stood in front of that congregation being blessed and prayed for in response to our entering a new chapter of ministry service in Racine, WI I couldn't help but reflect of the great love passage of 1 Corinthians 13:
4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; 5 does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; 6 does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never fails.

Love suffers long and never fails when we are committed to it. For a season in our service here in Metro Detroit, there was a lot of selfish foolishness but then we fooled around and acted out of love, and saw God glorified, His Word confirmed and our lives changed. Perhaps you've been deeply hurt in some church situation. Maybe you feel as if there is no way anything beautiful can emerge from your pain. I challenge you to remember that God's love is all about the Long Haul and that if you commit yourself to live in His love, you will not only see changes around you, you will see changes IN you! Let God's love get a hold on you. I know I'm glad I did.

Until next time...


Friday, August 28, 2009

Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow -

I have experienced my share of painful moments in ministry, and this past Sunday ranks extremely high on the list. How does one share the news with the congregation you planted and have served for 7 years that you are absolutely convinced that the Lord has brought your time of direct service with that beloved family of faith to a close and has directed you to move on to another place of service? Well, of course, you just have to say it, but the declaration itself is often not adequate for addressing the many questions that arise as the faithful flock ponders the news that can present a great deal of uncertainty as to what comes next. I have a few thoughts that I hope will offer reassurance to those with any concerns and confidence to all that God is in this decision and this decision will result in blessings and growth for all who are engaged in His Kingdom work as it pertains to Eastside Community Church of Harper Woods. It is truly a moment that is sweet and sorrowful at the same time.

My first thought is this: Eastside is not MY church. I mean this in the most absolute sense. Jesus said The Church - all believers from all ages individually and all local bodies and collections of believers who have come together in His name past, present and future are HIS. That means Eastside is His possession, not mine and I must make decisions related to Eastside's well-being not necessarily according to what makes me comfortable or what makes life easier for me. Jesus has a Kingdom agenda for Eastside. I have come to an understanding that my primary role in God's Kingdom agenda for Eastside Community Church was to get it up and running. I believe the Lord has put the gifts that Luz and I possess to good use in this catalytic, get-things-going role and that Eastside is now primed to grow and expand under the leadership of another pastor with gifts and skills that lend themselves to growing and expanding a small church administratively and ministerially. The potential for the future of Eastside is exciting and it is sweet!

My second thought is focused on the members of Eastside themselves. My Eastside family is wonderful, beautiful, magnificent and glorious. These amazing people consistently make an impact on the immediate community and the world at large that is proportionately much greater than their numerical size. My love for these people is boundless and their love for me and my family has been and is immense. It is because of this great love and my family's interconnectedness with the members of Eastside that our departure is painful. If there were no love, no affection and no concern for the people that have been my extended family for the last 7 years, we could simply pull up our stakes and leave without a second thought. But the love overflows, the affection abounds and the concern is eternal. For us, though the situation full of sweetness as we look toward the future, because of our monumental past, it is also accompanied with a profound sense of sorrow.

Nevertheless, the call persists. In the convergence of events, circumstances, and people that the Lord uses to help us discern His will at any given moment, Luz, the girls and I believe without doubt, that the Lord has called us to transfer our direct ministry gifts and daily ministry operations away from Eastside Community Church of Harper Woods, MI and towards Grace Church of Racine, WI. There are no differences in theology, mission or purpose. The doctrinal statements of the two congregations are virtually the same and both local bodies are inextricably dedicated to the Great Commission - taking the good news of Jesus Christ to all the world - and to the Great Commandment - demonstrating the love of Jesus Christ to all people in real life and real time.

These commonalities are strong and bind both bodies together in the economy of God. Nevertheless, their histories and ministry foci are somewhat different. Eastside is a smaller, newer, more diverse congregation with a heart for ministry and poised for growth in infrastructure and the coordination of its ministry structures. Grace Church Racine is a larger, older and less diverse congregation with a strong infrastructure seeking to implement new ministries to reach the community and new opportunities to reflect the beauty of diversity within the context of the local church. The Lord has used my family and I to establish Eastside as a significant presence on the east side of Detroit and as a useful help to other ministries around the world. Eastside is now ready to grow in number and in strength under the direction and leadership of the person of God's choosing in God's time. Grace Racine, though much older and extremely well-established, is at a time in its history that it is prepared to initiate new ministries and strategies to reach the Racine area, the Chicago-Milwaukee corridor and the world as it never before. Joining the Grace Racine family once again places my family and I in a position to initiate, create and implement new strategies to reach those who need to know the love of Jesus Christ on a very broad scale and to assist, encourage and partner with smaller congregations who are committed to do the same.

Our decision is truly a Kingdom focused decision, rooted in our desire to pursue the Lord's will and maximize the use of our gifts for His Kingdom. It is a hard decision emotionally, yet it is an easy decision when our focus is turned towards the Lord and His agenda. We love Eastside. We love Grace Racine. Above all we love the Lord and we are committed to follow Him even when it hurts. I ask you my family and friends to pray for us and to join us in praying for the congregation we are leaving and the congregation we are joining. Also, feel free to ask any questions you might have regarding this move and our perspective on God's plan as it pertains to us. Parting is indeed such sweet sorrow, but following Christ's direction brings us joy and the joy of the Lord remains our strength. Until next time...


Saturday, August 22, 2009

Passing the Baton

"I will guard everything within the limits of my post and quit my post only when properly relieved!" So states the U.S. Army's First General Order. It is a principle of service that I have continued to apply beyond military endeavors and which has shaped my attitude towards ministry service since I began following the Lord's calling on my life over 25 years ago. It was in that spirit that 12 years ago, Luz, our girls and I left our beleoved ministry in Cleveland and began our Motown ministry adventure. Our time of ministry here in "The 'D'" has been punctuated by almost every human emotion - joy, sorrow, triumph, disappointment, heartache, victory, doubt and hope. Our family has grown and experienced God's amazing love in abundance all along the way. We have dreamed boldly and we have seen God's faithfulness to us in every situation through which we have traveled and have come away from even the most painful of experiences with a deeper faith in the Lord and a renewed commitment to walk forward in our lives whatever the circumstance.

Nevertheless, as vocational Christian workers, even when we have emotionally felt that we were riding the crest of a wave, we have always endeavored to be sensitive to God's leading and to follow His call wherever it might take us. It is for that reason that after much prayer, contemplation and reflection, we have arrived at the conclusion that the Lord is calling us to pass the baton of leadership at Eastside Community Church to others and to follow His call to Wisconsin. There I will serve on the staff of a wonderful Church and a strong body of Christians dedicated to the Great Commission and the Great Commandment as the Pastor of Outreach. It is my duty in that ministry capacity to lead the congregation in outreach ministries "Here, there and everywhere" in accordance with Acts 1:8 which would include local and International ministries.

It is our sentiment that our work in Eastside has reached its climax and that it is time to allow others to build upon the foundation that the Lord has mercifully allowed us to establish. It is also our belief that our next ministry assignment offers an optimal opportunity for us to put our gifts to use in the most effective way at this time in our lives and at this stage of our ministry experience. The passion and focus that has characterized all of our ministry assignments will continue, it is just the setting and context that will change. Also, the diversity, warmth and heartfelt outreach that have characterized Eastside will also continue and I believe grow as new leadership emerges with a fresh sense of God's purpose and direction for Eastside of Detroit.

I will continue to share my thoughts on faith and life through the vehicle of this Blog. As I continue to share, please keep in mind that the next two months or so will be a time of transition in the ministries we are bridging - much like the passing lane of a relay race where responsibilities for one leg of the race taper off and, as the baton is exchanged, the responsibilities for another leg rev up to full speed.

We ask for your prayers as we seek to follow the Lord where He has led us. Please feel free to let us know how we can be of service to you and encourage you in the faith during this exciting period of our lives. Until next time...


Friday, August 14, 2009

Eternity in Their Hearts

During the past four days, our church has been fully engaged in our annual action-packed VBS ministry we call Kids Adventure Week. It's a week filled with fun, games and activities all geared to introduce children to who Jesus is and how Jesus wants us to live. I am amazed at how spiritually attuned even the youngest children can be. I was most amazed to have a reminder of this truth hit very close to home.

While chatting about church business, my youngest daughter Victoria, who is four, played all around me, hopping in my lap, kissing me on the cheek, hitting me with various objects, seemingly oblivious to the conversations Luz and I were having. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Victoria asked a question that piqued my interest: "Daddy, what's your mommy's name?" "Georgia." I replied. "Where is she now?" Victoria continued. "With Jesus." I answered. "How did she get there?" Victoria followed up. I paused. "How do I explain this?" I thought. "Well, I guess I just need to say it." I sat Victoria on my lap and began to more directly engage her in conversation. "She died." I stated plainly. "What does die mean?" She inquired. "Well, it's when your body stops working and your spirit goes on to Forever. For people like Grandma who know Jesus, those people go to be with Him." "Will you die Daddy?" I really didn't want to think about that, but it was a great question and a good reminder of how I should approach the rest of my life. "Yes." I said. "When?" She retorted. Another good question. I thought of friends who have passed on from accidents, disease, mishaps and considered my family history and other factors as well. "I really don't know. I'm asking Jesus to let it be a long time from now so I can be with you for a while. But, it's up to Him. It will be when He has planned it." I answered. She responded immediately. "What about me? Will I die?" Wow. "One day Sweetheart. Everyone dies. Most likely it's a long time from now, and Jesus has plenty for you to do before that. But it's a good thing to remember." Her questions had me reflecting on some pretty critical issues. She frowned. "I don't understand everything you're talking about Daddy." I reassured her, "That's OK. It can take a while to understand what dying is and even Daddy doesn't understand it all yet." That satisfied her curiosity for the time being. "Can I go play now?" She asked. "Of course!" I answered. She hopped out of my lap and was once again on her way.

Ecclesiastes 3:11 states that God, "...has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end." Human beings have been created to understand that there is more to life than what we can see in the here and now. Even a four year old has a cosmic curiosity that causes them to ponder deep questions and seek meaningful answers. Jesus was well aware of this a took time to address the spiritual needs of children. Many of us are familiar with Jesus' advocacy for children as expressed in the gospels. Mark 10:13-16 reports,
1People were bringing little children to Jesus to have Him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.

Jesus became indignantly angry when His disciples became too absorbed with their own goals and agendas to recognize the clear responsibility and opportunity of ministry that stood right before them. I am thankful to Victoria for reminding me of the reason we do our Kids Adventure Week each year. Children are of the utmost importance to Jesus and deserve our prioritized focus, our loving attention, our nurturing touch and our spiritual blessing. Keep your eyes open in your daily walk for the opportunities the Lord will give you to bless a child. The attention you give will please the Lord and may help to provide some important answers to the spiritual questions the Lord has placed in their hearts. until next time...


Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Real Men and Umbrellas

An endearing character in a 70's slapstick comedy had a recurring line that boiled down the challenges of manhood in a sngle phrase: "It's hard to be a man, Baby!" During my own growing years, my father must have felt the same way. His sentiments about the difficulties of manhood were expressed in a careful mixture of tenderness and toughness, designed to make me a caring, but tough man. One of the elements of my dad's toughening process was teaching me to deal with being wet. If it rained, we didn't stop any outdoor physical work activities. He held to the Army axiom, "If it ain't raining, we ain't training!" Besides that, I was never allowed to carry an umbrella. "You're not made out of sugar! You won't melt!" My dad would teasingly taunt. The principle that real men couldn't be stopped by water was reinforced time and time again. When I walked to school and it started to rain, I knew better than to expect a ride. "I wasn't made out of sugar. I wouldn't melt." The years passed and it kept raining. Even after I left my parent's home, through military training, missionary ventures, ministry experiences of all kinds, married life and fatherhood, it kept raining. I still wasn't made out of sugar and I still wouldn't melt.

Then came my latest visit with my father. I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to see Dad for a day in North Carolina this week. We spent a day laughing and recalling times past - retelling stories of the tough and tender lessons my parents meted out and how those lessons had provided wisdom and guidance for me in all sorts of situations. My father was curious about the "full details" of many of the stories I had abbreviated over the years to keep him from worrying and to prevent him from knowing just how painful some of the events of my life had been. I shared about the loss of our daughter Samantha and just how close we had come to losing our daughter Victoria at birth. I told of almost being shot in the Philippines on a couple of occasions. I shared some of the more harrowing stories of our ministries among the poor and some of my most emotionally trying times in ministry, like the time when fellow minister absconded ministry funds and used them to corrupt a vulnerable coworker and to support an extramarital affair that almost collapsed our ministry. I shared the victories too, the funny tales and the miracles - all of which made my dad laugh with glee. Still, I could see that he continued to reflect on the tougher times I had just shared with him.

All the talking made us hungry, so dad and I went out for Chinese Cuisine. I drove us both to the nearest take out restaurant and Dad decided to wait in the car. While the order was being prepared, it began to rain - hard. Remembering our conversation, I began to chuckle. It looked like I'd have another opportunity to prove my manhood! A few minutes later, I turned to face the cashier to pay for the order. I turned to see how Dad was faring in the car and couldn't believe my eyes. Dad was shuffling along towards the door with an umbrella in his hand. He came to the door and closed the umbrella as he stepped inside. I just couldn't resist the temptation. "It's alright Dad!" I gently teased, "I'm not made out of sugar!" He smiled but I noticed tears were in his eyes. "I know," he said. "But I think you've been rained on enough." Then he handed me the umbrella. The tears were mine now. I paid for our food,and Dad and I walked to the car arm in arm under the umbrella . The was nothing more to prove, just a whole lot of love to share. A great lesson in parenting, and my dad barely said a word. Just a day in my life, with the man who gave me life - a real man who continues to teach me what manhood is all about. Until next time...


Thursday, July 30, 2009

Remembering the Price of a Nice Day

One of my most cherished summer vacations came in the days immediately after the end of my Plebe Year at West Point. With the rigors and demands of Plebe Year behind me, I made my way to Fort Bliss, Texas, where my father was attending the U.S. Army Sergeants' Major Academy in preparation for his promotion to Command Sergeant Major and the fulfilment of the highest career goal an enlisted soldier in the United States Army can achieve. After relishing a few lazy days to just relax and regroup, my father invited me to accompany him to a social gathering of other "E-9"'s from the Army and as well as those from other branches of the military who were also attending the Academy.

One of his more colorful comrades whom I had the privilege of meeting was a Marine Corps Sergeant Major - a Recon Marine, Sergeant Major Solomon. He was a "typical" Marine - which means he wasn't typical to any average person you would ever meet - VERY highly motivated, very confident and very proud to tell you why he felt the Marines did everything better than everyone else and very ready to prove it! While these "Top Sergeants" were conversing, a bumper sticker on Sergeant Major Solomon's car caught my attention. It read, "Have a nice day America. Your Marine Corps is ON DUTY!" The truth of that statement grabbed me, especially in the context of standing in a parking lot alongside veteran service personnel who had all served their country sacrificially and had never forgotten the price that accompanies the freedoms all Americans enjoy so readily and that many Americans just as readily to often take for granted. It's just too easy to forget that while we work, play and sleep in comfort and safety, brave people driven by a love a freedom and a devotion to the principles for which this nation stands face continuous and innumerable perils for our benefit.

That is why any reminders of the cost at which our freedoms are maintained are appropriate and worth noting. I received such a reminder this morning as a friend and West Point classmate forwarded an article to me recounting the homecoming of an Illinois National Guard unit that her husband commands and that has just completed a tour of duty in Afghanistan. The Chicago Tribune article is entitled, "Not Everyone Comes Home". It is an excellent and touching article. The title alone stands a simple reminder that even when we celebrate the return of those who have served in harm's way, there are absences that go unnoticed by casual observations but that are all too conspicuous by those who returned alive, their families and the families of those who perished in the service of the nation.

After finishing the article, it occurred to me that had I not received this reminder, I would have very likely gone about my daily tasks without quite remembering that I am able to enjoy many pleasures casually because of people for whom the word "casual" in no way applies to any aspect of their lives. They are always "on" - standing ready to drop everything to confront the adversaries of liberty, even at the risk of their own lives. All of this, so that the rest of can "have a nice day."

As you consider the rest of your day, let me give you a little homework. When you have a little free time, click on the link I have included in this entry and reflect once again on the challenging work that is being carried out by those who serve in the military. When you've finished, think of how you might offer a personal message of gratitude to someone who is serving, has served, or who is paying a price themselves by being the surviving family member of someone who has demonstrated "the last measure of devotion." It will be a tribute that is well-deserved and much appreciated. Also, from now on, whenever someone addresses you with the benedictory salutation, "Have a Nice Day", use it as a reminder to remember the needs of those who are serving and the life-changing sacrifices they make for us all. Now, go on! Have a nice day! Just promise to remember how much it costs.

Until next time...


Friday, July 24, 2009

¡Manos arriba! The Challenges of Profiling

I was running a bit late and needed to get to the church for a sound check before the wedding. I was to sing a solo and was eager to make sure everything was just right for my friends. I had just pulled out of our seminary's boulevard and was headed towards the downtown area of Columbia, SC. Though I was in a hurry, I made sure not to exceed the speed limit since it was hard enough to make ends meet in seminary without having to add traffic tickets in the mix. Just as I was nearing the interstate, I saw several police cars behind me closing in at incredible speed. I pulled to the side to let them by and thought, "Wow, somebody's in trouble!" I had no idea. To my total shock, one pulled in front of me, several behind me and one the the side with a shotgun drawn and pointed at me, mouthing in the harshest possible language for me to pull over. As I came to a stop, several law enforcement officers bounded from their vehicles with heavy weapons drawn, surrounded my car and yelled for me to get out of my vehicle with my hands up! At this point, my parent's training kicked in. "Anytime you deal with law enforcement officers who for some reason believe you to be a criminal they must apprehend, be as respectful, courteous and compliant as possible. Do NOTHING to agitate, irritate or provoke a law enforcement official to even consider you are resisting them, especially when their weapons are drawn. If you are innocent and you heed our advice, you might live to fight them in court." That advice flashed through my mind as well as other instances in my life that I had been mistaken for someone involved in criminal activity and found myself staring down the barrel of a drawn weapon.

As I slowly and carefully kept my hands visible and opened the doors of my vehicle to get out, the officers barked harsh and rather vulgar directives telling me to place my hands on my vehicle and to spread my legs. As I was doing this, the voice of the officers changed. "Wait a minute." he said. He then asked his comrades, "You notice anything strange?" One of his partners replied in a quieter tone, "Yeah, he's wearing a tuxedo." A could hear other officers walking to the rear of my vehicle. One of them said, "There's a sticker from the Bible College on the bumper, some christian stickers and an 82nd Airborne patch too!" The leading officer's face changed slowly as he asked me, "Are you a CBC (Columbia Bible College) student?" I replied, "Yes Sir officer - actually I attend the seminary, but yes Sir, I am." he then asked, "What wre you doing about thirty minutes ago?" I replied, "I slept in, spent some time studying in my room, then showered to get ready for my friend's wedding at a Presbyterian Church downtown." He looked at me, then his compadres who had inspected my vehicle, lowered his weapon and said, "It's clear we've made an error. You fit the description of someone who just fled a murder scene and has numerous other serious warrants outstanding as well, and your vehicle is the same, make, model and color as the vehicle in which he fled. it's obvious ou're not him. You're free to go." With that, I got back in my vehicle, they returned to theirs, and we were all on our way.

Was I the victim of profiling? Yes. Was it understandable? Yes. Did I like it? No, but I understood the officer's perspective and didn't allow the incident to cloud the rest of my day or life. There are times when peace officers must draw quick conclusions with limited information and act on their hunches with little room for second guessing. In a similar situation, I certainly would have taken the same action that the officers took towards me. There are other incidents, however, that are significantly different in context and require a great deal more restraint when experienced. On another occasion while in seminary, I was attending a meeting for our school's first welcome week event. I had forgotten to bring some notes to the meeting and ran back to the dorm with my travel-sized Bible in my hand. It took me a while to find my notes, but I eventually located them. When I emerged from the dorm with the notes and my Bible, a light suddenly shone in my eyes, and I heard those chilling words, "Freeze. Slowly put down your weapon and get your hands up!" I froze. "What weapon?" I thought. Acting on instinct and my parent's training, I slowly put down everything in my hands and raised them up high. I heard footsteps approaching. As the officer got closer I heard a sigh of embarrassment, saw him holster his weapon and heard him say, "Sam?" I replied, "Yes, Sir." As he drew closer I realized that I knew the officer - actually a bonded security guaard authrozied to use a weapon - and he knew me. He informed me that a call had been received saying a threatening looking black man had been seen running towards the dorm area with a dark object that appeared to be a weapon in his hand. I reflected, "Was I threatening looking? Very fit (at that time) pretty serious looking when not smiling. Small Bible that could be mistaken for a weapon. maybe." But I was still frustrated. I breathed deeply and summoned every bit of godliness I could muster in a situation I knew had now been diffused. Not in a chatting mood, I asked "Can I go now?!" My friend responded, "Oh, oh...yeah. Go ahead!" I had experienced profiling in a totally different context, much less threatening than the first incident at a glance, but in many ways, a situation that was actually much more dangerous for me!"

Of course, I am sharing these memories in light Harvard University Professor Henry Gates and his recent experience in Cambridge,Massachusetts where he was arrested in the context of his own home. As a citizen who understands the need for law and order and who appreciates the diligence of a concerned neighbor, I can see the one side of the equation. Law enforcement officers as a matter of survival must err on the side of caution as a matter of life and death. A call from a concerned citizen, the abundance of clever criminals and the need to protect the innocent could lead to a decision similar to the one the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, made, especially if his experience had placed him in situations that validated his conclusions. On the other hand, as an African-American male who has experienced profiling numerous times and continues to experience it in many different contexts beyond the two incidents I've shared, I can understand the frustration of being caught up in a situation that might have seemed ludicrous.

One attribute that seems conspicuously absent from both Sgt. Crowley and Professor Gates is humility. Professor Gates may have assumed that his position and standing in the community had made him exempt from profiling and finding himself in such a position. It doesn't. He may also have forgotten that one captures "more flies with honey and vinegar" and that a "soft reply turns away wrath." In most of my profiling situations, I have found that the use of courteous speech and thoughtful and careful responses has allowed those charged with enforcing the law to take a step back, reevaluate their actions based on my response and come to a better conclusion that the one at which they had first arrived. As Carol King said in her song "Smackwater Jack" one must take great care in trying "to talk to a man with a shotgun in his hand." The professor might have later thanked the officer for his zeal and carefulness and used the moment to "win a friend", by commenting on the complexity of law enforcement when race, class and profiling merge together in the "fog of a moment".

On the officer's part, his refusal to apologize for anything he did is a failure to acknowledge that even when one takes a step that one believes is right - and which may be "right" procedurally, one must have the ability to regroup after the revelation that one's response was in error "factually." Imagine the power if Sgt. Crowley had said, "Sir/Ma'am, it's clear I made an error. My intent was to protect your home from an intruder. I did my duty in your interest, not understanding who you were. I just want to reassure you that we will be vigilant in protecting you and your property. You have my sincerest apologies, however, for mistakenly thinking that you were the intruder and embarrassing you publicly by arresting you. If I can do anything, including making a public statement to help to restore clarity and truth to the situation, be assured I will be glad to do so."

Perhaps I am asking too much here. We're not talking about a street thug and a crooked cop. We have a highly respected professor and a seasoned, veteran police officer. It seems that between the two of them, they could think beyond self-justification and think about true reconciliation. As a Christian I must hold myself to a higher standard on both sides of such issues. Christian forgiveness is an exercise in taking hits. It means, regardless of the other person's response, I will take the high road. This incident could have presented a wonderful opportunity for the professor and the officer to show how two reasonable people can find themselves in an ugly situation, but make an effort when time and information allows, as this situation has allowed, to pause - step back and regroup with an appreciation for another's perspective and the human decency to rise above the need to be right by doing right. I know that life being what it is, I will certainly face future profiling situations. I ask you my friends to pray for me - as I will pray for you - that when found in such positions, I will have the courage to pause, reflect and to do the right thing. If enough of us commit to this standard, maybe we will make at least a small dent in our nation's on-going challenge to truly live out its creed: E pluribus unim - From the many, ONE! Until next time...


Monday, July 6, 2009

20 Years Ago In Manila - Lessons from a Love Story!

It was breathtakingly beautiful! Palm trees, crystal blue water, perpetual sunshine - just a gorgeous place! I had read of how Douglas MacArthur had been enchanted by the striking view of Manila Bay, but didn't fully understand until I saw it for myself - I was definitely spell-bound. Then I met the people. Friendly, hospitable, courteous, I knew this wasn't Heaven - there was enough poverty and pain present to keep reality within my grasp, but still I found the place truly enchanting! I wasn't the only one who noticed. In fact, several of my colleagues had also managed to notice that there was an abundance of smiling, friendly and beautiful Christian women serving with us as we began carrying out our duties as Missionary Stewards during Lausanne II (Manila 1989), the Second Global Congress of World Missions - sponsored by groups like the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Our co-laborers had not escaped my notice either, but I had steeled my mind to be focused. "We don't have enough time for socializing." I explained. "We can be friendly, but our duty comes first and there's way too much of that to have time for coffee and chit-chats." Yes, I had it all figured out. But that was before the Xerox machine broke down, and before I met her.

We were a few days into the conference and I had come to know the Philippine International Conference Center (PICC) like the back of my hand, and a good deal of the surrounding part of Manila too. I had run all kinds of errands. I served as a Body Guard for people who made runs to Embassy Row on Rojas Boulevard and served as a "gofer" - going for this and going for that - on all kinds of problem-solving adventures that blessed me with a good deal of exposure to the area and to a number of fascinating missionaries from all around the world and some pretty high profile folks too! Everything was humming along perfectly until my supervisor, Bill Thatcher, asked me to go back to the Central Office to make copies for a Plenary Session speech that needed to be translated. I just didn't want to do it. I don't know why, or what got into me, but I spent 10 minutes trying to convince him that he could find somebody else to do it. "No." Bill insisted. "I want YOU to go!" I grudgingly gave in, and took the materials I was given to the central office to be copied. I opened the door and then I saw her. She was on the phone and efficiently and effectively moving people, projects and paper - getting things done. I walked over to the copier to get started on the copies, but couldn't get it to work. "Well", I thought, "that might give me an excuse to chat with her." She noticed I was waiting and looked up smiled and asked if she could be of help. BEAUTIFUL smile. BEAUTIFUL PERIOD! I felt like someone had hit me with a gazillion megawatts of high voltage electricity. I had NEVER felt this and hoped it wasn't what I thought it was. It felt like I had a stupid look on my face and I prayed she hadn't noticed. I tried to play off what I was feeling and asked for her assistance in making the copies. She assisted right away, directing me towards another copier, removing a project she was working on as she helped me. The project contained information about the agency she served with, Youth With A Mission, and the work she did with children in a severely impoverished area of the city situated on a garbage dump and known as "Smokey Mountain". I was fascinated by the work and fascinated by her. I found out her name was Luz Bautista and knew right away that I would find as many excuses as I could to run more errands to the office. When I returned to Bill and asked if he needed any more copies, he didn't ask me why, but smirked in a way that made me suspect that he had a hunch. I guess those Gazillion Megawatts left a something on my face that was hard to hide!

In the days immediately after that encounter, I did manage to find all sorts of reasons to run errands to the central office. In the midst of an insane schedule, I always managed to swing by the central office to say "Hi" to Luz. I even began to leave her written messages when she wasn't in (a strategy that almost backfired as my first mote was misdirected to another woman named Luz - "Luz" is a very common name in the Philippines!) Nevertheless, it all eventually got straightened out. After sharing our hopes, dreams, and vision for serving the Lord over more than a few cups of coffee and late night phone conversations, it was clear that God had brought us together.

I won't go into the details in this entry, but suffice it to say I had no idea of how much of a quest was in store for me in the pursuit of making Luz Bautista my wife. The excitement involved Labor Strikes, Air Strikes, Negotiating with Governments and even powerful church officials. The adventure exposed the redemptive power of chastity and restorative power of selflessness. My oddessy also fulfilled years and years of prayer that started when I was a very little boy, who at my mother's gentle urging began asking for a wife that God faithfully and powerfully provided in a totally unexpected way at a totally unexpected time.

Yes, twenty years ago this week I was struck by a lightning bolt named Luz. I can't stop the tingling, and 20 years later though there have been some frowns and some tears too, I'm still stuck with a silly grin that I can't quite explain. For those of you who are looking for love and fulfillment in your life, I don't really have any instant formula to give you. I can share this timeless principle from a well-known but frequently ignored directive from Jesus:
But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you(Matthew 6:33).

A friend of mine put it this way: "You take care of God's business, and He'll take care of yours." J. Hudson Taylor, the faithful missionary to China had his own take on the principle. He said, "God's work, done in God's way will never lack God's supply."

If you're struggling to see God at work in your life, is God's Way and His Work your first priority? Are you pursuing Him knowing that He will lead to you to everything and everyone you need, or are you pursuing everything and everyone, hoping that God will jump in and go along for a ride according to your plans later? God has been very merciful and mighty in my life, not because I was good, but because when He chose to work powerfully for me, I wasn't so far away from His hand that I couldn't recognize His move when He made it. I challenge you today to stop making Jesus your motto or logo. He needs to be your Lord, which means HE'S in charge of your life! When He is in charge, as His hand moves, you won't have to scurry or worry trying to figure out if He's working. Instead, you'll be ready to conform to His will following the leading of His hand. It all came together for me by following His Word and His Way. As I have followed, He has been more than willing to lead and guide me in a ways I can't miss. God hasn't changed. He can do the same for you in your life situation as well if you just follow His lead and let Him have His way. To think He showed me all that through a love story. Until next time...


Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Today I woke up burdened. My heart was heavy, my mind was troubled and my spirit grieved. I cannot readily attribute my sentiment to any particular cause or situation. At first I thought I had "the blues" but what I felt was more spiritually profound than merely "feeling low." It wasn't melancholy or any emotive state that could be easily explained by some natural occurrence or impending event. What I felt was a very deep spiritual stirring that evoked emotions I wasn't sure how to express, but that I knew needed to be released. As I sat puzzled by my state of mind, I reflected on a verse that provides a strong spiritual principle too often overlooked or by-passed by "Book of James," action oriented Christians like me. What verse? Psalm 46:10 - "Be still, and know that I am God." After I had taken the time to just sit, be still and listen, I understood the burden that God had placed on my heart. It was really a very simple, straight-forward impulse that tugged at my very soul - "Talk to Me." Luz and I pray daily as individuals and we also pray together every morning for a multitude of requests and for the variety of unknown circumstances we know we'll face on any given day. What I felt the Lord communicating to me in the quiet stillness of just waiting and contemplating was something even deeper. He wanted me to truly "unload" on Him so that He could truly minister comfort, direction, peace and guidance to me. In other words, He didn't just want me to execute the daily discipline of prayer - a good thing - He truly desired for me to communicate to Him from the depths of my heat with tears, laughter, anger, pain and joy - in spirit and in truth - the BEST thing. Jesus said,
...a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth(John 4:23-25.
It is important to note that the beginning of the Psalm 46 passage I quoted earlier says,
God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.
We may fail to recognize this, if we don't take the time to be still and listen to Him so that we can meaningfully commune with Him not just from our lips, but from our hearts.

So let me challenge you. Make the time and take the time to slow down, sit still and let God speak to you in a way that opens your heart to freely and honestly communicate with Him so that the cloudy burdens you have can be transformed into shining rays of sunlight and God's joy that you can share with others. This transformation will result in God's glory, their blessing and your own fulfillment and satisfaction as you learn and carry out the will of God in your life. Stop fretting, worrying and scheming, rather be still and know that the Lord is God! Until next time...

Thursday, June 25, 2009

When Kings Die

I had never felt so sleepy. We had only been in Germany for a few days and I was still trying to recover from jet lag. My mom and dad were enjoying catching up on 6 months worth of news and Dad was eager for Mom to fill him in on all that I had been doing while we stayed with Grandma in Mississippi waiting for quarters to become available so that we could join him in Europe. The radio was tuned to the Armed Forces Network (AFN) and the program was cranking out oldies from the '50's. Suddenly, the music stopped and an announcer's voice woke me up and broke news that just didn't seem possible. He said, "Ladies and Gentleman, The King is dead! Elvis Presley died today of undetermined causes in his Memphis home of Graceland. We are interrupting all programming to bring you exclusives on the life and times of Elvis Aaron Presley."

And so it all began. There were precious archival interviews with Elvis that had been conducted when he had been stationed near our location as a soldier in Germany with the 3rd Armored Division. There were on the street interviews with Germans who had known Elvis, special reports from the States, Wolfman Jack specials, etc. EVERYONE seemed touched by this unexpected passing of an American Original. Elvis, The King of Rock and Roll, was dead and even in far away Deutschland his music and persona had touched millions.

Eerily, I was reflecting on that time earlier this morning as I painted our front porch and listened to some old Elvis standards, including his MAGNIFICENT southern Gospel arrangements. (If you think his Rock and Roll is awesome, you should hear his Gospel tunes - WOW!) I thought about how much he had to offer and did offer, yet how much he failed to accomplish due to his inability to really find any anchor of normalcy in his life. As I was pondering his demise, the one pop icon who approached his stature came to mind and I thought, "Well at least Michael has more time. Perhaps he can redeem his last troubled years." Of course I didn't realize then that Michael Jackson only had hours remaining at the moment I expressed my thoughts.

A few hours later, I turned on the TV thinking I was gong to catch up on other news which included Farrah Faucett's death from cancer, which had been expected. The screen suddenly lit up with breaking news banners that seemed too spectacular to fit the "normal" range of "breaking news." The words were hauntingly familiar, and the name attached was simply shocking. "Ladies and gentleman, The King is Dead! Michael Jackson has died of what appears to be a heart attack at the age of 50. The King of Pop is no more!" I felt the same level of disbelief I had felt some 32 tears earlier. This time, instead of listening to my dad recalling the Elvis's budding career, Luz and I began recalling when we first heard the Jackson 5, tracing their careers and Michael's solo emergence. This was amazing considering that we were discussing his impact on us from the perspectives of two different continents! Luz even recalled how during her last trip home to the Philippines just a few years ago, MJ's presence was the major factor to consider in planning local transportation, public events and intra-island travel! With thousands of miles of ocean between us, The King of Pop had been a major influence on our cultural identities and our remembrances of our growing up years.

After such reflection, the question arises, what does the death of such a famous person really mean in the Grand Scheme? Why does the passing of someone we really didn't know touch us so personally and so deeply? One explanatory comment I made in responding to a friend via IM's who expressed his own surprise at how the Michael Jackson's death had affected him was this, "You can't hear someones voice for [30 years] without their passing touching you!" All of us who enjoyed Michael's music can attach specific memories to it. In elementary school, there were incessant arguments about who was better, The Osmond's or The Jackson 5? In Junior High and High School, Michael's solo career began to emerge with Off the Wall which fueled the "disco infernos" for countless school dances, picnics and gatherings. Thriller took everything to another level during college and early adulthood and the rest is History.

These memories are sweet. Nevertheless, as with everything in my life, I find it necessary to glean some spiritual truth from the nostalgia. We all should take note that MJ's life demonstrates a too oft told tale of extreme fame and riches failing to bring ultimate happiness and peace. Even with a large family behind him, it does not appear that Michael ever found peace for his heart or rest for his soul. With all the joyful, carefree memories his music brings for many of us, it is a tragedy that he never found that kind of carefree enjoyment for himself, but rather lived a stress-filled life filled with pain, controversy and an unfulfilled quest for personal peace and contentment. In many ways, having achieved everything anyone could want, he possessed nothing we all ultimately desire. His shocking death serves as another jolting reminder that the basic aspects of human existence are common to us all. As John F. Kennedy stated in his commencement address to Washington University in 1963, "...[I]n the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."

When "Kings" die, their passages serve as reminders that no matter how great or small, we are all given a limited amount of time to make good use of the gifts, talents and intellects that the Heavenly Father has bestowed upon us. Ephesians 5:15-17 puts it like this:
Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord's will is.
With all of the accomplishments of the two Kings of our musical heritage, it is a shame that there is an almost universal understanding that somehow for all they accomplished, they still fell short of their intended purposes.

As we remember the good times they brought us, let us also remember the difficulties they suffered and the mistakes they made. Let us display godly wisdom as we live our lives and let their struggles and failures serve as warnings and motivators for us to make the most of every opportunity to do good and glorify of Father in Heaven. It is the one sure fire way we can each make sure that their lives and ours shall not have been lived in vain. Remembering the kings, Farrah and Ed with deepest respect - until next time...


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Every Bullet Has Your Name On It!

Today the airwaves were replete with fresh political gossip as South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford held a press conference to confess that his mysterious 5-day disappearance wasn't due to a trek along the Appalachian Trail to clear his head as had been reported, but rather the result of a desperate adulterous rendezvous with a secret lover in Argentina whom he has known for 8 years. His confession was predictable - complete with tears, words of remorse, an apology directed towards his wife and four sons and a verbal resolve to carry out his gubernatorial duties in spite of the incredible drama and chaos he has injected into his administration.

The political talk shows are awash with pundits analyzing the effects on Sanford's office and his family. Psychologists are also being called upon to try to discern what could cause an otherwise fine and upstanding man to commit such an act of disloyalty and stupidity. One psychologist attributes the moral slide to a mid-life crisis. Another blames narcissism. Ben Stein, political analyst, commentator and pitch man was simply stumped. On tonight's Larry King show, Stein just couldn't make sense of it. He said, "His wife is a knockout. I can't imagine what this woman in Argentina looks like!" A part of me understands the psychologists conclusions and Ben Stein's logic, but what I know of Scripture points to something more profound and disturbing. Jeremiah 17:9 puts it this way,
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?

That sounds harsh. But after 25 years of ministry and interacting with diversity of people from a variety of backgrounds, not to mention knowing myself and my motives and inner struggles, the words ring absolutely true! People who seem to have it all together, sometimes commit the most heinous acts imaginable, and I can even find myself in an unguarded moment entertaining a thought that is simply outrageous. The danger in committing the stupid acts comes from convincing yourself that you are impervious to them.

We see this kind of bravado in all aspects of life, all the time. Mike Tyson's self- proclaimed "Baddest Man on the Planet" title sounds silly now, but prior to Buster Douglas seemed plausible. As a man after God's own heart, King David's character seemed incorruptible, but after his catastrophic affair with Bathsheba, his weaknesses seems all too obvious. For that reason, when it comes to sin and committing acts of disobedience, a very wise mentor of mine put my own vulnerabilities - and his - into these terms: "EVERY bullet has your name on it! Every opponent can knock you out! The second you think you're above falling into temptation is the second you've already lost the battle. You'll never be above falling for some stupid trap. Don't you dare think that there isn't a situation or person you might encounter that couldn't lead you to dishonor yourself, devastate your family and render your minstry impotent. If you remember that and remember that God can provide the escpe from your own sinful desires, you have a chance to make it."

The Bible offers several lines of defense to help us when we are highly pressured to give in to temptation. The first is to keep a reign on your affections. Proverbs 4:23 admonishes us to this course of action:
Guard your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life.

I can remember back in High School cultivating crushes I knew were not particularly beneficial because there was just something so sweet about being in love, regardless of whether or not it made any sense - especially if the person flirted with liking you back. When we play with those kinds of emotions later in life, the results can be disastrous. What begins as "innocent but deep sharing" can subtly evolve into a dependent relationship that given the right circumstances can evolve into an affair that neither party had anticipated, but that neither party wishes to give up because it just feels so good. A monster 70's hit explained, "It can't be wrong, when it feels so right!" Unfortunately it can be wrong and our hearts are more than able to trick us into thinking otherwise.

The second line of defense is to run. 1 Corinthians 10:13 says,
No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.

When you see the onset of the possibility of temptation, leave! Take the long way home. Shop at another store. Choose a different time to go to the gym or better yet, go to a different gym. Whatever it takes to avoid the tempting situation, do it! The costs will be much less than the cost of trying to repair a broken marriage, torn up family or stained reputation.

Thirdly, remember the battle is not just physical but a spiritual one. Ephesians 6:10-13 gives this command in preparing us to fight against all sorts or evil:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.

Will power will not equip you to stand against the barrage of bullets and arrows the enemy is prepared to rain on you. Humble dependence upon the Lord and a relentless determination to draw close and cling to Him will protect you when all else seems to have failed. God is able to preserve you when the temptations and tests come raging in like a mighty sea. Isaiah 59:19 comforts us with this reminder:
When the enemy comes in like a flood, The Spirit of the LORD will lift up a standard against him.
God can protect us when all hope seems lost.

As you hear more news on the unfortunate developments in Mr. Sanford's life and the inevitable other moral failures that will be exposed as the world turns, don't gloat and don't pontificate, but rather consider the situation with sober judgement, pray for all those involved, help guide and direct for healing and restoration when you're close enough to be directly involved and truly remember that but for God's mercy and grace you too might stumble in a similar way. As for me, I will not forget, "Every bullet has my name on it!" Thank God for His complete and effective armor! Until next time...


Will that be chariots or horses?

Today I woke up with a profound sense of gratitude and thanks for a number of possessions and services with which I am blessed, but have all too often arrogantly used without a thought to the level of blessing to which these "things" have lifted me. What things? Well, things like air conditioning in the summer, heat in the winter, running water, virtually uninterrupted electrical power, in house refrigeration and freezing, medicine, 24/7 news access, books, audio recordings of my own favorites musicians and video recordings of my Hollywood favorites and so on ad infinitum! All of these wonderful blessings are possessions which have come to define a lifestyle for me - a lifestyle I keep taking for granted and in which I continue to place my trust for security, happiness and well-being. Am I knocking these possessions as wicked or evil in themselves? Of course not! I am, however, "knocking" an attitude to which I too easily surrender that fails to take into account the Who behind all of these "whats". It is important that I keep this attitude in check, because a failure to reign my perspective in can result in my looking to the wrong sources for my strength, joy and well-being.

I am particularly mindful of the placement of my confidence as President Obama is scheduled to hold a carefully orchestrated, nationally televised question and answer session outlining his plans for improving health care provision for the United States. Since I have not seen the presentation, I will not criticize it in this entry. Nevertheless, having observed the pre-broadcast reactions to this presentation from people of virtually every range of the political spectrum, I do have a few reflective thoughts on ultimate trust that I'd like to share.

Anyone who pays attention to Biblical history can't help but notice an astonishing characteristic of the human psyche - even when god provides everything we need, it's not enough! Think back to the book of Exodus. People were struggling with issues akin to those with which we struggle today - the suspension of human rights through slave labor, general abuses inflicted by an authoritarian Government, infanticide, extravagant lifestyles maintained at the expense of common laborers, etc. The Israeli people had developed some powerful questions in reaction to these heartbreaking conditions - Where is God? What is He doing to do about it? Fast forward through the book just a bit, and we see Moses in a face to face encounter with God. When one considers the essence of Moses' questions, they are similar to questions asked in our own time. To paraphrase and condense Moses' conversation, he makes two important observations: "Sir, how can truly call on You when we don't know you Name?" and "How can we follow You, when we can't even SEE You?" Pretty good questions! The amazing and wonderful reality is that the Lord answered both questions for Moses. First of all, He told Moses His Name - "I AM" - second, He manifested Himself in a form that Moses and the people of Israel could literally see and follow day or night. What makes this so remarkable is that each time you read of a rebellion amongst the people of Israel, the rebellions occurred WHILE they could see the presence of the Lord with them, knowing His Name and character, but totally ignoring the reality of God's provision in their lives at the same time! They grew tired of the food, tired of the protection, tired of the direct guidance, tired of the very presence of God!

This history should serve as a warning for us as we seek to live, move and have our being in the 21st century. I believe that the core of the warning is this: If God Himself couldn't satisfy the deepest needs of human beings having created them and known them from the beginning, inside and out, what makes any of us think a government or anyone else can satisfy us? There is something within that makes us given to complaint and ungratefulness, even when we are drowning in abundance. I am not arguing that good health is a luxury, but rather cautioning against thinking that even the provision of flawless health care would result in ultimate happiness. Actor George Hamilton, as suave and sophisticated as a debonair playboy can be, was asked that having achieved virtually everything, what he really wanted out of life. His answer was simple: "More!"

The pursuit of "More" or even the struggle our basic needs amounts to living a life in pursuit of rainbows. While the Lord has given us gifts, talents and abilities designed to give us the tools we need to live and to help others, we must not ever allow the pursuit of happiness or even better health care to replace the One Who provided the ability to pursue happiness and health care in the first place. Nothing can replace God. We were made to have deep and meaningful fellowship with Him. All of our struggles, hurts, pains and pursuits should lead us back to the place where we realize that we will never attain satisfaction without an acknowledgement of God and relationship with Him. Why talk to the inanimate toy, when you can have wonderful friendship with the Living "Toy Maker"?

As we continue to struggle on this "Terrestrial Ball" with issues like peace, the economy, the environment, education, poverty and health care, let us remember the ultimate Source of our confidence. Psalm 20:7 puts it this way:
Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.

If you are a Christan, don't forget that leaders come and go as do their philosophies and administrations. Yet, our God reigns forever! He no longer needs to put the Pillar before you, because now He has placed the Pillar within you by abiding with You through the person of the Holy Spirit. So when you're tempted to look for "chariots, horses" or other worldly sources of security for your personal sense of well-being, remember that the Fire within is able to see you through whatever this life or the world might throw your way. Don't trust the chariot, don't depend on the horse, but "light the Fire" within your soul, knowing that God will not disappoint, but longs to satisfy you in ways that no Army, health care plan or World Leader ever could. Trust in the Lord! Until next time...