Wednesday, February 27, 2013

"A Crown of Beauty"

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair...."

So many girls and women in our culture struggle with beauty. They measure their worth according to the world's standards, and they find themselves lacking. They begin to get a warped picture of themselves, seeing internal and external ugliness instead of the glory and beauty God has given them.

And I'm no exception. I've struggled to see beauty in myself, physically, mentally and spiritually. Jesus has done a great deal of healing in me in this area, and I know he will do more.

Some time back, I hit a wall when it came to ministering in Troy. I thought of Isaiah 61 -- the Scripture God used to call Hannah and I to this city (and part of which is quoted above). And I said, "Lord, this Scripture speaks of you restoring hope and beauty to your people. And I don't have hope for my future. I don't believe I have any beauty. How can you use a person like me to do your work in this city? Why have you called a despairing, broken woman to be your priest in this despairing, broken city? I'm just like Troy."

And then Jesus began to heal me. And give me hope for the future. And place a crown of beauty upon my head.

So I was right. I had nothing -- absolutely nothing -- to offer my people here. But Jesus is healing me. And, he will heal my city.

I look in the faces of the girls and women, the boys and men, as they walk the trash-strewn sidewalks. And I know they cannot see their God-created beauty. They don't know yet, but their days of ashes, mourning and despair are coming to an end.

A crown of beauty awaits them.

Thursday, February 21, 2013


Things are rough in North Troy. For several months, I have been pondering and praying about how to be a peacemaker in the constant fighting and chaos. Yesterday, I saw it. It was beautiful.

First of all, there is Boy 1 who we've been working with for close to a year now. He had anger management problems, demon problems, family craziness - you name it, he had it. A week and a half ago, I baptized this kid. It was a beautiful, miraculous thing. And he changed.

So, phase two of working with this kid is: how to love your neighbor and live like Jesus wants us to. He's not so sure about this bit. In his baptismal vows, this was the question that he answered, "Well, sometimes. Okay, yeah." But I think that yesterday, he had a taste of how that can be really good. He had an experience of peace instead of the war he expected.

He messes with other kids. He starts things, he insults people; he's a fighter. So Boy 2 is a new boy in the cafe recently, who is really sweet; his mother is a pastor somewhere. Incidentally she is also REALLY tall. She makes Christina look like a midget. I didn't know that Boy 1 had been messing with the new kid - I was busy stopping riots on the other side of the room and I can only assume that he was swearing at him or something. I didn't know anything about it until Boy 2 and his mother and a whole posse of other people came in. She is imposing, and everything went dead quiet. She asked who had been fighting with her boy. Boy 1 suddenly disappeared into the bathroom.

The room was full of Boy 1's cousins and siblings who immediately all started yelling about how Boy 2 had sworn at Boy 1 and he started it. His mom very firmly told them all that she didn't raise her son that way and that she is a pastor. Realizing that this tactic wasn't going to work, Boy 1's family turned on him, started yelling at him, and tried to drag him out to meet his doom - not unlike a lynch mob.

The way things work in our neighborhood is: if you mess with a kid enough to get his mother involved, it's BAD. She will chew you up one side and down the other, make sure you get whupped, and possibly get your mother involved, where you'll get it again. Or the mothers will go at it. I don't blame Boy 1 for hiding in the bathroom. Seems like appropriate personal safety protocol to me. However, this woman was just trying to teach her son about reconciliation - making peace while sticking up for him.

I made Boy 1 come out of the bathroom and he hid behind the little partition we have in front of the bathrooms. I told him over and over, "She's not mad. She just wants to talk to you." Finally, when Christina came over and said exactly what I had said, he agreed to a private meeting in the kitchen. So the four of us went back in the kitchen. Boy 2's mother told him she wasn't going to do anything to him and gave them both a little talk about how things happen, and we can agree to disagree and be civil to one another even if we're mad at each other.

Then she told her son to shake hands with Boy 1. I have never seen anyone so taken aback as Boy 1. It was an absolutely beautiful moment. He shook hands, and I suggested that he apologize to Boy 2 for their "misunderstanding." Without hesitation or irony (which is definitely a first), he said, "Sorry." And so did Boy 2.

I think he understood grace.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

"Have patience with me, and I will pay you."

Note: We have a backlog of stories from Oaks of Righteousness that we wanted to share with you. This story is from a couple of months ago.

Friday nights in Advent took a turn for the crazy at Oaks. A rowdy group of boys began visiting. Their signature behavior included bullying girls and little kids, using profanity and vulgar language and throwing food around.

Eventually, we had to ask them to leave. They responded by going nuts. First they ran inside repeatedly and flicked the lights off. Next, they banged loudly on the windows. Finally, they began jumping up and down on parked cars. So, we called the cops. I saw one of the kids -- a 10-year-old -- on my trusty 2001 Honda Civic. He was standing on the roof and swinging around a tree branch like Conan the Barbarian.

Anyway, my hood was dented in. I prayed that night about how to reconcile with this kid when he came into Oaks the next day. He was often very hungry.

The morning before going in, the Lord convicted me of some heart issues. I was deeply humbled by the ugliness of my sin, and I was moved to repent and receive his forgiveness. And, through that, I knew how to talk to little Conan that afternoon.

When he came in, I explained I'd seen him on my car, and he'd damaged it. He looked utterly panicked. Then, I told him I wasn't going to press charges, but I needed to tell him why.

And I told the parable of the unforgiving servant from Matthew 18 -- the guy who owed a crippling debt and was forgiven by his merciful king. How that same guy failed to extend that mercy to a guy who owed him a comparative pittance. How the king heard of his cruelty and demanded payment of the debt after all.

So I told this kid I'm the guy who owes a crippling debt. I've done horrible things in my life, and Jesus is my king. He's forgiven it all. And if I don't forgive a little minor vandalism to my car, I am a very poor servant of my king, whom I love and serve and who commanded me to forgive.

This kid just stared at me. I wonder if he'd ever experienced grace before that. But I'd seen that look before at Oaks, and I will see it again.

It's the look of someone who, for an instant, tastes the Kingdom of Heaven.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Accept our repentance, Lord.

Today, we ask your prayers for our people.

Last week, a 21-year-old man named Takim Smith was stabbed to death in Troy. We know his mother and little sisters, and we also know the family of one of the suspects.

As we remember our own sinfulness and mortality this Ash Wednesday -- while trusting the mercy and love of God -- let us plead for that grace to be poured out in the lives of those who grieve.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The one who humbles himself will be exalted

"But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’" -- Luke 18:13

We did Bible study last week with a friend who used to -- as recently as last winter -- live on the streets in Troy. He gets 16 dollars each month for food, so he spends the rest of his time looking for odd jobs and collecting cans to try to get some extra money to eat. When I see men and woman walking in the bitter cold and fishing through our recycling bins, I cannot help but think of the poor who gleaned the fields.

This friend admitted he doesn't pray for himself anymore. He prays for young people because he says there's hope for them -- their lives are ahead of them. He doesn't pretend to have many answers. He said that he doesn't know a lot about God ("I never met him"), but he knows Jesus -- the savior, the crucified one, the carpenter who worked with his hands.

I listened to my friend, who has lived in terrible cold and heat, who wants very little, and who has experienced great kindness and great cruelty from many people in many places. And I couldn't help but wonder -- with my seminary degree and my gifts, with my comfortable house and full refrigerator, am I perhaps not still the poorer? Don't I sometimes slide into the smug lie that trusts that I'm righteous?

Lord Jesus, who knew terrible cold and heat, who wanted little, and who experienced great kindness and great cruelty from many people in many places...give me just a fragment of the simple faith of your servant in Troy. And Lord, meet him where he needs you most. Amen.