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!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Figuring It Out At Finish Line

Mrs. Frankly surprised me last night by suggesting we go walk around the mall. I’m trying to take 10,000 steps every day and I was a couple thousand short, so I was eager to agree. There was a time when we didn’t get out much. Little kids dominated our attention – as kids should when they were little. But now that the little Franklies are 22, 21, and 18 it’s fun to go out on the occasional whim.

We made a few laps around the Lansing Mall (soon to be home to a new Cineplex and Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar and Grill, by the way) before stopping at Finish Line.

We love Finish Line. The moment you walk in you’re immersed in high-energy music, the sort that has you bopping your head and beat boxing “boots n’ pants n’ boots n’ pants.” If the kids are with us they roll their eyes and pretend to be orphaned. But, by now, Tracy just shakes her head and zigzags her way to the ladies shoes.

Me, on the other hand, I head to the clearance rack in the corner of the store. I have a simple rule: never buy shoes when you need them; buy shoes before you need them. That way you can take advantage of a deal. Which leads to rule two: never pay full retail. In fact, if you can keep it below $50 that’s a win. Below $40 is a blow out.

I looked at several pairs and, by this time, was joined by Mrs. Weller. Josh, a big strapping guy with a sleeve of tattoos and gauges in each ear was shuttling back and forth between the stockroom and the bench where I sat. He seemed like a great guy so I chatted him up. The song on the muzak was something like, “All the ladies want me . . .” (Okay it might now have been that, but Chad Cronin can tell you I know nothing about any music written after 1992.)

Anyway, I said something to Josh like, “Hey this is your theme song isn’t it?” He replied, “This is on all day long; I don’t even hear it.” By then the “All the ladies want me,” caught up with his auditory nerve and he laughed. I said, “Must be the sleeves and gauges, Josh.” Mrs. Frankly just laughed and shot me that, you-just-can’t-resist-chatting-up-a-total-stranger look.

I got a pair of Reeboks and Mrs. Frankly picked out a half-price hoody for Son #2 and we headed to the register to pay, giggling the whole way about something funny I can’t recall.

As Josh checked us out he said, “If you don’t mind my asking, how long have you two been married?” I told him, “27 years this year.” “Congrats,” he replied. And then he said something that kind of startled me: “It looks like you two really have it figured out.”

In a flash I thought to myself: I didn’t have it figured out last week when I came home cranky and was short with her. I didn’t have it figured out when I went straight to my home office and worked all night while she was alone in the bedroom. I didn’t have it figured out when I freaked out about . . . No Josh; I don’t have it figured out.

So I told him.

“No Josh, we don’t have it figured out. But I tell you what: we are committed to spending the rest of our lives figuring it out.”

For better. For worse. That’s what we chose when we said, “I do.”

And, nearly twenty-seven years later, I still would.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Inside Out

Recess can either be a child’s greatest hope, or his greatest fear.

I recall many afternoons at J.E. Ober Elementary School where two captains would choose teams for a game of kickball. We stood in a line waiting to be called. The worst possible scenario was to be chosen last. The anxiety of those not yet chosen increased with each selection. We trembled with nervousness. Some pleaded with their eyes; some cried “pick me, pick me.”

As overpowering as the anxiety was, as soon as you were chosen your fretfulness was washed away in relief. For most of us, the feeling so overwhelmed that we immediately forgot about those still in line waiting to be chosen. And while there might be a friend or two that we would lobby our team captain to select, for the most part, we were already thinking ahead to the game, completely oblivious to those still not chosen.

It is as if there was some mental blackboard that was erased the moment we went from outsider to insider.

The New Testament contains two interesting words in the original Greek that inform our understanding of those on the inside and those on the outside: OIKOS and XENOS. XENOS is translated as stranger or alien. It means outsiders – those who don’t know Jesus and, therefore, are not a part of the church. Interestingly enough, though, it also refers to how we are to live in this world.

Paul uses this word in Ephesians 2 to remind Christians that they were once outsiders:

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ . . . .

Each of us was once estranged from God. We were outsiders, and not heirs to the promises of Christ. Tens of thousands in our city fit into this category. In fact – and I have repeated this so many times that our church must be growing weary of it – 36% of the people who live within three miles of our steeple, or nearly 20,000 people, have no faith involvement of any kind. They are XENOI. They are where each of us once was; they do not know Jesus.

The opposite of XENOS is OIKOS. OIKOS is often translated as household. In our culture household means something different than it did in Paul’s day. In Paul’s day it referred, not just to one’s family, but also to his neighbors, friends, co-workers and acquaintances. It had a much more eastern feel to it. Maybe the best way to think of it is that OIKOS refers to our spheres of influence. Who are the people in my life that I have influence with? They are my OIKOS.

Paul uses each of these words in Ephesians 2:19 to explain the transition from outsider to insider: “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers [XENOS], but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household [OIKOS]. . . “

The challenge for us, both as individuals and as a church, is to expand our OIKOS by moving people from XENOS to OIKOS. But how to we do that? We do so through a process that that Eric Bryant, a pastor at Gateway Church in Austin, Texas, explained to me a few weeks ago using the acrostic IPSIS:

I – Identify our OIKOS. Those people that God has already given us influence with.
P – Pray for our OIKOS. How often do we pray for our neighbors? Our co-workers?
S – Serve our OIKIS. I’ve been trying to do this this winter by snow blowing.
I – Invite our OIKOS. Not just to church, but whatever. Ballgames. Barbecue, etc.
S – Share with our OIKOS. We share our faith as God gives opportunity.

The problem, I think, is that many of us who are inside the church simply forget what it was like to be outside Just as we did when chosen by the team captain for her kickball team, we forget what it was like to be still in line, looking on with longing at those who were already part of the group.

When we become Christ followers there is such relief to know that Jesus’ death has purchased our freedom. There is such excitement as we dive into God’s Word and learn the amazing truths therein that now apply to us as new believers in Christ. There is a whole world of “Christian culture” to learn and interact with. Bible translations, Christian music, Christian events. On top of that are the great doctrines of the faith, the theology that helps us better understand this newfound belief. And so – quite unintentionally I am convinced – we forget about those who are still outsiders.

This is why Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:11-12 to remember. It is so easy to forget what it was like to be an outsider. And if we forget what it was like, we lose the motivation to reach those who are still outsiders.

This is doubly difficult for those of us who grew up in a church. Although there was a time when we were theologically outsiders – that is, before we submitted ourselves to Christ as Lord and Savior – we were still very much culturally insiders. We knew the Christian lingo; we were part of a church family even before we made our parents’ faith our own faith. Lifelong insiders are even more challenged to understand what it is like to be an outsider – a XENOS.

This is a challenge we face at South Lansing Christian Church: we are a church that is primarily made up of people on the inside.

The only way to change that focus is to turn our church inside out. To become an outsider focused church. We need to maintain our efforts to grow those who are on the inside while releasing them to go to those who are on the outside.

We need to remember what it was like to be “. . . separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.”

And then, having remembered, we commit ourselves to being an inside out church that sacrifices comfort and convenience for the sake of those who are still XENOS.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The parable of the skater

Image credit: <a href=''>khamidulin / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
When Stephen was a kid he always wished he knew how to ice skate. There was something about the faces of the kids out on the ice. They seemed so full of joy. Sometimes the skaters raced around the rink. At other times they glided slowly and silently as if pondering something weighty.

But not Stephen. He sat in the bleachers with a couple of other kids who were equally frightened at the prospect of defying physics by placing the full weight of a human body on a couple of sharpened steel rails a few millimeters wide.

Most of the time the skaters were oblivious to the bleacher-bound crowd. They were skaters, after all. If you had to ask, then you obviously wouldn't understand. Stephen used to think, "If I knew how to skate, I would never be like them. I would teach other non-skaters how to lace up their skates and conquer their fears." And that's how life was for Stephen. Year after year. Outside looking in.

And then one day Stephen conquered his own fears. He noticed a pair of skates lying in the bleachers, left behind by someone who must have hurried out and forgotten them. He tried them on. They fit.

His first steps onto the ice were tentative. Comical even. He held tightly to the rail, struggling to keep his ankles from turning in and then out and then in again.

Occasionally someone would slow down and offer him some advice, but mostly he just mimicked what he saw the other skaters doing. He eventually let go of the rail and soon he was vertical more than horizontal. He was doing it. He was skating.

He left the rink that day a changed person. Having carefully tucked the borrowed skates beneath the bleacher where he found them - he wasn't a thief after all - his first stop was at a sporting goods store to buy a pair of his own. That night at home he stayed up late watching how-to-skate videos on YouTube. He weekly trips to the rink took on new purpose as he tried out what he was learning. Slowly, he became a skater.

He immersed himself in the culture. He studied skating. It's origins and history. The various forms. Hockey with its frenetic pace and violent collisions. Figure skating with its precision and attention to detail. The artistry of ice dancing. He loved them all. Each was different, but all had the blade and the ice. Water formed from steel encountering ice, creating a microscopic layer of frictionless freedom.

Finding other enthusiasts like himself, he joined a skating club. They talked about skating. They argued over their favorite professional skaters. They traveled to other rinks and met other enthusiasts. He got involved with YES - Young Energetic Skaters - at his home rink - a program designed to teach the children of the club's skaters so their craft was passed on from one generation to the next.

Before long Stephen was thoroughly, passionately, hopelessly immersed in the world of skating.

So much so that he never noticed the guy just on the other side of the glass.

Sitting alone on the bleachers.

Wishing he knew how to skate.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Scandal of the Church in America

Jessica wrote me a note following yesterday's sermon:
You obviously have me thinking. Here is a question that pairs with an article I just sent: if global wealth continues to become more and more concentrated in a small number of people, how will churches be able to stay afloat? If there is more competition for fewer dollars, it makes sense that at some point churches without wealthy donors won't be able to offer much outside of traditional services, and maybe not even that. Am I missing something? Is this an issue that is talked about amongst church leadership?

Here is an edited version of my response to her:
I'm glad that you're thinking! I think the institutional model of the church that has dominated the landscape in the West since Constantine made Christianity the official state religion in 325 AD may be unsustainable. There are many who are looking at a different expression of faith than what we have experienced in the institutional church all our life. Because of that, the church will always "stay afloat," but perhaps in a different form. Many of the trappings of the church - large buildings, paid clergy persons, extensive programming - might become things of the past in the next generations. If so, that is okay. The church in China grew from 700,000 persecuted and imprisoned believers under Mao in 1948 to over 67,000,000 people at the time of Mao's death.
And yes, our leadership talking about these issues. I recently began exploring the issues of cultural engagement, trying to understand how our church can best impact the post-christian culture in which we live. That study is resulting in conversations that I am bringing back to our elders so we can wrestle with them.
What will ultimately define Christians in the west is how we handle our wealth. I imagine a world in which those who vehemently disagree with what Christians believe on issues of morals nevertheless deeply respect Christians because they are characterized by a compassion that moves us to live sacrificial lives so that others can benefit from our generosity. 

Jesus did not say, "the world will know we are Christians by our morals." He said that the world would know that we are his disciples by our love. (John 13:35) This same disciple, John, who recorded those words, wrote this in one of his letters, "If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person?" 

The church in America is the richest in the history of the faith. Only 12% of American evangelicals tithed to their church in 2012. This abdication of responsibility for our brothers and sisters in need is the scandal of our generation.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Peanut Butter Boy

I taught all day at the seminary, five hours on my feet.  It was hot and humid and I was exhausted as I made my way through the muddy street back to the mission compound where we were staying.  I heard the cries of children – “blanc! blanc!” – as tried to push my way through the crowd.

By now I had learned to largely ignore their shouting.  Give one a bit of money, or some food, and soon a riot would break out as children and even parents clamored for a gift.  I felt a bit guilty about that, but what difference could one person make in the face of overwhelming poverty on such a huge scale?

I stepped over the open drainage ditch and turned the final corner that led to the mission.  Forced to wait for the crowd to clear a bit, I paused, and felt someone slip their little hand into mine.  I looked down and saw that it was a young child – a boy.  He looked to be about five or six years old.  His stomach was distended, his hair a kinky orange tint – signs that I had come to recognize as malnutrition.  He looked up at me and said two words: “peanut butter.”

They might have been the only two English words he knew.  And, surrounded as they were by a cacophony of Creole and French, they struck my like a hammer blow.  I knew what he wanted and, as he accompanied me back to the mission, I formulated a plan. 

Arriving at the mission, I asked the gatekeeper to tell him, in Creole, to wait there a moment.  I hurried to the kitchen and found a plastic spoon and a jar of Jif.  Plunging the spoon into the golden butter, I twirled it around several times creating as large a “peanut butter popsicle” as I could.  Holding it in front of me, I made my way back to the gate where the boy waited with hope.

When he saw the peanut butter-lathered spoon his eyes grew wide and he smiled.  He took the spoon and said, “Merci.”  Thank you.  I expected he would shove it in his mouth, but instead he spun around and began running.

Puzzled, I asked the gatekeeper what had happened.  He was obviously hungry, so why didn’t he eat.  The gatekeeper replied simply, “He is taking it home to share with his family.”