Archive for April, 2011

Dear Darkening Ground (Rilke)

Dear Darkening Ground

Dear darkening ground,
you’ve endured so patiently the walls we’ve built,
perhaps you’ll give the cities one more hour

and grant the churches and cloisters two.
And those that labor—let their work
grip them another five hours, or seven,

before you become forest again, and water, and widening wilderness
in that hour of inconceivable terror
when you take back your name
from all things.

Just give me a little more time!
I want to love the things
as no one has thought to love them,
until they’re worthy of you and real.

– Ranier Maria Rilke

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Along the Road Less Traveled

Further Along the Road Less Traveled

Narrative Budgeting and Preparing for the Mission

Narrative Budgeting and Preparing for the Mission

I have been in and around churches for a long time, and one of the things that I have come to believe to be true is that the church budget is a better indicator of what that community really believes than their vision statements, by-laws, or statements of belief are.  If you want to know what a church really believes, watch where they spend their money and what the process is for allocating funds within the community.  Many churches claim a belief in Christ’s power and rule over the church, and a belief that we are all called to grow the Kingdom of God.  And yet many of those same churches control every aspect of spending from the top down so that what trickles down to the people who are actually engaged in the mission is so minimal and restricted that it is of little or no practical use.  And while professing a belief in the growth of the Kingdom, the lion’s share of those budgets goes directly into maintaining their buildings and insuring them, and paying a multi-tiered professional staff to do the work of the church. And at the bottom of all of it, is a belief that if the church overall comes out in the black at the end of the year, then the leaders of the church have been responsible in carrying out the mission of the church.  There is almost no clear linkage between the Kingdom of God, the Great Commission, the goals, authority, and accountability in how the resources of the church are allocated in any given fiscal year.

Over the past ten years, we have found a new way of looking at almost everything about what “church” means, and that new way of looking at what the church is has begun to be clearly reflected in its annual budget.  One of things that we have come to believe is that Christ has placed each of us into this community.  And we believe that this unique gathering of gifts was gathered to accomplish something.  And we believe that this gathering was placed in a specific geography at a specific point in history for a reason.  We believe that accomplishing what we were gathered and placed here to do is why we are here. And we believe that what we say about why we are here must be supported by Scripture.

“We are engaged in a personal and shared life journey driven by life-changing encounters with Jesus that lead us to accept people where they are and encourage them to find their gifts from God and go deeper into the vision of “Growing into Christ”. We have come to understand that our calling is to bring others with us into developing God’s mission here on Earth.” (I will explain in another article how we came to this purpose statement and why we believe it came from Christ)

We believe that this purpose statement reflects why this community is in this geographic location with this unique set of spiritual gifts and resources at this time in history.  This statement is reviewed every year because every year there are changes in the nature of its geography and related demographics.  And every year, with new participants entering the community and losses of others, our unique gift set changes.  Our resources change as the economy changes.  And history itself changes in the present with each passing year. Each year, each team develops measurable goals that reflect the reality of this statement of why we are here.  Those goals are then presented to the community to make sure that there is wide consensus that they reflect the purpose of the community.  And those goals are presented to the community so that the community can decide whether or not they want to invest precious resources in the accomplishment of those goals.  The accomplishing of those goals is what we actually do, and what those people we are trying to reach actually see us doing in Christ’s name.

In addition to the goals having to reflect the purpose, the investment of our community cannot represent more than one-third of the resources necessary to accomplish those goals.  We have a guiding missional principle that instructs teams to plan to draw two-thirds of their resources (time, talent, and treasure) from the mission field itself so that the mission field is participating in the efforts to reach into the harvest that mission field itself represents.  The one-third investment of the community cannot continue beyond three years, and merely represents seed money for planting new missions, and through those missions, new self-sustaining missional communities. In presenting its budget proposal to the community, the team must show how it plans to gather resources out of the harvest, and how it plans to wean itself off of the seed-money it is requesting within the three-year timetable that this guiding principle allows it.  Doing things this way, forces the team to constantly be thinking about multiplication of the mission.

While the goals of the team must clearly aim at living out why we are here, they must also clearly reflect who we say we are.  We believe that our vision statement reflects who we are right now.  Our vision statement is simply, “Growing into Christ”.  So, we are growing personally.  We are growing in the number of people who are participating in why we are here.  And we are multiplying this community into other geographies reaching other demographics.  Our goals, therefore, must show growth in those areas.

Our vision statement of “Growing into Christ” also reflects Christ, which is what all of this all about.  Our goals must reflect a deepening faith in Christ and God’s Kingdom personally.  They must reflect a growing number of people who are entering a disciple-relationship with Christ.  And they must reflect the multiplication of Christ-seeking and Christ-serving communities who are also doing these things.  And those goals must be measurable.  They obviously are not solely measurable by numbers, though numbers do matter.  Often the measurability is gained by standing several actual people up whose lives have been changed through the mission of the community and asking them to tell their story – to give their “narrative”.  The budget doesn’t report numbers.  It tells the story of God’s activity in the world through the vision and purpose of this unique community at this point in history.  It is a “narrative” budget.

Each year, each team will present their proposed budgets to the community.  They will demonstrate all of what we have just talked about.  And they will ask the participants in the community to invest their time, talent, and treasure in the accomplishment of those measurable goals.  Once agreed to, these goals are the “responsibility” of the team. The community then becomes “stakeholders”, invested in the accomplishment of the community’s goals.

In addition to time, talent, and treasure being asked for, the team asks for the “authority” to make specific decisions that they think will be necessary in order for them to carry out their agreed to responsibilities.  Remember, the mission field is constantly changing, so the team has to be able to make decisions on very short (if not immediate) notice in order to adapt to and take advantage of the changes happening around them.  The team will need the “authority” required to make those decisions efficiently.  That authority might include deciding how the funding gets allocated on a micro-level.  It might include hiring and firing of necessary staffing, both paid and unpaid.  It might include the use of facilities, vehicles, or other fixed assets.  Whatever is required to carry out the team’s responsibilities is agreed to and granted by the body.  This authority is granted based upon responsibility because at the end of the year (if not at mid-points) the team will be held “accountable” for the accomplishment of those agreed-to goals.  We are careful not to grant decision-making authority that is not clearly linked to agreed-to goals.  Authority without responsibility is raw power, and to the best of our ability, we want Christ and the Holy Spirit to be the only power here, and we want the mission itself to steer this ship.

If teams are not meeting goals, one of several things will happen.  The first and best option is for the team to get together with a collection of team leaders that we call the Vision Team to see if collectively they can’t find a way to become more effective.  Failing that, either the mission will no longer be funded, or new leadership for the team will be sought in as Christ-like a way as possible.  If a paid staff person isn’t meeting goals, the same things will happen, to include reductions in authority and/or compensation, or in removal from the position.  (We keep paid staff to an extreme minimum.) We love people, but we are accountable to Christ for living out the mission that Christ has laid before us.  Sometimes that means tough, painful consequences for ineffectiveness.  Humble people expect no less. Egotistical people do not last long here.

Those things being said, we also know that many things will fail, and there is no shame in that.  It teaches us humility. It’s just part of the learning process.  Everyone here has failed at something at least once.  The ones who are now the most effective leaders are the same people who probably have failed the most and have learned from their experiences.

None of this happened overnight.  And none of this is lived out to perfection yet.  Missional church is messy church.  But this is one part of a larger missional process that we strive to draw closer and closer to as we get better at living out why we are here, and “Growing into Christ”.

In summation, it is dangerous to give people power without linking that authority to clear responsibilities and effective accountability.  It is too easy for little dictatorships to develop, which is often what has happened in churches that spiraling downward.  It is also dangerous to hold people accountable when what we are holding them accountable to in not measurable or clear, and when we haven’t granted them the authority to accomplish what we have told them must do. If we do that, no one in their right mind will ever step up to do anything.   And if we aren’t clear in our agreement about what our responsibilities are, our community will be constantly bickering and fighting over little things that really don’t matter to the mission.  By marrying up responsibility, authority, and accountability in a healthy way, and linking that to who we are and why we are here so that each year we are able to tell the story of Christ’s redemptive activity and the presence of the Kingdom of God in our midst, then we are living out the Gospel in a way that it can be seen as a reality instead of just a nice idea.  Christ gave the Church clear responsibilities that are stated in Scripture – “Love one another as I have loved you”, and “Go, and make disciples of all tribes, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have taught you.”  What makes us think that the one who gave us that responsibility and the authority to carry it out will not also hold us accountable for those responsibilities when he comes again on the last day to judge both the living and the dead?

In the Mind of John, the Mind of a Fisherman

 

In the Mind of John, the Mind of a Fisherman

Jesus said to us, “Anyone who has faith in me will also do the works that I do. And even greater works will they do because I am going to the Father.” And he said, “I will do whatever you ask as I would have asked it – in my name, so that the Son might bring glory to the Father. You can ask for anything as I would have asked it, and I will do it.” At least I am pretty sure that’s what he told us.  That’s what I remember, anyway.  I have been really sweating over these words.  I just didn’t understand them when he was with us two days ago in that upper room.  I thought it was the Seder…another Seder.  I didn’t realize he would be giving us his last will for us…that that would be the last time we’d break bread together.   If I did, I would have listened more closely.  I need to go back and remember what he said.  I need to write these things down before I forget.  I just didn’t see any of this coming.

(Entering into prayer) Teacher, I have seen you do amazing things…how could I NOT believe in you.  I am covered in your dust.  But, me?  Who am I? I’m…nobody.  I am just James’ little brother…I am just the son of Zebedee…not the Son of God. If it wasn’t for you, Jesus, I’d still be dragging nets with my dad.  “Whatever you ask as I would have asked it, I will do.”  You’re dead and gone from us. They murdered you.  And I ran away like a coward.  Look at me! I am still hiding. How am I supposed to do what you did?  You are the Messiah…and I?…I am just an out-of-work fisherman.

Jesus, I don’t know if you can hear me or not, But I DO believe in you.  I just don’t believe in me.  I saw you feed five thousand people with a mere arm-full of bread and a couple of fish.  I saw you stare down demons and chase them out of people…they ran from you like frightened children.  I tried that once. Remember? And I couldn’t do it.  You had to come and do it for us.  For Heaven’s sake, I saw you raise Lazarus out of the stink of death’s decay to life.  That alone left me speechless for a week.  You prayed to your Dad…to God…and then you just told him to come out.  You just said his name and commanded him, and he obeyed.  That’s impossible…and yet, I saw it with my own eyes.  So, are you saying that all I have to do is to go to a dead person, pray to God for this person to be raised, and then as you would say it – in your name, call them by name and command them to rise?  I have not seen that done before you did it.  And I cannot believe that I could ever do that.  I cannot…believe.  Has my lack of faith failed you?  What am I missing here? Oh, Lord Jesus, don’t let me fail you. I WANT to believe.  I want to believe more than anything in this world.

Maybe I’m not thinking about this the right way.  It wasn’t really you that raised Lazarus.  It was God.  So if I am to be obedient…to believe in you…I am to do what you did.  You prayed.  You knew Lazarus’ name and called him by it…not just after he died, but every day.  Lazarus was a nobody, and yet you knew him.  You knew his name.  You knew all of our names.  I saw you cry the day we came into his family’s gathering.  You knew him so well that you couldn’t help but weep at his passing.  It wasn’t a stranger you commanded to come out.  It was a man you knew like a brother and loved like a brother.  I might never see a person raised from the dead because I called them out of the crypt.  But I can love like that.  You taught me to.  I can get out among the nobodies and really know them. And I can pray for them. I can cry out to the Lord as you did on their behalf.  You taught me how to do that, too.

Maybe that’s what you mean.  Maybe that was the real miracle…that you cared enough about Lazarus to pray for him not just that day, but every day…that you loved him and let his pains and woes and joys into your heart…and you knew his name.  Okay, Jesus, if you can hear me, I will start there…just as you started there.  I will lay my hands on the sick.  I will love the least of these.  I will know the people that nobody cares enough to know.  I will ask you to heal them, to set them free, to raise them out of death.  I can do that.  And then the rest is up to God…right? The rest is up to God, just as it was always up to God when YOU did these things.  Maybe out of that tiny mustard of faith you can make something big grow.  Maybe…if you put your own Spirit inside of me…maybe then…maybe then.  Oh Lord, is that possible?  Well, we’ll see.

Mere Conjecture: In The Mind of Judas Iscariot

Mere Conjecture: In The Mind of Judas Iscariot

What have I done? What kind of a fool have I been to let my emotions get away from me.  I had a really good thing going with the Pharisees.  I was working my way up.  I finally had the ear of some of the most influential teachers in all of Jerusalem.  And then I threw it all away to hook my cart to Jesus’ rising star. I thought that since he was the main attraction, if I could position myself close to him, when he rose, I would rise with him.  I thought that because of Jesus’ fame and the business sense that I could bring to his Movement, that everyone would know the name of Judas Iscariot for generations to come. Everyone would know my name as the one who made Jesus famous.  I would be famous forever.  My name would have been a household word.  Now, if I don’t figure a way out of this, I will be just another nobody like those people Jesus has been wasting his time ministering to. What happened? Everything was going great.

Then Jesus starts spouting all this “I have to die” stuff.  He’s been saying it for weeks and nobody is listening to him. The others weren’t getting what he was saying when he was talking about being “lifted up” and “where I am going, you cannot come”.  Jesus is suicidal.  Who in their right mind would willingly choose a suicidal leader?  If he dies, everybody associated with him will die, too. Those guys can be so thick sometimes…so naïve.  Even Mary doesn’t get it.  But I know exactly what he’s saying.  He sees the end of the ride ahead.  Jesus knows he has pushed things too far and that there’s no going back for him.  He knows he’s doomed and he just doesn’t have the heart to tell us in plain, simple Hebrew what he knows is going to happen.  He knows that he has run out of room to run, and that the Sanhedrin has outmaneuvered him.  I tried to tell him not to be so extravagant and generous with the outcasts. I tried to tell him we’d fine if we just stayed out of Jerusalem.  I knew that he would be a threat to some powerful people there.  Jesus should have listened to me.  I could have made him a rich man, a powerful man.  And I could have made a few pretty pieces of silver for myself, too. We could have ridden this popularity right to the top of society…listen to that crowd out there shouting to Jesus – “Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest!” Man, how could I have been so stupid?  I threw away my place among the Pharisees to follow a doomed crazy man.  I have betrayed my people for this?

Maybe it’s not too late.  Maybe there is a way to get back into the good graces of the Temple.  Caiaphas hates Jesus.  The Pharisees hate Caiaphas, but he is the enemy they know.  If I can show myself to be loyal to the Sanhedrin, maybe I can make a place for myself in their graces and they’ll forgive me for falling away and following this fool. Maybe I can claim temporary insanity or something.  I will go and talk to them and see if I can work a deal.  They need somebody on the inside working for them.  Maybe I can be that somebody.  Maybe it’s not too late.  If I can just convince them that this has been my intention all along…that my cover had to look sincere in order to gain their trust…maybe I can still get my status back without falling into disgrace with these people.  It’s the day before the Sabbath.  I think I know where I can find them.

A Theology Written in Dust

Matthew 18:4 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

“Theologians have felt no hesitation in founding a system of speculative thought on the teachings of Jesus; and yet Jesus was never an inhabitant of the realm of speculative thought.” – Walter Rauschenbusch

We all have different gifts of the spirit.  We all have a role to play in God’s redemption of the world.  Some of us have the blessed gift of intellect, and some of those so blessed  have had the blessing to add to it the discipline of education to hone that gift. It’s cool if those with that gift and discipline want to spend time formulating lofty theologies and doctrines as long as we never forget that we are not alone in the project.  There is a certain creeping exclusivity to loftiness, a certain dissociation…a notion of an elite.  If we aren’t careful, we can find a developing schizophrenia in the mind of the Body of Christ, such that the body hears voices that it no longer recognizes as a part of itself that lead it not to positive life in the Spirit, but to insanity and chaos. Constructive theology is not the realm solely of the gifted intellectual. Constructive theology is going on on street corners and rural mountain hollows as much as it is in book-filled offices and seminary lecture halls.  I once asked a friend who was laying a blanket over a sleeping vagrant why he was out there doing that, his poignant response was simply, “Because the way I read the Bible, if I don’t get out and do this, this guy will f***ing freeze to death.” It is my humble opinion that the theology that moves most quickly and most often from head to heart and to hands is the theology that bears the most fruit for the Kingdom of God in the world.

Every day I see people sacrifice themselves and their means to reach out to people in physical and spiritual distress who have not only never opened a volume of Schleimacher, but have never even heard of the man.  While I find the reading and understanding of the great theologians to be affirming, I also find it to be of secondary concern. I have also known several people who have read not only Schleimacher, but every other noted theologian and can argue them as fluently as I can ask for a cup of coffee.  But to my observation, they have never really read the Bible, and certainly have made no effort to put their hearts and lives into obedience to the Jesus Christ that is revealed uniquely there.  I also, admittedly, know several people who do both, and that cannot be overlooked.  But my point today is this: If theology does not move us to reach deeper into the harvest with more and more of our lives, then I do not know that lofty theological treatises are anything more than a distraction from the mission.

I once had a man grab me by the shoulder after a worship service and shout so loudly and angrily directly into my face about the fact that I let someone speak in church whose “doctrine isn’t sound” that I had to wipe the man’s spit off of my face before I could respond to his accusation.  The man’s point was probably correct.  The speaker’s theology wasn’t linearly logical.  The problem was that though the angry man was probably right, his actions were not good.  The speaker labored in the mission every week…often every day.  The speaker was humble and filled with the grace that he himself had received. The angry man had not once left his corporate office to come out and help us reach people with a word of hope, a hug, a meal, or a blanket.  There were flowers and light in the life-wake of the speaker.  There was nothing in the wake of the angry man but hurt feelings and broken relationships. The anger came from a place of pride and he did not even recognize the grace he received in God telling me to turn the other cheek and me listening to God instead of responding to his physical grasp in kind.  If doctrine does not lead us to goodness, then no matter how powerfully logical that doctrine is, it is not of God.  If the ability to construct grand systematic theologies does not lead us and the author to humility and surrender to Christ, then it is not worth the paper it is written on.

The best theology I have ever read was written in the dust of the road by the feet of those whose hearts break for the people who are breaking God’s heart, carved in sand by the people who have been moved to get out in the garbage heaps of this world and be the compassion and joy of Christ to hurting and lonely people.  A few people who labor among them will have the gifts, disciplines, and blessing to tell their story and the story of Christ’s movement in them and among them.  That story may not be systematic, but it will be a theology worth its weight in gold. And I dare say that it won’t lead to a doctrine put on a shelf too high for our children to reach it*.

* – Walter Rauschenbusch: “Every generation tries to put its doctrine on a high shelf where the children cannot reach it.”

What?! You Mean Everything’s Not Perfect in the Missional Church?!

IMHO – Confronting the Parking Lot Meeting in the Missional Church Environment,

Or, What? You Mean Everything’s Not Perfect in the Missional Church?!

Missional Church planting has some of the same problems that the early church faced…mostly, I think, because it is most like the early church.  I just got a call the other night from a new Christ-follower who is still learning what it means to be surrendered to Christ.  She loves the Lord but hasn’t figured out yet all the ways that worldly living has impacted her behavior.  She called to tell me, “You are coming to dinner on Friday…I will be paying for it, so you don’t have to worry about that.  There’s a bunch of us that have been talking about some problems at the mission. Especially about a person who is a problem at the pantry. I’m not going to tell you what this is about exactly.  I will tell you when you get to the meeting.”   Wow…a parking lot meeting in the missional church environment!  Triangulation in the missional environment? What?  That can’t happen in the Missional Church.  That’s just part of the culture of the institutional church. Right?!…..Wrong!  Paul’s church plants had this kind of problem, too. First Corinthians is all about power plays and leveraging and triangulation.  James’ church to which he writes his letter is fraught with this behavior.  Of course it’s going to happen here.  It’s harder for the behavior to take hold in the community, and it’s easier to deal with when it does happen here. Still painful.  But easier.

A parking lot meeting for those who don’t know, is when several people get together after a meeting is already over to talk behind people’s back about all the stuff they didn’t have the courage to bring up in the meeting.  And an effort is sometimes made to gather enough people behind a gripe that they can make a decision before it’s really even discussed with the community.  Generally, the group forms to conspire or commiserate about a third party.  These after-meeting meetings happen when the culture of the community does not yet fully ascribe to the mature spiritual values of confronting in love, and accountability.  The group then comes back to the community or the pastor not to talk through a solution, but to demand compliance to their decision that they have already made. When the word is delivered, it almost always ends with, “or else ”.  It sometimes involves hostage taking – “If you don’t do this, I’m leaving and I’m taking all of these people with me.”   I’m sure some of you…all of you maybe…have experienced that at some point.

The Bible teaches a better way.  If somebody has a problem with someone, they take the problem to the person they have the problem with (Matthew 18:15).  If the person won’t listen, then you go get someone from the community to go with you to talk to the person.  If they still won’t listen, then depending on the nature of the offense, you either treat the person like a stranger (as in, you love them and are polite to them, but you wouldn’t trust them with your kids), or you then take the matter to the community if it affects them.  Any other way of dealing with problems can kill a missional church just as well as it can kill any other kind of church plant.  It’s not as easy to kill a mission plant because the mission binds people together in a much different way.  But it can do damage.  We discipline ourselves to confront one another in love with the goal of restoring the relationship – not proving yourself right or righteous and the other person wrong or evil. It worked in Paul’s time.  Why shouldn’t it work now?

Something I started doing several years ago at the behest of a mentor of mine has also been very effective in curtailing the parking lot meeting.  As the pastor, I am like a drain where all rumors and nasty talk eventually swirls down to.  For some reason,  people think that these things will never get back to me. People think that if they say to someone, “I know something about so-and-so but you have to promise not tell anyone”, that the other person will be the kind of person who actually won’t tell anyone.  The kind of person you can trust to keep a secret is the kind of person who tells you to repent if you were spreading rumors about people.  The logic is inane, but you know what I mean.  Anyway, I end up eventually hearing about everything.  When I do, I go to the person who initiated the rumor and I say, “What you said is so hurtful, that if you don’t contact that person and tell them what you’ve been saying about them within 24 hours, then I am going to contact the person and tell them what you told me (or whoever).”  Usually, that’s met with stunned silence.  Then, “You wouldn’t!”.  Oh, yes I would.  It is amazing how quickly the rumors stop when two or three mature Christ-followers in the community do this. When the majority of the community does this, there are no more problems.  They just end.  The first time I did this, it wasn’t pretty.  I came pretty close to getting fired because the person I did it to had been in the church a long time and had some pull among the “been-heres”.  But many of the been-heres are also Christ followers and believers in the Bible and know that what she was doing was wrong.  Saner heads prevailed.  That was the end of that.  It’s Biblical.  It works.

The major difference for me, as a pastor, between confronting this kind of thing in the institutional church and confronting it in the missional church is that my “job” is not on the line in the missional church plant.  I know how wrong that sounds, but I think pastors know what I’m talking about. The parking lot group cannot fire me, take away my income, and put me out of my house.  I don’t have to do the political dance that delicately balances speaking the truth and staying employed.  This is a huge difference for most people who are professional pastors in the institutional church.  If you pastor in a spiritually immature and ill congregation and you have to do the work of transformation from sick to healthy, you and I both know that as much as we wish it weren’t so, our job is constantly on the line. I say this having taking some big chances and drawing a line in the sand that I would not back across.   In the missional environment, my income comes from several streams, and the church plant is not one of them.  I think that is a crucial thing in staying on course with missional community planting.  Here, I can remind people what Scripture says.  I can confront people in love, and walk away if I have to. Hopefully they will listen and repent, and try a new way.  But if not, and the conversation devolves down to, “If you don’t do what I say, I’m leaving”, I can say, “Okay.”  “And I’m taking these people with me!”  Again, “Okay.” No chess game.  No midnight phone calls.  No political wrangling.  We grieve the loss of cherished people, and then we move on with the mission.  There will be casualties.  We will lose people along the way.  In missional plants, you often have to shrink some in order to grow.  Paul told us that.  James told us that. And Jesus told us that. IMHO.

From Death to Life: An Easter Story

 

From Death to Life: An Easter Story

I have the almost unbearable honor of serving Christ with some of the most courageous people on earth.  One of those people is Georgia.  The first time I met Georgia, she was at the very end of her rope.  She came into the food pantry one Saturday morning as brittle as tinder.  Someone came and got me and told there was a woman at the intake desk with David who needed a pastor.  When I came in, I looked into her eyes and I could see that her hope was at the very tip of her fingers about to spin off into nothingness.  She couldn’t tell her story.  She didn’t need to tell her story.  It was written in her tears that were streaming down her cheeks.  Her whole body was shaking.  I told her that I didn’t know what was broken, and that I was not a very good fixer of broken things, but that I knew someone who was.  I asked her if we could lay hands on her and pray for her.  She could only nod.  Two of us got down on our knees and prayed that God would hear Georgia’s pleas.  Somewhere in the midst of the prayers, Georgia broke open.  Her tears came out as uncontrolled sobs. They came and came and came. I don’t know why God listened to us that day because I am not a righteous man.  God has no obligation to listen to the pleadings of the unrighteous.  Perhaps it was because it was not my prayer that God was listening to, but rather the cries that were coming from Georgia’s heart that could not find words deep enough to carry the burden that they represented.  Somehow, in some supernatural way that defies any kind of earthly explanation, Georgia found a new grip on her hope.  Hope is a hard thing to understand. Somehow the unmendable in her was mended, the wound touched and healed.  What was near death was restored to life. She found the light and then the light began to fill her.

Georgia’s story is not for the faint of heart.  It is not for the sheltered or naïve. She knows first-hand the vagaries and limitations that real poverty places on those who find themselves slaves to it.  If what wealth gives us is choices (and I believe that to be the case), then poverty – its doppelganger – is the theft of choice.  Georgia brought four children into this world.  She did her very best to raise them on the streets of this city, working two and three jobs to support them.  She did not have the choice of the best schools, the best friends, the best shelter…the best of anything.   There are too many monsters to name out here whose sole purpose is to consume children – drugs, gangs, teen pregnancy, guns, random violence, macho street hierarchies, ignorance, hunger, and the list is endless.  The temptations of instant gratification fall hard on young men out here.  The lies out here are sugar sweet and glisten in the sun. The swirl of adolescent emotion and fantasy mixes with the lies and subtleties of the darkness and young men sell out too often to the street’s twisted definitions of manhood.  Georgia and her husband lost one beautiful boy to a bullet fired in anger, murdered in the street over nothing that matters.  They lost their other son to other end of the gun, the other end of violence.  He was sentenced to twenty years in prison for his part in a fight that went too far…a challenge to his manhood that he did not have the real choice to walk away from.  Her daughters became mothers too young, the fathers of their children were young men of street status and violence and drugs – the attraction more than either girl could withstand.  On these streets, trouble has no trouble finding a home.  When Jesus spoke of the seeds of the Kingdom falling on shallow soil, I think he must have known these streets well.  There isn’t much here for goodness to take root in.

Over the past several months, the light has begun to shine in Georgia.  She came back to the pantry the week after our prayer to volunteer, or as we say here, to give herself away.  Lost and now found. Stolen and now recovered.  She is God’s.  She has died to this world and has risen new in the present Kingdom of God.  When we see this kind of miracle happen in a person we do not try to own it.  We do not try to harness it or stamp our logo on it, or run it through a new member’s class so we can write it on our denomination’s insidious annual report forms.  We simply resource it.  We get out of the way.  This is the living, breathing Holy Spirit doing its work in the world.  This is how God grows apostles from Kingdom seeds. I went to her door one day, and I felt the Holy Spirit tell me to lay hands on her and pray for the Holy Spirit to anoint her.  So I told her what the Spirit had put on my heart, and I laid hands on her and prayed for an anointing right there across her threshold.  And now it was time for my own tears to flow.  The only words I could muster after I prayed came out on their own, “Go now, and make this mission grow.”

Georgia has gone from being a shattered recipient of the mission to a renewed and reborn servant in God’s Kingdom.  She is also a “connector”.  She is now bringing others from her household – a population that I could never have a voice with – who are teetering on the abyss of hopeless into the mission, and thereby into the Kingdom.  She has planted a new street mission that is thriving and bearing fruit.  I get to serve with her in her mission once a week as a mere witness to God’s glory.  Last Tuesday they fed over a hundred people.  More importantly they got the names of everyone they fed and that is their prayer list for the week ahead.  I have no doubt that the fruit of that prayer will be changed lives very shortly.

Yesterday was the anniversary of Georgia’s son’s murder.  She chose to honor the day by giving herself away at another mission.  She and her sisters in Christ cooked fifteen pounds of sloppy Joe and went with us to serve at St. Ben’s feeding mission.  Out of her son’s death, she chose to bring life. While we were there, a fight broke out between two young men in the line, as often happens. These are not slappy schoolboy fights.  These are bloody messes that often end in blue lights and police tape and covered bodies. The men were sent outside where the fight immediately and viciously resumed. Georgia was the only person on earth who could have broken that fight up.  And she chose to.  She put her life on the line and stepped between them.  She saw her sons in them.  Through her tears, she shouted to them about her boys.  One of the young men knew that she knew his pain.  And he poured himself out on the pavement to her.  She hugged him close as if he were her own son.  She prayed with him.  And he came into the Kingdom last night.  He was lost and now is found.  He was wounded and now is healed.  He was dead and is now alive.  If you are struggling to understand the meaning of Easter, this is its deepest meaning.  The tomb is empty.  He is risen.