Tuesday, December 31, 2013

For Whom the Bell Tolls - New Year 2014

For Whom the Bell Tolls 2013 has been a year of milestones for our family. Our older children have neared or established themselves in their third decade of life, while one daughter reached the magical 21st year mark! Our youngest is one year away from double digits, while Luz and I celebrated 24 years of marriage and press on towards the silver marker of 25 years together. While we have had much to celebrate, my generation has entered that season of life as a caretakers for those who are entering the winter season and culmination of their lives and are stepping into the hereafter having run the hard race and fought the good fight. Not only are we caretakers for those who are passing on, but some of our generation have already heard the bells of eternity toll for them. Those chimes serve as a stark warning for the rest of us that our date with Forever looms as a closer reality than we have thus far allowed ourselves to consider. Psalm 90:12 asks the Lord to, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” while Psalm 39:4 implores God to “Show me, LORD, my life's end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.” These are not morbid reflections, but rather fresh calls to action. For those who, like me, belong to the trailing end of the “boomers” and the leading edge of the “busters” this is the beginning of the marathon portion of the Triathlon competition! We’ve come a long way and a good bit of our race is recorded, but there’s a whole lot of race ahead and we must still run with focus, determination and devotion. We have reached that opportune time when our mortality is very apparent to us, while opportunities and possibilities to make a difference and impact lives yet remain. We have much work to do and the maturity to understand that time is precious in doing it. With the dawning of a New Year, whatever our stage of life may be, we have new opportunities to shine! Let us make the most of our days, realizing that while our time is limited, our potential impact is not. Let us strengthen our resolve, redouble our efforts and fix our eyes on the prize, serving God and humanity with love, joy and peace firmly embedded in our hearts, souls and minds! May this year be the best ever and may it set the pace for us to have an impact and be a blessing or many years to come! Happy New Year and may the Lord sustain you and bless you in all that lies ahead!

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Create in Me a Clean Heart, O God!

Jeremiah 17:9 reports that: “The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?” I am tempted, at times, to challenge that declaration until I confront my own nature. This morning, as we went about preparing for Victoria’s delayed birthday celebration, I found myself becoming unreasonably annoyed with people just trying to get by – a man in a motorized chair desperately trying to cross the street. A woman with a cane struggling to get to her car. A family with groceries trying to juggle kids, goods and traffic, along with countless other like situations. As I encountered these folks and others who were just minding their own business, but causing a delay in mine, I found myself getting highly disturbed. It was at a point where I thought some not so holy thoughts that the Lord convicted my heart and confronted me with this alternate thought: “There is a likelihood that should I be blessed with a longer life that I may require the use of a cane, a motorized chair or just extra time to get from point A to point B. How would I feel if someone looked at me with such disdain in my time of need?” I was cut to the core. I was also reminded of King David’s heart check at the end of Psalm 139 when he asks the Lord, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” As for me, it’s time to do some self-maintenance and to get my heart in tune with God’s. How about you?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

My Cup Runneth Over!!

Our cup of celebration runs to overflowing in December! Victoria has a birthday, Joana has a birthday, our son-in-law Mike has a birthday, our grandson Jack-Jack has a birthday and of course, there’s the glorious celebration of Christ's birth at Christmas! But, with the exception of Christmas, I wouldn’t be celebrating any of these special days were it not for the event that took place on a sweltering Manila afternoon, on December 20, 1989! It was on that glorious day, twenty-four years ago, that Luz Bautista and I began our journey together as husband and wife! Each year, we grow richer as our deposits in the bank of memories mount and our blessings increase. The memories are at times a recounting of challenges and struggles, yet even those recollections provide us with the sweet collateral of time spent together to solve problems and overcome obstacles. Of course, we also recount good times we've spent laughing and loving, watching our family grow and just counting our many blessings! It is with a heart full of gratitude for these blessings that I thank my Luz for loving me and walking alongside me as my friend, partner and true soulmate for 24 years! It is my prayer and deepest hope that the Lord will allow us to enjoy many, many more years together, depositing countless added riches to our bank of love! Thank you family, brothers, sisters and friends for being a special part of our treasure trove of blessing! God is good! With gratitude and love, Sam

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Christmas Beauty in a Halloween Ugly World

I love watching reruns of the show “Sanford and Son”. I especially enjoy the verbal jousting of the main character, widower Fred Sanford, and his sister-in-law Esther. One morning, on the way to church, as an oldies station played Christmas clips from various 70’s shows, the Sanford and Son clip took the prize as the most memorable. Full of holiday cheer, Esther enters the Sanford home and cheerfully announces, “I have the feeling of Christmas!” As expected, Fred cannot allow Esther’s greeting to go unanswered and retorts with mischievous glee, “…And the face of Halloween!” I spent half of the morning laughing about that exchange and thinking of the contrasts of Christmas and Halloween. Later the same day, I stumbled across a friend’s posting on some of the horrible, diabolical and evil challenges that challenged Christians during the Roman Empire. The evil described was absolutely disgusting to the point that it would not be appropriate to even name here the issues that were addressed in the posting. Nevertheless, the point the article presented and my friend supported was this: The Good Ol’ Days weren’t very good. Every generation has faced crushing evils of one sort or another and has had to make hard choices that were costly to combat the treacherous aspects of their day. The ongoing reality is that we long for Christmas beauty in a Halloween ugly world. This was certainly the case during the First Christmas. It was Halloween ugly when Joseph and his wife Mary set out on a journey mandated by a crushing, heartless empire that had no category in its statecraft for “mercy mild” or reconciliation with God or anyone else. It was Halloween ugly for this holy family in their poverty to have no means to access the finest inns in the land, but rather establish their lodgings in a stable cave that had all of the medical amenities and luxuries of the most primitive of barns. It was Halloween ugly that this family would eventually have to take flight and become refugees as the corrupted leaders suspected the arrival of another King and a different Kingdom and launched a brutal plan to squash this unseen rebellion! It was Halloween ugly that the first Christmas was not set in a tranquil picturesque nativity scene, but rather in a cold, hard, real world setting that was tough, troubling and that sorely tested the faith of those who had to endure it. This reality of the true nature of the First Christmas is often just too much for us to handle. For this reason, Christmas often becomes a platform for a saccharine sweet, artificially sentimental presentation of a magical time where reality is suspended and humanity pretends that just wishing away evil by focusing on the positive will allow the good times to roll and for spontaneous fairyland joy to overcome all! We present Christmas in a sanitized bubble of settings similar to "Leave it To Beaver", "The Andy Griffith Show" or "Happy Days". While I love those shows and celebrate their wonderful presentations of a slice of Americana, just consider the reality of what was occurring in the United States during the times those shows were either produced or represented. It was the reality of a segregated nation, the threat of nuclear annihilation and the looming specter of a painful South East Asian War that would redefine the way the United States saw itself and its place in the world. It was a daily reality that was certainly much more complex and difficult than the Hollywood fantasy presented episodically. The on-going reality is that our daily lives are difficult and our existence is tainted with the ugliness of sin and its fruit. Nevertheless, though we are deeply troubled as human beings, like Hollywood, we are constantly attempting to conceal our problems or deny them entirely, especially during Christmas. The bad news is, if we live in this fantasy existence, we miss the true significance of Christmas and the powerful and redemptive truth that the unvarnished story makes available to us! The Good News is that the Bible refuses to hide truth, but relentlessly presents truth and ultimately exposes The Truth right smack dab in the middle of the chaos and confusion that dominates daily human life! The unstoppable beauty of Christmas is, in the words of an old Christmas musical, "The Very God Who watched as Adam chose to go the rebel’s way, and saw His perfect world destroyed by sins decay, BECAME A MAN!" The Bible states that, “…God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The beautiful Baby born in Bethlehem didn’t appear for a Kodak moment family portrait but rather came to serve and to die… for us! The Bible further states that for those of us who follow Him, His way MUST become our way too! Here is the FULL message of Christmas: “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” We are called to fight the ugliness of Halloween – selfishness, cruelty, hatred, hunger, divisiveness, and all the other rotten fruit thereof, with the undying pursuit of the beauty of the holy Christmas fruits of encouragement, joy, love, unity, selflessness, humility, and obedience to God to the point of surrendering everything - up to and including our very lives - that others may know the Reason for the Season. The Real Message is stark. The Real Message is arresting. But, the Real Message of Christmas is beautiful. Imagine a world full of Jesus followers who dedicate themselves to this Real Christmas Message every day – a world with people willing to go to the hard places, take on the hard subjects, perform the hard jobs, and face the hard people not for their own agenda or fame, but simply out of love for God and love for those they’ve been sent to reach! A people who are committed to this kind of message will break the artificial bonds of December 25th and truly celebrate Christmas all throughout the year. This is God’s desire for us: He desires that we, like the post-Ghost Scrooge, “keep Christmas” beautifully and completely every day that we live. So, as we engage our holiday traditions, let’s not leave behind our everyday duty to proclaim the Message – God sent His Son into an ugly world to shine with a beauty not built on pageantry or pretense, but on the beauty of His holiness, where Good takes on evil and doesn’t let go until Good wins. Christmas is beautiful but only if you keep it real! So, as you put up your tree, don’t forget to take up your cross! Merry Christmas! Until Next Time, Sam

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Extreme Benefits!

As we neared the end of our Sunday service, the time came for members of the congregation to share testimonies of God’s faithfulness. A familiar hand, went up and all of our regular attenders smiled. The hand belonged to Mrs. Charity Lewis, the mother of our church and the person who had walked the walk of faith longer than anyone in the assembly. Mrs. Lewis began a familiar account of how she had been hit by a speeding car in 1954, thrown almost 50 feet, landed on the hard streets of Cleveland and somehow lived to tell the tale. She vowed as she did each Sunday, that she would never forget the harrowing experience and she would never fail to share what God had done for her whenever she had a chance. After the service, someone asked her if she thought that her sharing this same testimony every week wasn’t just a little extreme. Mrs. Lewis without hesitation responded, “Young Lady, I should already be dead. God in his mercy saved me from a certain death by delivering me in an extreme fashion. The least I can do is to go to the extreme to thank Him and make my miracle known!” Psalm 103 begins with this soaring exclamation of thanksgiving: Bless the Lord, O my soul; And all that is within me, bless His holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, And forget not all His benefits! Every year at this time, Luz and I are reminded of an extreme benefit the Lord delivered to us by way of our youngest daughter Victoria. Nine years ago, we languished with great apprehension as my incredibly dynamic, active and vibrant soul mate, utilized all of her strength trying to remain virtually motionless so that the little one inside her might have a chance to survive. Her water had already broken weeks earlier, and we were reliving nightmares of having lost our daughter Samantha-Luz at birth under similar circumstances less than two years before and a set of twins we miscarried a few years before that. Our situation was not optimum and the shadow of the possibility of death seemed to hang over us like a storm cloud that would not dissipate. Yet, we persevered in prayer and waited. At exactly 28 weeks gestation, on December 7, our Victoria entered the world. At 1 pound, 13 ounces, she roared with a voice that sounded more like a mouse squeaking than a baby crying, and began a 3-month fight for her life. Due to the wonderful care and attentiveness of the St. John NICU staff and the prayers and support of precious friends, the fight ended in a victory to which her name testifies! After being the recipients of God’s mercy in such a rich way, Luz and I vowed that we would follow Mrs. Lewis’ lead and continually share the story of God’s goodness to us through our Victoria’s birth each year! We also vowed that we would never fail to thank those who fought so hard for her through their tender medical care and unflinching prayer support. So, in accordance with our vow, we thank the Lord for His extreme mercy towards us by sparing our Victoria and through her life, extending our youthfulness for just a bit longer. We also thank the Lord for the medical staff that ministered to our family with loving professionalism that never lost the tender touch of humanity and who have become our friends and a sweet part of our life’s journey. We also thank all of you who either fought that tough battle of faith with us, or who have joined with us in celebrating with us as we continue to discover just what a blessing Victoria is! We cannot conclude this testimony without thanking our 3 older daughters – Victoria’s “other others” – who walk alongside us in helping to shape Victoria into a woman of strength, substance and beauty just like themselves. We have known heartache and loss, yet Victory has not eluded us. Thank you for letting me share yet again of the goodness and mercy of the Lord and letting me recount with you, all His benefits! Until next time… Sam.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving in a World of Hurt

No one likes being left out of a party. There’s nothing quite as stinging as those times when you are so close to a celebration that you can smell the food, hear the laughter, and feel the vibrations of the music yet, you never received the invitation and you’ve been left to fend for yourself. But what about the times when you have received an invitation, are in the midst of partying heartily and suddenly notice a face in the window, full of sadness from having be left out, that looks in on your enjoyment with a pain you can’t ignore and quickly disappears into the darkness outside? How can you celebrate when you know someone else is hurting? This situation is a pale reflection of what I feel this Thanksgiving, knowing that people I deeply love and care about – my family and compatriots in the Philippines – are experiencing much suffering as we here enter a season to remember and celebrate comparative abundance, well-being and blessing. I also struggle with the needs of which I am aware close to home, where many struggle and have little material wherewithal within their grasps and are truly immersed in a time of hardship. How can I prepare a feast, when so many are suffering and barely able to eat? Am I being calloused? Do I really care? These thoughts are part of the great struggle of seeking to understand and combat the problems of evil and suffering in a world created by a God the Bible presents to us as supremely and completely good. It is proper to wrestle with this problem. Nevertheless, what is even more important, is what we do with our inner struggle. There is a concept of mature Christian faith that has always resonated with me and that I believe addresses the questions and problems like the one with which I am wrestling and that has given me a meaningful way to engage these issues. The concept is this: When you find that you have been blessed when others appear to have been abandoned, realize that you have been blessed to be a blessing, and that you are duty bound to share those blessings with as many who are hurting as is possible. I have found this principle to be a powerful vehicle for good in every arena from academia where those who had strengths in certain areas, shared their knowledge and know-how with others who were not a prodigiously blessed as they, as well as in desperate places steeped in poverty and want, where individuals and groups who were mightily blessed with money, education, determination, connections and compassion, used all those resources to address the immediate and long-term needs of the people they knew were in extreme situations of deprivation and despair. I have learned that there is no intrinsic sin in being blessed with material wealth, educational depth or powerful political connections. The challenge lies in how one uses such powerful blessings in one’s day to day life and how one uses them in the face in devastating tragedy and neediness. The Scripture says, “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.” For those of us who have received much, let us celebrate what we have been given, because it is appropriate to be glad and to give thanks. However, let us also commit ourselves to use our blessings to be blessings for those who are struggling and who are not in a position to celebrate, knowing that while we are supposed to give thanks, we are also charged to mourn with those who mourn and to comfort those who suffer with the comfort we ourselves have received. Will this approach solve all the world’s ills? No. But in this season we dedicate ourselves to giving thanks, I am compelled to level this challenge to you and to myself. My message is to stop lamenting what you can’t do or what isn’t being done and to do what you can. Mother Teresa is reported to have said, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, feed one.” Luz and I can’t feed a million people, but the Lord has given us the resources and connections to feed a few thousand. You may be able to do more or less. Put a dollar in a bucket. Buy some shoes for someone who needs it. Share a meal or make a meal. Build a school or help a school that is doing work you know needs to be done. Hug someone who hasn’t been hugged in a long time, if ever. Thank someone who served and now no one seems to care. Give a big gift for that project that needs just a bit of a boost to make a huge impact. Support someone who is dreaming of doing great things for others but just needs someone who has a little pocket change to believe it them. It won’t solve every problem, but it will reduce the overall problem by the extent you have helped, which is movement in the right direction! I ask you simply to be thankful for what you have, consider the needs you know about both near and far, figure out how helpful your blessings allow you to be and act on it! Now is the time to give thanks and to stop cursing the darkness! Celebrate and be thankful! Celebrate and be helpful! Light your candle and help light up the world! You’ve been blessed now BE a blessing! Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Your Brother, Sam.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

I Shall Return – The Power of Commitment

One of the first quotations I remember learning as a child was General Douglas MacArthur’s defiant proclamation “I shall return!” MacArthur uttered the timeless declaration in the face of the stunning Japanese takeover of the Philippines, promising that in spite of having to leave at the onset of the Japanese occupation to avoid capture, he and other U.S. forces would return again to the Philippines to liberate our staunch ally and unrelenting friend. MacArthur kept his promise, returning to Leyte Gulf in dramatic fashion, along with Philippine Leaders, including President Manuel Quezon. As the U.S. and Philippines faced the remainder of the War together and continued to walk together in the post war years as friends who found themselves occasionally at odds, MacArthur’s words took on a life of their own, symbolizing an unyielding commitment to friendship, in even the toughest times. Nevertheless, time wears down memories and in the face of changing eras and leadership, words often lose the power they once held to rally and inspire…or so we might think. Philippine news sources reported that when a contingent of U.S. Military personnel arrived in Leyte this week with relief supplies in hand, children who are too young to remember even more recent U.S. Military heroes like General Norman Schwarzkopf or General Colin Powell, began chanting repeatedly words that even many Americans no longer remember, “I shall return! I shall return!” I lost a breath upon hearing that report! Who could believe that words uttered almost 70 years ago, would rise up in the voices of children much too young to remember who spoke the words or for what reason? Who would think that MacArthur’s voice would once again serve as a symbolic rallying point to remind those who had come to help of the bond of friendship and the years of mutual sacrifice that demanded a helpful response in this most terrible time in Philippine History! Yet his words rose up, and the power of the friendship formed many years ago continues to gain strength in the midst of unimaginable hardship! These types of deep, caring, and longstanding friendships can build powerful foundations for standing against the storms of life. Followers of Jesus Christ are called to a life of building such friendships and to strengthening them through service – the type of service that is characterized by consistently responding to all manner of life situations with purpose, courage and selflessness. The historic words and actions of General Douglas MacArthur served as proof of this level of commitment and friendship – commitment proved to such a degree that more than 50 years after his death, his legacy survives to benefit those who come in service, wearing the same uniform! I have now spent over a quarter of a century falling in love with and being committed to the Republic of the Philippines. I am married to a woman who represents everything that makes the Philippines the great nation that it is. Over the years, I have forged a growing number of friendships that have evolved into brotherly and sisterly relationships and have cemented my commitment to stand with the Philippines in good times and in times of trouble. More than that, as a Christ follower, there is a call on my life to do good to all people and to touch those in need. This call and my love for the Philippines pushes me into action now more than ever! As the world knows, the Philippines is faced with one of its greatest tests in history. For those of you who are my friends, I call on you to walk with Luz and me in prayer and encouragement as we identify the ways we can most effectively reach out to those to whom we’ve been called to minister during this time of testing. Our representatives on the ground, Youth With A Mission missionaries Ramon and Nene Bautista, have presented us with a daunting and challenging report of the situation. Every aspect of life in the region hit by the earthquake and storms has been affected and the level of loss is epic in scope! Nevertheless, our missionaries – along with many others - are courageously engaged in the effort to comfort, support and strengthen those who are in need and they will not rest until the task is done. I have witnessed this commitment first hand. The love and steadfastness of Ramon and Nene touches me in the deepest way. But they cannot do their work alone. I have walked with Luz during our entire marriage and seen her undying commitment to the people of the Philippines in every circumstance as well. I have also stood with her in support of Ramon, Nene and the YWAM Philippines Team and have had the pleasure of walking alongside them literally as they carry out the ministry entrusted to them. In the face of these tragic times, by God’s mercy and grace, I will not merely support the work of rebuilding in the Philippines, but I SHALL RETURN to work alongside my brothers, sisters and friends to do what the Lord requires! And you, my friends around the globe, please pray for the Philippines and consider how you might help at this important time! Check out our website at www.angelstone.org for more info on how you can help towards the healing of a nation! Until next time… Sam

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Can You Feel the Love?

My Dear Friends, A question that was repeated a few times over the course of my birthday weekend was, “Can you feel the love?” A person who couldn’t feel love after the avalanche of kindness, affirmation, encouragement, celebration and love directed towards me in the last 4 days would be a person totally lacking of even a semblance of emotional intelligence! I am awed, overwhelmed, stunned and glowing after being nuked with an atomic level love by you dear friends. My family outdid themselves as well, putting on a party that rivaled a wedding reception, complete with slide shows, “How well do you know Sam?” quizzes and enough food to feed a battalion! I was showered with gifts and greetings from friends, affection from my children, sons-in-law and grandson, special blessings and fellowship from Luz and inundated with love from everyone! Saying thank you seems so inadequate, yet thanks is what I offer to you dear friends who celebrated Five-O with me in a hugely positive and uplifting way. I ended some very brief remarks at the party by saying, “with friends like you, I may be an only child, but I certainly am not an orphan!” Thank you for being my brothers and sister at heart! I am blessed, rich and grateful! Now, I press on in faith, emboldened by more than a little help from my friends! Grace, mercy and peace to you all! Your Brother in Life, Sam

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Five - O!!

As a child, 50 years seemed like an eternity. It was the definition of the phrase “a long time” and the very embodiment of the word “old”! What would one possibly be able to do once the Big Five-O barrier was reached? Well, years have passed since I viewed 50 as the “beginning of the end” – exactly 50 years! Having finally reached that quintessential milestone of maturity, I am delighted to report that I do not feel washed up, burned out or “through” in even the slightest degree. While it has not escaped my notice that I have achieved an accumulation of years that has given me experience, perspective and seasoning, my years have also given me context to understand that I still have much to learn and that I remain young enough to have the energy to eagerly engage new discoveries. I am fortunate enough to understand how to achieve results in an “old school” way, while at the same time being deeply appreciative and fully embracing of the new school of possibilities and realities that on-going progress afford – Yes, I am fortunate and appreciative! I am fortunate that I was blessed with caring and loving parents who guided me, protected me and prepared me for a world filled with possibilities, challenges and mystery. I am fortunate that they did not shelter me from reality in their parental work nor did they quench my ability to dream and to hope for a better future. I am fortunate that their steadfast work prepared my heart to embrace my own familial responsibilities. I am fortunate that as I enter my fifth decade of life I am blessed with parental responsibilities that include encouraging my two grown children who are charting amazing courses of life with families of their own, walking alongside a college-aged child as she traverses her own path of self-discovery and embracing the world of wonder that everyday uncovers for our youngest 9 year-old girl. I am also appreciative of the countless blessings the Lord has extended to me in my half-century of life. I am appreciative of many precious friendships defined by exceptional people who have stood by me like family and who embraced this only child like a brother through trials, tribulations and difficulties while assuring me that whatever challenges I might face, I would never face then alone. I am appreciative of the best friend and most loyal companion anyone could ever ask for, my wife Luz. I am appreciative that Luz has encouraged me at my lowest, supported me at my worst and confidently walked beside me at my most insecure moments. I am most appreciative that the Lord has so richly blessed me, in spite of my not deserving such benefits, and that He has touched my life deeply with rich mercy and amazing grace. As I face the 50 + future, I wish to directly express my thanks to you, my friends who have accompanied me along my journey. None of us can be absolutely sure of what tomorrow holds, but I do wish to make a few important commitments as the “third period” begins. I commit to walk in truth – to seek the truth, to teach the truth and to defend the truth in my daily dealings. I commit to walk in love – to love others in spite of how they feel about me, to promote love and understanding among everyone that I meet and to love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength. I finally commit not to give up on life until the Lord takes me Home. I have experienced just enough loss to know that there are heartbreaks that are so deep and so painful that escape and surrender seem to offer the only solace in times of unbearable angst. I commit to keep trying. Though pain and suffering may await me, I will do my best to give my best for as long as the Lord allows me to live and to help all those I can to do the same. Thank you my friends – my family – for making my 50 years thus far more wonderful than anyone could desire. I eagerly and hopefully look forward to the wave of opportunities that the future will bring, facing all sorts of triumphs, challenges and opportunities. May God grant me the ability to run the remainder of the race and face the unknown future with dignity, skill and honor! May the Lord bless you all! Your Brother and fellow sojourner, Sam

Thursday, October 31, 2013

I Almost Tripped

There are times when less than favorable days and the evil in the world really get to me. I ask the Lord hard questions and silently sulk in hidden places where no one can see my frustration when I don’t get an answer that satisfies my curiosity. Sometimes, the level of frustration can reach such a height that I’m tempted to become cynical and negative in my dealings and daily walk. It seems at it is at those times when I’m right on the brink of teetering into spiritually dangerous territory that the Lord directs my eyes to a passage, a note or a friend who realigns my mindset and gets me back on the path of faithful living. I experienced just such an encounter today as I “stumbled” across Psalm 73. The Psalmist is overwhelmed by evil people seeming to live without trouble and makes his complaint known to those who will listen. He is so driven to despair that he almost abandons the way of righteousness until he encounters the Lord in the quietness of the sanctuary. There in his time with God he found perspective, rekindled his faith, and was empowered to press on with hope for the future. The Lord is always extending invitations to us to spend time with him so that we can maintain perspective. “Be still and know that I am God.” “Turn to the Lord while He may be found.” “Stop worrying and pray about everything.” When I took the time to take my focus off of the problems that bothered me and began to actually “ingest” the medicine I frequently dispense to others in time of trouble by taking time to spend alone with God, I myself was comforted, refreshed and emboldened in my walk of faith. The world is a dangerous, wicked and disappointing place and has been since the Fall. Nevertheless, I encourage you to not be swallowed by your circumstances, but rather to carve out some time to just be with God and to allow His comfort and love to give you perspective beyond your situation. More than that, once you gain His perspective, allow His grace, mercy and peace to clothe you with a godly boldness to face the challenges of the day with, confidence, peace and courage. Don’t let your problems trip you up. Allow godly hope to lift you up and to bring hope and encouragement to all those you encounter in your journey of faith!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Don't Just Sit There - Retaliate..with Love!!

There are times I grow tired of just taking it! Someone talks about me behind my back, and I just take it. Someone makes an obscene gesture towards me, and I just take it. Someone calls me the “N-word”, and – you guessed it – I just take it! Today, in my Standing Strong Through the Storms of Life devotional, I had my approach to these types of situations challenged. After reading through the writer’s testimonial, and following his line of reason, I realized I’ve been flawed in my approach. From now on, after careful Scriptural consideration, I won’t just take it anymore. When someone does me wrong, I will retaliate! Retaliation is technically defined as, “action taken in return for an injury or offense”. In my devotional, the writer shared the dilemma he faced as he tried to encourage a group of Christians who were experiencing intense persecution for their faith. The group was divided in half – one that urged retaliation, the other who projected that nothing be done. As the rhetoric escalated, the Jesus pleasing response became very clear – he called the group to retaliate! A stunned silence fell on the room. Just as those who proposed no action stood to leave the room in disgust while the others smiled triumphantly, he asked all to stay put and calm down. He then began to explain his plan for retaliation. It is clear in the Matthew 5 passage that Jesus does not call His followers to passive inaction when we are wronged. The pastor’s point to the besieged Christians – a point applicable to all Christians – is that Jesus calls His followers to an active, engaging RESPONSE – godly retaliation – for the wrongs committed against us. Read Jesus’ words from Matthew 5 carefully: 38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. Jesus calls us to action: If slapped, TURN. If something is taken, GIVE. If someone asks, OBLIGE. If someone hates, LOVE. If someone persecutes, PRAY. In every situation of wrong doing, specific action in response is required of the Jesus follower – a godly retaliation. Not retaliation for revenge or destruction, but retaliation rooted in God’s love for the purpose of delivering an opposite and superior force! In God’s economy, grace, mercy and loving action are more powerful than and will overcome evil. Christians are not called to do nothing, but rather are called to courageously act in love as a testimony for righteousness, justice and all that is good. So, whenever you find yourself in a situation where someone is really sticking it to you, don’t return the evil for evil and don’t just take it either. Rather, commit yourself to apply godly retaliation – good action in direct response to the wrong delivered, and watch God work in the situation for the good of all concerned and for His glory. Until next time… Sam

Monday, September 9, 2013

True Humility

Preachers like to joke about the fictitious pastor who wrote a book entitled: “The 3 Greatest Ministers of the Present Era, and How I mentored the other 2!” There are certainly times where the weight of responsibility and critical nature of a job can cause us to fight an inward pridefulness that causes us to think more highly of ourselves than we ought. The devotional from which the joke came points out that the Bible records that in spite of all Moses had accomplished and the uniqueness of his closeness to God, he walked simply, being more humble than anyone else in his day. He is also shown to be a person who had such a selfless focus that on one occasion, Joshua asked Moses to stop an unnamed group of people from prophesying in the Lord’s name, since that was Moses’ “rightful duty”. Without hesitation, Moses responded, “If only all the Lord’s people were prophets, and the Lord would place His Spirit upon them!” Are you excited to see others grow and display excellence of character and expertise – even when it encroaches on “your” territory? Or do you seek to lift yourself above others, holding them back to help you maintain an appearance of superiority? As you consider your response, consider these words from the book of James: “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Invite God’s grace into your life by lifting up others and allowing God, in His time, to lift you up that you can do even more for Him! Until Next Time... Sam

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The State of the Dream

Fifty years ago today, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered what is unquestionably one of the greatest oratorical presentations of the American Ideal ever uttered. As he delivered his masterpiece, I was growing in my mother’s womb along with her dreams - and those of my father - that our nation, the United States of America, was on the threshold of seeing the written declarations of freedom for all people transform into an actualized reality of freedom in the everyday lives of every American inhabitant. By that year’s end, I myself would be a living, breathing reality and Dr. King’s speech would be the durable portrait of what true freedom should look like in the great American Society. As I reflect on the content of the speech, I feel privileged that both I and the speech turn 50 this year. Until recently, I had never contemplated the fact that I have been a frontline participant in seeing many of the yearnings Dr. Kind voiced weave their way into the normal fabric of life in these United States. I have been on the leading edge of truly integrated opportunities that had not been available on a large-scale racially integrated basis prior to my generation. I have witnessed first-hand, the joy of Caucasian elders who had longed for the day they could legally and socially pour their love into the lives of all children and I have also reaped the benefit of that love. At the same time, I have witnessed the hardened refusal of others to accept the equality of all Americans and have also suffered setbacks from time to time as the result of schemes and machinations designed to “turn back the clock” to a time where opportunities were not equal and some people liked it that way. I have experienced the reality of the dream and I have felt the dream deferred – at the same time. For that reason, whenever I hear the question, “Has Dr. King’s dream been realized?” very clear thoughts and feelings are stirred within me. First of all, the dream is not exclusively Dr. King’s. His dream is the American Dream. All true patriots yearn for the freedom of all people, in all places at all times. Dr. King’s words helped to bring a course correction to the powerful and eloquent words uttered by our Founding Fathers almost two centuries prior to his speech. They certainly understood the power and beauty of freedom, but the tolerance of the “peculiar institution” of slavery dampened the power of their words and gave their righteous tones a slightly hollow ring. Dr. King’s pronouncements helped to interpolate the Founders words, breathing new life into them and enduing them with the full impact they deserved. Now Freedom could ring! Secondly, dreams are made into reality by nothing less than Herculean effort exacted at the cost of human effort through the production of blood, sweat and tears, generation after generation. With respect to freedom and equality in our nation, there will never be a time when we, the people of the United States, will be able to rest on our haunches and say, “Now there! We’ve made it! It’s Miller Time!” Maintaining freedom within our borders and protecting our freedom from threats from without, will always call for constant vigilance, on-going sacrifice and never-ending commitment. We will continue to experience better days and dreams fulfilled only as long as we are willing the face the nightmare of the reality of evil in this world with sobriety, determination and devotion to duty as good citizens of a free land. My plea as one who has witnessed the unfolding of “the dream” “up close and personally” is this: Let us cease the idolization of Dr. King’s “Dream Speech.” While we are certainly right to study and admire this work as one of the most masterful pieces of oratory ever delivered in United States History, let us not lose the point of the speech in the awesomeness of its beauty. Dr. King knew the costs of pursuing the dream – he understood that his particular role would cost him everything. Nevertheless, he assumed and expected that others would set aside comfort, safety and privilege and join him in standing up and pressing on for a better day as well. As we listen yet again to this speech on its 50th anniversary, let those of us who dare recommit ourselves to the understanding that there is indeed a call to duty for any who would claim ownership of this dream and that this call to duty is nothing less than a Divine call. President John F. Kennedy ended his inaugural speech with a challenge clarifying the solemn and sacred nature of the call to preserve freedom: “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.” My friends, let’s keep the dream alive by doing the good work – God’s work – loving Him and our neighbors that the reality of freedom might live on for years and years to come. Until next time… Sam

Friday, August 23, 2013

Day 4 - Mission Racine

Day 4 – Mission Racine The organization HALO describes their services to the homeless of Racine County in the following way on their web site: “The vision for HALO is that every man, woman, and child experiencing homelessness be provided food, clothing, and shelter while receiving tools and training designed to help them return to a stable living environment. Through this, we hope to help individuals experiencing homelessness become self-sufficient and to ensure the safety of homeless children through stable living and learning environments.” The “Little Platoons” of Grace Church continued on Mission today, serving the guests of HALO with heaping helpings of hospitality, love and encouragement. Church Life Groups, individuals, friends and families came together as representatives of Jesus to serve up supper, dinner music, and friendship to scores of folks. While getting acquainted with guests, it was difficult to wait for dinner as the aroma from the grill seeped into every crevice of space within 500 feet of the cooking. 3 jovial brothers in faith served up hot hamburgers and hot dogs as well as fired up conversation about the joys of breaking down walls of separation in Jesus’ name, and the satisfaction of helping churches around the city in ministering to children. The Brothers’ joy was intoxicating and I found their humor irresistible. I frequently laughed so hard from their adventure stories that I couldn’t breathe and started seeing stars! Nevertheless, beneath the fun of the stories was a serious and unshakeable commitment to be about God’s business in small tasks and great ones. I was stunned to hear that they had spent two years patiently interacting with a local church to convince them to give a dynamic children’s ministry curriculum a try – two years! The leadership of the church cautiously gave the program a try and is now well underway to revolutionizing their outreach to children – all because two burger-grilling brothers stayed on mission, saw a need and pursued it! Beyond the grill, others were inside preparing side dishes, interacting with guests, and singing heartily! Every individual helper I saw was beaming and so closely interacting with the guests that I had trouble distinguishing guests from the people on mission! Love abounded and joy was all around. It was a wonderful culmination to a week of service and a promising opening for continuing ministry opportunities that lie ahead for the people of Grace Church who are called to live every day on mission for the glory of God. See you on the field! Sam Jackson

Day 3 - Mission Racine

This rainy Thursday, members of the Grace Church family converged on the Hospitality Center located at Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church, rolled up their sleeves and dived into numerous opportunities to serve ranging from sorting through clothes in a hot attic to preparing meals over a hot stove. Other members held babies, chatted with guests, prayed for needs, encouraged believers and shared the Gospel with others who had not heard it. The leadership and staff of the Hospitality Center were especially excited. The Grace connection there has been growing over the past few months, and today’s intensified presence of Grace family members is a sharp contrast to the “one and done” philosophy that can sometimes characterize those who participate in the center’s ministry. The Hospitiality Center is committed to reaching those who have “fallen through the cracks” of other sources of assistance and welcomes the help from brothers and sisters in Christ from around the city. Grace Church is making our presence known at exactly the right time and is filling a significant void in ministering to those who have needs that don’t quite fit other sources of assistance! The Grace Church contingent who represented our Family of faith were youthful and seasoned, male and female, and from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Their service provided a wonderful display of the power of the Gospel to unify, mobilize and bless others to the glory of God! After today’s ministry, the guests and staff of the Hospitiality Center look forward to meeting more of the Grace Church family. I look forward to the opportunities we will have to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with even more people through this ministry! What a great day for the Lord and what great opportunties lie ahead for us to share the Good News and to love our neighbors in Jesus’ Name! Joyfully pressing on, Sam

Day 2 - Mission Racine

The late Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, frequently celebrated the beauty of what he called the church’s “little platoons”. He loved to share the loving exploits of small groups of Christians devoted to sharing the Good News in word and deed, often out of sight and without recognition, yet always impacting countless lives with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. After the second day of Mission Racine, I feel compelled to do the same! Today, Grace Church had many “little platoons” in action throughout the city of Racine serving through the ministries of Care Net and House Full of Grace. Life Groups and individual members of the Grace Family sorted clothes, picked up and delivered furniture and encouraged those who serve others in need with cheerful spirits and very busy hands! It was especially satisfying to see the Grace Family giving their best – in their physical efforts and in the offerings of the goods and items being donated to those in need. Items were scrutinized with care and precision to make sure that every donated item offered was an item of quality and beauty. It is a powerful thing to witness first-hand how God’s wonderful grace moves the hearts of those who have recieved it to give the very best that they have! All who participated are looking forward to other opportunities to give their best. I can’t wait to see how the blessings will flow as Grace’s “Little Platoons” continue to be deployed in our community and beyond! Sam

Day 1 - Mission Racine

Day 1 – Mission Racine On the first day of ministry for Mission Racine the term, “Small but Mighty” comes to mind as 6 of us joined the Lord in a conversation that spanned 2 and a half hours. In addition, there was Life Group involvement off site too. We utilized the ACTS prayer acrostic – Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication to guide our time, which began inside Zoe’s building and wound up with a trek along Racine Street, praying publicly for the requests Pastor Hargrove delivered to us as well as for other areas the Lord brought to our minds. Among the items Pastor Hargrove asked us to lift in prayer were: A Capital Campaign for new construction The Restoration Ministry which is a comprehensive effort that addresses many practical ministry needs in the community Leader Ship Development and Commitment Spiritual Growth for the entire congregation We also discussed and prayed for wisdom and insight for developing our partnership with Zoe in a way that will enhance the Kingdom Impact of both of our congregations and serve as a mighty testimony to the unity we have in Christ. This prayer focused on partnering in our holiday outreach efforts, summer camp opportunities and international mission outreaches as well. As we wrapped up our prayer time, one church member shared her testimony with a group of local men, took prayer requests and prayed with them as we continued in prayer on the corner – a strong finish to beautiful season of prayer. “…For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them…” Matthew 18:20 Sam

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


No subject discussed in the United States divides as widely, cuts as deeply and stirs as strongly as the subject of race. In spite of seeming gains in race relations, it appears that every generation experiences the jolting punch of a painful event that grips national attention and re-exposes the raw racial nerves that exist just under the nation’s skin. These jarring occurrences leave us numb and cause us to wonder if true unity across racial lines will ever be achieved. The deadly intersection of the lives of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman is the latest of racially charged and divisive tragedies. The reactions of people around the nation are varied and strong.
Some curse the media coverage of the trial that sprang from the event. Some criticize the pronouncements made from all sides claiming to have definitive answers to the questions this sad occurrence has raised. Others grit their teeth in frustration with respect to the seeming irreparable and never-healing separation between Americans of various ethnic backgrounds but especially between those who are Black or White. How should we deal with the deep stirrings of our souls in the face of such challenges and how should we now live in the face of new challenges to national unity?

We cannot ignore the questions raised by this event nor can we attempt to answer them from the limits of our own background and understanding. We must recognize that while it may true that there are many other events that more accurately expose more pressing problems that Black people face in the United States, it is also true that the ingredients of this deadly encounter reflect pertinent truths that represent major on-going stresses in race relations among the people of the United States. For the totality of our ministry life, my family and I have been at the tip of the sword, intentionally serving where the battle was often the hottest with respect to race relations. We have served as the lone “minorities” on most of the ministry staffs of which we’ve been a part. We’ve started ministries that intentionally crossed barriers and sought to unite people in the love of Jesus Christ. We’ve had our hearts stomped on, our feelings hurt and our spirits crushed. Yet, we press on in the Lord’s Name believing this battle of love must be fought regardless of the personal outcome for us. Based on our experiences, here are some observations this individual respectfully offers, seeking to add just a little bit of understanding and perhaps some hopeful strategies in navigating the murky waters of race relations.

The first observation is this: Each of us has a perspective greatly influenced by our personal experiences. Almost 50 years after the passing of landmark Civil Rights legislation, our lives intersect at the public level more than previous American generations: We can eat at the same restaurants, drink from the same water fountains, shop at the same stores, use the same public facilities, and cheer for the same sports teams while seated next to each other regardless of our cultural, racial or social positions. These are good things. Yet, there are significant differences that are not quite as easily detectable in a public setting: differences in T.V. viewing habits, differences in political affiliations, differences in musical tastes, different daily routines and different perspectives that are not necessarily observable from standing next to one another in the shopping aisle. The reality of our daily existences is perhaps the greatest source of information for our understanding how reality looks and considering what the possibilities of any number of situations might be. To one individual, fairness and equality are well-known friends and generally experienced sources of comfort while in another’s experience those same words represent the ultimate “carrots on a stick”. When our experience serves as the major source of information without a willingness to at least consider other perspectives, we virtually guarantee miscommunication, a lack of understanding and the dousing of any hope of constructive dialog on any level.

The second observation: People can’t handle the truth. Hearing different perspectives can be painful and uncomfortable, but avoiding the truth guarantees problems will never be solved. Imagine a doctor who would refuse to tell a patient the true extent of the disease or malady with which they are faced? No healing would ever be possible. Much of the persistence of racial disunity in the United States can be attributed to an unwillingness to face the truth. We don’t want to discuss the complex truth of our national past, we are polarized in our evaluation of the truth in our troubled present and we can’t bear to gaze at a very ominous vision of the truth for our future. We may be able with some effort to face the truths that support our perspective, but we just don’t have the guts to ingest the whole truth made available to us through various perspectives.

The third observation: We are cowards. We just don’t have the guts to leave our comfort zones to face the challenges that surround us. We aren’t brave enough to move into neighborhoods where the majority of people are different than we are. We don’t possess the back bone to stand fast when different people move into the neighborhoods in which we’ve planted our roots. We can’t find to courage to even periodically venture into the tougher places around town as volunteers or servants to show by our actions that somebody in this world isn’t confined by their background or identity. We can’t even gather up the steam to continually worship and serve together when we share the same creeds and worship the same Savior - and when we do, it’s very often not without much struggle and controversy! We are deeply divided by a cowardice that melts conviction and dissipates strength.

So what do we do?

We press on in hope clothed in the characteristics that are essential in being conduits of healing in our fractured world! We must not be characterized by fear. 2 Timothy 1:7 states that for those who follow Christ, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and a sound mind.” When we trust that God has placed us in this world not for the purpose of achieving personal comfort and an easy retirement, but for the purpose of serving Him and serving others, it frees us to take risks, to be bold and to be strong in going where others dare not go. When we are truly heavenly minded to the extent that we realize that this world and its pleasures are fleeting and passing away, it liberates us to do the hard things and to leave our comfort zones behind. When I realize the true call on my life as a human being who belongs to God and not to myself, I am liberated to cross barriers, take chances that enable me to react to a perceived threat not in a reaction of fear which might lead to death, but rather in godly confidence that might lead to a bridge of understanding and healing. When I know that I am God’s, I am freed to see what might be a potential approaching conflict not as an opportunity to strike first out of fear, but rather to reach out first out of love in Jesus’ Name. I’m empowered, I can love and I can think clearly when choose not to follow fear.

In addition to this, we truly keep hope alive when we choose to operate in the fullness of goodness that Jesus exhibited in His earthly walk by allowing God to fill us with His truth and His grace. The Bible says of Jesus:

“And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Jesus’ was characterized by the two essential elements of dealing with all human problems – the need for grace and the need for truth. Notice that Jesus didn’t split the two 50/50 but was fully characterized by both. If we are ever to deal effectively on any level with the issue of race, we must be willing to enjoin painful dialogues that give us the freedom of telling the truth while allowing us the comfort of receiving grace. Truth without grace is disheartening. Grace without truth is impotent. In Jesus, we see God’s commitment to deal with us as we really are, while loving us with Who He really is and we must follow His lead!

Most of the deepest friendships I posses are characterized by these two essential elements of relationship. In one of these precious friendships, my friend asked for permission – and I granted it – to say whatever was on his mind, no matter how crazy, painful or wicked it might seem. He needed an outlet to go to and voice his rawest emotions and also needed a bridge to comeback where he knew God was calling him to be. I asked him if he would provide the same safe haven for me and he gladly obliged. Our perspectives of life are different. He is a self-described “redneck” and I’m a “soul man”. Yet in Christ, we hammer out these different perspectives on a regular basis seeking to be fully truthful, fully gracious and fully loving. It is an ongoing process that is a lifetime commitment. There are no warm fuzzies but rather a deep, blazing hot friendship that has endured the test of time and the relentless pounding of a hateful world. Even with the blessings of this wonderful friendship, I am not na├»ve: I do not believe that I will see total racial unity within my lifetime – even among Christians. Nevertheless, this friendship and many others like it, help me to see what could be, even in the world as it is. For this reason, Luz and I will continue to soldier on, crossing barriers, often while taking a silent beating, seeking to offer truth, grace and love everywhere we can, any way we can, to the greatest extent we can, for as long as we can. We call all those who dare to do the same! Until next time…


Saturday, July 13, 2013

Dealing With Race in the 21st Century – Thoughts from a Young Bi-racial Woman

My 20 year-old daughter, Joana, has been in some discussions that have sprung up from the Trayvon Martin case, but are not limited to it. Her words are insightful, well expressed and I am honored to share them with you.
Posted by Joana Jackson, July 13, 2013

I feel like I'm inserting myself into a complex and troubling conversation, but I just thought I'd share my two cents... :) I think it's great to take pride and joy in the accomplishments of the minorities who came before us and realize how blessed we are to benefit from their sacrifice. But I think it is equally important to realize that race is a very complex and faceted issue that still exists in a significant way. I mean to say that while the issue of race is very different from what it was in the past, the issue of racial injustice and inequality still exists today and still manifests in many lives (my own included). I also come from a racially diverse home (my ma is Filipina and my pa is Black). Much of our experience as a family and as individuals has been impacted by race. Realizing and addressing the fact that there is a problem doesn't make an individual weak or militant...it just means that they identify that they aren't being treated in a manner that is appropriate or in compliance with the idea of equality. I agree it's important not to be dissuaded from achieving and striving for success by racial barriers. However, I also think it's important to notice and acknowledge that these barriers definitely exist and it's alright to question why they do and ask how they can be dismantled.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Some Enchanted Evening

“Some enchanted evening, when you find your true love… Once you have found her, NEVER let her go!”

These words from South Pacific never rang more true than they did for me 24 years ago this week! My enchanted evening cast its spell on me in the loveliness of the Pearl of the Pacific in the Philippine International Cultural Center when my eyes first beheld the incomparable Luz Bautista! I knew that I had found “her” and that I could not let her go. Nevertheless, a gauntlet of challenges awaited me before I could transform my dream of spending the rest of my life with Luz into the world of reality! I had to pursue her and win her love, beat down other suitors, wade through the bureaucracies of two countries and earn the trust of many caring people before I could truly make her my own! By God’s grace and after expending much blood, sweat and tears, it happened! I extend a heartfelt thank you to all of you who have believed in us, encouraged and walked with us as faithful friends over the years. I praise God for Luz’s love for me and pray that we have many, many years of love and life ahead of us on this earth before ultimately walking together with the Lord and His Heavenly Throng throughout all eternity!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Which One Would You Choose?

One of the great privileges of being the Daddy of daughters is the opportunities I have had to play Barbies. These Barbie playtimes have provided unexpected adventures, with my girls displaying amazing creativity and always discovering ways to make the Barbie experience more palatable for Daddy. I’ve been a chef for Barbie, a Barbie Body guard, a Barbie Chauffer, and this weekend, a judge for a Barbie singing contest extravaganza! All of the contestants were amazing, with performances powered by the strong vocal talents of our own Victoria! That fact, made judging the performances a bit of a challenge, since every last contestant was spot on in their presentations and absolutely equal in every way. It was apparent to Vic and to me that the only criteria I had left were criteria based on appearances. Hmmm. The Barbie contestants differed from each other in ways that were totally external: hairstyles, wardrobes, and physical features. As I thought about the choice I was being asked to make, I began to consider the message that my choice might give to my daughter. What would it say about how I viewed people and evaluate others? Was this really a teaching moment or mere child’s play? Flashes of doll experiments used to discover how children viewed themselves in terms of beauty came to mind. Perhaps this could be a teaching moment. But how?
As I pondered the decision, I thought back to my own childhood and my own experience with action figure dolls. I remember the talking Astronaut G.I. Joe my father brought back with him from a deployment to Puerto Rico. Joe was awesome! He spoke some excellent, tough guy phrases like, “Accomplish the Mission!” “Ten seconds to lift-off…and counting!” “We are entering lunar orbit!” and “Houston…we have landed!” There were a couple of problems though: he didn’t have any Army uniforms, and he wasn’t Airborne! As if they had read my mind, my parents shared some resources to bring my G.I. Joe up to speed. My mom showed me how to make uniforms I could sew from scraps of my dad’s old fatigues. Army uniforms? Check! Dad presented me with a real parachute from an illumination round with a ball-bearing attached to give it enough weight to descend at the proper speed. Airborne? Well, he was about to be!

After preparing Joe for his mission by putting him in the proper uniform, it was time for the Airborne operation to begin. First we had to get to altitude. I climbed up onto the 8-foot tall, 15-yard long carport that stood in front of our quarters. The carport gave me the running space to gain throwing momentum and to achieve the extra height needed to give Joe’s chute enough altitude to open. The chute had been carefully packed and I bound it to Joe with a special harness I had designed myself. I gathered speed, much like a javelin thrower approaching the release point, reared back and heaved! Joe went soaring through the air gaining tremendous altitude! His chute began to unfurl in textbook fashion but something wasn’t quite right. There was a twist! Joe had a Mae West! The partially opened chute slowed Joe down some, but not enough to lessen the terrible sound of Joe impacting the sidewalk with a thunderous “CRACK!!!” I jumped off of the carport, executing a perfect PLF (Parachute Landing Fall) just like Dad taught me and nothing like Joe’s impact. I picked Joe up and found him to be bent in a strange way. One great characteristic of G.I. Joe is his flexibility. I made a few bends and twists and he looked just about as good as new. I pulled his string and found that Joe only had one phrase left in him… “ACCOMPLISH MISSION!” Though he was damaged, it seemed his priorities were squared away! He was Airborne and he was mission driven! What more could I ask for?

Well, actually there was one thing. I wanted Joe to look like my dad. The life-like hair and Kung-Fu grip, were dead on…but his complexion, well… not quite! I thought about it and secured a brown magic marker. I began to color Joe’s face and exposed limbs in a brown tint almost identical to mine and my father’s. Mom saw it and said, “Beautiful!” For me, G.I. Joe now had at least a little bit of soul!

“Dad?” Victoria’s interrogative interrupted my blast to the past. “Who won?” I remained silent. Which Barbie would I choose? Before I could answer, Victoria had a most interesting solution. “I know!” She interjected. Picking up the blonde Barbie she reasoned, “This is our winner at the beginning of her time as queen.” Then, putting her down and picking up the Barbie of African decent she continued, “And this is our winner at the end of her time!” In her creative, child’s mind, there was room at the podium for both Barbies to reflect different characteristics of beauty and excellence in a single person. Upon hearing of Vic’s solution, one friend reasoned, “That doesn't surprise me at all! She [Barbie] got a new (much needed) hairdo, including color, obviously a major tan, and different outfit! Makes complete sense to me.” I guess I could see that too! From the mouths of babes…

A song from my childhood by Curtis Mayfield entitled, “Choice of Colors” asks, “If you had a choice of colors, which one would you choose, my brothers?”  The games I played with Victoria took me back to a time when the idea of being comfortable in one’s skin was relatively new for people of my ethnic background. Children less than half generation before often struggled to find beauty in their own faces. Some current studies suggest the struggle persists. Nevertheless, I am encouraged to find that my child has the ability to see equal beauty not only in her own face but in many faces and many hues. The aforementioned Mayfield song also says, “People must prove to the people a better day is coming for you and for me. With just a little bit more education, and love for our nation, we’ll make a better society.” Even at play, we possess moments to educate, guide and inspire our children to make better decisions forged in the furnace of being people of more steadfast character. It is said that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” May God grant us all the ability to behold the beauty we each possess as reflectors of His image so that we might witness at least a few rays of sunshine from “the better day”. Until next time…


Monday, June 3, 2013

No Condemnation

Justice. We seek it. We long for it. We relentlessly pursue it. We read incredible stories of horrible acts that ignite our hearts and create a longing for justice within us that is difficult to satisfy. Some acts are so horrible that we cry for justice at any price, eager to rid this world of evildoers no matter what it takes. We want justice and we want it now – at least that’s what we think.
A friend from years back penned lyrics that exposed a deeper truth. He wrote, “Everybody wants justice…for somebody else!” When we’re the victimizers, the wrong-doers, and the ones who have committed unacceptable acts, we find ourselves in a position of seeing a situation differently. “But officer, I was in a hurry to pick up my girl from day care. I wasn’t meaning to break the law. I normally drive at regular speed!” “Mom, I just couldn’t resist your cookies! I was just trying to reach them when I knocked the cookies jar down and broke it!” “I’m not a killer! But I just got so angry at what he did, I couldn’t control myself! You’d have done the same thing too if you had experienced what I did!” When we are the ones for whom the gavel falls, we are then not so much seekers of justice as much as we are seekers of understanding, forgiveness and mercy.
A Facebook conversation stimulated my thoughts on the subject, especially as it pertains to forgiveness being meted out to the perpetrators of particularly wicked crimes. We often become cynical and unforgiving when we hear of “death bed repentance” or “jailhouse conversions”. No WAY is that guy going to Heaven!” We say. “How dare that preacher tell us, ‘he gave his life to Jesus, now he’s free?’ Free to go to Heaven? Free of sin? I hope he burns in Hell forever and a day!” Our mercy tolerance can be quite low when the pain hits close to home.
Is it really possible for God to forgive “big time” sinners and sinners who have no opportunity to make things right by giving them the exact same gift of eternal life as those who have “labored long” in the Lord’s vineyard? Consider the Parable of the Laborer in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:16ff).
Jesus tells a story which seems to violate every Human Resource and Fair Practices code ever recorded! In the story, a landowner invites workers throughout the day to labor in his vineyard. Some come first towards the beginning of the day. Others come at midday and still others just before closing time.” When the time comes to give the wage for completed work, the landowner gives everyone, the exact same pay! Stunned, those who labored longer protested. “How could you?” the Landowner responds that the money was his to do with as he pleased and asked if he had not kept the terms of the promises he had made with them. The response quieted the workers, giving them something to think about while leaving us with some critical lessons as well.

The website gracethroughfaith.com has this to say re: the Matthew 20, 1-16 passage:

[This is]a heavenly story put into an earthly perspective, [with] all the characters represent someone or something else. [The] landowner represents the Lord, the workers His followers, and the vineyard, His Kingdom. The pay stands for the rewards of salvation. The work is what His followers do to deserve the reward, and the day is the length of time they’re given to do it, normally their lifespan. This parable wasn’t meant to be a management seminar. It was given to illuminate three critical principles having to do with the Kingdom of Heaven.
Three Principles

First, no matter when in your life you decide to join His Kingdom, you are entitled to all the rights and benefits pertaining thereto the moment you do. (Ephesians 1:13-14) The last ones hired got the same pay as the first.

Second, you have to sign up before the end of the day. (Hebrews. 4:7) No one was hired after the end of the day and as I said, the day represents our lifetime.

Third, if you think you deserve more in the Kingdom because you worked longer or harder or lived a better life than someone else, then you’ve forgotten how you got in. You weren’t saved because of your merit or worthiness, but because of His mercy and grace. Thinking He owes you something extra is a sin that if left unconfessed won’t get you thrown out, (remember every worker is a believer) but it could put a strain on your relationship with the Lord during your life and will certainly diminish your joy at having been accepted into the Kingdom.
A personal story might help to further clarify. I have friend from my Jr. High days who committed a series of heinous crimes that gained him infamy. After a couple of years of inner turmoil, he surrendered his life to Christ. He became a truly transformed man, who was the "go to" guy in times of trouble and prevented a number of riots, suicides etc. He had also been sentenced to death. He didn't allow his attorneys to publicly announce his being born-again until after his execution, feeling it might be seen as a ploy for clemency. Though he certainly would have preferred life, he accepted the sentence he earned without protest as a consequence of his sin. He shared his testimony in front of a prison Bible Study for the record a few days before dying. It was published after his sentence was carried out.

His transformation - evident some 8 plus years after his claimed born-again experience - was so profound that the crew who would have normally carried out the sentence asked and received special permission to have another crew carry out the execution because they could not bring themselves to harm him after coming to know him once came to Christ. He was repentant and sought every way he could to demonstrate his understanding of the impact of his sin (he refused a last meal, stating that his victims never had the opportunity to choose their last meals on this earth).

Why do I share this? It's a simple testimony to the transforming power that comes through faith in Jesus' finished work on the Cross which sufficiently paid in full for the sins of the world. Consequences may remain, but forgiveness, freedom and peace are available for murders, liars, adulterers, cheaters, rapist, tax evaders - anyone who recognizes their helpless state and trusts in Jesus' Work. That's the Good News! And because of that, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus…” Praise God for His grace! Relishing His love and mercy until next time…


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

How Can We Respond to Calamity?

The human experience presents us with a never-ending series of challenges, difficulties, trials, tests and calamities. These types of experiences are common, though we are never quite prepared for them when they strike close to home. If we are caught in the brunt of the trouble, our senses tend to be overwhelmed, leaving us in a state of shock, hurt and confusion. If we are bystanders or on-lookers who do not have immediate solutions or practical relief, we often feel helpless or impotent in addressing the pain of others we see in front of us. We know that the words of comfort we often try to deliver seem trite and out of place in the face of horrific devastation. The monstrous tornado that leveled an Oklahoma community with a scope of destruction beyond the wildest nightmare has left many people in the position of asking questions and pondering the overall meaning of human existence.
It is natural to ask deep questions when calamity strikes. When Jesus walked the earth, He was asked on various occasions about tragedies that occurred in that day and sought for advice on how to handle such situations and what God thought about them. Jesus really did not directly answer such questions. In most, if not all, cases, He redirected the minds of the listeners to examine their own hearts and to be prepared for the tragedies and challenges that might come their way at an unexpected time. What kind of individual examination should we do when we find ourselves reeling as a collective community from unimaginable horrors? I believe there are Biblical admonitions to help us prepare for the unthinkable when it occurs:
We should clothe ourselves with humility. The book of James instructs us to tag our plans with a reminder of our limitations by stating, “If the Lord wills.” We are not absolutely sovereign with respect to the daily happenings of our lives. Should we plan, prepare and look forward to the future with hope and expectation? Absolutely! Nevertheless, we should also always leave a category in our thinking that allows for an abrupt change in plans when the unexpected invades our life path. That kind of thinking calls for humility and an admission on a cosmic level that life is not under my control.
We should orient our minds towards the service of others. We were not placed in the world to live in isolation or to be in a perpetual mode of self-preservation. We must seek at every possible opportunity to bless and be a blessing to others and to prepare ourselves for those extreme moments when our service to others may coast us everything. Those extreme moments may never come, but the less extreme ones certainly will. If we prepare our hearts, minds and hands to be helpful, we can make small scale differences that make the way for big time impact when the tough times arise.
We must accept our mortality and our immortality. Jesus constantly warned against living with only the here and now in mind. He declared with unmistakable clarity that those who only invested in the “here and now” were investing foolishly and headed for certain destruction. The Scriptures remind us that it is appointed for us to die – it will happen - then comes judgment. Are you living as if there is no eternity, storing up treasures that at the time of your passing at best will go to others you have appointed and at worst will simply rot, decay, and turn to literal dust? Jesus calls us to invest in people – eternal souls like ourselves who spirits will remain forever – and to serve others so that anyone watching will be able to understand the love God has for the world by our actions and through those actions give Him the glory!

Though I don’t have question ending answers for calamities like Oklahoma, I do feel that God has provided us with instructions. Though we may not ever understand the “whys”, we can engage the “what’s” and “how’s” – what we should do, and how we should do it. As John Wesley said,

“Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.” That much I can do, as long as I have breath and strength. I pray that together we can spur each other on until our day comes and others will have to take up the charge! Pray for those who are struck down by tragedy and press on in this world by being a helpful and healing soul. Until next time….
Sam J.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

An Old Sweet Song - Georgia On My Mind...

Georgia on my mind. She stays on my mind. Hers was the first heartbeat I discerned. Hers the first voice I heard. Hers the first loving embrace I felt. After so many years, I still miss her. There is no price I wouldn’t pay just to be held by her one more time. She’s gone to be with the One she loved most and Whom she served so well all the years she walked on this earth. Certainly she lives with Him now in eternal Glory, yet she lives on in other beautiful ways in the lives of those who knew her and in the lives of those she left behind. I hear her in Joana’s laugh. I see her in Coco’s tender motherhood. I feel her in Maris’ joie de vivre. I remember her in Victoria’s unflinching courage. I know her in the still small voice that continues to guide me in righteous paths. And I miss her.
Yet, I remember her charge years before her soul slipped the gravity-laden bonds of the earth: “My son, the day will come when you hear that I am gone. You will grieve, but you must carry on. There is work to do and the time is short. So when you hear that I have gone, don’t let your grief hold you back. Know that I expect you to carry on doing what you have been called to do for as long as the Lord allows, knowing that in God’s time, another call will give you leave and we will be together once again. Therefore carry on until your labor is done, knowing that I am content and at peace. And Darrell, my son, don’t ever forget the Lord!”
As Mother’s Day weekend is upon us, Mr. Ray Charles’ timeless song rings in my heart - not for the state - but for the one of a kind woman named Georgia who made me who I am and remains forever in my heart and who stays on my mind. A Happy Mother’s Day to All! Until next time,

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Dad On Guard! Love Always Protects!

Dad looked amazing!  When we approached him, he called out with joy, "Hey Man! Hey Luz! What a surprise!  You both look good!"  He was energized, present in mind and up beat in spirit - a sweet, sweet sight! After our greetings we conversed with the nursing staff and Dad sat behind us with other residents. One of his neighbors seemed unsettled.  He looked at me, began pointing and shaking his head as he authoritatively asserted, "You're not squared away! You hear Me! You're not squared aware!  This place isn't squared away!  $%#@^!! You're not squared away! @^#&%$! Get this place squared away!"  I smiled and kept speaking with the nursing staff. 

The neighbor grew more agitated. I began to hear Dad chiming in, "Cool your heels now." The neighbor persisted. "This place isn't %$^$#@! squared away! HE'S not squared away!"  Dad responded, "Let's be gentleman. Let's be gentlemen."  My conversation with the staff continued when I heard Dad say, "Well, he's a little bigger and stronger than me, but that's my boy and he IS squared away!" The neighbor responded "#$^%&! your boy!" Then I saw the nurses eyes grow big as she called out to the another staff member, "UH, OH!  MR. JACKSON'S ROLLING OVER THERE!"  Fortunately, the nurse was faster than Dad and intervened. Also fortunately for us, dementia has a way of overriding memory and before long, the neighbor had settled down and he and Dad were engaged in a pleasant, cordial and gentlemanly conversation!,

The entire episode was funny but it was also deeply moving for me.  Even with his movement governed, his presence of mind not always clear and other significant limitations, my dad still had my back! When he believed my well being was in question, he did all he could to protect me and those around me.  The threat wasn't real, but it was real to him and he was willing to step in to the best of his ability. I thank God for my dad's love - a love that helps me better understand the love of my Heavenly Father and a love that sets the standard for I must love those around me as well.  In that respect, let's stay "Squared Away!"  Until next time...


Friends Indeed!

The rain just kept coming.  It set the tone for my disposition.  It was just plain gloomy – fog, rain, and gray skies.  We were about to travel to North Carolina to move my father’s home into storage.  All along the ride – and for weeks beforehand – I had prayed, “Lord, I cannot do this. The house is a mess. It isn’t move ready. There are pieces of furniture that require several people, and there’s no way Luz and I can do it.  We’ve got a deadline.  We can’t do it.  But we have to do it. Lord, show us how and make a way for us.” Daily, for weeks I had prayed this prayer.  The task seemed overwhelming, if not just plain impossible.  As I prayed, I worried about what we faced though worry isn't an appropriate response to trouble for a Christian who trusts the Lord.  Worry was a constant companion as I just couldn't see a solution to the challenge we faced.  Nevertheless, duty called and we prepared.

When we arrived, the situation was as challenging as I remembered it; lots of stuff – none of it move ready.  The “stuff” not only included heavy furniture but volumes of paperwork that had not been sorted and several pockets of storage that had been exposed to the elements and ruined, yet still required sorting because of the importance of some of the contents.  I stared at the job and wondered, “How?”  God’s answer was straightforward.  “With the love and help of your friends.”

Proverbs 17:17 says, “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.”  The catch is, one cannot experience the truth of this verse until a time of critical need arises.  Just at the point I thought, “We’ll do what we can and leave behind what we must”, the friends and brothers kicked in.  Old friends, newer friends and those sent by dear friends who knew of our situation showed up to help us.  We had a jack of all trades to guide us, 8 paratroopers and an Airborne Chaplain to do heavy lifting. We had trusted lifelong friends who heard about our plight come alongside to sort through sensitive things and to give us support and speed in our sorting duties.  Other provided meals, ran errands and held watch as we had to run errands. I was amazed as our friends carried us through the tedious process of moving, sorting, storing, giving and discarding. They stood strong when we grew weak, and they carried on whenever we faltered.  When emotions overwhelmed, they persevered and gave us the strength we didn't ourselves possess. When I was convinced we couldn’t get everything done, these ‘angels’ refused to leave our sides and remained faithful in their help until the last item was moved and the last piece of debris was thrown out. The end result… our mission was accomplished, our minds were relived and our hearts are now at peace! 

Our situation was a strong reminder for me of the basic principle that God has created us to live in the context of relationships.  No matter how strong we may believe we are or how independently and self-sufficiently we may attempt to live our lives, all of us have been created to build friendships, treasure relationships and to journey shoulder to shoulder with others that we may enjoy mutual blessing, encouragement and support. However, one necessary and sometimes challenging piece to receiving the blessing of such help is to allow oneself to be humbled and to have the willingness to be vulnerable at one’s point of need. I had to practice what I preach in this regard and to allow my neediness to show. My self-exposure didn't so much show my weaknesses as much as it empowered those who love me to help.  By being open I was able to hear and feel the prayers on my behalf.  Because I was open I was able to accept the love shown to me.  Because I was open, I saw God’s glory in the helping hands that lifted us up when we didn't possess the strength to lift ourselves. 

I’m still in awe of the outpouring of love we received and the practical way in which it was manifested in our time of need.  Our friends simply refused to abandon us and literally walked us through a trial that had the potential to knock us down flat.  I want to call each of you to link your lives with others who can walk by your side through the trials and challenges of life and provide you with the opportunity to both give and receive love, support and encouragement.  As I spend the days recovering from our ordeal, I am glad that part of my days are also filled with times to reflect on the precious friends with whom I have been blessed and on the wonderful benefit I've received in seeing the fruit of our friendships come to such a sweet juncture.  I got by with a lot of help from my friends. Praise God from Whom all blessings flow!  Until Next time…


All Clear!

All Clear!

All Clear!

All Clear!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

No Place Like Home

This weekend, I am faced with a task I had not fully considered until it became an unavoidable rendezvous with destiny - the removal and storage of my parents household goods and the closing of the last place my parents together called home.  With this action, many memories and reminders will be tucked away for some time and the brick and mortar that housed the last living memories of my mother will be out of reach for the rest of my life. 

As an Army Brat, having a place to call home is more precious than gold.  Home is a refuge - a retreat - a rallying point that stands as a personal fortress in the midst of a lifestyle that doesn't really allow geographic stability and security. Home is where my folks are...but what happens when the folks are no longer home? I hadn't really contemplated this fully until this weekend.  As an only child, I won't have the memories of my siblings to share as a source of encouragement and strengthening.  My father suffers from dementia and what he does remember is random and unpredictable.  There will be few chats around the hearth to celebrate the way we were.  Regarding family and home I find myself thinking, "What now?" 

As I reflect on the identity of my home, an old cadence comes to mind that really resonated with the deepest longings of my soul during the days I was compelled to sing it. It may have been meant as dark humor, but every note of it touched my heart and in reality, I sang it with gusto: "Airborne, Airborne, All the way! Airborne, Airborne, all the way! We like it here!  We love it here! We've finally found a home!  We like it here! We love it here! We've finally found a home! A home! A home! A home way from home! A home! A HOME! A HOME AWAY FROM HOME...HEY!" Yes, the Army has always been my soul's home, yet I answered a call that carried me far from my home and all for which I had prepared myself from childhood to my early adult life.  I have now spent most of my life as a wayfaring sojourner who is driven by a conviction to spread Good News to anyone that will listen and to help as many with my gifts, talents and abilities as I can.  A great calling to a meaningful existence, but home's not included!

Am I regretful of choosing a path foreign to my upbringing that on occasion causes me to contemplate the ambiguity of what home really means? Not at all.  In serving God, I have truly found a "Home away from Home" and I am bound for a Better Home than I have ever known.  In Mark 10:29-30, Jesus spells out the blessings of leaving behind one's earthbound home :  "“Truly I tell you, no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life."  I have experienced this verse first hand as my path has crossed with others who have themselves left the familiar and comfortable to walk with God in the way of Faith. I have truly gained brothers, sisters and family as I encountered people whose love for God transcended their place of orgin, language,culture and nationality because of their primary identity as a child of God.

As I continue along my walk of faith, I find myself understanding the finite nature of life more clearly and longing for my celestial home that will never perish. Hebrews 11 says that Abraham waited for a city "whose builder and maker is God."  We are to likewise wait for that city as we display character consistent with our citizenship in it.  Our goals, aims, hopes and dreams should now be recalibrated to reflect our sanctified hope that as we suffer and hurt in our service, Jesus is preparing better things for us - if it were not so, He would have told us!

As I prepare for the challenging task of dismantling the memories of my home, I must sanctify my thinking.  I must take joy in remembering the wonderful home and community in which I was raised and that better things are ahead.  I must remember that a great multitude, including my mom, have walked in faith before me, showing me where my true citizenship lies and it is a privilege to follow in their footsteps.  I must choose to focus on the high and esteemed call I have as a citizen of my Home in Glory, not wade in the swamps of regret and disappointment. I must remember that I have not been left as an orphan, but rather been blessed with many brothers and sisters around the world to encourage, inspire and motivate me to continue to fight the good fight.

It may be true that my geographic reference points of home are fading away, yet the beacon of my true home and my extended family shine brighter every day.  For that reason I can say with sincerity, "I like it here. I love it here! I've finally found a home...because I realize that home is not confined to a zip code, nor family to blood relations, but it is found with the Lord and with all those he has placed in my life who walk with me here, there and everywhere! Truly, there's nobody like family and there's no place like home!  Many thanks to all of you who make this vision of home a daily reality in my life!  Until next time...


My Fondest Memory of Home