Saturday, December 27, 2014

Songs in Exile

People ask a lot how Oaks is going. I don't ever know how to answer that question. But here's a little snapshot of my own thoughts as we have journeyed through Advent and Christmas.


There has never been an Advent in which I understood so well the words to O Come, O Come Emmanuel. We sang that hymn the week following all of the riots and protests and racism demonstrations. I realized afresh the depravity of my own heart and that of the world around me. My heart was already broken by the world I live in - the world my kids live in - and then we sang.

    O come, o come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel
    that mourns in lonely exile here
    until the Son of God appear.

Oh God, come and save us. Save us from our brokenness. Save us from our sin. Save my kids from the path that our twisted world has laid out for them. Save them from the expectation of poverty and discrimination and prison and death and abuse and drugs and violence. Put right the wrongs that are done to them, whether physically or mentally. Put right our thinking and our society. Bring justice to our class divisions and our city divides and our racial biases. Bring your love and your peace to our streets. Bring fairness to our police and courts. Break the death that inhabits our streets. Bring your kingdom - bring us back from exile.


The next week, someone threatened some of our kids with a gun while sledding.

The next week, my friend died.

The Sunday before Christmas, I ended up preaching a sermon about exile. The readings were about David and God's promise to build him a kingdom and a house that would last forever. And while that is a message of hope, it is also a promise that seems to be in stark contrast to the world around me sometimes. Terrible things happen. Cancer kills. People get shot on the corner. We are in exile. Waiting for our king to come back.

 That Sunday, we sang these words:

    Though I am small, my God my all
    you work great things in me.
    And your mercy will last from the depths of the past
    to the end of the age to be.
    Your very name puts the proud to shame
    and to those who would for you yearn
    you will show your might, put the strong to flight
    for the world is about to turn.

    My heart shall sing of the day you bring
    let the fires of your justice burn.
    Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near
    and the world is about to turn.

God is not done here. He will come. He will put things right. He is doing it.


But now, I understand our exile more. This year in North Central, Christmas was a celebration. It was also a raw cry to the living God to come and save. Come and break death.

36 kids and adults worshiped together - families whose members have murdered one another, who bully one another, who have maimed each other, who were baptized together. And we all acted out the Christmas story together. And we all prayed together for God's kingdom to come - for God to come and save us. And they all clapped and thumped and stomped a beat together as we sang:

    Rank on rank the hosts of heaven
    spreads its vanguard on the way
    as the Light of Lights descendeth
    from the realms of endless day;
    that the powers of hell may vanish
    as the darkness clears away.

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Tiny Redemptions from Great Tragedies

Many things have happened recently...a teenage boy we knew stabbed to death at a party, a man from the local halfway house asking for a Bible study, confirmation classes, interactions with drug dealers, prayer, money for a new building, so very many baptism classes.

This summer, I have seen two striking and tiny incidents of God taking evil and turning it into little sprouts of good.


A boy was stabbed. He's been in the cafe a few times, but he was the best friend of many of our regulars. Many of our boys vowed to kill the boy who stabbed him. One saw him when he was dead before the police took over the scene. It was "his first dead body."

Earlier this week, one of the older boys was encouraging a tiny boy to beat up on a tinier boy in the cafe. I kicked the older boy out for a bit, but decided that since everyone thought it was so funny, it needed some further discussion.

So the next day, when he was doing something similar, I pulled him aside and said, "Look. I know it's funny to watch little kids try to fight, but it's only one step from teaching them to fight one another to one of them winding up stabbed at a party. And I don't want that for them. I don't want that for you."

And he heard me. I think that's the first thing he's actually heard that I've said to him in a year. And he stopped. I just pray that some day the voice he hears will be God's.


The other incident happened today. I have been teaching a lot of baptism classes recently (6 this week!) and one thing that we have consistently struggled with is the Sermon on the Mount - specifically with regards to understanding persecution and generosity.

Today, the persecution of Christians in Iraq was burning on my heart, so I told three of the girls about it and how even little kids were being killed for following Jesus. We talked for a bit about it, and one of the girls asked why they didn't just say they weren't Christians.

"Well," I answered, "Which would you choose? Heaven and eternity with God, or living a little longer?"

"Yeah...I'd pick God," she said.

We then went around the circle and prayed for them all and for their protection, something they have never done before...praying for someone they never met. Afterwards, I told them that I was going to send some money to someone I knew who was helping the people who had escaped from being killed and had no food or clothes or blankets. I asked if they wanted to also. Now, these kids occasionally get a dollar to get something from the store. They don't have much to work with, and generosity is a completely foreign concept. One of the girls is quite proud of the fact that she never gives anything to anyone.

So I offered them an option. We usually have them do cleaning jobs and put it in a little notebook of "Oaks Credit:" $2 for a 15 minute job. I told them I could take some of their credit money and send it to the people in Iraq. After all, which is more important: a brownie, or someone's life?

One of the girls decided she wanted to do jobs all afternoon, and just keep 50 cents for herself for next week. Her sister decided she was going to do a sidewalk sale of some of her toys because she wanted to send more money than just her credit. And, most miraculously of all, my little tightwad even contributed a dollar of her earnings.

There is so much deep and abiding tragedy in this situation with our brothers and sisters in Iraq. But across the globe, God is using it to teach three little city girls about what really matters, to the tune of $10 of love in a selfish world.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Faith and Impudence

I was asked recently, "Is there anything you have asked God for that he has not given you?"

I thought about it for a minute and answered, "No."

Faith is knowing God. Faith is knowing God to be so good, so loving and so powerful that there is not a moment of hesitation in our thoughts that God may not do what we ask when we are aligned with his will. Faith is remembering and expecting.

I forget, and therefore, I doubt.

I need to share these stories of faith so that I do not forget, and so that we all can be encouraged in our faith when there are no visible signs of God at work. This is why God told Israel to celebrate all those festivals in Exodus and Leviticus and Deuteronomy: to remember who God is by celebrating what he has done.

Because there is nothing God has not given me that I have asked for - nothing hinders me except my own doubt and reluctance to throw myself all in and give up control. But faith remembers and gives control to God. And once faith remembers, it asks impudently. Faith makes outrageous requests, just like Jesus tells us to in Luke 11.

God can do anything. And when I ask, he gives. Simple as that. Not always as quickly as I would like, but he has never failed. So here is a list of remembrances that he has given me in the past 5 years:

- Permission to start the ministry in Troy
- Ordination
- A people in North Central
- A ministry partner - actually, many ministry partners
- The cafe building
- My cat came back after 2 weeks on the streets
- Money to quit my job and do ministry full time
- Friends
- Megablocks, etc.
- An altar
- A foosball table
- Finances for 4 years of ministry
- The middle-school girls
- The kid that I baptized
- An apartment
- A car
- Money to complete my STM degree
- The teenage boys in the park
- The adult community in North Central
- Beaver Cross scholarships for 10 kids
- Money for a new building to accommodate the growing ministry
- Now I am asking for the building

God has told us to ask for the city of Troy. I look at that list and wonder how I can think that is impossible. This blog exists so that we can all remember who God is. So, let's remember and ask. Boldly. Impudently. Without ceasing. And remembering the lavish, abundance of God's goodness to those who surrender to him.
[I thought I published this months ago, but apparently it never went through. Apologies]

North Troy is a neighborhood without fathers.

Amid the drugs, despair, poverty, gangs and anger, we constantly see children and teens who don't know the faithful, loving presence of a father in their lives.

So we tell them about The Father. The Good Father, who isn't like the fathers or mothers they've known. We tell them the story of the Prodigal Son enfolded in the Father's arms. We tell them so they can know the Father and become true fathers and mothers in the next generation.

There's a 7-year-old boy at Oaks who's preparing for baptism. His dad is in prison, and we see him struggle with turned-in anger and telling the truth. But, he has heard of The Father.

One Saturday during dinner, a few boys asked me why I always wear a crucifix. This little boy piped up, "I know why!"

I smiled at him. "Why?"

He said with beautiful confidence, "You wear it so you remember that God is your Real Father."