Monday, November 09, 2015

Surprised by God . . . again!

God still has the capacity to surprise me. I don't know why. His capacity to astonish me is certainly nothing new.

But the way I saw God show up this last week is too exciting to keep to myself.

At last month’s elders’ meeting our mission team proposed that our church become ministry partners with Sidd and Sangheetha, two former South Lansing Christian Church members who returned home last year to India. They were a huge part of our church, with Sidd serving as a deacon and Sangs being involved in our women’s small groups. I was sad to see them leave, but was inspired for their chief reason for returning to India.

Their families are not Christians, and Sidd and Sangs wanted to share the gospel with them. Thats all you need to know about them to know how much they love God and want to serve Him.

As they've followed God's leading, He has moved in the hearts of their siblings and parents. We continue to pray for them as the Holy Spirit convicts them that Jesus is the Christ.

In addition to reaching their families, Sangs has also become active in reaching out to battered women. Domestic violence is common where they live, and Sangs has had lots of opportunities to share Jesus with women who are in really bad situations. With this in mind, our mission team has been trying to figure out a way to financially partner with them.

It is there – at the intersection of need and resource – that I saw God at work.

I happened to have lunch with a group of ministers last week and connected with an old friend who works for a mission agency that is has ministries in India. As I told him about Sidd and Sangs he asked what city they are in. When I told him he said, “Frank, I have been looking for someone that I can partner with in their city. In order for our mission to expand there we have to have a local representative. Give me their email so I can contact them.” Now, I don’t know if it will all work out for that partnership to develop, but isn’t it just like God to orchestrate something like that?

But God wasn’t finished amazing me! As you know, we gathered Sunday to pray for the persecuted church. I specifically mentioned Sidd and Sangs and the work that they do. Wally asked you to pray for them during our prayer time. Afterward Jeff Badgero, the father of Brenda Glinke, approached me. Jeff asked where Sidd and Sangs live and I told him.

“I’ve been there twice,” he said, “In fact, I was there for five weeks last year and know dozens of Christians in their city. Give me their email and I will connect with them.”

There are no coincidences in the Kingdom of God, only divine connections. That is what God did yesterday, and I just wanted you to know.

With that in mind, what divine connection is God going to make for you this week? Maybe he has someone he wants you to invite to church. Maybe there is a struggling couple that could use a night away from their kids to reconnect. Maybe God is going to put you in the worst checkout lane ever so you can be a bright light of hope to a cashier that is in a dark place.

Its funny what happens when God shows up where you don’t expect Him.

You start to find yourself looking for him a little more frequently.

And it turns out He is pretty easy to find.

Friday, November 06, 2015

A lawyer's take on the prodigal son

A woman from our church brought a guest with her to our recent Friend Day at South Lansing Christian Church. I preached from Luke 15 about the lost son. You might remember the parable.

The younger of two sons asks his father to divide his estate and give him his share. This was shocking as he was basically telling his father, “I wish you were dead!” The father gave him what he asked for and, shortly thereafter, the son set off for a distant land and squandered all of his wealth in wild living. When a severe famine broke out in that distant country, the son determined to go home and beg his father to take him back, not as a son, but as a household servant. He journeyed home, and when he crested the horizon and his father saw him, the family patriarch ran to his son and showered him with kisses. He put a robe on his back, a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet – all signs that he was completely accepted and forgiven.

The older son, meanwhile, heard the commotion from the party that his father threw to celebrate his son’s return. When he inquired about the noise he learned that his wayward brother was back, and he reacted with bitterness.
The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, "Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!"
"My son," the father said, "you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found."
The guest my friend brought had an interesting and thoughtful reaction that I have never considered. She is an attorney as it happens, and she noticed the father’s words, “everything I have is yours.” She noted that the older brother had every right to be angry. After all, the robe the father gave his younger son? It belonged to the elder. The ring? The shoes? Each was part of the older son’s inheritance. The fattened calf roasting on the spit? It was the older son’s bullock.

I’ve never noticed that before. I have always thought the older brother’s objection was rooted, primarily, in his father’s failure to recognize his faithfulness and hard work. And certainly that must have played a part in his anger. But his frustration must have also been economic. How dare the father give away what belonged to him? That’s just not right!

The older brother’s biggest problem was that he felt entitled. He didn’t view his inheritance as a gift, but rather as something he had earned. If you earn something, it isn’t a gift; it’s a wage. Naturally, the brother was upset because he saw the father’s generosity cutting into his wages. He couldn’t accept that the father would grace his wayward sibling with such extravagance. It was unjust.

But then grace is always unjust.

One of Jesus’ earliest followers, Paul, made clear the distinction between what is earned and what is gifted in Romans 6:23 – “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The big difference between the younger brother and the older brother was their understanding of grace. One embraced it and was awed by the father’s incredible love. The other rejected it and wallowed in bitterness.

Grace is never fair, and it’s never just.

It’s just grace.

An undeserved gift given to people who have wandered far from the Father and are amazed that he takes them back.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Here’s Why Your Pastor Didn't Say Anything About the SCOTUS Gay-Marriage Ruling

Three days have passed since the SCOTUS same-sex marriage ruling and the bloggers are a bloggin’ and the preachers are a preachin’.

Just not yours.

Sunday came and went at your church with nary a word about gays, marriage, SCOTUS or anything associated therewith. Pastor didn’t ask you to pray about the ruling, and there was no surprise homily from Romans 1. You keep checking the church blog and clicking on his Facebook page, but there's neither a rainbow filter on pastor’s profile picture, nor handwringing about the church losing its not-for-profit status.

Just silence.

It isn’t because he doesn't have an position. Trust me, he does. He has a carefully thought out opinion that he can persuasively articulate. Nor is it because she doesn’t study her Bible. She has. The fanciful theological convolutions that some scholars “recently discovered” - your pastor thinks them hubris. For recently minted seminarians to jettison two millennia of theology? The arrogance is offensive.

So why the silence? If your pastor has yet to articulate his or her thoughts on the subject, here are six reasons why your preacher might be sitting this one out.

Because she cares more about making a difference than making a point. 
Here’s the deal: your preacher really loves people. She believes that people matter to God - all people. And when someone is far from God your pastor wants - more than anything else - to help that lost soul find his way back to Jesus. Jesus is at the center of your preacher’s faith, and someone’s sex life - while not exactly peripheral - is something she’s willing to trust to the Holy Spirit. Not wanting to alienate someone who already thinks Christians are judgmental, your pastor trusts the Holy Spirit to convict people of their sexual sin because that’s His job, not hers. So rather than risk pushing someone farther away from God, she just shuts up.

Because he genuinely loves people and doesn’t relish the thought of hurting them. 
He doesn’t think about "the gays"; he knows gay people. He shuts up because he doesn’t want to hurt his college friend that has been in a committed relationship with her partner for the last ten years. He thinks about the two guys he met at the barber shop that have been together as long as he and his wife have been married. And while he doesn’t quite understand why some people experience same-sex attraction, he doesn’t hate the people who do, or think of them as perverts and degenerates. He cringes when he hears Christians use gay slurs, identifies with the pain that his gay friends have experienced, and chooses to show up as loving, not condemning.

Because he has dual citizenship in Heaven and on earth. 
Your preacher recognizes that, in a plural society, not everyone believes what he does. Because of that he is genuinely okay with two US citizens sharing property, making end-of-life decision for each other, and reaping the benefits of a lifelong commitment. He just doesn’t think it should be called marriage. For him, marriage is a word that is defined by a Deity in a throne room, not nine justices in a courtroom. The fact is, he was hoping that SCOTUS would find some third way; that the justices would recognize two persons’ rights to form a civil union while retaining the definition of marriage that has existed since it was instituted by God: the spiritual covenant between a man and a woman when they stand before God to commit to a lifetime together.

Because tension is hard.
It’s hard to wrap his brain around it. And it’s hard to talk articulate it. Your pastor recognizes the tension in grace and truth; that they are two sides of the same coin. Here's the truth: homosexual behavior is sin. Here's the rest of the truth: so is greed, selfishness, hate, lying, oppression, gluttony and on and on. Grace is bigger than all of that and your preacher knows that her sin is as revolting in God’s eyes as anyone else's. That’s why she clings to grace and that’s why she proclaims grace. For some, preaching about grace comes easily; for some, preaching about truth comes easily. But talking about grace and truth? That's hard for every preacher because it feels, sometimes, like they are diametrically opposed forces. Jesus was “full of grace and truth,” but your pastor feels entirely inadequate to proclaim them in the context go this subject.

Nobody wants a nuanced conversation anymore. 
Your pastor knows that most of the people he talks with about this don’t want a conversation; they want to conquer. They don't want to continue the discussion; they want to end it. They don’t want to talk about the social and spiritual implications of the ruling. And they for darn sure don’t want to recognize that “the other side” might be right - even if just a little. Dialogue means listening. It means hearing with the heart and the brain. And only then -  after really hearing - speaking. But this isn’t the time for that. This is the time for winning and that means someone has to lose, and since your pastor isn’t about people winning and losing, he just clams up.

Because he is grieving. 
Paul told the Romans “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” If your pastor is one of the majority of evangelicals that believes homosexual behavior is wrong, he mourns this decision. He grieves as he sees Americans, including many in his congregation, celebrating what was once thought to be immoral. When he sees the White House bathed in rainbow floodlights he aches. It feels, to him, like he is sitting shiva in the parlor, while there is partying in every other room of the house. When Facebook and Google are awash with gay pride, it feels like someone has died and he is expected to "just get over it!"

What now?
Truth be told, If your pastor is like me, I'm not entirely sure. Still, the path forward must wind its way through Paul's encouragement from Romans 12:
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.
Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.
Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.
Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.
Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. (vv. 9-13)
Disagree. Debate. Vigorously, even. But love each other, always keeping Jesus at the center.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

If your life depended on passing a Bible quiz . . .

If your life depended on passing a Bible exam, how would you fare?

A story out of the UK details how Australia is struggling to deal with their refugee crisis. Like America, Australia has become home to asylum seekers. Among those are Christians from China who are eager to escape persecution.

One such believer recently found herself the object of intense scrutiny when an Australian tribunal tested her knowledge of the Bible.

According to court records,
The Tribunal member began by asking questions about the applicant’s baptism, the significance of baptism for Christians and in particular Catholics, and what was the significance of the water and pouring of the water. After asking further questions in relation to the applicant’s baptism, the Tribunal asked whether the applicant read the Bible, whether she had her own Bible, when the applicant first started to read the Bible, whether the applicant knew the Old and New Testaments . . . 
A lawsuit on her behalf also details some of the questions she was asked to further authenticate her faith. In truth, most of these have the feel of trivia. Check these out and ask yourself how would you do if your life depended on answering correctly.

  1. What is the first book of the Old Testament?
  2. Who was Abraham?
  3. Who was Moses?
  4. Who was the longest living person in the Bible?
  5. According to Genesis, who was the first murder victim in history?
  6. What did the dove carry in its beak when it returned to the ark?
  7. What did God convey as a signal or message of his covenant with Noah and all living creatures?
  8. Which plague fell upon Egypt from the sky?
  9. What was Moses’ sister’s name?
  10. Who went with Moses to confront Pharaoh?
  11. Why was Jesus condemned to death?
  12. Did the crowd have anything to do with Jesus being sentenced to death?
  13. Where was the actual place of Jesus crucifixion?
  14. When Jesus rose from the dead where did her first appear to two of his disciples?
  15. How long after his resurrection did Jesus remain on earth before he was taken up to heaven?
  16. What were Jesus’ final instructions to His disciples before he was taken up to Heaven?
  17. What visible sign of the Holy Spirit did the disciples see on the day of Pentecost?
  18. What was the name of the garden in which Jesus was arrested?
  19. What is the second book of the Old Testament?
  20. What were the Israelis supposed to put on the doors of their houses to save themselves from the last plague in Egypt?
  21. How was Aaron related to Moses and what book is that in?
  22. How often does Jesus say we are to forgive someone?

The tribunal, which took place in two separate sessions, determined,
. . .  the applicant “provided considerably greater knowledge of Christianity at her hearing than she did at the time of her departmental interview.” Second, the Tribunal rejected the explanation the applicant gave for the improvement in her knowledge and instead found “the applicant’s testimony was rehearsed and memorised [sic] in order to achieve a migration outcome”. Third, the Tribunal found that “even after having ample opportunity to study up on Christianity, . . . the applicant’s answers contained numerous errors” and “her lack of knowledge of Christianity is demonstrative of the fact that she is not a genuine practicing [sic] Christian.” Finally, the Tribunal found that, overall, “the applicant’s testimony in relation to her knowledge of Christianity was at best superficial, and lacked spontaneity, particularly at her first hearing.”
Not a genuine practicing Christian?! You have to wonder. . . If you were required to answer the same questions in order to gain asylum as a Christian, would you succeed? Knowing God's word is important. But - and let's be honest here - knowing answers in the book isn’t the same things as knowing the author.

Still, I am forced to wonder how American Christians would do if forced to prove their faith through a similar quiz.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Paradise (nearly) Lost

"I have come to believe that the major threat to the viability of our faith is that of consumerism. This is a far more heinous and insidious challenge to the gospel, because in so many ways it infects each and every one of us. I was trained as a marketer and advertiser before I came to Christ, and when I look at the power of consumerism and of the market in our lives, I have little doubt that in consumerism we are dealing with a very significant religious phenomenon . . . . Consumerism is thoroughly pagan." - Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways
I experienced the lure of consumerism first hand earlier this week. After last year’s oppressive winter, my wife and I determined that we need to have a “cold weather survival strategy.” The resulting plan includes some warm weather and sun so, when our friends suggested we join them for a five-day vacation to Cancun, we jumped at the chance.

I will admit that I was not entirely comfortable with the idea. There is something that seems a little unfair about bailing out of Antarctica while our friends and family stay behind. Even though this is the first vacation my wife and I have taken in over twenty-five years that didn’t involve me working, or attending a conference, or our kids tagging along, I still felt a little guilty.

My discomfort abated considerably when we arrived at the Iberostar ParaĆ­so Del Mar. The resort was simply amazing. We spent the first few hours with mouths agape at the wildlife, the pristine beach and the pool. The marble colonnades and the verdant landscaping were incredible. Tracy and I remarked to each other how humbled and blessed we felt to be able to enjoy such a sublime setting together.

The next morning we sat down with the concierge to learn what to expect from our five days of paradise. She went through the meals we could expect to eat and helped us make reservations. She talked with us about the beach and the pool and the activities we could participate in. She explained the nightly shows. (Trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a Mexican theater troupe performing disco cover tunes complete with a live band and dance team!)

But then she did something unexpected. After telling us all that we could do, she told us what we couldn’t. She explained that our blue wristbands gave us access to two areas of the resort. But, if we wanted full access to all the resort, we would need to upgrade to a different wristband. Want to float
down the lazy river in tubes? You need the gray wristband. Want to enjoy the wave pool? Gray wristband. Want exclusive access to all the amenities, including the water park at the premium hotel? You got it. Gray wristband. It’s ironic, but our “all inclusive resort” turned out to have some exclusions after all.

Now here’s the thing: I was completely happy with my little corner of paradise until Shakira (yes, that was really her name) told me that there was more, and that – for only $70 more per day – we could have it all.

Truth is, that sounds a lot like the lie that the serpent told Eve. “You can have it all, Eve, just bite the fruit. God’s holding out on you. He doesn’t want you to be like him, but you can have it all if you’ll just take a little taste.”

And that is the challenge for most of us, I think. You got the 16 GB phone. Too bad, we just debuted the 64 GB. That 48-inch flat screen? So last year. Only one carat, and its not a princess cut?! Bigger. Better. Faster. Pricier. The god of consumerism whispers in your ear and mine, “Wait. There is more.”

Some sharp commenter will point out the deeper irony of me blogging about wrestling with consumerism after enjoying nearly a week at an all-you-can-eat-and-drink, cater-to-your-every-whim resort. Nevertheless I am grateful that Hirsch’s words came to mind as I sat at the Shakira’s desk. They reminded me that enough is enough. That I don’t need more, and that I can receive God’s provided blessings – including a vacation like this one – with grace and gratitude, knowing that the lure of consumerism is always present, tempting me to miss the goodness the Giver by overlooking the profound generosity of His gifts.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The fate of all nations who ignore God

In my quiet time, lately, I have been focusing on the YouVersion verse of the day. I use it as a springboard and go deeper into the context of each day's particular verse. Today's verse of the day was in Psalm 9, which led me to Psalm 9:17 - "The wicked will go down to the grave. This is the fate of all the nations who ignore God."
This resonates with the conservative in me. After all, it feels like we, as a nation, ignore God. Violence. Corruption. Our obsession with sex and the resultant promiscuity. 

But when you look at the context of Psalm 9, the characteristics of a godly nation become apparent:

Verse 4 - "from your throne you have judged the world with fairness."

Verse 8 - "he will rule the world with justice and rule the nations with fairness."

Verse 9 - "the Lord is a shelter of the oppressed."

Verse 12 - "For he who avenges murder cares about the helpless."

Verse 16 - "The Lord is known for his justice."

Verse 18 - "But the needy will not be ignored."

Verse 18 - "The hopes of the poor will not be crushed."

Reasonable people can argue all day long about what constitutes fairness, or how justice is administered. And reasonable people can come to reasonably different solutions.

But, if we are serious about being God's people, shouldn't we at least be having the conversation?

Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Vietnam Veteran Finally Returns Home

Guest Blog by SSgt Tony L Lamson, USMC (ret), Deported Veterans Representative, Point Man International Ministries

Specialist Hector Barrios, a 70-year-old Vietnam Veteran who served with the 1st Air Cavalry, is finally home with his family this Memorial Day. Hector passed on April 21, 2014. He wasn’t one of the lost or missing of the Vietnam War. 

He was one of the discarded.

One of hundreds of deported veterans that the media isn’t covering today.

Hector immigrated to the United States legally in 1961 and was drafted to the United States Army. He could have sought refuge in Canada like so many others of his generation. Or he could have returned to his home country of Mexico. Instead, Hector chose to serve the nation he called home, earning an Army Commendation Medal for his actions in Vietnam and receiving an Honorable Discharge.

As with many veterans that return from combat or traumatic events during service, Hector found himself unable to adjust to civilian life. The anti-war sentiment that pervaded the nation at the time didn’t help much, adding to the struggle that he faced coming back to the country he served.

Since Hector was not a naturally born United States Citizen, when he was arrested for possession of marijuana – an offense that isn’t even a crime in more and more states – he wasn’t treated the same as his U.S. born fellow veterans. While the U.S. Citizen will do his time for his crime and go home, Hector served his sentence and then was deported, the victim of changes in immigration law dating back to 1994 and 1996. Like many foreign-born veterans, his service in the armed forces was not taken into account.

It is difficult to know how many veterans have been deported since the mid 1990s. Current numbers are only estimates as neither Homeland Security nor Immigration Control track these individuals.  Point Man International Ministries, the organization I work with, has had contact with more 200 deported veterans in 19 different countries. And while some of those veterans have chosen to blend back into the fabric of their respective homelands, many others feel abandoned by the government and country they served.

When Hector Barrios was arrested for possessing a few grams of pot, he had been living in the U.S. for 30 years. He was forcibly separated from his family while serving prison time, and remained incarcerated during deportation proceedings before being transported to Mexico and abandoned by the country that he swore an oath to preserve and protect.

After serving their prison sentences, some veteran detainees serve up to three years in lock down in deportation centers around the U.S. When they are deported, they are either dropped off at the Canadian or Mexican border or are put on a plane back to their country of origin where they end up on the street stripped of identity, without money, contacts or knowledge of anyone in the city or country, homeless, jobless, and without transportation or food. They are separated from everyone that they know and love, and dropped into a country that considers them traitors for having served in the U.S. military instead of the military of the country of their birth.

Hector was separated from his wife, children and grand children. Penniless, he was unable to collect Social Security benefits, veteran’s disability benefits for his service-related injuries, or have any access to medical or dental care through the Veteran’s Administration – each of which was rightfully his. At the age of 70, Hector worked sweeping the sidewalks and street surrounding a taco stand, delivering food to customers for 12 hours a day earning a meager $5 per day.

When Hector connected with Point Man Ministries he had lost all hope of ever being able to go home and reunite with his family. He tried to dull his pain and became addicted to heroin, living in a low-rent shack in downtown Tijuana. When he met other deported veterans living in Baja California he began to fight his addiction with the help of his deported veteran brothers in Tijuana and Rosarito.

Last month, after fighting through a lengthy illness and with access to the free clinics in Tijuana as his only healthcare option, Hector finished his fight. Surrounded by the only family he had - other deported veterans who looked after him - he was given military honors at a very low cost funeral in Tijuana before being cremated. Arrangements were made for Hector ‘s remains to be returned to his waiting family in the United States.

Ironically, the same government that deports these veterans and prevents them from ever returning to the U.S. provides a military escort to return their remains once they die. This is the only way most deported veterans will ever return home. Their deportation is a life sentence and the only hope they have of coming home is as Hector did – in a box, covered with the stars and stripes, receiving the full military honors “of a grateful nation.” 

They can be buried in a National Cemetery; they just can’t live near one.

This weekend we will honor and remember veterans who have given their last full measure of devotion for this country. We will remember veterans who returned home from war and who have since passed.

As we do, we should remember men like Hector Barrios and give them the honor they have earned. For Hector and his family, this weekend is a time that has been long awaited. They are once again a family. 

Once again, together.

Rest In Peace, Specialist Hector Barrios and welcome home brother!