Saturday, August 29, 2009

messy community, the rich and the poor

Do you ever have those books that you start reading and they draw you in, but at the same time are filled with things that challenge you at every turn?

I just finished one of those kind of books. It's called The Twenty-Piece Shuffle by Greg Paul. The stories used in the book to make the points drew me in and kept me reading. They made things talked about in the book seem real. But, without those stories, I don't know that I would have finished the book because pretty much every chapter had something that challenged my own thinking or way of living - and sometimes those kinds of books can be hard to read because they make you uncomfortable.

Before I go on, for those who don't know, Greg Paul is the director of Sanctuary Ministries in Toronto - a ministry that reaches out to the street community in that city.

One of the big things that comes up continually in the book is the whole idea of community and our need for it. And not just the look of community . . . but authentic community. The kind that comes when you have no way to hide anything - as in the street community. No hiding behind a career; no hiding behind your position in society; no hiding behind nice clothes . . . just being who you are with no facades.

In one chapter he talks about a time when he was talking with some of the people in the street community and ended up sharing with some of them about the struggles in his own life. Struggles which were nothing in comparison to what the people he was sharing them with had gone through and were going through. He closes the chapter with these words:
I can't honestly say how much of an impact this had on their journeys, but I do
know that catching a glimpse of my weakness makes me more approachable to my
friends - any friends from any kind of society - than endless evidence of my
"invincibility." It opens me up to receive the care my bristling heart truly
needs but often keeps at a distance. Dismantling that myth is, for me, like
breaking down the walls of a prison I had built for myself, setting me free to
step out on the Way again - that Way which is itself the One who made himself so
gloriously, dangerously vulnerable on the cross. Each step is a step deeper into
the land where love dwells. (Greg Paul, The Twenty-Piece Shuffle, pg.

When I read this, I started thinking about how we operate in many of our churches or other Christian circles today. We don't often share our struggles. We have become too concerned about maintaining a certain image with others and so we don't admit our weaknesses or our struggles to anyone. We go on suffering in silence and feeling all alone. So people never get behind the image that we strive to portray to actually see the real us - the broken, messed up, hurting part of us that desperately needs to be known if it is ever going to be healed.

Of course, sharing these things with others requires a vulnerability on our part. We have to be willing to drop the masks, drop the facade, drop the image, and be real with people. It isn't easy, but it is valuable and necessary to our journeys as followers of Christ.

Greg Paul goes on to talk about community in action. What does that look like? How does it function? I like how he put it in his book, so I will share it with you:
We thought we wanted or needed to accomplish great things. Some of us have
discovered the peculiar, deadly emptiness of accomplishing much, only to
realize it means little. others have tried and failed so often that each failure
only confirms the awful suspicion that we are ourselves worthless, unlovely,
without hope. We are finding, though, as we prop each other up and stagger a few
yards closer to home, that as we move away from accomplishment (what we can do)
as the benchmark of our human value, we being to understand that embracing who
God created us to be (our essence) is the signpost we must look for on the
It means much when we keep out hearts fixed on our ultimate destination.
Our addictions, whether to success or crack cocaine, have a way of becoming ends
in themselves, leading us off the Way into endless mazes or dead-end alleys. We
forget, or never knew, where we are going. We wander aimlessly from one
unsatisfying experience to another.
My friends and I call each other back to the true path when we have gotten
distracted or lost. We remind each other to keep our heads up and eyes forward.
We pay attention both to the path we tread - this Jesus, who is the Way - and to
the glow on the horizon. For when we remember that we are going Home, that our
true destination is God himself, we are no longer wandering, but journeying.
(Greg Paul, The Twenty-Piece Shuffle, pg. 121)

The community described here is messy, but it's real. It's doing life together - the good and the bad - and that's going to be messy, but it's also essential for us to really live.

As I read this book, I was struck by the incredible lessons that the street community in our cities today can teach us. Sometimes, I wonder if our houses and toys and busy-ness keep us from something, that those who have none of those things survive by. Maybe the gap between the rich and the poor in our society, and around the world, is more detrimental than we know. In fact, that would be the conclusion that Greg Paul draws in his book - that the rich and the poor need each other. And we need to stop segregating ourselves and look to become one community together. The way that the final chapter of the book is finished draws this conclusion quite clearly and calls us to action.
God does command, over and over, those who are rich and powerful - the 1 or
2 percent of the world's population that includes the majority of us living in
first world nations - to engage with and care for our poorest "neighbors"
spiritually, materially, emotionally, and politically. So clear and consistent
is this message, so redolent with it is the life and teaching of Jesus, that it
must be said: A wealthy person who claims to follow Jesus and does not find
same way to share his or her life and material goods with people who are poor
has stumbled off the way.

We who are wealthy must take the initiative in this. The barriers
created by our material advantages preclude people who are poor from almost any
opportunity of doing so. What we will discover, as those barriers are destroyed,
is that the eternal life Jesus proclaimed flourishes best when people who are
rich and people who are poor commit themselves to each other. The immediate,
earthly benefit of the personal salvation in which we rejoice is progressively
unveiled when we engage in intimate, mutually supportive relationship with each
other and so discover that we "are being built together to become a dwelling in
which God lives by his Spirit" (Eph. 2:22) (Greg Paul, The Twenty-Piece
, pg. 217-218)

What does this look like in your life? I don't know. I can't tell you. I just want to challenge you to figure out what it looks like in your own life.

And, if you want to be challenged, pick up a copy of this book and read it for yourself.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


I'm reading a book right now that has been challenging me with the importance of prayer in our churches. It's called Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire by Jim Cymbala.

There was a quote that I stopped and read a few times and then just sat there thinking about it for a while. It's not something that is different or challenging. It was the truth in the statement that made me stop.

You can tell how popular a church is by who comes on Sunday morning.
You can tell how popular the pastor or evangelist is by who comes on Sunday night.
You can tell how popular Jesus is by who comes to the prayer meeting.

It was the last part that really caused me to stop. How many of us actually do get really excited and make it a priority to attend prayer meetings at our churches? Honestly?

We go to church on the weekends. We may even be involved in a mid-week ministry. But, when the church announces a prayer meeting how many people show up compared to other things? How many people make it a priority to be at any kind of a pre-service prayer time? Perhaps there is a large turnout, but I know from my own experience that it tends to be a pretty small group that turns out for these kind of things.

I didn't spend a lot of time on that though. I very quickly moved to a bit more personal side of it all. I started thinking about my own attitudes towards prayer meetings. And that's where my challenge tonight comes from - don't look at the larger church and stop there - make it personal.

What kind of a prayer life do you have?
When a prayer meeting of any kind is announced are you interested? Or do you tune it out right away?

Prayer is how we communicate with our God, but I think in many instances we don't give it as much thought and attention as we need to.

We easily say that we are praying for someone, but do we actually do so? Or do we forget about it as soon as we walk away from the conversation?

Jesus' teaching and other Scripture has much to say about prayer. I wonder if maybe we need to take more time to really get serious about prayer.

Friday, August 7, 2009

not just another binder

So, I just finished two days of attending the Leadership Summit. Two days, 9 sessions, 17 different speakers . . . can you say information overload?!?!? But two days that I know were worth my time, just as they were last year and the year before when I attended. With all the information and challenges that come at you over the course of Leadership Summit, there is no way to take it all in and apply it right away. It's one of those thing where you take notes and then over the coming weeks, months, and possibly years make some of it more practical and applicable to your life and your situation.

Usually, at this point, the evening ofter the conference is over I can't make out any life or leadership lessons I learned. But, since I heard him speak, I have had the speaker at the last session yesterday running through my head - particularly one part of what he had to say. One of the things he challenged us with is to not let this conference become just another binder on our bookshelf, but to actually put into practice and apply what we were hearing.

This guy, Harvey Carey, is a black preacher in Detroit in an under-resourced (by North American standards church), and he was passionate about what he was talking about. With all the resources that are at the disposal of many churches in North America (although the current economy is having an impact on that to a degree), it is easy to attend another conference just so that we have another binder to add to the shelf. And we get all these binders full of great stuff on our bookshelves, but it never goes any further than that.

It got me thinking, and challenged me. How many books, folders, binders, notebooks, etc do I have on my bookshelves that are full of great stuff from conferences I've attended and classes I've taken, that I've never actually really applied the stuff in them in my own life and leadership? I think it's far more than I would care to admit. I love to read good books. I love to listen to good speakers. But, I think I, like so many others, stop at that. I read the books and listen to the speakers, but I don't apply the stuff to my life. It stays as good stuff in my head and never affects my life.

Not that I expect to be able to perfectly apply everything I hear or read. I don't think that's what this guy was talking about either. But, I think what is important about what he said is that we need to take all of the incredible resources at our disposal and actually use them to their full potential. Not just add them to the bookshelf, but look for what we can apply to our lives and then actually apply it.

Like Leadership Summit . . . there's so much good information, teaching, and challenges that were thrown at me. And, at this point, it is a little overwhelming. But, I can't let that be an excuse to do nothing with it and just put the notebook on the shelf. I need to go through and take some things that I can use in my situation and begin to apply them in my situation.

So, how about you? Is your bookshelf full of binders from conferences that you've never applied anything to your life from? What's one thing you can start doing now from all that information?

Don't be afraid to start small. That's how it works. Take something small from all the information and start there. Then as times goes, do more small things from all those resources.

Just take advantage of the incredible amount of resources at your disposal.

Don't let them become just another binder on your bookshelf!!!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

a poem

So, my church is doing a series on Psalms for the summer. It's been a good series. One of the things they have been encouraging the congregation to do is to write their own psalms. That's what this is . . . my psalm . . . coming out of some thoughts that have been going through my mind in recent days.

O Lord, you say you are good
and worthy of my trust.
But why, O Lord, do you allow
such troubles in this world?
A little life filled with pain and illness;
then taken from this earth -
Far too young to suffer so;
Much too young to die.

O Lord, you say you are good
and worthy of my trust.
But why, O Lord, do you allow
such troubles in this world?
A young father stops to help another
and is killed in an instant.
A young mother and children left behind.
He was much too young to die.

O Lord, you say you are good
and worthy of my trust.
But why, O Lord, do you allow
such troubles in this world?
Two young lives snuffed out –
Before they really began to live;
And yet, in their deaths,
They touch so many more.

O Lord, you say you are good
and worthy of my trust.
But why, O Lord, do you allow
such troubles in this world?
A young woman, been through so much;
life is finally looking normal.
And then the bad news comes:
the cancer has returned.

O Lord, you say you are good
and worthy of my trust.
But why, O Lord, do you allow
such troubles in this world?
A car accident - the car is totalled;
they should both be dead.
Your angels sure protected them,
for out they climb uninjured.

O Lord, you say you are good
and worthy of my trust.
But why, O Lord, do you allow
such troubles in this world?
Why are some saved,
while others seems to suffer so?
Why do you answer prayers to heal
for some, but not for others?

O Lord, you say you are good
and worthy of my trust.
But why, O Lord, do you allow
such troubles in this world?
Your reasons I may not understand;
My questions not be answered -
Yet I will choose to believe
that you, O Lord are good
and worthy of my trust.

So, that's it. My psalm. Nothing more to say.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

sometimes life isn't fair

Sometimes things happen in life that make you really think. One of those things happened to me today. The son of some friends of mine died . . . at about 2 - 1/2 years old. Now, up to this point life had not been easy for this little boy, with much of his life to date spent in Children's Hospital. But, it still just doesn't seem right when a little boy is gone - long before anyone would say that his time on earth should have been over. The huge positive is that his suffering is over, but it also means that his parents are mourning the loss of a little boy they deeply loved.

When I think about it, it doesn't seem fair. After all this family has been through in the last few years, losing their little boy just seems so unfair. Have they not suffered enough already? But, at the same time, maybe in some ways it fair to the little boy. He had been through so much more in his short life span than some of us will go through in our much longer lifetimes.

God doesn't promise that life will be fair while we are on this earth. He promises that He will be with us in the midst of life on this earth - in both the good and the bad. But, still our first question when something like this happens is "why" as we tell God that it isn't fair that this happened. It makes me wonder whether our definition of what is fair is the same as God's. He has en eternal perspective on things - we don't. He knows the greater good that can be brought out every situation - we don't at the time.

And, He understands the whole idea of life not being fair so much better than we ever can. I mean, the ultimate unfairness was Jesus going to the cross to die for our sins. So, maybe in situations like this God understands us far more than we think. And maybe we can place confidence in the fact that our God, Who promises to be with us through all of life, does also understand the feelings of life being unfair sometimes.

Life isn't fair. God is with us through it all.

Maybe that sounds a bit trite and a little bit like a "Christianese" thing to say. But there also is a lot of truth in those statements, and that is something to cling to in the midst of the questions that come in a time like this.