If you build it…they will have a home

It’s a variation on a line from what is now a classic 1989 movie, Field of Dreams.  Starring Kevin Costner, the story revolves around a man who is told by a voice to build a baseball diamond in the middle of his corn fields.  The voice tells him, “If you build it…they will come.”if-you-build-it   Since that time, I’ve heard people borrow that line for all kinds of things.  I’ve heard it as justification for building a sports stadium in a city and a new church auditorium.

But I’ve never heard it for the homeless.

Our church is getting an opportunity to be a part of something new here in our city.  A fellow pastor and friend is leading the way.  Drawing upon what places like Austin, Texas is doing (click here, and click on the video on that page), we get to be a part of a tiny house village for the homeless.  It’s called Compassion Village.  compassion_edit-1-1000x600Our friends at E49 Corporation have been bringing together engineers, lawyers, fundraisers, carpenters, contractors, and others for several months.  With the partnership of a local church, St. Paul Church of God in Christ, there is a plot of land on which up to 20 tiny homes will be placed.  I had the privilege of meeting the pastor there, Pastor Larry K. Joyner.  With pride he showed me how he has transitioned room after room in the church to store food that he and a team of people give away each week.  A building on the back of the property, once used to house foster children, will now be re-purposed into apartments and bathroom and kitchen facilities for the residents of Compassion Village.

On Sunday, April 30th, our church is changing what it does on a typical Sunday.  Instead of our usual three services, we are gathering for one service, enjoying a meal together, and then getting to work.  We’re calling it, “Rebuilding Hope: The Compassion Village Project.” Some will be building and painting the two tiny homes we have committed to build.  Others will be knitting fleece blankets and hats.  We’re inviting families to serve together, painting rocks with messages of hope on them, to line the pathways of Compassion Village. Some will travel to the site of the village to work on projects to prepare the site and re-purpose the existing building.

We’ve reached out to existing ministry partners that have been serving the homeless for years, and on that Sunday, we will help with needs they have.  We’ve learned from these friends, who have been pushing for a “housing first” model for years.  We’ve learned that 13 years ago, our city’s leaders put together a vision and plan that talked about “housing first” in order to put an end to chronic homelessness.

I love that we get to do this.  The church looking to bless the city, as that city looks to help solve the problem of housing for the homeless.  The prophet Jeremiah once said, “Build houses and live in them…seek the peace and prosperity of your city.”  The building is just beginning…

Praying Without Charade

For the last three months, our church has been studying the book of James.  These words have been hard-hitting. James has talked to us about doubt, anger, appearances, fear, ambition, selfishness, and wealth.  This quote reflects the theme well:

“This letter (James) to the leaders of the early church is incredibly significant because it pounds away at one consistent message: faith that is not wholly integrated and consistently lived out is a charade.”  George Barna, Growing True Disciples.

James chooses to end the letter by talking about prayer.  Whether we find ourselves in trouble or bursting with joy, we should pray.  If we are dealing with sickness, we call upon those leaders that God has put in our lives to pray over us, and the Lord will raise us up.  When burdened with sin, we offer prayers for forgiveness.  In all parts of our lives, James is saying, we are invited to pray, and have others pray for us.

Elijah-Peter Paul Rubens

Angels Give Bread and Water to Elijah         Peter Paul Rubens 

He reminds us of the prophet Elijah, whose life and ministry can be found in I Kings 17-2 Kings 2.  Elijah was such a powerful figure in the history of God’s people that when Jesus was carrying out his ministry, many believed he was Elijah raised from the dead (Matthew 16:14). James reminds us of Elijah because his life was marked by one amazing work of God after another.  It is as if James is saying, “God has worked this way, and God does work this way.  So whether you are in trouble, happy, sick, or need to confess, ask God in prayer.”

Going back to the quote from George Barna;  “faith that is not wholly integrated and consistently lived out is a charade.”  Combine that with all the situations that James mentions here.  All of life:  joy and sorrow, sickness and health, confession and forgiveness—live it all before God, asking Him for help.

Is this our first instinct?  That when things go wrong, or things are going very right, that we go to God?  Do we believe that God hears?  More than that, can we believe that God will answer our prayers? I’m reminded of the words of the hymn, “What a friend we have in Jesus”:

Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere?

We should never be discouraged, Take it to the Lord in prayer.

Can we find a friend so faithful, Who will all our sorrows share?

Jesus knows our every weakness, Take it to the Lord in prayer.

Questions for reflection:  Where is it you need to go to God?  What aspects of your life have you been resistant to take to God in prayer?

What the book of James taught me about making money.

I will never read James 4:13-15 without smiling at the memory. I was 22 years old.  I had just finished an internship in college ministry in Boulder, Colorado.  I thought that God might be calling me to more ministry, and I needed more training.  That meant seminary, and a three-year Master’s degree. The problem was, I had a lot of student loan debt from collSeattle Skylineege.  I thought to myself, “I’ll go back to Seattle (my hometown), find a job, make as much money as I can, and pay off the debts.  Then, I could think about going to seminary.”  I told a few family members and friends my plan.

 

The thing was, I couldn’t seem to find a job that paid me a lot of money.  Instead, I found two jobs in two churches!  One was making copies at what had become a “home church” for me, University Presbyterian Church.

Folding machine I made $7 an hour, with an impressive title of “Production Coordinator.” I ran the copy machine, helped stuff the church newsletter, cut flyers, and folded the bulletins with a machine that may have been developed during World War II.  (folding machine to the left may be exaggerated for dramatic effect. I don’t recall mine being so shiny.)

The other job was as a part-time youth director for a church in the south part of Seattle.  I developed an after school program for kids in the neighborhood, most of whom had never stepped foot in a church.  At the same time, I shared a house with five other twenty-somethings, all of us committing to live out our faith in Christ, being good neighbors, and helping with the kids in the after-school program.

My original “plan” didn’t quite work out.  And it was in that year that I came across these words in James 4: “Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.”…Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will.” I couldn’t get away from the fact at how much the words of James echoed exactly what I had said a few months earlier.  It was as if the Lord was writing to me through this letter. I learned that year that my plans should be written in pencil.  And that the Lord might have different plans.  Those experiences I had that year in those two churches and with my housemates were ones I wouldn’t replace.  And that the Lord’s will (the word literally means “wish/want”) is better than my plans.

Question for reflection: What about you? Has there been a time that your plans were replaced by the Lord’s wishes, and you’re glad they were?

“I can do it myself.”

“I can do it myself.”  It’s a phrase that we hear little children say.  They can say it in trying to tie their shoes, put on their clothes, or put away their dishes. tying-shoesWe smile as we watch these little ones begin to assert their independence.  We look upon statements like “I can do it myself” as good things, recognizing them as signs of that child growing up.  And they are good things, because growing up and maturing is part of life.  But is there a place where that statement can lead to an attitude, which leads to a way of life that might take us away from what God intends?  Can “I can do it myself” actually lead to selfishness? Because selfishness isn’t just an attitude.  It’s a belief that that centers on the “self,” and at its core, it’s a belief that says, “This will be better if I just take care of it.”  Or, it says, “I have what it takes to figure this out, and I don’t need any help.”

From an early age, we catch this idea that “doing it ourselves” is important.  Perhaps this is why ideas like humility and submission are so hard for us.  “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up,” James says (James 4:10).  “Submit yourselves, then, to God.” (James 4:7)  We balk at words like these.

Dallas Willard, in a speech to Wheaton College Chapel, once gave a good picture of what humility looks like.

Never pretend.  Be exactly who you are.  Share your gifts honestly, share your struggles and shortcomings honestly.

Never presume. Never presume that you should be treated in a certain way, that you are entitled.  Be who you are, where you are.

Never push. Stand for yourself, stand for God, stand for what is right…but let God do the pushing.

Willard goes on and says, “This doesn’t mean you are passive.  It means that there isn’t anything you wouldn’t undertake” because you believe that “He will lift you up.” (James 4:10)

Those three pieces of advice Willard gives are telling:  never pretend, never presume, and never push.  In the world we live in today, how hard is it to live those out?  How often do we see others pretending, presuming, and pushing?  And how often do we find ourselves doing the same thing?

James 3:13-18 ends with talking about a wisdom that is “pure, peace-loving, considerate,sandals submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” What a contrast to a life of pretending, presuming, and pushing!  Who could ever live such a life? The truth is, we probably can’t.  But we can learn, and turn, again and again, day after day, to the One who did…and someone once said they couldn’t even tie His sandals…

 

 

3 Things for a Good Life

NOW ON SALE:  “The Three Things We Need for a Good Life.”

I have always resisted “formulas.” Whether it be for things like exercise and health, or our lives of following Jesus.  I always react with skepticism when I hear a book title like “The 10 Ways to Be Happy,” or “The 5 Things Missing in Your Prayers.”  Yet I read the opening part of James 3:13-14 and it sure seems like a type of formula.  “Three Things for a Good Life.” Read those verses again.  Who is wise? Wisdom is shown by a good life, which is shown by good deeds, which comes from humility, which is born out of wisdom.  Sound a bit circular? When I write it like that, it does.  Perhaps the thought here could be rephrased like this:  Wisdom brings humility, which is our source of good works, which is evidence of a good life. It is interesting to notice that James will not let us get away with a definition of wisdom that doesn’t include action. True wisdom is reflected in how we act toward others.  And, at the heart of our action must be humility.

We first learned of this word humility in James when he was talking about anger (James 1:19-21).  The Greek word for humility is the word praǘtēs. It is defined as:  “the quality of not being overly impressed by a sense of one’s self-importance. praǘtēs is getting angry at the right time, in the right measure, and for the right reason… it is a condition of mind and heart which demonstrates gentleness, not in weakness, but in power. It is a balance born in strength of character.” (Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich: Greek English Lexicon, 3rd edition).

Here is the twist.  We are all inundated with promises from books, magazines, products, and experiences, promising “the good life.” And we are drawn to them because of our own self-interest.  What Jesus offers, and what James is calling us to, is a good life that doesn’t have our ambition or self-interest at the heart.  It is a great life, but one in which our own self-importance is not king or queen.  It is a life of submitting to God, seeking the best for others.  As I’ve said before, we cannot do this without following Jesus, our model and example.  And we must rely on His Spirit, who corrects, comforts, and calls us to this great life.

Questions for reflection:  Where has your ambition and self-interest led to “disorder” (James 3:16)? Where do you need Jesus to “reorder” your ambitions?

Wisdom for Tough Times, from an Ancient Book

At our church, we’ve been preaching through the book of James.  I’ve mentioned here how amazing it would be if the news media announced (not fake news…real news), that an archaeological discovery had been made.  That a document written by a relative of Jesus of Nazareth had been found, dated just 10 years or so after Jesus’ death.   Well, that is what we have contained in all our Bibles–whether they be on our bedside tables or on our phones.

isaiah-scroll-l

We are nearly halfway through our study. And, my prayer is that this series does not remain on a shelf, along with other books of the Bible we have studied.  Rather, that Jesus will move us to reflect on these words deeply, and listen to where the Lord is calling us to be changed.

 

There are three main themes that James returns to throughout this letter.  Trials, wisdom, and riches and poverty.  These were things that James’ audience was facing, and these are the same things we face.  It is difficult to keep our eyes focused on God when we face trials.  We need wisdom and discernment, as we are faced with hundreds of decisions each day, some of which will chart our course for our lives. We see poverty all around us, and abundant wealth.  How do we use what God has given us, and how are we called to help those in need?  The three themes of James are timeless.

We entitled our series “Unshaken” because it is clear that James is pointing us to a life that is unshaken by things like difficulty, doubt, anger, or appearances.  In addition, James “shakes” us with his bold calls to action.  “Faith without works is dead,” he says.  Words like these force us to examine our individual lives of walking with Jesus, and our corporate lives as a church.  What are we doing to reflect the fact that Christ is alive in us? In Jesus’ words, how are we letting our light so shine before others, “that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”  (Matthew 5:16).

It is timely that we are studying these words.  We’ve been given an opportunity here in the city of Sacramento to partner with a number of other churches, and the E49 Corporation to help build a “tiny village” of homes for the homeless.  We will be setting aside Sunday, April 30th as a church to help construct these homes, prepare the site with landscaping, and enlist our children and seniors to help make those houses homes.  We are excited about putting our faith into action.  Here is more about the Compassion Village.compassion-village

In the final chapters of the letter, we will find James returning to these themes again.  He will tell us about two different kinds of wisdom, and where wisdom begins.  He will challenge those who seek to use wealth for personal gain.  James will give us a picture of how to endure suffering and trials.  Finally, he calls us all to believe in the power of prayer.

Written a long time ago, with words that still ring true.  May we be shaken by these bold words of James, to live lives unshaken.

Question for reflection: How has the Lord been speaking to you through these words of James?

Sign Me Up for Greatness

“I don’t want to go…”

I’ve heard these words a thousand times. Recently from my kids, expressing their displeasure at this thing called school. I’ve heard it from college students, days away from going on a short-term mission trip. I’ve said it too…a lot. I can especially remember having dinner with my family on some Tuesday nights, and I was scheduled to preach at our college ministry worship service in the next hour or so. Still, despite how I felt, I went…and I’d say 95 times out of a 100, I was glad I did.

I think God does something to us, and in us, when we serve something greater than ourselves. Overcoming our feelings, overcoming our busyness, and doing something for others has almost always done something for me. Sure, there might be times when my heart is in a place when I do something purely out of obligation or duty, and I walk away thinking I wasted my time. But that was, and is, rare. Most of the time I walk away and say, “Wow, I almost missed that.”

Now, I know that the motive should be that I want to bless others simply to bless them…not for what it does for me. But I think that Jesus knew that by encouraging us to serve, and building something into serving others that blesses us, that he would get us to get up and do it. I think of the story of Jesus talking with his disciples. The mother of James and John takes Jesus aside and asks that Jesus give them places of honor (sitting on his right and left), when he comes into his kingdom. She didn’t quite know what that kingdom would look like. Anyway, the other ten disciples get angry at James and John for their mom asking for those places of honor, maybe because they wanted those places themselves, and they didn’t think to ask first! Jesus puts all of the grumbling to rest when he says, “You know the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)

Did you notice what Jesus did there…he started with “Whoever would be great,” to which most of us say, “That’s me! Sign me up!” Then he throws us off by saying, “be a servant.” Makes us take a step back. But I wonder if there is a greatness that we know and feel when we live a life of serving well.  (Because Jesus said so, I’m thinking the answer is “Yes.”)

At our church we’re going through this season of looking at what it means to be a steward. That is, what does it mean to be a caretaker of the important things that God has given, and that includes our talents and time. If you’re a part of our church, we put together a flyer called “100 Ways You Can Make a Difference as a Family,” which can be found here: (in all honesty, you don’t have to do these things with a family…but it is a neat picture to think about taking kids along for the ride of serving with you). And even if you’re not a part of things here in Sacramento, you can probably adapt them to your community.

In short, serving others, with our time and talents, is a vital part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. And we just might discover something great when we do.

Giving is Weird

My family and I eat, sleep, and live because people have made a decision to be generous. Now, I know that the “right”  answer is that God provides through people’s gifts to our church.  But I often wonder for people outside the church, or outside knowing God, how weird all of that probably looks. I could picture this conversation, perhaps at the soccer field watching my kids practice.

“So you’re a pastor?”

“Yep.”

“And you get paid because people decide to give out of their income each week, each month, or whenever they feel like it?”

“Yep.”

“Weird.”welcome_to_weirdsville_hat-r8d08626c61c841c0850434e3d79a40f5_v9wfy_8byvr_324

“Yep.”

“What happens if they decide not to do that anymore?”

[silence]

“I don’t know…in other places I served, there were times I had to wait to get a paycheck, because our ministry didn’t have the money. But it eventually always showed up. There are a lot of generous people out there. And most churches and ministries I know of usually put their staff first, and cut other expenses, to make sure people can feed their families. There’s this verse in the Bible that says, “A worker is worth his or her wages.”

“Huh.”

“I know it still sounds weird. But it kind of makes you believe in God. How else can you explain trying to herd a bunch of people’s hearts into giving–when times are tight, bills are due, the kids need braces, retirement account isn’t what it used to be, and people are moving into the area and out of it, trying the church for a bit, and then leaving for another one–and somehow, we all get paid?”

“Still sounds weird… So that’s why it seems whenever I go to church, they always seem to be asking for money?”

“Yep. But beyond paying the staff, keeping the building maintained, and running programs, most churches are giving money away to other ministries: to the poor, to the homeless, to be a part of social justice issues like trafficking, and a lot more. One church I used to be a part of had a goal of giving away 33 percent of its budget each year. And they did it.”

“Whoa.”

“I know. And beyond all that…we talk about giving because it’s a part of what we think God is teaching us. To see what we have as gifts from Him, and not let those things be a master over us. And, to learn how to live on less, and bless others when we give our money away.”

“I get that…but it is still weird that you depend on others getting all of that, and actually doing it.”

“Yep.”

So, that just might be how a conversation like that could go. And when you stop and think about it, giving is weird. And amazing. And profoundly freeing.

For all of those that have blessed me through their giving: in part-time jobs in two churches in Seattle, an internship and my first full-time job at a church in Boulder, Colorado; in receiving a scholarship and a job in seminary in New Jersey; an internship at a church in Charlottesville, Virginia; in years of college ministry and being an assistant pastor in Chattanooga, Tennessee; and now as a pastor in Sacramento, California:

Thank you for being weird.

I’m not really a “giver…”

I’m not really what you would call a “giver.” Let me explain.

At the age of 11, I had my first job, delivering newspapers for the Seattle Times in the afternoon. (remember the video game Paperboy? I played it…and lived it). Paperboy_Apple2_BoxMy older brother delivered the morning paper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. When he went off to college, I inherited his morning route, and I got up at 4:45 each morning through my high school years, walked the route for 45 minutes, went back to bed for an hour, then went to school (insert your story of how hard you had it during childhood here). The point was this: I worked hard for that money (so I thought at the time), and it was mine. I had to go door to door to collect the monthly dues. If I remember right, I made about $100 a month. It was mine. I did what I wanted with the money. It made me feel like I had some control.

I didn’t grow up poor by any means. But I do remember conversations in my family about not being able to afford things: certain Christmas presents, going out to eat, what college I would go to would all be about the financial aid package I got. Both of my parents worked, and worked hard. But all of that led to a certain attitude about money. Mine was this: it is hard to get, be careful with it, and woe be the day when you find you don’t have enough. It actually developed a fear in me that sounded (and still does) like this: What happens when we find we can’t make it? What will people think? Will they think we wasted it? We should have worked harder?

Along comes Jesus into my life, and yet this is one of the areas where he doesn’t have full control. By the way, I recently heard a good definition of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus: being led to submit more and more of our lives to Jesus (@JeffVanderstelt). I see the Bible talk about working hard, but that Jesus says be careful because money actually can become like an idol, and you can start serving it. I learn from his followers of the principle of manna: that we can learn to be content with what God has provided, because it is sufficient for today, in the same way God rained down bread from heaven when His people walked in the wilderness (plug for Caesar Kalinowski, who challenged a group of us to live by manna instead of chasing after money) (bigger plug for God, who actually did the manna thing here).Small is Big Slow is Fast

I read recently that Jesus’ most repeated command in the New Testament was this: “Don’t be afraid.” (N.T. Wright, Following Jesus)  I guess that should probably apply to my fear of not having enough.

Beyond the Bible and books and such, perhaps the biggest influence on my life in regards to giving is my wife Kelsey. She has always been generous. With her time and talents, with our home, with her heart for her fellow women and children, and much more. And she doesn’t have the same fear I have about money. Together, we make a pretty good team.

I still plan, budget, pay off debt, and worry from time to time about having enough. She does an incredible job of finding deals on everything (our whole house is basically furnished from reclaimed dumpster finds and Craigslist), and insisting that we bless others. I’ve come to love that…a lot.

So while I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a “giver,” I’m learning how to be one.

Next week I plan on talking about what it means that my family and I thrive and survive, solely because of others’ generosity. It’s amazing to stop and think about…

The Other Side

I performed a memorial service today. In over sixteen years of doing college ministry, I officiated only three services like this. Since becoming a local church pastor twelve months ago, I’ve already sat with three families, trying to walk with them in this dark valley of grief.  My fellow pastors here have walked with even more.

Today at the service, I read passages that spoke of grieving with hope (1 Thessalonians), believing in life even when someone dies (John 11), and that one day God will prepare a feast (Jerrad, the man who died, performed art with his cooking. He made meals at our church for years.). That same passage that talked about a feast of fine food also said that death will be no more, and He will wipe away every tear (Isaiah 25:6-8). There is a sense in times like this that we feel deep sadness and despair, but have another feeling, seemingly just out of reach, but still there. We might call that hope, trust, or faith. It’s just on the other side. And we should be careful not to think that the goal is to get to that other side, but rather acknowledge that despair and hope are like two sides of a coin.

Over the next few months, we’re going to look at the Psalms. We’re going to look at these deep emotions we find there: despair, loneliness, anger at injustice, doubt. Ironically, the Psalms are where I first met God. Someone handed me a Bible outside of my middle school, when I was 12. I never opened it until a dark and depressing season when I was 16. When I began to look at this Bible’s table of contents, it said “Where to Find Help.” And it directed me to the Psalms. A strange place, you might think, to first encounter God. Psalms that cried out, “Where are you?” (Psalm 10, The Message). Psalms that cried out, “Have you forgotten to be merciful?” (Psalm 77) Those passages intrigued me, because they sounded like real life. And God was speaking into those painful questions. I was interested in the people who would ask God questions like this, and still write, “I will remember the deeds of the Lord.” (Psalm 77:11)

I hope that over these weeks of studying the Psalms, that a few things will happen. First, that we can quit pretending that as followers of Jesus that we’re not supposed to feel things like despair, loneliness, doubt, or anger. And, that we stop telling our friends when they are going through it that they’re not supposed to feel those things either.  Finally, that even though we walk through dark valleys, we see exactly how close things like hope, faith, trust, mercy, and healing are.