Archive for December, 2011

The Prayer Walk

The Prayer Walk

Did you ever read that passage about the seeds that fell upon the soil? Some of the soil was good and some was bad? Some was thin? Some was filled with weeds that swallow up new growth? Well, to my reading, the soil in which Kingdom seeds are planted matters.  Good soil needs preparation. Something has to happen in the soil in order for new life to take root and grow. Look, I know a lot of people think I’m kooky.  I believe in impossible things. I believe in things that the eye cannot see and the hand cannot fully touch.  I believe that prayer is serious, serious business.  And I believe that prayer has real power.  It changes real things in real ways.  I don’t claim to understand it.  I don’t understand it at all.  You would be stunned by what I don’t know. But I believe in prayer and I believe that God is acting in wild ways now just as God did in Scripture. So, if you think prayer is the utterance of lunatics, you are probably starting to think that I am the biggest lunatic in the asylum.  You can probably quit reading now because the rest of this is just going to tick you off.

Prayer is at the heart of every mission.  Prayer isn’t magic.  It is begging for a blessing. The Spirit must precede what we do or nothing transformational is going to happen. If you are asking what you can do “missionally” (whatever that means these days), you can put together a team of people who truly believe in prayer and go for a walk in a spiritually-contested neighborhood. When I say “spiritually-contested neighborhood”, I don’t necessarily mean just the alleys in the ‘hood.   I mean your own neighborhood. Inside every home in even the most affluent neighborhoods, God’s reign is very much contested.  Hell visits high-end homes as often as it does tumble-downs. The booze just has a finer label.  The abuse is just better-hidden. The hopelessness and despair of Gehenna are just veiled behind designer curtains. Desperation lurks in the crevices of every life. Pour out your prayers in front of every house you pass.  Ask for a blessing of peace on every family, on every sidewalk and driveway.  Pray over the cars that God might get into the mind of the drivers who are thinking about driving those cars drunk. As you walk past the neighborhood school, ask God for a blessing of protection and presence…not just for your kid.  For every kid.

And be low-key.  Leave the monk garb at home. Having the right God-gear or t-shirt isn’t going to add mojo to your prayers.  This isn’t mojo. This isn’t about you or me.  It’s about God.  It’s about the Missio Dei, the Mission of God.  Get on God’s side in the spiritual battles that are raging on every athletic field and in every convenience store. Get on God’s side in front of every home where you know violence is a part of everyday life.  Pray for a blessing on every liquor store and “Checks Cashed” place that exploits the vulnerable daily. Pray over the alleys that house the homeless that the darkness and its predators would understand these places as holy ground. Even the stones can be lifted.  Beg for an anointing on the street corners where the destitute beg for scraps from passing motorists. Get into God’s presence in deep humility and some of the residue of that encounter may fall upon the ground on which you stand…that “residue” of God is what anointing is.  It has real power.  Pray for God’s “Kingdom come, on earth as it is in Heaven” on your local government center, and on the prostitution corners and crack houses.  Pray a cleansing on the gang graffiti. Walk by the jail and work-release center and pray a blessing on the officers and inmates.

Prayer IS the mission.  If you don’t have anything to give away, remember that giving away THINGS is not the point.  Getting on God’s side in God’s mission – the one that God is involved in with or without our participation – is what this is all about.  So, go for a walk today…with God…in prayer.  Pour your spirit out over your town, village, or city.  Weep over your city. You will be amazed at what you will see happen around you… and in you.

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A Christmas Story

“…This shall be a sign unto you. You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” – An Angel of the Lord

I met T.J. on the street on Christmas Eve.  I am certain that he is newly homeless. T.J. appears to be in his early sixties, and his face is too fresh, too innocent to have been on the street very long.  He still has a light within him. He had a coat (though not a warm one), but no gloves, a thin pair of khaki pants, white cotton socks and loafers.  The temperature was in the mid-twenties when I met him.  There was something about the way he talked in his southern-accented soft voice that told me that something wasn’t quite right with him mentally.  If he was on the street in Florida, he might be okay, but not in Milwaukee in December. He was child-like as he explained that his wife had recently passed away, along with both of his parents.  We gave him some ski gloves and a hat, a backpack, and a blanket, and a better insulated coat.  We told him that he should go up the block and seek shelter in the Rescue Mission.  He didn’t impress me as a drunk or crack-head so he has at least a chance of getting in there.  My greatest worry was his innocence.  I was afraid that if darkness fell on him, the predators of the street would rob him and hurt him for the items we had just given to him.  We prayed with him…long and hard.  Did we just set him up as a target for the genuine demons that inhabit these alleys after dark?  And in the midst of my fear for him, and in the midst of obvious unsuitability for life of the streets, I wondered where Christmas was for him.

When I say that I wondered where Christmas was for him, I don’t mean all the baubles and bows and sentimentality that our culture associates with this holiday.  I mean the real Christmas…the stable that sat somewhere between what ought to be and what is…the glory of the Lord revealed to the least of these…a savior born in the midst of very broken things.  The streets are violent and mean.  Predators prey on the weak, the handicapped…they devour the meek.  And if I had to find a word to describe T.J., he is meek.  And he is vulnerable.  And he is a little lost mentally…not quite all there.  Most of the shelters are full.  And one has to kind of know the system…know how to get places…in order to find room in an inn.  We can give people directions and resources…but we simply cannot shelter them all.  There are hundreds of T.J.’s out on the street. Who do we think the homeless are? In large part, they are people like T.J.  who are mentally ill, or simply mentally unable to figure things out and claw their way up. We just don’t have the resources…we don’t have enough buildings…we don’t have enough political clout.  That day, we had coats and gloves and hats…and prayers.  We didn’t even have a decent pair of wool socks to give him.  God has to be at work out here, too.

Like the shepherds keeping watch in their fields, T.J. is open to anything…any sign…any wonder. Will Bethlehem open a door to this man…one of the least of these?  Will T.J. find a manger in which he can spread out that blanket and sleep safe with his savior? Jesus came for people like T.J..  Somewhere between the world that ought to be and the world that really is, I can’t help but wonder whether these streets will carve out a little place for meekness, a place for innocence and vulnerability.  Will there be a star in the East that will guide this man to a real-deal Savior? Or will the streets still be the streets again this year…this Christmas…and rob this man, and beat him, and leave him for dead? Are there enough tears in all this land to cry for every T.J.?  Did God hear our prayer?  Because, in T.J.’s case, that is his only hope.  As I listen to colleagues argue over whether it is more righteous to have a worship service on Christmas morning or not…as I hear the pride in their loud proclamations, I can’t help but wonder if any of us…any of us…even understand Christmas at all.

Merry Christmas, T.J.. Peace be with you, my friend.

Alligators (sorry, this one’s a little long)(reposting)

(first published in August, 2010)

“When I fed the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why the poor had no food, they called me a communist.”– Dom Helder Camara, Archbishop of Sao Paulo

Jesus said, “The poor will always be with you.”  And at the same time that I embrace that reality, I can’t help but ask if we can’t do better at making the Kingdom of God more evident in the here and now.  My mission occupies two spaces, and a part of that mission is trying to bring those two spaces into closer relationship because each space holds the keys to the Kingdom for the other.

In one space, I serve Christ among the poor.  I find the face of Christ among what society considers the least of these every day of the week.  I have very few illusions left about the poor in my mission field.  Not all of them are “victims of the system”.  Many, if not most, are consumed by the demons of addiction and instant gratification.  I say this without judgment because there but by the very grace of God go I.  But these addictions and illusions and irresponsibilities do not occur in a vacuum…they are not learned on a level playing field.  The values that sustain poverty are often self-perpetuating.  When you don’t have enough, and you have no hope for ever having enough, instant gratification makes sense in your paradigm.  When gangs and drugs and teenage pregnancy are three and four generations deep in a family, where are the fruits of an alternative evident enough to be motivation to live differently?  And even in midst of that, I have to ask, why are the poor poor?  Why don’t they have food? If it were so simple as to just work harder, does anyone with a serious mind really think that the problem of poverty wouldn’t already be solved by now?

And in another space, I serve Christ among the most financially-blessed demographic in my area. I find the face of Christ among people of incredible giftedness and blessing who nonetheless humble themselves before God and personally know God’s grace in their lives.   And yet here among the most financially-well off and socially powerful people, there is a poverty, too.  It comes in two forms.  The first comes in the hell that is created when a person doesn’t realize that the only real wealth is in knowing that what you have is enough.  And so there is a constant need to consume and yet a constant and overwhelming hunger for more.  Coupled with the half-truth that you get what you deserve in life, and that the future is in your hands, the door to that hell can be very hard to unlock.  There are more kids in the high school in the suburb that use drugs and alcohol than there are that don’t.  They have never found what is means to have “enough”…enough meaning, gratification, excitement, importance, control, or whatever.  And they have become numb because they have forgotten that what it means to be important has nothing to do with your athletic or intellectual giftedness or who is on your arm come prom night.  It has to do with your connectedness to things at stake in this world that are more important than you are.

The second poverty is a poverty of security – a fear that streams just under the surface of everything.  The fear is that there are “alligators” out there that are hungry and are looking to take what they have worked so hard for.  That fear is a constant hell, a constant fear, a constant insecurity.  Many of these people sit in churches every Sunday thinking that if they get their faith just right, then God will protect them from the alligators.  Most can’t even name what the alligators are, but I think I can name some of them.  Among them are ignorance, violence, unimportance, and poverty.

Many profess a trust in God but are working as hard as they can to feed other people’s children to the alligators in the hopes that the alligators will get full before they get to their children.  We seem to not realize that alligators never get full.  It is their nature to consume and consume and consume.  It is what they do.  Just like literal alligators; ignorance, violence, unimportance, and poverty consume people…it is what they do.  These alligators are real, and they are hungry.  The trouble is that in order to save our own kids, the solution is not to feed other people to them, but rather to kill the alligators.  I watch well-meaning people throw other kids under the bus and feed them to the alligators in order to gain an advantage for their own kids in school, in sports, and even in church youth groups.  It’s insane.  Throwing other kids to the alligators won’t save anyone.  In a way, it just tells the alligators where to come to get fed…like breadcrumbs that lead to the bakery.

The same people who work so hard to make sure that the alligators are fed well enough with other people’s kids to leave their children alone, send their kids to work their first jobs in fast-food restaurants and convenience stores.  Those places are robbed are gunpoint by the very young people who have been thrown to the alligators to keep them at bay.  It is these very suburban kids who are robbed and murdered while buying drugs on the Southside by the kids who were thrown to the alligators and are selling those drugs chasing the very same illusion of what it means to have “enough”.

Until we reduce ignorance to whatever degree we can, the ignorant will seek the blessings of others thinking that that is the path to blessing. They will not know that blessings can only come from God, and that God blesses everyone according to God’s purposes.  Until we deal with the reality that many people do not have enough food to eat or clothes to wear, those that do not have enough will seek to take from people who do have enough…sometimes by violent means.  Until we embrace the Kingdom of God where every single person is important to God, then those that society deems to be unimportant will seek to gain social gratification through destructive behaviors like gang participation and drug dealing.  And, by the way, the drugs that are bought and sold in the suburban school that aren’t stolen from parents who use, are bought and sold on the streets of the inner city where the money goes to support prostitution and gambling and addiction, and to buy bullets that kill kids on our streets nearly every week.  Tragically, and all to often, what connects my two mission fields are the two ends of a gun.  The connection of both mission fields is undeniable, but the only connection that yields life on both ends is God’s Kingdom.

Some of the most spiritually alive and committed people in our missions live and work in the suburbs.  They give from the bounty of their blessing, not just to keep the alligators at bay, but to find creative ways to kill them off.  And yet, in the same breath and moment, a bitter irony of life in my mission field is that many of the people who donate funds and goods to the greatest degree and upon whom we rely in order to do what we do, are giving to our missions as a means of feeding the alligators.  The unspoken motivation is that, “If we just keep them fed for a day, then maybe they’ll stay down in the slum neighborhoods and hell-holes of the inner city and won’t come out to feed on the suburbs”.  I am grateful for the generosity of everyone who gives even a dollar to our missions.  And I, nonetheless, pray for the souls of even huge givers who have missed the point of the present Kingdom of God.  I pray for them because the fear that is always just beneath the surface of every conversation and interaction is still a subtle master in their lives and fear causes tremendous anxiety and suffering.  I pray for them because I love them and God loves them.  It is frustrating, though, that every time I speak to them about addressing the root problems of poverty, homelessness, and real justice; I immediately become suspect to them. It is as if I immediately become a threat.  By simply asking why the poor do not have food, it is as if I become one of the alligators.

The False Hope of “Easy”

Luke 14:25 Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26 “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. 34 “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? 35 It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

 The False Hope of “Easy”

When does the mission get easy?  When does community get easy?  When does following Jesus get easy? How much do I need to know in order for this life of faith to become a cake-walk of faith? Which expensive leadership conference do I need to attend in order to make things go smoothly in my faith community? When will our budget be big enough that we don’t have to worry about money anymore? Wow. I really don’t know.  I am not the sharpest pencil in the box, but I have read the Bible a few times, and I just can’t see any evidence that any of this ever gets easy no matter how many neatly-marketed leadership conferences you attend or how many abbreviations you choose to list before or after your name.  I don’t even know what a “big enough” budget is.  As the budget grows, so does the mission if we’re taking the mission seriously.  Placing our communal hope in the possibility that any amount of righteousness or competence or dollars will make anything about being obedient to Christ easy seems to me to not only be false hope.  It seems to me to be bad theology.  In fact, linking any idea of “easy” to following Christ is a category mistake.

Faith that is coming to maturity seems to have a deeper embrace of the hardships of life.  Seasoned disciples don’t seem to live in the hope that there will be one easy thing about doing what they are called to do.   They strive to be good at it, not because they expect things to get easy, but because they know that the increasing difficulty of it will require greater and greater competency and personal discipline.  They strive to grow out of habits that make it harder for themselves, but they don’t embrace pie-in-the-sky theologies that doing what we are called to do will one day magically become easy or simple or without cost. Mature believers don’t seem to be fragile people.  Fragility is the fruit of a life at ease. They are salty folk.  They are salty because they are seasoned in the praxis of following Christ into his mission.  Jesus said, “I came to seek and to save the lost.”  He did NOT say, “I came to make the lives of believers easy”.  His yoke is easy, but the mission is not.

In the passage above, Jesus tells us to “count the cost”.  Brothers and sisters, I don’t know what your faith is about, but mine…for today…and as unclear as it might be…is to be with Jesus in the mission of plundering hell and pulling people out.  It seems to me that that will not go uncontested. Let me put some of my theological cards on the table.  I do not believe that Satan is a theological construct designed to explain the presence of bad things in the world. I do not believe that Satan is God’s equal, but I do believe that Satan is very real. I do not claim to understand all of this, but I have seen things with my own eyes that I cannot explain any other way. The landlord of hell is not going to like one bit that we are engaged with Christ as his hands and feet to snatch people away from him or “it”.  And the Bible tells us that that landlord is a “strong man”.  The more committed we are to plundering hell, and the better we get at it, the more ferociously the attacks will come at us – individually and as communities of faith. We have literally stolen souls out of the grasp of Satan, and as near as I can tell, he’s pretty ticked off about it.  If your community is under constant attack, it may not be because you are doing it wrong.  It might be precisely because you are doing it right.

Most conflict in community comes because participants are not in agreement about why we are here.  Conflict arises when we are at cross-purposes.  When a leader comes in to unify people around the mission of Christ as why we are here and not primarily to serve the desires of people who are already here, I promise you that there will be conflict. When the community seeks to gain accountability for the mission, I promise you that Satan will send emissaries into your community to break that apart. Attacks will come from within and without.  Satan’s best weapon is division.  Ever heard the phrase, “Divide and conquer”? When your community is divided, the spirit of something is at work in your midst, and it isn’t the Holy Spirit that is pulling those strings. The evidence of the Holy Spirit is unity of purpose. When the body comes together to do the work of the Kingdom, souls and lives are going to get saved, and THAT is a threat to Satan.  I don’t think that awesome worship services are a threat to Satan at all.  I think that unified communities on fire for the mission of Christ and full of the Holy Spirit are a threat to Satan.  When that kind of community gets together to worship and celebrate saved souls, I think Satan seethes. When that kind of community is at work in the mission, I think Satan panics.

What we are engaged in is war.  It doesn’t involve violence (that’s Satan’s tool, not ours)…but it is war, nonetheless. Our tools are faith and truth and humility and compassion…and those are never easy. So why do we spend so much time trying to make the life of faith easy for people? Faith in what? That’s like outright lying to people. Telling people to believe the Gospel because it will make their life easy? Really?  I don’t think Jesus is using the analogy of the King at war for no reason.  If we’re in this faith, we’re in this war.  And that makes us a threat.  Until the day comes when hell is vacated, to borrow a phrase from my days in another line of work, “The only easy day was yesterday.”  If that isn’t what you and your faith community signed up for, then you and your elders better go and make a deal with Satan and see if you can’t sell out for tranquility and ease.  If you don’t want trouble and problems, then don’t steal his people away from him.  All your community has to do to make their lives easy is to give in and quit the mission.  Just make sure that you know that the deal you’re making is with the devil, because it’s the devil that Jesus is stealing souls away from. One day each is going to claim their own.

We are in the process of doing a little restructuring in our community.  We are doing it because we need to better stand up to trouble that comes our way.  In the midst of a storm, the rudder has to be wired on sturdily. We are structuring for battle, not for Sunday School and Christmas pageants.  We are structuring to deepen the commitment of our community and better prepare disciples for the reality that it will never be easy.  We are structuring to be sure that we are not a haven for the irresponsibility and misbehavior that seems to come at us when we are doing what we are called to do.  Accountability is the enemy of our enemy because it is tied to responsibility.  And THAT is the undoing of the darkness. We are not trying to make this life easy.  But we are trying to make it easier for people to do what they are called, gifted and sent to do.  And there is a huge difference.

Will it ever be easy? I don’t think so. Not on this side of the river.  Telling people it will be easy is giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Putting our hope in the possibility that it will ever be easy is false hope.