Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Big Freeze Ends

I have a unique way of allowing anxiety to freeze my faculties when it comes to big decisions. Whether or not to get a dog must be a BIG decision…because I’ve been frozen for some years! I know, you’re thinking ‘what’s the big deal,’ right?

“Every kid deserves to have a pet growing up,” you’ll tell me. (And I suppose it won’t help to remind you that I bought them hamsters six full years ago? No? Ok, didn’t think so).

It’s just that every time I think of all those vet visits, the hassle of finding pet sitters (in addition to baby sitters) and the added expense of another mouth to feed I’m rendered immobile as a teen asked to do chores. “Maybe just a bit more time to think about this?” I mutter, to whomever might be listening.

And apparently, no one was…listening, that is. Because my wife got that look on her face that says “Please don’t bother to say ‘no’ when I ask you this question” (her face is very expressive). “Are we going to get the kids a dog for Christmas?”

What can you say to a face that forbids “no?” Before I knew it we were off to the VA Beach SPCA
I must have had “that” look on my face (the look of a man who knows he’s about to spend money and is not happy about it) because my wife said, “Oh, didn’t you hear that Priority Automotive is providing free pet adoptions before Christmas?”  (I hadn’t). “Crud, there went one of my best, most practical arguments,” I thought to myself, of course, not expressing this to the now smiling face directing me into the SPCA parking lot.

Once inside, I had the ominous feeling of a doomed man. Memories of Hillary Clinton, postulating the existence of a vast right wing conspiracy, drifted through my head. Because, I’m not quite sure how to put this, everyone in the SPCA seemed to be on a first-name basis with my wife, Bridget. “Hi Bridget, (said with a knowing look) good to see you.” “Great to see you again, Bridget, you’ll be coming right this way, yes? Oh, and HE’S the one? (with a contemptuous nod of the head in MY direction). “Good luck!”

That’s when we met a Lhasa Apso named “Alex.” Even HE seemed to know Bridget, jumping up into her lap and yipping with joy in the small cubicle reserved for ‘visiting hours.’ The realization slowly dawned on me that we weren’t ‘just visiting’ and that I had entered a battle of wits unarmed.  The long freeze was over in my decision-making process. We were the proud owners of a 6-year old rescued dog who was coming home with us for Christmas.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Should a church feel like a night club opening?

The Regent University Mission team was in New York City this week to serve on the streets and in the hospitals to give care and compassion in the name of Christ. To be fair, there is great debate as to what if anything a short term team can accomplish that adds to the work going on long term in a location. For that reason, I work to always come alongside existing ministries like NYSUM  or The Bowery.

But once the students get out on those streets, they discover the truth that ministry is draining. Jesus knew it... when the woman with a 12 year medical problem touched him, the Bible records Jesus' words "Someone touched me, for I perceive that power has gone out from me." That's why our groups always visit not one but several great, bible-believing churches to recharge spiritually. This trip, it just so happened that Hillsong NYC  was launching as a new church. We joined nearly 4000 other young people in making this first service a can't-miss event.  In fact, for the first time I can remember, we stood in line for church for over an hour and a half!

Going to a church service that felt like the opening of a new club was a novel experience. People walking down the street would stop and ask, "What's happening here?"  The answer would come, "It's the launch of a new church," to which there was an inevitable quizzical rejoinder, "What kind of church?" Answer: One unlike I've ever seen!

Couple of observations about this new church from a former church planter: 

1. Almost no money was spent on advertising/marketing. The push was through Twitter @HillsongNYC btw. (yes I follow) as well as Facebook. The result? A huge crowd of young, hip church goers.

2. The pastor/spiritual rock star @CarlLentz was on the scene giving a very distinctive flavor for the evening. Virginia Beach residents will know him as the hip Pied Piper of Soul Central at Wave Church. Others of us know him as the once-errant son of Steve and Kathy Lentz (also in attendance) and the result of much prayer over the years. God got hold of this guy in a unique way that connects with young adults like very few people I've ever seen. High energy for sure.

3.   Big guns @BrianHouston and @BobbiHouston, the dynamic duo co-pastors of the Hillsong Sydney "mother ship" were on hand, as well as their son @JoelHouston, the creative mind behind Hillsong United. Added into the mix was @JudahSmith from City Church in Seattle to give the service the feel of an All-star game of young, hip evangelical leaders in the US and Australia.

4. The young people who were there made it clear, however, that the unifying factor was not the pastor, nor the preaching, nor the "namebrand" church Hillsong, but the music. From the first chord, the crowd hopped, reached, sang and shouted in a familiar sway, demonstrating that it was the experience that mattered, not so much the personalities. Over three thousand people waited in a queue for hours to experience the chance to feel freedom and liberty.

So hop and sway and shout we did, drawing on the spiritual hunger and energy in the Salvation Army theater near Union Square. It replenished us, encouraged us, and sent us out to do more work for others. Do you think a church should feel like the opening of a night club? Let me know.

Pastor Judah Smith meeting Crystal from our team

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Who Are the Homeless?

Her bag could have been from Fendi, a chic accessory joining the crisp, cool air to give notice that fall had come to the corner of Fifth Avenue and 55th St. The crumpled papers in her hand might have been a playbill from the latest show that the most fashionable boots in the City had tromped by droves to see. The swirl of her conversation could just as well have been recounting her latest visit to Harry Winston’s or De Beers there on fashionable 5th Avenue.

But it wasn’t.

Instead, her conversation over coffee sitting on her bag in the shadow of 5th Avenue Presbyterian Church was an orientation of sorts. This, her first night on the streets of New York City revolved around overzealous policemen who kicked, fined or screamed profanity at her. Prior to tonight she had tried to resolve her “circumstances” by sleeping on the subway. With her bag and knit sweater primly tucked around her, she survived for months in this manner, by day the fiancĂ© of a Chinese pastor, by night a hounded denizen of the public transportation system.

I didn’t understand.

Why would this spirited, Asian woman be sleeping on the street? I began to ask questions, to discover the reasons behind her circumstances. Had she spoken to her fiancé the pastor? Did the church know she was here? How long had they been paying the fines levied on her for her nomadic public slumber? I needed a peg to hang this on, an entry point into her world.

She rebuked me.

“I could tell you more about my circumstances, but you couldn’t begin to understand. You would think you did, but you don’t. You would misunderstand and tell someone. And you’d be wrong. You don’t have the perspective of God. Would you like to know why I am here tonight?” Mutely, I shook my head. “I’m here in complete surrender to the will of God.”

She was right.

I needed a tidy explanation. I wanted her to fit into a category that explained her presence there across from the Fendi store, sleeping on the steps. As her rebuke sunk in, I knew I asked questions to discover how she was different from me. How she had fallen. Where she had chosen unwisely; who had failed her, harmed her, victimized her. So that she would be a “homeless” and I her encourager, rescuer, reaching down across the gulf to show my goodness.

Who is my neighbor?

A question asked of Jesus, that ancient sage, designed not to enable further outreach or care for a new friend, but to categorize. To place someone in a group different from oneself, and so to insulate from up close, personal love and care. And so Jesus told a story, about a man in need. A man treated roughly by life, robbed of his dignity and left alongside the road to rot. A man much like the lady I met. But wise Jesus told the story not to focus on a victim who needed help, but on the startling responses from those walking alongside the street. The fashionable, acceptable residents of that city walked right by the man. They knew he belonged to a different category, a man who had made poor choices. Given time, they might help, but circumstances dictated otherwise. But the hated Samaritan walked up and entered the world of the man by the road. Without judging his circumstances, he brought care, and according to Jesus, demonstrated that he was that man’s neighbor. And then I realized, it didn’t matter how she got there…

Eiku is my neighbor.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Prayer of the Heart

St. Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894), Russian asectic, bishop, and prolific author

I don't know about you, but prayer intimidates me a bit. I'm not by nature a contemplative, and the thought of being alone in a room with just my thoughts (just as likely to be about baseball or some banal subject) is a bit scary. I've discovered that I need coaches or guides in prayer.

One I've discovered is a guy named Theophan the Recluse. I know, I know--any guy with "Recluse" in his name, who's not a spider, has got to be a little creepy. Don't let that intimidate you; he was just a Russian monk of the 19th century. Monks are the ones through history who've made a point of retreating from society in order to think more deeply about God, and cultivate a life of contemplation and prayer.  Theophan's main contribution to Christian spirituality was his translation of a group of writings on prayer called the "Philokalia" into Russian.

He says something that helps me, and addresses some of my prayer insecurities.

Recall how you prayed and always strive to pray this way, so that prayer comes from the heart and is not just thought by the mind and chattered by the tongue.

When he says, "prayer...chattered by the tongue" I know just what he means. In my tradition, prayer is considered "good" if it is long, eloquent, and (usually) loud. My tradition values free-form prayer laced with spiritual-sounding phrases like "washed in the blood of the Lamb" and "sanctified and set-apart by the sinless substitutionary atonement of Jesus..." I know all about prayers "chattered by the tongue" and they do much to intimidate me in my own prayer life.

My new friend the recluse, perhaps because he has spent more time praying alone than to try to impress others, speaks of a different kind of prayer-- the prayer that comes from the heart. The thought in this more Eastern method of prayer was to memorize a simple prayer, sometimes called a "breath prayer" and repeat it often enough that the words weren't central. It was a "known-by-heart" prayer.

This kind of heart prayer takes me out of the competition mode. It puts me into more of a contemplative moment, allowing me to reflect on what God might have to say to me. This I think, is what Theophan must have intended. Perhaps that is why the saint once known as "George" took the name Theophan which means "God appears." When we pray from the heart, God often appears.

How do you feel about prayer?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Are You Trapped by the Monster Regret?

I went on a date with my wife to see the movie Inception this week.  Have you seen it yet? 

Check out this trailer to see if you'd be interested:

The film focuses on Dom Cobb, whom Peter Travers in his review in Rolling Stone calls".. a professional invader of the subconscious played with action-star ferocity and emotional heft by Leonardo DiCaprio. Corporations, like the one run by Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe), hire Dom and his crew to get inside people's heads." 

Get inside my head is exactly what this film did, and if you haven't seen it--make plans to go, but be prepared to be confused. Or befuddled. Or enlightened, as the case may be. I know that I was all three before the film finished it's plunge through three layers of dream space,  subconscious "limbo" and sudden shifts from past to present to future time. 

In case you'd like to see the movie, I won't go in to every twist and turn of the labyrinthian plot. I would like to focus in on one aspect of the film that struck me as fascinating. It did, at least, after my wife noticed it. "Did you notice there were only two main female characters?" she asked. (I nod my head semi-intelligently)  And did you notice that the younger woman (Ariadne) leads Cobb out of his regret over his wife (Mal)?" (again the semi-intelligent head nod).

That's when all the classic Greek and Roman mythology I had studied once upon a sophomore year came bubbling to the surface. (Thanks Joe Elias and Lou Ledbetter!) Ariadne was the daughter of King Minos of Crete.  Crete had a lovely tradition of accepting sacrifices from Athens to feed their nasty monster the Minotaur, held at bay in a bewildering labyrinth. (see the connection coming?) Theseus was among the third group of unwitting sacrifices, but Ariadne comes to his rescue by LEADING HIM OUT OF THE MAZE. Just like Ariadne does for Mr. Cobb in the amazing movie Inception. 

So what? Well, beyond a cleverly placed classical allusion, Christopher Nolan suggests to us a powerful principle. Ariadne (the maze maker and breaker) helps Cobb overcome his regret over his wife Mal (that means "bad or evil" in Latin) He has trapped himself in a prison of regret. In a very insightful review of the film, we are reminded that a recurring line in the movie addresses that regret. “Do you want to become an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone?” 

Without spoiling the entire plot, Dom Cobb encases his regrets throughout life in a prison-like structure in his mind, revisiting them in tortured dream sequences. Ariadne discovers this self-torture, confronts him, and ultimately leads him to the only way out of regret--forgiveness. Just as in the classical myth, Ariadne leads him along the thread of past mistakes away from the monster named regret. 
Theseus & Minotaur

Of course the answer to that repeated question for me is "NO" I don't want to be an old man, filled with regret. But like Cobb, I do keep past mistakes locked away where no one can see, like a Minotaur in my mind. I offer up sacrifices periodically to appease my guilt, but those sacrifices are never enough. Cobb was trapped, and the guilt increased, demanding more and more of his life in order to be pleased. With the character Fischer in the film, we face those like a father who their whole life has been "DISAPPOINTED" in us. Regret--living in the past--will consume you like a ghastly Minotaur. 

Do you have an Ariadne that can uncoil the thread of forgiveness for you? I know forgiving others is hard, but forgiving myself is the hardest. Somehow that trap of self-punishment seems appropriate, but its inevitable end is the maze of regret. I loved the movie Inception, and it has planted the idea in me to face what is MAL (evil) in my life, and banish the "shade" of failure through forgiveness. Otherwise, I will be forever trapped. What do you think? 

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Weedeater

The orange and chrome hardware gleamed in the afternoon sun as Matt, the knowledgeable sales clerk cradled my new Stihl FS 70 RC-E trimmer in his muscular arms. With a quick flick of his fingers to adjust the choke, and a terse tug at the starter cord, the machinery roared to life. The whirring buzz of the string whirling at hundreds of revolutions per second sounded like music to me, announcing my triumph over that most annoying of adversaries—a perfectly good apparatus that refuses to work as it was designed.
If you’ve ever used a weedeater or trimmer, you know the basic concept is devastatingly simple. A small motor spins a shaft down the length of the trimmer that in turn rotates at high speeds a head attached to its end. Heavy plastic line cleverly wound in a tight coil around the head is released by a spring-loaded assembly when the operator taps the head on the ground. The result is enormously gratifying; a whirling dervish of devastation that thrashes weeds and undergrowth like a magic scythe of power. Magic, that is, as long as it works.
I say that because the dirty little secret about weedeaters is that they RARELY work as they were intended. For every moment that I’ve enjoyed riding the wave of power as the weeds fell in submission at my feet, I’ve suffered through ten more of untangling snarled string, taking apart clogged-carburetors and expressing in colorful language my feelings for a machine that just won’t start.
My recent purchase of this commercial-grade piece of mechanical beauty reminded me that my feelings about the weedeater almost exactly mirrored my view of another apparatus—the church. The church was designed by God to be an amazingly powerful and awesome tool. Men and women rescued from lives of selfishness and sin bond with one another in gratitude over God’s grace in their lives. They turn their hearts heavenward in thanks to their Savior, and then extend their hands in service to others. The Owner’s manual says it comes down to only those two things (Love of God and neighbor), devastatingly simple right?
Wrong. If you’ve ever ventured into a church you will have discovered their dirty little secret…they don’t work like they’re supposed to. People who’ve been in church for 25 years are just as mean and nasty as when they came. The church’s line of love intended to extend to a hurting community becomes wrapped firmly around itself, snarled in internal conflict. Sinners—for whom the church was designed—are made to feel unwelcome (as if the weedeater were shocked to find a weed in its path). Insecure leadership foul the engine of God’s love for the world with self-aggrandizing plans of kingdom building. More than once I’ve cursed the whole, darn contraption.
And yet…the roar of that orange and chrome magic machine in my hands brought a prayer to my lips. “Lord, this time let the thing work right. Repair it Lord, fix it and start with me…”

Monday, July 5, 2010

Is Hoarding Rewarding?

I recently saw someone who had hurt me badly. I knew the meeting was coming, but that didn’t make it any easier. My stomach dropped like it does on a rough plane ride when I saw the person. Old pain returned instantly as I recalled and rehearsed the ways this person had betrayed my confidence, attacked my character, even physically threatened me. Both “fight” and “flight” presented themselves as equally attractive alternatives—and for a moment I wasn’t sure if I was going to run away or punch them in the gut. It made me wonder--what do you do when old feelings flow over you in an angry flood?

Me—I tend to be a hoarder. Just come over to my house and you’ll find all the books and cool stuff I’ve “saved” in storage. My garage ostensibly houses cars; alas, now one can barely squeeze in past all the stuff I’ve hoarded. (Notice when it’s mine I call it stuff, if it was yours I’d call it junk.) So just to be consistent I hoard up all the hurts from the past and store them conveniently where I can get to them when I need them. Somebody hurt me? Well, I may have to haul out the junk I have on them and just share it with somebody at just the right moment to do the most damage. Or if I have a chance to help someone, may have to check my emotional attic to see what “junk” I have hoarded up against them.

You know what I’ve discovered about my system, however? Not only does my emotional “house” get really cluttered and hard to get around, I may be killing myself. Come on, really? Researchers have demonstrated that the way husbands and wives argue over those old wounds, you know the hot button topics right? Money, children, sex, dirty socks on the floor (I was going to move them honey, I promise!) …the way we argue over them can actually cause hardening of the arteries. All that junk I was hoarded up seems to have landed in my arteries!

So what’s a hoarder to do? It’s simple really. If you had a bunch of outstanding checks that were floating around out there, and you’ve never really figured out how they affect the bottom line of your checking account, what would you do? You’d reconcile your checkbook, right? That’s exactly what we need to do with our emotional debts, reconcile them, and in Bible terms that means forgiveness. Remember that phrase in the famous prayer? MT 6:12 Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. That means we have to find all the junk in the basement and just throw it out. Go to the person if possible and let them know we forgive them. You know how much fun it is to go down the checkbook and see all those nice little check marks beside outstanding checks? That’s what it feels like to be reconciled—all outstanding debts accounted for, all the junk thrown away, instead of hoarded up in my arteries where they’re killing me!

What's in your emotional attic?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Sip from the World Cup...

Thoughts from Ashley Woodiwiss...

For some the Cup thus far has been a disappointment.

There have been costly mistakes made by usually sure-handed goalkeepers, there have been controversial calls made be referees affecting the outcomes of matches (and the future tournament fate of teams), there has been a general low level of play, there has been the sputtering of traditional soccer greats France, Italy, and England (all of whom face the real possibility of being eliminated in short order). And especially for the French there has been national embarrassment as their team not only fails to perform on the pitch but has matched that with a complete internal meltdown culminating in the players simply leaving their practice field and refusing to train.

For U.S. fans specifically, there continues the usual World Cup emotional roller-coaster of not knowing which U.S. team will show up on the pitch. The Yanks, too, are on the brink of elimination. And of course there is sadness in South Africa (though in truth, not completely unexpected) in the woeful record of the six African nations, with only Ghana in a strong position to go through to the round of sixteen. And then there are the vuvuzelas, those incessantly blowing horns customary in Africa and nettlesome to non-African players, coaches and commentators. With their sound likened to a swarm of angry wasps, though at jet airplane decibel levels, the buzz is omnipresent at every stadium and during ESPN's coverage. There was talk early that FIFA, world soccer's governing board, would ban the instruments, but they didn't and so the wasps swarm on.

But in fact, one's response to the vuvzuelas may be a good Rorschach test for responding to the Cup so far. While for some the vuvuzelas represent all that's been wrong with the Cup, for others they capture the spirit of this Cup and its host continent. It's all part of the narrative. So while the Cup has been a disappointment for some, for others it has been dramatic. There have been several David-Goliath matches in which minor soccer powers (Switzerland! New Zealand! Algeria!) have tied or even defeated their mighty opponents (Spain! Italy! England!). There has been the joy of African goals and especially host South Africa's goal in the opening match that set the vuvuzelas blaring and Archbishop Desmond Tutu to dancing in his VIP box. There have been glimpses of brilliant play from Germany, Argentina, and, on Saturday, from Brazil. And there has been the magic of Argentina's striker Lionel Messi, who turns 23 this Thursday. He has not scored a goal at this Cup, but through his sheer brilliance in ball-control and passing and his threatening presence, Messi is clearly this tournament's most valuable player to date. While some bemoan the fate of the major European powers, there has also been pleasure in watching the rise of tiny Slovenia, perhaps best known to readers of B&C as home to philosopher Slavoj Zizek. This nation, so small that it has been estimated that 248 Slovenias could fit into the U.S., also has a prime minister who promised to clean the boots of the Slovenian team if they qualified for the World Cup. They did, and he did. At the moment they sit atop Group C. To watch the success of Slovenia (and other minor powers like New Zealand, and South America's Paraguay, Chile, and Uruguay) is to imbibe the beauty of the Cup. To dance with them following a goal, a dance described as a slow-footed circling of happy trees in the Slovenian Alps, is to enter into the joy of the Cup.

Has the Cup been a disappointment? Yes, surely it has. Has it also had its moments of joy? To be sure. So sound the vuvuzelas, and let's get ready for more. It's a beautiful day.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Slice of Americana

"What took you so long?" joked Virginia's 71st Governor, "Landslide" Bob McDonnell as he took the stage to honor candidate Scott Rigell on his 50th birthday. Partisans from Virginia's 2nd Congressional District crowded the Cavalier on the hill; majestic landmark to old Virginia Beach money. A swell of enthusiasm and laughter greeted the good natured joking between two old friends and new allies. "No joke, I've been trying to get this guy to run since 1994."

The offhanded comment revealed a backstory, no doubt present in every campaign, of how the players got to center stage of the political drama. Watching on in the crowd was a grey-haired veteran both of the automotive business and the political game, the Hon. Conoly Phillips. He smiled, perhaps remembering how he'd met Rigell as a young, promising MBA student at Regent University in 1987. Truth was, he gave him his start in the local car world, where Rigell worked for about five years until he was able to purchase his own dealership.

And now Mr. Phillips serves as chairman of the board for Regent University, that aims to train "Christian leaders to change the world." He has to feel good, seeing a governor, and perhaps a future Congressman, espousing values he holds closely, sharing a stage and electrifying the swelling crowd. But perhaps most importantly, Shannon Kendrick--African American Regent government staff, and Juan Gonzalez- local Latino pastor and community activist, as well as Hunter Hangar, current Regent second year law student, are amidst the crowd, cheering on the candidate as well. This candidate brought together a community; the young, the religious right, a significant Hispanic minority (meeting campaign manager JAson Miyares' mother was a thrill!)

For a moment, on Memorial Day weekend, at Scott Rigell's 50th Birthday party, as his third generation Marine son Justus stood to thank the crowd, I took in the joy of being an American. Not the thrill of being right, but of having a choice. Of families that can better themselves through education; achieve the "American Dream" of earning probably more money than they ever imagined. Regardless of the election results, Scott said it "This is, without a doubt, the best birthday I've ever had!"

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

What Makes People Magnetic?

I spent time with my mentor Bill today. It's tough to do on a normal day, because he has people waiting in line by the dozens to spend time with him, talk to him, ask him questions or seek his counsel. But this time it was especially difficult, because he just underwent surgery for colon cancer. Everybody on the East Coast, and beyond it seems, has been wishing him well for the last several weeks. The thought of a world without Bill struck so many of us as wrong and frightening and frankly, unthinkable, that even the waitresses in local restaurants were going out of their way to communicate love, support and well wishes to this magnetic man.

It made me wonder: what makes some people so irresistibly interesting? What qualities in some people around us bring us back for more and more? Why are certain people the ones we call when catastrophic or celebrative events alike take place? Why are we drawn to them so?

I asked a couple of my friends at Regent University--guys I trust, and whom I have seen draw others to themselves because of their strength of character and boldness of action. This is the list that they drew up. See what you think. What others should we add?

Courage: Immediately one of them said "courage." People were drawn to David in the Bible because of his courage. Not only in standing up to his enemies, but in confronting evil, and in the insistence he do the hard things himself .

Humility: The other gentleman added "humility." Peter the apostle mentioned it as a crucial quality a shepherd leader possesses. No one is drawn to a narcissist.

Authenticity: This one was easy to point out from the life of my friend Bill. He is himself no matter who is around... sometimes to a fault. He speaks the truth, and models approachability to both prince and pauper.

Selflessness: Knowing that someone who lay down his life for you, lay down his schedule for you, listen to your needs without jamming his agenda down your throat...these are the qualities of a selfless friend. They make my friend Bill magnetic, a beacon to those in trouble, who are hurting, who have screwed something up in their life, and are looking for an understanding heart and a listening ear.

I would travel for days by dog sled to tell my buddy what he means to me, and express how much we've lifted him up in prayer. My fellas here reminded me that David in the Bible drew 400 folks who were hurting and in trouble and inspired fierce loyalty in them for the rest of his life. He's a magnet...there's no doubt.

What do you think makes people magnetic?

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Roots--Pt. 1

Roots... everybody's got them. Here I refer not to family heritage, but intellectual roots. Which is to say, what set of experiences and thought systems fed and nurtured my thinking? And though my theological tree be a dwarf bansai or a majestic oak, in what soil is it rooted and grounded?

I guess what got me started snooping around the base of my theological trunk was an excellent post by my colleague Dr. Dale Coulter in School of Divinity at Regent University. He was asking questions about the Reformed movement from outside that camp. In the post (you should read it) he takes a historian's view of three streams of Reformed thought; 1) Puritan Congregationalist, 2) Scottish Presbyterian and 3) Dutch Reformed. That may already be more theology than you'd care to consider, but for me it awakened memories of joining the little Presbyterian church in my hometown of Shelby NC, and coming into contact with the first root of my tree--the Reformed faith.

Root 1: Reformed thought
For those of you who don't know, in the Presbyterian way of life, you get wet as a squawking baby at the insistence of your parents. They get to feel better about themselves because they did something holy for their kid, but not quite as good as Catholic parents, because I wasn't considered "saved." That comes later. But at about age "12" you hit the next important phase (no not acne) and that's called "Communicant's Class" a.k.a. "joining the church."

I was pretty excited about joining the church because it seemed a real bummer to miss out on the grape juice and crackers that made their way around the little 150 seat sanctuary every month or so. Members could partake of that important act in a fully adult fashion, and I was eager to do so. But first, my friends and I from the 6th grade class had to make it past the pastor's "Communicant's" class .

The things I remember from that class are not all theological. I remember the girls eagerly quizzing us boys if we were in fact circumcised. We dutifully memorized verses out of Romans that we were told formed a "road" that seemed important somehow. But the big showstopper requirement was a personal interview of one of the "elders" of the church.

I arrived at the elder's home, armed with a hand held cassette recorder, knees knocking to speak to the only Doctor in our small church. But in a moment, the doctor/elder melted my fears and wrapped me up in a big, warm explanation of the truths of God, His providential care of His children, and how He made all things work together for His good. The way he said it, I just knew that it was all true.

And so it was that with my fellow communicants, and most of the members of our church, I gathered at our church camp to celebrate my first communion. And as I lifted the small cup and put the juice to my lips I caught the eye of the elder/doctor and he smiled. And my father saw that smile, and he smiled, and then the juice went down, hot and stinging. But I knew that I was in a family, rooted to generations of thinking believing men who believed that God would and could work things together for His good.

What were the roots of your beliefs? I would love to hear them.

Root 2 (Coming soon) Charismatic
A similar tangled root system can be found in the writings of James Smith who teaches philosophy at Calvin College in Michigan.

Friday, April 16, 2010

A New Commandment

"A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." John 13:34

The last hours of a person’s life bring clarity, focus, and poignancy. Deathbed confessions receive special consideration in a court of law, and “last words” often ring for generations because of their pithy power. In his last week on earth, Jesus the Nazarene chose to spend time with his closest friends. In the intimate setting of a meal, reclining together at the table as was the custom in the Near East, some of his final words clearly focused on friendship, and the signature stamp it gives his followers. One of His final statements was elevated to the status of a command, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Recently, I saw this bold challenge lived out in the lives of students right here at Regent University. A group of students gathered together on Maundy Thursday, the day during Holy Week that Christian churches celebrate Jesus’ giving of this new commandment. There, they took Jesus’ words literally, and “loved one another” as Jesus loved his friends. They washed one another’s feet! As an expression of love, friendship and service, they physically removed the shoes and socks of their friends, and bathed feet and toes in cleansing wash.

The moment that challenged me, however, was when one Caucasian student from the Deep South and one African-American brother from the “North” washed one another’s feet. I saw in that simple basin some of the hatred and prejudice that has so long clouded ethnic relationships in our country washing away. I knew that this was no “for the cameras” moment, but reflected a deep respect and friendship built on prayer, listening, and honesty. Truly, these two young men bore the signature stamp of Christian love and friendship, proving to be followers of Jesus.

It made me wonder, “How can I overcome barriers to love others around me more fully?” What keeps me from being a friend to others? What hinders me from taking Jesus at his word, and loving those around me in the simple, servant fashion that He did? When I look at my life in hindsight, as Jesus was able to do in that Upper Room, will it be filled with selfless service to others in demonstration of true love and friendship? Only if I challenge my own failure to love can we become the community envisioned by Jesus, the Nazarene…the one who died that I might be called “friend.”

Monday, March 8, 2010

Beggars CAN be choosers...

So I'm home now, but reflecting on some of the things I experienced last week. One recurring motif that surprised me was this: 'Beggars Can be Choosers!" What do I mean by that?
Several times during the week our team worked with populations that were either economically disadvantaged or homeless. Our mode of connection was that we had some good or service that we thought they might need, and we were offering this to them free of charge. Several times, however, the intended recipients surprised us by either refusing the goods they seemed in desperate need of, or countering the offer with a demand. "I can't take a size 38, I need a size 36 men's jeans." ("Even though they were beautiful Kenneth Cole?" our team member said!)
Another instance was when at a soup kitchen we were handing out free coats. It was cold, and there was at least 2 feet of snow piled up on the edge of the street. Yet many of the individuals turned down the coats offered, either because they weren't the right style, or didn't fit the way an invididual wanted. (as in, "ma'am, I'm not sure you would quite be able to fit into a small') The worst offender was a woman who jumped in line to start with, got a beautiful, stylish coat, then came back later wanting to return it. She had ripped the loop used to hang the coat, and demanded we take it back because "it was ruined."
I've been wondering about this. Why would people so obviously in need refuse a sincere and adequate offer to meet their needs? Without passing judgment, I wonder if you'd be willing to throw out a few answers, then I'll tell you what I'm thinking.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


Deacons careful hands
Lay white linen
Crisp, over the bread.
Hoc est...
Rich velvet rope
Barring the apse;
The elements reserved
In gleaming gold.
Hoc est meum…
Ruined flesh
Prone in coffin cardboard;
Careful hand tucks
Blanket sacrament.

Hoc est Corpus meum,

Monday, March 1, 2010

How's the Fishing, Peter?

A river of energy flows through Mid-town Manhattan, a veritable Class-5 rapids of elite shopping and upscale destinations. From The Plaza and Central Park issues a cascade of luxury; Versace, Ferragamo, Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels down fabled Fifth Avenue. Discerning shoppers come to test their skills in landing the big purchase. But there amidst the glitter is another fisherman, plying his trade.

Pastor Peter, as he calls himself, threads the van down the same street looking for a vastly different target. He looks for the huddled and the broken; the disenfranchised and the down and out. "They are transitory," he explains as we troll, "the homeless can't stay in one place for too long because it can be dangerous for them. But I know where to look... we'll find them."

And there, in the side eddy's of the river called New York, forgotten by the famous and bypassed by businessman, are the derelicts of our society. Here on a church stoop, there in a public atrium, this is where Peter the fisherman looks for and finds his catch. "Could we give you a blanket sir? And a sandwich? My name is Pastor Peter, and I'm here to tell you that Jesus loves you."

Cardboard condominiums house migrants, strangely consumer-like in their preferences. "I need a 36 x 30 jeans, those 38's are too big," one man informs. No matter; the need is met with a smile and Pastor Peter, like the clerk in the Armani store within a stone's throw, enobles the man by honoring his request. A hug, a joke shared with "Ray Charles" on his way to Atlanta, massive glasses hiding sad eyes and old pain, form the conversation on this fishing trip. Two old women in a shelter, safe for the night but shattered by life and left shells of what selves they once knew... these are the sights that will haunt.

The New York many know, with it's pulsing rhythm and spinning lights, flows on long into the night. But the swirling pools deep with human pain linger on for me; reminders that the sites I thought I knew, held a deeper truth that belie the wealth on display. Etched now forever in my mind was "Able" asleep under the phones in Port Authority, so far from living his name as if to seem a obscene joke. with a blanket. And a prayer.

And Peter the fisherman, showing eager students the good fishing holes, continues as he has for 25 years now, convinced that Able can, and Able will, rise.

As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. "Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will make you fishers of men." At once they left their nets and followed him. Matthew 4:18-20

Manzanas y Puerta Abiertas

I like being on time. I like meetings that run on time. It's an OCD (obessesive complusive disorder) thing. So when our team found out last minute that we were going to lead a worship service for a Hispanic men's rehab center instead of going to a soup kitchen, I twitched a few times, but smiled. When we arrived "late" only to find out that we were 2 hours early for our slot, my smile waned a bit thin. But then when i discovered we'd left the lunches for the team back at the headquarters, well... I thought we'd reached a closed door for the day.

But God had other ideas. Because Sister Anna Villafane and the fantastic people at "Way Out Ministry" in the Bronx have specialized for 42 years in opening doors for those who seem trapped by circumstance. Their precious staff shared their lunch with our students, and allowed us to restart our time of sharing with them. Jorge insisted on giving each student an apple (manzanna) and before long a comradarie connected folks who seemingly had little in common with one another.

But then three students shared stories from their own lives of how God had opened doors to release them from drugs, alcohol and violence in their own families. A student with a Puerto Rican background stepped in to translate many of the truths in culture-transcending power. The meeting ended with the men sharing how they saw open doors in education, in transforming their minds through the truth, and in giving their lives in service to others, as they saw the students modeling.

The 'way out' will of course take more than good feelings and intentions. Doors will open to new tasks for these men as they are mentored back to sobriety. But for a day, students and residents shared apples and open doors, sure that there was hope ahead.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Missionary Impulse?

This op-ed by Timothy Egan in the NY Times raises legitimate and important questions about the ill-fated plans of the so-called "Kidnapping for Jesus" case of Laura Silsby. At best, her plans to facilitate adoptions from the beleaguered country of Haiti were naive and unrealistic, given her resources. At worst, they were manipulative and opportunistic.

Yet painting with the broad brush of "cultural imperialism" the author succumbs to tired romantic liberal sentiment. The "noble savage" and his pristine untouched culture and religion should not be disturbed, in this ideology. Yet this ignores many indigenous practices most would consider not so pristine--like "sati"--the burning of widows in Hinduism, or "FGM" (female genital mutilation) in tribal cultures of Asia and Africa. Does Mr. Egan claim "cultural imperialism" when the World Health organization and the UN bans FGM in their work?

As I take a team of students to New York City to express care and concern for those in less fortunate circumstances, this story takes on new meaning. What gives us the right to impose our beliefs on others? Is the "missionary impulse" inherently culturally violent?
Some suggest that the "mini-messiahs" who descend upon poorer areas would do better to stay home and send their money to help the truly informed make a real difference. Are we on a fool's errand?

First, one cannot ignore the historic context of Western Christianity and the "Crusades." One's faith should be expressed through the heart, not the point of a spear. Christians should remember that their religion spread originally through generosity, service to the poor, and the death of its founders in persecution. Humility is the prerequisite for any missionary. On the flip side, however, it is naive to imagine that any area's "indigenous" culture is in itself pure or undiluted. Rather, they are the result of millennia of interaction and intellectual trade. Mohammed himself was influenced by both Jewish and Christian ideals,while Buddhism was built on a foundation supplied by Hinduism. Is this necessarily imperialism? New York City doesn't need any mini-messiahs... but humble servants, willing to be changed as they share love and practice understanding? That may not be so bad...

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Not so Fast...National Pancake Day

I'm headed up to New York City Saturday with a team of students and leaders, and I sense that it is going to be a significant time. And all the hip-techno types around me (I'm tragically unhip) tell me I must chronicle this trip with pictures and timely words. So back to my neglected blog.

And something else... a FAST. Yikes. Technically, I'm not supposed to tell you I'm doing that, because Jesus warns religious people like me not to announce their religious activities to others in order to appear more spiritual on the outside than they are on the inside. But the whole reason I'm sharing this is because I DON'T feel particularly spiritual inside right now.

Mostly that's because I'm looking at a stack of PANCAKES Free pancakes Free IHOP Pancakes
It's my wife's fault... (ha bet that one doesn't work) because she sent me with the boys to take advantage of National Pancake Day So there I sit, with tummy rumbling louder than Pooh bear, and a free stack of fluffy hotcakes in front of me. (my Scotch-Irish heritage would not allow me to skip ordering a free stack to take home for the rest of my family). And I begin to say to myself, "Its for a good cause, Leukemia and Lymphoma Society would love for me to eat these pancakes."

"Not so fast," I said to my rationalizing self, "you're on a fast!" All I could smell was batter and syrup. My head was beginning to spin. "What is the big deal about giving up food anyway? God knows we need to eat."

And so I reviewed with my self the whole point... fasting sets apart a time and a person for a special purpose; specifically, God's purpose. Like it says in a record of the early Christians, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." 3So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.

Giving up food for a time helps me to focus on the work I have been called to do... in this case, share love and care for homeless and needy individuals in New York City. It reminds me that I am truly dependent on God, though normally I take care of basic needs myself. As my stomach gurgles I determine again to pray, and to set myself apart for God to use. And I vow silently, solemnly, I will celebrate National Pancake Day in my own special way, NEXT WEEK.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Haiti Relief work

Following Tony Cece and David Darg in Haiti

by David Darg

PORT-AU-PRINCE – We’re in! After a struggle to reach Port-au-Prince, Tony, our video producer, and I were finally able to get two seats on a plane from the Dominican Republic. It was a tiny “4-seater” and was so full of relief gear that it tipped back on its tail before we took off.

Help disaster victims now

Approaching PAP airport was a hairy experience; planes were circling the airport like a swarm of flies. The pilot asked us to keep an eye out for other aircraft and at times we had to do ’stomach in throat’ maneuvers to avoid crossing paths. After 3 aborted landings because of runway traffic we finally touched down and work commenced.

Our Haiti National Director, Eric, met us and took us over to a light aircraft hangar that will serve as our base over the next few days.

The first thing we needed to do was secure water and food for the team; it was extremely hot and we would have become dehydrated very quickly, and a sick aid worker is useless. We also needed to secure more vehicles as our relief efforts are set to quickly expand over the coming days.

We left the relative security of the airport and ventured out into the streets of Port-au-Prince. We were instantly met with horrific scenes as injured Haitians were lining the pavement desperately trying to receive medical attention almost 68 hours since the quake hit.

At a visit to the UN compound for a coordination meeting, I saw another glimpse into the horrendous pain of this quake when we drove past a huge emergency tent full of quake victims struggling for life.

Many Haitians on the streets are wearing coverings over their mouths and noses to hide the pungent smell of death that lingers in the air. People are carrying belongings along the streets in suitcases or on their head. There seems to be quite a migration of people from what is left of the city.

Every day the humanitarian situation grows worse for the survivors.

In the heat, people are desperate for water and that is causing them to drink unsafe water from wherever they can find it. We saw some small children bathing in and drinking a muddy puddle. As the desperation among the survivors grows, so does the anxiety and frustration.

There is a very real concern among aid groups of increasing violence and theft on the streets, but today the streets were calm for us and we can only hope that as the relief efforts ramp up, the tensions will drop.

This has been one of the most difficult launches to a disaster that I have experienced and that is due to the severity of the quake coupled with the lack of infrastructure. But the delays at the airport are a sign that the world is reaching out to Haiti like never before.

Huge C130 Cargo planes have been arriving all day long from the U.S. and tonight some of those planes were being used to evacuate hundreds of American citizens. Cargo planes from other countries such as Israel, Mexico and Canada were dropping massive piles of food, essential relief items and rescue teams.

The Spanish rescue team that we have been shuttling into the quake zone came back with disappointing news that they had only found dead bodies today and most rescuers are suggesting that due to the intense heat it is very unlikely any more survivors will be found.

Saturday morning, Operation Blessing will be delivering our first batch of essential medicines to the hospitals where work is still continuing around the clock to save the lives of injured victims. We are expecting the first team of Israeli doctors to arrive from our partner IsraAid, and as soon as they hit the ground we hope to have them working.

We have 5 water purification units en route from the U.S., each one capable of purifying 10,000 gallons of clean drinking water every day. We did an assessment in a badly damaged neighborhood on the outskirts of the city and are gearing up for emergency food distributions and medical clinics staged out of a damaged primary school that is out of commission for the near future.

I just ate a U.S. military Ready-to-Eat meal (MRE) and hope to sleep soon. My mat and sleeping bag on the hangar floor will not be too uncomfortable, but huge cargo planes roaring down the runway just a few hundred yards away might make for another long night.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Failing Forward in 2010

I have been thinking about failure a bit, as I contemplate my goals for 2010. When I was younger, I never even considered failure an option. Now as an older, presumably wiser person I understand that not everything I undertake works out the way I thought.

Turns out I'm not alone. Here in the 15 Flops of the Decade Business Insider reveals some great big ideas that turned out to be great big failures. Take for instance the "Ownership Society" which sounded great, but yielded a nation of foreclosures and banks with toxic assets. Oops... guess that didn't work out too well...

It made me wonder, how do you handle failure? Do you expect it as a natural part of the growth process or does it shock you when it pokes its head into your life? Do you pour shame and contempt on your self, put on your dunce cap and pout? (really? I thought I had that one patented!) Or do you recognize that failure is a natural part of human growth and development, learn your lesson and move on? Let's agree to fail forward in 2010.

The Bible says it this way...
The godly may trip seven times, but they will get up again.
But one disaster is enough to overthrow the wicked