Thursday, April 22, 2010

Trouble in the USA

It gets deafening at times doesn’t it. I mean the chorus of nay-sayers is getting louder and louder. The negativity in our culture is getting harder and harder to live with. It certainly can’t be ignored.

A couple of days ago I got in the car and someone who sounded very educated was on the radio debunking the eco-movement as being akin to a tool of evil. Switching the dial I got drenched in the bile of a radicalized tea party devotee. Another quick twist and I heard someone insult people of faith. Heading to a sports station I was appalled at the hatred towards this team and that coach. There’s nothing wrong with challenging the eco-movement, or belonging to the tea part movement, or not buying into faith, or being a sports nut but there’s a whole lot wrong with bashing, baiting, and brazenly oozing hate all over the airwaves.

If you asked each and everyone of these people what they were doing they’d say that they were ‘exercising their right of free speech’. Well, that’s true on some level I guess. On another level I wish they’d exercise their obligation to be restrained. We really don’t have to say everything that’s on our mind especially when we say it in such vitriolic ways.

Turning on my computer that same day I had to dodge and weave around e-mails and postings that were filled with half-truth and innuendo. No one seems to fact check much these days and dragging individuals through the mud is becoming an internet pastime.

It’s got to stop. Really. How do we stop the hate? Is it fun to call the President of the United States Obozo? Some think it’s their right. Do all politicians take a pill diminishing their ability to put ‘impulse control’ into play? Sure looks like it these days. Could having a considered opinion be different than having a sound byte pronouncement? I think it is. Is it possible that someone could have an opinion different from our own and still be a good man or woman? Absolutely.

The killer for me in all of this is some of the most idiotic statements are coming from my own peeps – those who claim faith in Christ. Often those who call themselves Christians are on the front lines of dissent with clenched teeth, closed minds, and foul language. There’s nothing wrong with dissent, or being on the line of protest, or fighting boldly for principles and values but how we go about dissenting, protesting and fighting goes a long way towards defining who or what we really belong to.

We are creating a culture of fear. We really are. And when we do that we start to fight ‘boogeymen’ and create mountains of molehills. Everything becomes escalated when fear kicks in and before you know it there is a lack of trust, care and concern.

Instead of a culture of fear we need to create a culture of engagement. The rules of the culture of engagement almost sound silly in today’s culture. Things like listening for understanding, thinking before we speak, investigating facts, learning about the issues, and walking in another’s shoes don’t seem so interesting and titillating as knee jerk reaction. And then when we add those God things like praying for those we disagree with, and loving our neighbor, and practicing those go the extra mile Jesus practices … well, those things don’t play so well on the local talk radio show. They take more effort as more measured responses always do.

We’ve got trouble in the good ‘ol USA. And we’re part of the mess. We pick fights instead of building bridges. We spout venom instead of digging deeper towards understanding. We listen indiscriminately to media voices who care more about their pocketbook than they do about us and the country. We’ve quit reading. We’re losing the art of ‘dialogue’ and we look for proof texts instead of trying to understand the whole counsel of God.

My prayer is that we learn to engage. Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to commit myself to civility and respect as we talk about the big issues of the day. I’m not going to listen to hatred any longer on the airwaves because I know that garbage into my mind and heart means garbage out. And I’m going to use whatever tools are at my disposal to help those in my circle of influence to learn as much as possible about what’s getting us riled up and help them discern what God has to say about it all. What about you?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


A few years ago I spent some time in Uganda and Kenya. Both countries were filled with beautiful people and I learned much from those I met. One of the things I noticed about both countries was the amount of litter that dotted both the urban neighborhood and the countryside. Deep inside the slums of Nairobi litter no longer dotted the landscape it was a major part of it. Seeing the dirt, the litter, and the despair that accompanied it all was very sobering.

Litter is part of the inner city landscape in the United States. One of the most notable differences between my home in the burbs and the streets of East Garfield Park where I work a few times a week is that the urban neighborhood is awash in litter. It’s not a little bit of litter. It’s a lot. Litter seems to be a constant companion of the poor for a lot of different reasons. Some of it has to do with issues of personal responsiblity I'm sure. Couple that with systemic inequity, government indifference, lack of resources and a general acceptance of low expectation and it's no wonder the human spirit gets beaten down robbing people of hope. When hope falls away motivation follows.

Litter is both a problem and a symptom. It clutters not just streets and lawns but intrudes on the heart and mind. Whether it be Africa or Chicago the garbage that acccumulates affects those living there. It adds insult to injury.

This past week our staff at Breakthrough cleaned up an empty lot we own and raked and swept a long city block. We filled a dumpster and an additional 25 rather large bags with garbage. And my heart broke. We picked up condoms, small plastic bags used for drugs, and broken glass. Lots of broken glass. And I thought of the children who played on that street. What was life like for them?

We have a good staff at Breakthrough. While we worked we prayed that perhaps our efforts would be used by God to motivate the currently unmotivated to care about their neighborhood. and encourage those who do. In addition, our efforts on the streets that day reminded us of the day in and day out grind many of our guests, neighbors and program participants experience. A couple of my colleagues are organizing a walk around the empty lot where we someday hope to build a FamilyPlex. On the walk we will pray. We will pray that God will move against the strongholds that are holding so many captive.

My neighborhood has garbage too. We just have the means to hide it from view. We know all about drugs and alcohol and sexual temptation. We have our own plastic bags, broken glass and used condoms. But they’re hidden from sight because that’s what suburban people do. We hide our junk or at least try to. It’s as if we believe that out of sight does indeed become out of mind. Even though there is nowhere near as much viewable litter in my suburban neighborhood the truth of the matter is that there are plenty of unhealthy things that dot the landscape of our inner lives, holding us captive and breaking the heart of God. Perhaps we’d be wise to hold a prayer vigil asking God to move against the strongholds gripping our lives.

Life is littered. Filled with garbage. Some of it is easy to see. Sometimes not so much. Even though my street and yard are clean sometimes my heart and mind get riddled with garbage. My attitude gets ugly and my thinking gets to stinking. And I do little to get it cleaned up. It’s amazing how we can settle for ‘what is’ instead of aspiring to and praying for what can be.

We’re in the midst of Earth Week. We think about being good stewards of the planet as God has asked us to be. Some of us move beyond thinking and begin to act. I’m thinking of litter this week. I’m thinking of the observable debris and the invisible garbage that beats us all down. Both need to be cleaned up. Are we up to it?

In both Africa and on the west side of Chicago litter was hard to find on some lots and in front of more than a few homes. There are people who care about how they live no matter what their circumstance. These are the people who help stabilize a neighborhood and bring hope to what looks like hopeless situations. They defy the labels and stereotypes those seeking easy answers want to slap on the poor. These are the real heroes and heroines for they stand against the proverbial boulder coming down the mountain believing that what they say and do can reverse its downward path. With God, they believe, all things are possible. May their tribe increase.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

World Changer

Becoming a world changer. World changing is the preaching theme at our church this month. Big idea for sure. To be honest, this week has been too hectic to think about changing the world. Basically, I’m having more than enough trouble managing my own life, calendar, and other people’s expectations to spend time worrying about anything else. So, even though ‘ending world hunger’ is still on my to do list – I just haven’t gotten around to it yet.

But even though I haven’t been doing I’ve been thinking about this whole world changing thing. Here’s what I’ve discovered. A quick look through scripture shows us that world changers had their personal worlds rocked. And I wonder. Do I want my personal world changed? Do you?

I’m all over being a missionary tourist. I’ll sign up just about anytime for a week with the poor in some impoverished country. I’m good for slapping paint on a wall and sleeping without air conditioning. I’m all about doing some good thing, even informing my world view but I’m not sure I want my world changed and then put back together piece by piece. After all, I’ve spent a lot of time carefully constructing this world of mine. So have you. We have familiar patterns and habits. Some women I know have spent years finding just the right hair dresser. Anita and I happen to be very fond of our car mechanic. Friends of mine actually have permanent tee times. We love our club sports team. We’ve got life in a groove. It’s planned out.

Oh, we might make some small tweaks. For instance Tuesday night is going to free up as soon as Lost is over but right now my life feels pretty good. So does yours more than likely. We like what we’ve constructed. It’s familiar. Sure we might want to lose a few pounds, or have a more compliant teenager or a wee bit more money. But if we’re honest we’re pretty locked in We like the way we live, what we do, and our friends. We might trade where we live for Arube but for the most part …it’s all good. Having our life changed isn’t a high priority even if its what God needs to do as part of his plan to change the world.

And if that describes us. And it just might. Then we’ve got problems. Because our vision of a self-satisfied, entitled life is on a collision course with God’s best for us.

Deceased South American bishop Oscar Romero used to always say that we read the gospel through the lens of our own comfort instead of digging deeper to see how radical the gospel message really is. He once said. "A church that doesn't provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn't unsettle, a word of God that doesn't get under anyone's skin, a word of God that doesn't touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed -- what gospel is that?"

The unchangeable God is in the ‘change’ business. He allows us to understand crisis and experience unsettledness. He allows us to come face to face with sin. And through that He wants us to emerge more like Jesus so that we can be that prophetic voice in our culture helping to challenge those things that are destructive and break the heart of God. God asks us to change. He expects it. And it’s for a purpose. Bishop Romero was right. A gospel proclaimed that doesn’t have an edge to it is a gospel lacking insight and purpose. And that Gospel needs word and deed proclaimers who have allowed their life to be disrupted and unsettled enough so God could use them to help transform the world.

And that seems to be God’s pattern. Comedian Curt Cloninger does a bit where he talks about that anyone who takes God seriously ends up being a ‘used to be’

Paul used to be a murderer now he’s a missionary.

Moses used to be a murderer on the run and God turns him into a spokesman for the kingdom who goes toe to toe with Pharaoh.

Mary used to be a teenage peasant girl. God turned her into mom.

Esther. She used to be part of the harem. Now she’s being asked to step up and speak for her people.

Peter and Andrew. Used to be fishing for fish. Now they’ll be fishing for men and women.

Lazarus. He kind of wins the ‘used to be’ sweepstakes. He used to be dead. Go figure.

Life changing experiences. Even the no names in the scripture ha d their world rocked. In Hebrews 10 we read:

Think back on those early days when you first learned about Christ. Remember how you remained faithful even though it meant terrible suffering. Sometimes you were exposed to public ridicule and were beaten, and sometimes you helped others who were suffering the same things. You suffered along with those who were thrown into jail, and when all you owned was taken from you, you accepted it with joy. You knew there were better things waiting for you that will last forever.

These early Jewish believers used to be normal people, fitting in to all the religious and cultural expectations but now they’re being exposed as being different. And they’re reward is suffering, ridicule, beatings, jail and losing their possession. Why didn’t they quit following? Because they knew there were better things waiting for them that would last forever. Their faith wasn’t in their position or their stuff. Their faith was in a God they trusted beyond hard circumstance.

I’m not sure we want to be a used to be. But that’s God’s pattern. His idea of what it means to follow Him is different than our intent.

In the gospels we meet a guy who had an opportunity to become a ‘used to be’. It was the rich young ruler. He wanted to know how he could obtain the kingdom of God. At the end of his conversation with Jesus he walked away. He chose not to have his world changed and the Scripture tells us ‘he walked away sad’. Why? I think it’s because he knew he was turning his back on God’s world changing agenda for his life. But he couldn’t say ‘yes’ to that call because his commitment to his own personal agenda for his life was too great.

Here’s our big issue I think. In the New Testament Jesus speaks of two roads …one narrow and one wide. What we want is a road in between. It’s not a narrow road and it’s not a wide road. We want a middle road. And on this middle road we can just keep doing our own thing with occasional excursions into the heart of the gospel. And we want God to change His mind about two roads and we want to convince Him that there’s a third way. Our way. But He’s not buying it. He’s saying it’s the narrow road or no road. It’s as if He’s saying, “I’ve saved you for something …not just from something. You’ll discover it on the narrow road.”

I really believe that God is calling us to change the world. Us. Wherever we are. Because this world has to change. It’s filled with injustice, with poverty, with illness, and hunger. And God can use us to change that. But it’s impossible, I think, to step into God’s plan without allowing him to change our personal world. Are you up to that? Is that the desire of your heart?

Sunday, April 11, 2010


I was on retreat this weekend. It was really, really good.

About 40 single adults (40’s and 50’s and beyond) headed up to Zion, Illinois and hunkered down at the Illinois Beach Resort. OK place with a beautiful backyard. That backyard is filled with Lake Michigan and sandy beaches. It’s a very nice piece of God’s creation.

Singles ministry, especially with older singles, is always interesting. Most have experienced loss. Some are widowed. A whole lot more are divorced. Others have never married and more than a few of those wonder why. Many have lived long enough to battle illness, nurture wayward children and change careers a time or two. These are seasoned human beings.

Some singles have lost old friends because of their singleness. Even churches sometimes don’t know what to do with them. And they’re plopped into the middle of a singles world that’s filled with both expectation and exploitation. Dating rules have changed. Faith is sometimes fragile. The trust needed to build new friendships is often lacking.

This past weekend we experienced community, talked about important things, luxuriated in a northern Illinois sunlit spring Saturday, and met God again in fresh and hopeful ways.

I was reminded of my need to ‘get away’. Even though I was one of those ‘in charge’ I was able to retreat a wee bit. Even though I’m tired I’m not exhausted. I was replenished more than diminished.

I’m fortunate to know many of the back stories of my fellow retreatants. I know some of their history and have been privileged to be allowed to question some motives and challenge some thinking. With many I’ve laughed in the midst of their joy and been absolutely stunned by their courage. They’ve told me about being abandoned by God and being surprised by His grace. I’ve walked enough miles with many of them to know them and for them to know me. The miles together, the stories told, the laughter, and the confrontation are grist for the mill of community building.

God showed up in some rather nice ways. A scavenger hunt broke down some walls. Our attempts to sing a capella had its moments of both reverence and wonder despite our difficulties with melody and timing. Video tapes of Andy Stanley helped us probe our inmost selves helping us ask the deeper questions of trust and hope. It all worked together rather nicely for what I have to believe God’s purpose and intent for our retreat.

I have a hunch that most who attended walked away encouraged and loved. In a world that’s filled with disappointment and can sometimes be very lonely these are not insignificant things.

We live in a world yearning for opportunities to taste the truly good things of life. It’s not fine food or expensive cars. It’s better than that. It’s that brush with the Divine, the opportunity for friendship, the unexpected laugh and the heartfelt response. These are the good things of life.

I’m a lucky man. I journey through life with good people. They allow me to touch their life and they help fulfill mine. God uses them to mold me more and more into His image.

I wonder how many reading this need an opportunity to stop their life for a bit and get away. Not a vacation. Not a tour. A retreat. Alone or with others. It’s a chance to see ourselves, to meet God again, and either rediscover or recover our life. Even though we know we need it we don’t take the time to do it. It’s too bad. I wonder how much better all our lives might be if we took the time to do what we need to do instead of making excuses for our inattentiveness to what’s necessary.

I retreated this past weekend. It was a God-thing. Very thankful.

Saturday, April 03, 2010


We have a service at our church called 2HC. It doesn’t have any cool meaning. It’s shorthand for second hour contemporary. When it came time to pick a name we couldn’t think of one so this stuck. At 2HC we’ve been doing a series called ‘The Road’. Our guide has been the book of Matthew. As we’ve walked along the road we’ve discovered more and more about Jesus.

Throughout Holy week the road felt a little bit like a roller coaster. Palm Sunday is filled with joy. And then the road crests the hill and we start dropping into the valley. And what we see on the descent isn’t pretty. We witness the stunning abandonment of Jesus by his disciples, the arrest of Jesus, the cowardice of Pilate and when we hit the valley floor we get a gut wrenching view of the torture and death of Jesus. And now the road takes us to the tomb of Jesus.

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

The angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: 'He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.' Now I have told you."

So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. "Greetings," he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."

There’s a story of a Muslim who became a Christian in Africa. "Some of his friends asked him, 'Why have you become a Christian?' He answered, “Well, its like this. Suppose you were going down the road and suddenly the road forked in two directions, and you didn't know which way to go, and there at the fork in the road were two people, one dead and one alive--which one would you ask which way to go?'"

Look through the ages. One thing stands out. Every prophetic figure, every acknowledged religious leader, every charismatic leader came to the end of their days. Death consumed them.

But not Jesus.

His death on the cross dealt with this ugly sin issue that plagues mankind. His resurrection frees us to live in the company of a very alive and real Jesus …who loves us like crazy. It’s a power that guides our steps on the road even now.

In churches all across the world we celebrate Jesus’s victory over death, over the devil. Nothing has been able to stifle the work of the cross and the power of the resurrection. Although many have tried they’ve failed.

I remember reading about an anti-God rally in Russia during the rise of Communism. One of the Communist leaders addressed a crowd and belittled, abused, and ridiculed the Christian faith. It was a stunning display of hatred towards God designed to silence the church and any outward manifestation of faith. When he was finished questions were invited. An Orthodox church priest rose and asked to speak. He turned, faced the people, and gave the Easter greeting, "He is risen!" Instantly the assembly rose to its feet and the reply came back loud and clear, "He is risen indeed!"

Evil often thinks it has the upper hand. The Cross and the Resurrection looks evil in the eye and says …”no you don’t.” For the truth of the matter is this …some day “at the very name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

Jesus is risen and He beckons us to keep road tripping. He told the women whom He trusted to tell the others that they were to get back on the road and go to Galilee. And they all went. And once there Jesus told them that the road they would travel on next would take them throughout the world preaching the good news of a God who’s not dead and who’s alive.

That’s what we proclaim too. The road is still there. And at every fork in that road …the living Lord is there saying “Come, follow me.” And He does something with us as we travel. He keeps working on us and with us, helping us to become more and more like Him. And He gives us stuff to do. We become His messengers. His hands and feet. He wants us to help change the world for Kingdom purposes. And as we travel down the road He stops us and builds into our life, shaping us more and more into His image and likeness. Like a sculptor crafting His masterpiece …the risen God …shows His love for us by not allowing us to stand pat. ‘Tis a good thing.

He is Risen.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Birth & Resurrection Society

Easter. We’ll have an overflow crowd on Easter. So will a lot of churches. Old and new members of the Birth and Resurrection Society will fill the pews. There’s lots of reasons people come who usually don’t.

For some, there’s a family expectation. Children come home from college. Older children plan a migration back home that coincides with a spring break. Even though they don’t normally go to church or practice a faith lifestyle they will buy into the familial pattern of going to church on Easter.

Others have a vague sense that going to church on both Christmas and Easter anchors them firmly to a faith they have really long abandoned. It doesn’t make sense and has the feel of superstition and magic but it's a very real thing in the lives of many.

Then there’s those who are indeed looking for what they sense is missing in their life. They are folks who are looking in all kinds of directions to heal and/or fill some deep longing in their heart. Somehow they turn to that building with a big steeple or towards a group with a ‘religious’ reputation.

All of them are part of the overflow crowd on Easter. Of course our prayer is that those who walk in out of expectation, or obligation or on wings of whimsy meet the great God of the bible and His people. That isn’t always the case. Let’s face it. Even with overflow crowds, our best foot forward and the best of hopes and prayer most of the overflow ends up not coming back …until Christmas.

It doesn’t matter. This is it. The whole world is at our doorstep. We’ll get the jaded, the skeptic, the true seeker, the don’t rock the boat family people, and folks who can’t even explain why they’re there. In the house on Sunday will be those who see our claims as being exclusive and narrow and even judgmental.
And we get the opportunity to let people know that even if they are ‘far from God’ He is ‘near to them’. We get to show people that the God they label as exclusive is, in truth, magnanimously inclusive.

So Easter will be packed but not the week after. That bothers me but it doesn’t really rock my world or what I do. Actually it's pretty exciting to think that pretty jaded people who live in a jaded world will be with us. And God has called me (and you) to be witnesses to those jaded people who live in a that jaded world. Wow.

It may sound trite but it’s a privilege just to be ‘present’ to all and any who walk through the doors this Sunday. Some are accompanied by the prayers of family and friends. Others not. Some will look saintly and others less so. A few will have a glazed expression of disdain on their face as if this hour on Sunday is their personal purgatory. Even some of them will taste a bit of heaven on Easter morning and walk away wondering what happened.

I don’t know about you but I’m looking forward to Easter this year. I know it’s going to be a strange crowd but I’m a little strange myself. But I get to be there. So do many of you. I get to preach. How fun is that? Some of you get to extend hands of friendship or a smile of welcome or a rescue from the more crotchety members of the church community. Whatever it is …God can use it. He will use it. He has a history of working with very little raw material and doing something quite dramatic with it. There’s no reason to believe He’ll stop now.

It’s the first meeting of 2010 for the Birth and Resurrection Society. It just could be a life changer.