Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Personal Response to Ferguson - A Call to Hard Core Commitment

America is not unfamiliar with social upheavals.  As far back as our own revolution, Americans have witnessed an unending series of incidents brought about by the illusive and taxing pursuit of some of the most powerful ideals of the human experience.  Americans have fought other nations and each other over almost sacred concepts like liberty, justice, equality and freedom.  These concepts are so mighty in our collective psyche, that we have killed our kindred and our kind and willingly given “the last full measure of devotion” of ourselves sin our attempts to ascend to “higher ground.”  Some of our actions in pursuit of the collective good are noble.  Sadly, on tragic days, our search for truth and beauty finds us trodding an ignoble path, characterized by shameful actions and pitiful expressions of our frustration with the failures of our society.
In light of the aforementioned history, the chaos that now characterizes Ferguson, Missouri is nothing new.  We’ve had Tea Parties, tar and feathering mobs, lynchings, a War Between the States, and a string of riots between various groups over the years, including a riot in 1930 between Filipino-American farm workers and local anti-immigration townspeople in Watsonville, California in 1930 over labor issues in agriculture!  In my lifetime, there have been riots in the 1960’s in reaction to Dr. King’s death.  Riots over compulsory school bussing in Boston in the 70’s, and there were riots in California after the Rodney King Trial.  There was great debate and heightened racial tension in the nation after the O.J. Simpson trial’s conclusion and we now have national tension and rioting revolving around the Grand Jury decision surrounding the Michael Brown shooting incident.  Unless we are willingly partaking in revisionist history, it is clear that our American experience has always been punctuated with episodes of civil unrest – sometimes violent, sometimes not but always a bit scary. 
Among the questions that persist in all of the discussions I’ve seen since the Brown situation emerged on the national landscape are, “What do we do?” “How do we deal with this?” “Is there any hope?” As a Jesus follower, I believe the answers to these questions are straightforward, yet extremely difficult to apply in real life, real time.  The solutions are not difficult to apply because of a lack of opportunity to put one’s money where one’s mouth is, but they are difficult because of the high personal costs of doing “the right things.” The answers to bring real progress to our ongoing national conversation on race require costly, hard core commitments to some of the simplest to understand, yet most difficult to carry out life principles outlined by Jesus.  I’ll cite two principles for us to consider in how we can make a difference in times of upheaval and controversy. First, Jesus calls us to love our enemies!
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so?  Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
As a pastor, I can tell you that one can effortlessly formulate a “rip roaring, feel good” sermon on this passage a feel great about one’s grasp of the content.  I can attest to the fact that one can feel downright “Christ-like”, warm and fuzzy down to one’s toes until someone curses you to your face. Or, someone lets you know verbally and literally that they hate you. Or, someone uses their power, position and resources to persecute you and make your life a living hell.  Those realities make the passage come alive with the costs of what Jesus is calling us to do when we’re punched in the gut in a way that messes up our day, disrupts our harmony of life and wrecks our hopes and dreams. 
Jesus is calling us to a radical way of life to radically address the mountainous challenges of our times.  What do I mean by radical? I mean that the Lord is calling us to obey our spiritual training, not our natural instincts.  What distinguishes heroic effort from cowardly failure? Is it superhuman ability? Is it uncommon courage?  Is it exceptional aptitude?  More often than not, it is unwavering commitment to the truth of one’s training and the ability to adhere to that training and aggressively apply it when one’s natural inclinations would lead one to act otherwise.  It is the commitment to not walk by the person in need in the spirit of the Good Samaritan.  It is the dogged tenacity to pray for those who are killing you, like the first martyr Stephen. It is the iron clad grip on the ways of Jesus, emulating his example of complete love and forgiveness, as he prayed for those who were killing Him as He was being crucified saying, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” It is the commitment Jesus had to see the opportunity to transform and enemy to a friend when one who has mocked you sees the light, as did the thief on the cross, leading Jesus to stop dying and minister to his new ally, assuring him of a home in Glory in the midst of His own anguish.  It is the ability to see past one’s own pain and suffering to love and serve others.  Jesus managed to care for his mother and follower John even as He suffered because His mission centered on the needs of others, not His own comfort and relief.  For the Christ follower who feels the weight of oppression, persecution and injustice, we must speak the truth in love but always IN LOVE. We must persevere for justice but always loving and praying for our enemies – especially if they’re our friends!  We must recognize that withstanding the pounding of evil doers in the strength of holiness doesn’t make one a chump, it crystalizes one’s identity as a righteous warrior poised to shake up the world for the good.  Jesus never stopped speaking the truth.  He also never adopted the tactics of His enemies.  Our actions must solidify our identity as Jesus’ people never relenting in speaking and doing what is right – even if we get hurt.
On the other hand,  if you find yourself in a position of strength and control in these stormy times, what should you do?  Micah 6:8 has some excellent marching orders: “He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” DO justice. In all one’s undertakings and interactions. Be the person who can be counted on not to “take a side” but to speak and act for what is just. Be the person who has a heart of compassion and mercy when others are looking for ropes.  Remember God’s mercy towards you and walk in the humility of that knowledge.  Be the change you’re seeking to experience.
The illusive healing we all seek will also call for a willingness to cross cultural, linguistic, racial and social barriers over and over again. I have spent the majority of my ministry time intentionally reaching across barriers, not only seeking to establish dialogue, but seeking to build a life together with people different from me.  I have been and continue to be hurt in the process.  I say again, I have been and CONTINUE TO BE hurt in the process.  I’m no one’s fool and I am very realistic about my calling.  But if I give up now, what good will all the effort have been?  I’ve come to the conclusion that true faith calls one to experience true pain and to die figuratively every day to one’s own comfort and could even call one to one’s literal, physical demise.  Yet, the words of Jesus compel me to press on: “What profit is it to a man, to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”  The pursuit of comfort has many benefits, but missing from among them is “a satisfying grasp of eternal purpose, a peace of heart and a peace of mind.”
Why the rant?  Because tough times call for tougher resolve.  Because riots will happen again and we can’t spend our time wondering if we’re resolved to press on for a better nation and a better world every time our cities burn or react in shock when they do.  The fight is a life-long and our commitment must be life-long as well, with a call to the next generation to pick up where we leave off.  I may not have all of the answers for every specific situation that arises, but Jesus has provided me with what is necessary to stand in faith, courage and effectiveness, making a difference however I can, wherever I can until my time is up.  To this end I am committed. Hard Core! All the way!  Is anybody with me?

With all my love, your friend and brother,
Sam J.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Preserving One's Good Name - Lessons from the Stumblings of the High and Mighty

“Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.”
William Shakespeare – From Othello

How exceedingly painstaking it is to build a good name, yet how amazingly effortless it is to destroy it!  When one’s good name is stolen it is indeed a tragedy, but how painfully pitiful when we ourselves are the thieves!  As one witnesses the colossal implosion of Bill Cosby’s reputation and the name he built over the years based on the appearance he has given of champion of the family, model integrity and paragon of goodness, it leaves one with a hollow, sickening feeling. It also serves as a reminder that we must “abstain from every appearance of evil” knowing that appearances become reality to those who witness behavior that seems questionable, let alone behavior that is outright wrong.  Mr. Cosby’s situation demonstrates that anyone in leadership or at the forefront of public notice must protect themselves from their own weaknesses, and from situations that create a distance from accountability. 
I happen to serve in a profession that is rife with examples of fallen heroes. From biblical examples to present day ministers, people who have been called as spiritual leaders often begin with strong reputations, noble intentions and sterling records of doing good, only to fall on their faces later with the exposure of some moral lapse or unnoticed weakness in their personal character.  These failures are painful, shameful and always set back the cause for good a few degrees as skeptical observers ask pertinent and understandable questions regarding the falls from grace that have taken place.  What is our reaction to such a fall and how do protect ourselves from similar destruction?
The first reaction should be acknowledgment.  I, Samuel D. Jackson, acknowledge that left to myself, without accountability or responsibility, I can do everything that Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, or anyone else who has fallen has done. Left to my own devices, thinking I’m “good to go” and have no need of others to call me out, ask me questions, or speak into my life to keep me on track, I am bound to certain moral and spiritual failure.  The second I fail to acknowledge this, is the second I draw dangerously near to falling on my face.
The second reaction should be humble reliance on trusted friends in light of my recognition of my own vulnerability to keep me in line.  I need people in my life to speak to my heart, soul and mind.  Those who can tell me where I am, without varnish, and who will “go upside my head” asking me, “Are you out of your mind?” if I wander into "Stupidville" undeterred.
These reactions should be bound together by a commitment to good. For me as a Christian this means a commitment to the Lord, trusting Him and His Word to keep me on the path, rather than veering into my own direction where I can rationalize stupidity, immorality and evil in my life.  The Bible says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death!”  I need to walk with God and His people in such a  way, that the ways of death are clearly marked and the Way of life never departs from my view.
These are some very basic, foundational principles of living to avoid the traps of moral failure that surround us all.  I hope that in this sad development regarding the iconic Mr. Cosby, the truth will be found, repentance enjoined, forgiveness extended and received and healing achieved.  I also pray that each one of us will self-inspect, aggressively correct and with humility and trembling press onward with the recognition that truly, “There but for the Grace of God, go I.”

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Renewal Vows - Sam and Luz Jackson November 15, 2014 - 4pm

Here are the personal vows Luz and I prepared, then shared during our renewal ceremonon November 15, 2014 - verbatim:
Luz to Sam:
"My Husband Sam,
I love you. I have walked with you side by side in all of life and in the work of the Lord for 25 years. I have kept the vows I made to you and will continue keeping those vows until death separates us from each other. It is my promise to love you, to help you and to encourage you when times are good or bad and to stand by you as I have for 25years, every day, no matter what challenges that life may bring. I promise to honor God, our family and our marriage with all my heart, soul mind and strength all the days of my life. I love you and I give you my solemn word!"
Sam to Luz:
"My Dearest Luz,
25 years ago, I made a sacred vow before the Lord and many witnesses that I would love, honor and cherish you, in under any conditions, for all time. Today, I renew my vows to you not because I have forgotten my pledge or that I am entertaining any intention to renege on the promise that I made that day in Manila. I am simply taking a moment in our life together to thank you for being my best friend, my fiercest and most loyal supporter and the best soldier in my Army in a journey that has been wonderful – yet a journey that has given us many challenges that the Lord has enabled us to endure and overcome together as one. In a world of broken promises and corrupted loyalties, I feel compelled to restate my commitments on this our Silver Anniversary, and to reemphasize my honorable intentions and to renew my vows to you and to our family. It is for that reason - understanding that the best and the most challenging years of our lives remain before us - that I pledge to you my unconditional love, my unflinching loyalty and my undying commitment to stand by you and for you in any and all circumstances - be they the highest of successes or the lowest of failures now and for all time. Other than Our God, I will place no one else before you, or allow another to occupy the place in my heart and life that is reserved exclusively for you, Maria-Luz Bautista de Jackson y Roda. I further devote myself to the advancement and protection of our entire family: our daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren until death or mental incapacitation prevents me from leading as I have been called to lead. This is my solemn oath to you; pledging my heart, my body, my soul and my life to you by my sacred honor according to the grace and power of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, from this day forward until He comes again or until He comes for me."

Silver Bells - Celebrating 25 Years of God's Goodness!

For our many friends who sent us love from near and far on the occasion of the renewal of our vows, here is the message capsulizing our story that we placed in the order of service for everyone who has cared for us so deeply over the years:
Silver Bells! Celebrating 25 Years of God’s Goodness!
In July of 1989 as a representative of my seminary, Columbia International University, I set out, to join 5,000 others who were taking part in an historic gathering of Christian Leaders from around the globe to discuss the most urgent issues facing the church at the end of the 20th century. One of these leaders was a vivacious YWAM Missionary named Luz Bautista. The Lausanne II International Mission Congress was the result of the work of Billy Graham and other world Christian leaders to bring together a variety of dynamic Christian Organizations to pray together, plan together and mobilize the whole church to take the whole Gospel around the whole world.
In the midst of performing our duties during that Congress, my path would cross with Luz’s, our curiosity towards each other would be kindled, eventually leading to a full blown courtship that would lead us to the altar of matrimony on a hot December afternoon in 1989 at the Youth With a Mission Balut Base in Manila, Philippines. As we made those vows of life-long commitment to each other, there were a number of challenges to consider.
As we have reminisced about our courtship, we remember wrestling with some fear as we both possessed a clear understanding of the enormity of the step we were about to take. What was it that overcame those instances of timidity? Our fears were overcome by a confidence that was built on what the group Boston referred to as “More than a feeling”. Our relationship began with a common commitment to our faith in Jesus Christ. We both had surrendered all of who we were and all of what we did to His control and authority. We both were also committed to the institution of marriage and possessed an unshakeable conviction that such a commitment is not to be made trivially or on the basis of whims or hyped-up emotions. We both shared an understanding that left to ourselves as human beings, we were vulnerable to wreck our marriage with our baggage and weaknesses. We knew we would need God’s guidance, friends’ support and a commitment to working through our challenges if the marriage was going to work. We also believed we would need to love each other without stopping, understanding that love is ultimately based on action not emotion and a commitment to grow together and to give each other our all as long as we both lived.
The 25 years since we took our vows have been sweet and blessed. Of course, we as a family have experienced the full span of human drama and challenge that life in this world brings. Nevertheless, we have seen God’s faithfulness in every circumstance and trial and count ourselves blessed to have experienced the goodness, grace and mercy of the Lord through the helping hands of our friends. It is with the help of true friends that our marriage has been able to grow, mature and endure. Our friends and loved ones have encouraged us, rallied around us and lifted us up so that we have been able to face life’s challenges with confidence and courage.
It is for that reason that as Luz and I celebrate 25 years of marriage, we want to especially celebrate your friendship us. We thank you for standing with us, standing for us, and cheering us on as our family continues to grow and as we press on in the service of the Lord. We give God the glory and praise our silver anniversary and we salute you for helping to make such a celebration possible through your love! We prayerfully look forward to more years of walking with you and glorifying God together in all of life’s celebrations and challenges! What would we do without you! Thank you for being our friends! Let’s celebrate what God has done!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Strands - The Journey from Alone to Connected

As an only child, I spent a lot of my early years alone - and didn't like it.  I longed for siblings who never came, and faced the challenges of Army Brat life as the new kid in town alone, becoming very skilled at exercising diplomacy when it was evident the odds of confrontation were stacked against me.  As I grew up, I was fortunate to gain friends who became like sibling to me, but the reality of the limits of fraternity by choice hit like a hammer when one of our parents got orders and someone had to move.  Years passed, more great friendships were formed, but I still went home at the end of each day alone.  The last night of my life that I spent absolutely alone was December 19, 1989.  I remember it well because I had been sharing group sleeping quarters with a mission team from New Zealand.  That team had returned to their home and I was left alone in what reminded me of an Army Platoon bay with nothing but my thoughts, contemplating how my life was about to change on the following day when I would inherit a wife and two daughters.  A day later, I was surrounded by a new family and would never be seen as a loner nor feel that same loneliness again.  I have experienced the reality of Ecclesiastes 4 which says:

"Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.  For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!  Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone?  And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken."

The strands in our cord have now grown beyond the Lord, Luz and I with the addition  of grown children who have become our friends, along with a younger child, a grandchild, an extended family and precious friends who bring us unending encouragement and blessing.  Tomorrow, as Luz and I renew our vows, I will again contemplate how blessed I am to now have so many strands in my cord!  I thank the Lord for such rich blessings and I thank all of you who remain in my life as faithful strands comprising the rich. multi-tiered cord that has transformed me from a lonely child to a connected man enriched by a wonderful, global family!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Remembering and Renewing

In two weekends, Lord willing, Luz and I will renew our vows in a ceremony celebrating 25 years together as a married couple. As that day of celebration approaches,  I will be posting thoughts about our journey over those years. As we have shared our intention to celebrate, a few reactions have been stirred up in response. One friend's daughter asked, "Why are they doing that?  Did they forget the vows they made the first time?"  That's a good question.  As I considered that very appropriate inquiry, some directives from Psalm 103 came to mind:

"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, who forgives all your iniquity,    who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit,    who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good    so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's."

This Psalm calls us to bless the Lord for all the good He has done and in particular, admonishes us to "forget not all His benefits..." 25 years ago, there was a great deal of uncertainty as to the soundness of our decision to come together.  Our relationship was cross cultural. It was long distance for a time.  Children were involved. We were both unknown to each other's closest and most trusted friends who feared for our well being.  At the time of my proposal, I had no money, was in school, had no job and was living by faith.  By many appearances, our decision seemed risky at best, crazy at the worst.  Of course, the greatest factor that convinced us to unite was an unshakeable conviction that God was at work uniting us. So great was our conviction, that Luz and I felt secure in taking a gargantuan leap of faith, looking past the reservations and skepticism to unite ourselves as one.  One of the decisions we made in light of our step of faith was to promise that if we found ourselves still together at the point of 25 years we would throw down a "mile marker," and celebrate what God had done by recommitting ourselvesto trust Him to keep our family together for more years to come(not that we anticipated divorce, but in humility, we reminded ourselves that no one can guarantee the number of years they will live).  

Keeping with our promise to each other, over the next two weeks, I will be recounting the blessings and lessons of 25 years of togetherness through triumphs, tragedies, sorrows and joys that Luz andI have seen in our union.  While celebrating with us, I also ask you to remember for yourselves, how the Lord has blessed you and call you to devote yourselves to "not forgettting" all He has done!

Celebrating the journey thus far.  Looking forward to what lies ahead!

With much love and thanksgiving,