Smelled like . . . Victory

In some ways, I felt like I was visiting an old friend yesterday. I was invited to speak at local organization whose mission is to reach “the drug addict, the alcoholic, the criminally-minded, and the reject of society.” It had been a while since I got to meet and minister to men that were in these kinds of circumstances and, in many ways, it was like a breath of fresh air.

Want to find authentic? Engage people who don’t have any need to fake it any longer. They don’t pretend to be “blessed and highly favored” when they show up at church. They are desperate for God to be real in their lives and in their circumstances. They have played out the alternatives and experienced the consequences and are done. Something has to change.

I loved sharing with and receiving from these men. I taught and gave away a few books, but what I got back was better. The life that rose up from within exceeded anything that I offered.

In Matthew 25, Jesus told us, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

So, according to Jesus, I was invited to meet with Him yesterday. I got to interact with Jesus and He looked like hungry, thirsty recovering addicts and convicts in need of hope and transformation.

I am a professional Christian. I am a pastor and elder at a local church and am the Executive Director at a ministry. That means that I have responsibilities which include everything from speaking to spreadsheets and strategy. The business of ministry is necessary to sustain the viability of ministry. While I am thankful for what I am called to, it can also present problems and pressures like every other thing we call “work.”

It’s the interaction with the people where Jesus tells us He is residing that is pure in offering the breath of life. The benefit to the minister matches the offering to the hungry. I left full of life and love and reminded of why I do what I do. It’s not for the budgets and programs, but for the hope in the promises.

Jesus changes everything and if we’ll serve Him in places where He tells us to find Him, we’ll bring a benefit to the seekers we find there. We’ll get a glimpse of Who we seek in the middle of that service and we’ll be better from what we give away.

Honest Interaction Equips the Ones that Do the Work

A simple, yet unique and amazing, thing happened the other night. I was speaking and a man politely interrupted with a clarifying question. He asked me what I meant by something I had just said and I clarified the point for him as well as for everyone else who might have not been clear. The man’s question initially seemed to come from a place of objection, depending on how I answered.

It was particularly unique and amazing in that I was preaching at our church. Right in the middle of the sermon came this potential objection. That was a greater level of conflict than you see in most sermons as the pastor typically goes unchallenged except at lunch behind his back or via email to inform him of his error. This was actual relationship. This was healthy.

I read a book by Patrick Lencioni over the weekend called “Death by Meeting.” In this excellent book he describes as a business fable, he makes the point that, business meetings are boring and non-productive because they don’t have any conflict. Everyone is saying all the right things except in the meetings after the meetings where the objections are raised with no way for collaborative problem solving.

Isn’t this true in church? Haven’t we resigned to the mundane predictability of three up songs, two down songs, announcements, offering, message and altar call or something similar? Haven’t we completely resigned ourselves to the passive consumer sitting politely as a critic of the show?

The only thing that’s likely to occur from our current patterns is either a thumbs up or a thumbs down. We are left to judge the excellence, or lack thereof, of the quality of the music, the content, humor and delivery of the speaker and opinions regarding the lighting, smoke, child care and parking. Too many thumbs down and we take our tithe to the show down the street.

I’ll submit that the early church, the model we were given, was a community of dialogue and even disagreement. Conflict affords the working out that is necessary for the equipping. We don’t mature passively, we grow experientially.

Why are we so afraid of the participation of the ones that are being equipped for the work of the ministry? If they don’t get equipped in the gathering, then where? A class? A program? How’s that working?

It’s time for the church goer to be the church doer. The only way that will happen is that the working out of faith and belief is given a voice and a safe place to figure it out. That safe place of working it out won’t be at work. It’s either in the gathering or the gathering may need some re-engineering. Engineering back to the blueprint.

 

Shades of Comparison Leave Us in the Dark

My path to vocational ministry is non-traditional.  Leading up to this transition in my occupation, I worked previously as an Army officer, business manager and owner as well as an attorney at law.  When I first practiced law, my primary focus was in the sphere of criminal defense.  The bulk of that criminal defense practice was representing court-appointed clients.  These were folks charged with a crime who couldn’t afford an attorney.

In those days when I talked about work or now when I tell stories about that time, some people have a noticeable reaction.  They make a face, however subtle, that indicates they can’t pay attention to the details because they are distracted by the arrangement.  “How could you represent those people? They aren’t Christians, and you are, so how could you represent them?”  Many times, it’s just the look, but sometimes it’s explicitly asked.  Church polite, of course, but asked just the same.

By contrast, one day walking out of the courthouse I called my wife and told her, “I can’t believe more Christians don’t choose the practice of law as their place of calling.”  After all, I reasoned, where else are you in a position where broken, desperate people come to you asking for your counsel and assistance?  Where else is light so necessary than in the darkest places of society?

Working closely with those whose lives were in peril of being consumed by darkness gave me a greater appreciation for light.  We all need some realization of darkness to remind us of the Light within.  We also need some realization of darkness to remind us of the darkness within.  The degree of separation between “them” and “us” is less than you might imagine.  A twist here and a turn there in life’s circumstances can lead people into situations both unplanned for and undesired.

The overlap in working with “church folks” and court-appointed folks is more similar than you might think, as well.  Sure, most of the church folks in the relatively privileged suburbs present themselves better than the accused of the court-appointed criminal justice system.  The underlying human condition, however, is just as dark.  People are people.

Here, however, is the biggest difference: Those accused and convicted of crimes realize the urgency and near hopelessness of their condition.  They know they need help.  They know they’re messed up and more often than not are desperate for any glimmer of hope.  The socially acceptable, comfortable Christians often think they have things figured out.  They rationalize that Jesus loves them regardless, and nobody (they hope) knows about their “indiscretions.”  And after all, their flaws aren’t as “bad” as the indigent criminal; likely not even perceived to be as bad as the rumors they’ve heard – and helped spread – about the guy across the pew.

Dark is dark and pretending it’s light by shades of comparison cheapens the grace of Jesus Christ.  He didn’t die for us to be judgmental by comparison or dismissive of the heart in need of redemption.  He wants to transform us from glory to glory, but we can’t go to the next glory believing the glory we’ve already experienced somehow jumped us ahead to a place of superiority.

– From “Transforming the Prodigal Soul” available here

The Freedom in Raising Your Hand

I am, among other things, a minister.  I am called to walk with others toward freedom from bondage and toward recognition of their identity in Christ.  I’ve spent countless hours studying, considering, praying for and ministering in freedom. I am thankful God has called me to this purpose and embrace the opportunity as an honor.

A few years ago, in the middle of this calling, I got into an argument with my wife.  It was an ugly argument, and I said ugly things.  What came out of me wasn’t free at all.  It was depraved and destructive.

Following this argument, I went into a kind of dark hole.  I was embarrassed, but more than that, I was doubtful.  I was full of doubt regarding the contradiction between what I believed and knew and ministered in compared to this blatant display of depravity.  The fact that I had this kind of anger and venom in me caused me to question everything.

  • I questioned whether or not I was a phony.  If this was going to be a way I might act, is there any integrity in my ministry?
  • I questioned whether or not I was disqualified.  If I do these kinds of things or even if I am capable of them, am I qualified to help others?
  • I questioned the very idea of freedom.  If a so-called freedom minister is so full of darkness that it comes spilling out, is there even such a thing as freedom in the first place?

Those are the questions I was asking as I prayed and considered the events of the argument. The next day, I received a group text to five or six of us from a pastor friend also called to walk alongside those engaged in the quest for freedom.  He explained in his text that he needed prayer as he’d lost his temper in his home the night before. The aftermath of his anger was evident in damaged relationships and broken trust.

Almost instinctively, I typed a text in response.  My response to him was, “You win.  By raising your hand, inviting us in and sending this text, you win.”  That was it.  That was the answer to my questions.

Freedom isn’t the absence of sin but the willingness to expose darkness to light. Freedom isn’t living a perfect life, but living life’s imperfections with others to disarm the accusations of guilt and shame arising from our faults.  Freedom is simply the ability to raise your hand.  Raising your hand is the first step on the return journey to an inheritance that abounds beyond our limitations.

– From “Transforming the Prodigal Soul” available here

Pray for Mean Old Men and Watch Things Change

A friend from college came into town last night and we met for the first time in about 15 years. In the middle of talking, a man somewhat dramatically came through the door, doubled over and groaning. I asked him, “are you OK?” He told me that he had hurt his back. He continued on and that appeared to be the end of it, although he was pretty hunched over as he walked away.

As my friend and I continued to talk, I couldn’t get past the guy that had just gone past us. A minute or two after the initial encounter, I told my friend, “Hold on, I’ll be right back; I’ve got to go do something.”

I went and asked the man if I could pray for his back. I don’t always do that, but I sure was pulled to this time and I didn’t initially want to. That’s why it took a minute or two.

My friend and I were friends from a time in my life when I didn’t know Jesus. I would have never prayed for that man. Might have made fun of him, but would not have prayed. My hesitation was the reconciliation of the collision between a past life and a new life which was occurring for me. Would Jason think I was weird? Is this too much; do I seem like a religious nut? That was the source of my pause.

When I finally did ask the man to pray for him, he looked at me with a depth of need. He needed connection. He needed care. He needed prayer, and he said as much when I offered. With my left hand on his left shoulder and my right hand on his back, I said a simple prayer to invite healing and went back to my seat.

Not too much later, he came by and said, “it worked.” I replied, “I figured it would.” I figured that because I felt God in it from the minute the guy came through the door.

Not too much later, after the guy had left, the bartender asked me if I had prayed for him and I told her that I had. She said that he comes in all the time and is very mean. He cusses them out to the point that it brings them to tears. In fact, when he came in this time the manager told her that she was going to the back until he left.

Not tonight, though. He was kind tonight. It was totally different. Whatever happened, he was different, she said.

Don’t miss it. Don’t miss it like I almost did. The dynamic of the Kingdom of Heaven hitting earth changes people. It changes college buddies in the new normal of a re-framed reality. It changes mean old men. It changes bartenders. Let It change you.

The Universal Benefit of Calling Out Identity

I volunteered as a mentor in a youth prison for several years and worked with boys, ages 14-17, as they worked towards a greater chance once they were released. What I found was that they are normal people; regular kids. Obviously, they had problems but the problems they had are not as unfamiliar to most of us as we might initially believe.

We never asked them why they were in jail or what they had done. The things that they had done to get them into this situation did not define who they were and I didn’t want to reinforce it as their identity. They didn’t steal because they were blessed by God with gifting as a thief (in fact, they couldn’t have been too good at it since they were obviously caught). It was a manifestation of junk inside of them leading to an act of rebellion, greed, laziness, desperation, etc.

The gifts and abilities that these young men did have had been hijacked to be applied in negative ways with negative consequences. Some of these boys were quite accomplished as drug dealers or gang leaders While that is both illegal and wrong, there are some leadership, marketing, entrepreneurial and organizational skills that were evident in those endeavors. They weren’t drug dealers or gang leaders by their design, but they were quite possibly destined to be great business owners, salesmen or leaders with the proper nurturing and application of their abilities. Instead of dwelling on what got them into prison, we would call out those gifts which were evident in them to help them see themselves for who they were actually were.

With the simple power of an affirming word, we would call them who they actually were instead of labeling them with the twisted mis-application of their abilities. We would very directly compliment them on their strength, leadership, intellect, etc. How do you feel when you get a compliment? These guys liked it, too; they would literally change right in front of your eyes, pulling their shoulders back, looking up, smiling and even gaining clarity in their eyes and expressions.

Most of us know when we mess up and don’t actually need much of a reminder from those around us that love us. We will face the consequences of our mistakes willingly or otherwise but a word of encouragement will help us move beyond that failure and into the truth of who we really are much more than reminders of our failures.

This is true for boys in prison, teenagers in the suburbs, middle-aged professionals, employees, church people and any other types of people who make mistakes but need to know that mistake does not define them. Those boys aren’t that much different than most of the people reading this blog or the guy writing it.