Monday, December 31, 2012

Kairos 54: Returning to the World

Sunday was bittersweet.  All of us knew this was the end of a fantastic time of love and celebration.  Each of the men were to return to their prison lives and all of the inside team would return to the world.  We continued with a few more talks and discussions as well as more meditations.  I wrote each of the men a second letter telling them what I had learned from each of them and what my prayers for each of them were.  Harold told me again how much he appreciated our prayers and how he had never known love in his life.  That he had been a child of the streets, been gang banging to survive since he was 12, but that he had given his life to Christ and that all we wanted now was to do his time and go be a father to his daughters.

Two inmates came to me at two different times and said they wanted to apologize to a teacher for all the problems they had caused their teachers through the years.  At lunch I spoke at length to Jose about how he needed to get out of the gang if he really wanted to change his life.  That afternoon they signed my notebook and I found two letters that Jose and Gavin had slipped in when I wasn’t looking.

Here is Gavin’s message to me:

“God is good.  God is Great.  Continue to work for God and watch those who break free of sin because of your Christian Action.  Never let the Devil steal your passion, for Christ is our Lord and Savior.  Your brother in Christ, Gavin.  I Love you Ed.”

Here is what Terry wrote:

“They called him Master, Father, Lord, Savior, Friend, God, but the best name of all was Teacher.   I love you Brother.  God Bless you.”

Sonny wrote, “Thank you for being my brother.  I needed it.  I love you. God Bless.”

Reyes wrote, “Que Dios te Bendiga mucho para siempre!”

Jose’s letter was the longest, and I know it was something he had to work on to complete: 
“Mr. Ed.  I want to thank God for blessing us with the chance to even have met you…along with the rest of the family.  “You” for some weird reason , for some way, some how feel good and have given me a real friend and positive vibe.  You remind me of my teachers and family who tried to help me and cared to see me succeed in life, but then I was too childish and lost-minded to all the negative things that I believed would be cool and real.  But they weren’t and still to this day I still get lost and caught in wrong things even though I know  they are wrong.  But I’m no longer blind; I know real and believe that one day soon I will be man enough to make a full change.  If only I can have friend’s like you to not JUDGE me, to keep it real and keep me comfortable and MOTIVATED.  I see parole for the second time, and if I come home I want to help other kids just like I was with the same surroundings, friends, and crazy life style.  I believe I can get into the young people’s minds and hearts because I been there and done that, and I’m still trying to get it together.  I come to make a change.  If I ever cross your mind and heart, know that I will be here as a friend.  Now and with God’s love, when I get out.  Thank you for your love, time, and true care.  Jose AKA J-Smurf.”

Eventually we went to the closing ceremony where the free worlders were now separated from the inmates and were joined by previous Kairos inmates as well.  It was an open mic session and any man that wanted to could speak about the Kairos experience.  Terry spoke twice.  First about how he had finally been able to forgive others.  The second time he took the mic and said, “You know, when I was in school at Hastings, I was a trouble maker.  Most of my teachers hated to see me coming and usually they would just point at the door and say “Get Out!”  I would go down to Mr. Wetterman’s class, knock on the door and he would let me in.  He welcomed me, put up with me, and taught me my love of history.  I love you for that.  Thank you for being my teacher.”  The whole place stood and applauded, I just cried.

During the final talk, a prisoner who helped lead the inside Kairos weekend stood up and spoke about giving his life to God.  He was 25 years old and he was in Ferguson for Life.  He would never get out, but his faith was in Christ and that one day he would be free in Heaven worshipping God and feeling love surround him forever.  He spoke about the gangs in prison and warned them that they could not serve two masters, it was either Christ or the Gang, and that if they wanted heaven they had to make a choice.  I watched as these words hit Jose.  He was crying, and nodding, and staring at me. I know he was remembering the conversation I had had with him about that very subject.  When it was time to leave, the brothers in white all stood and applauded us as we left. I hurt for my boys and pray that they can stay strong and that their hearts are truly changed and that they can continue on the Christian path in that dark place.
I can’t wait to go back again. 

Kairos 54: Saturday, What a Blessing

Saturday was a big day. 

It began with a morning meditation, discussion and a few new talks.   The men who had come a day and a half before as standoffish and unsure, were up and dancing to I’ll Fly Away and Riding the Train, and the Kairos song.  Several began giving their lives to Christ and even Reyes began opening up.  I really began forming friendships with the men and Jose began really opening up to me.  He had been in gangs his whole life and was in a prison gang.  He said he was troubled, because he wanted to be a Christian, but stated he didn’t think he could give up the gang as they had been his life in prison.  He has two sons, and he misses them terribly.  In fact all the men at my table except Terry and Sonny had children.  Wayne has an 18 year old son, Reyes has five children, and  Gavin has a 16 year old son.  Wayne stated that his son was much wiser than he was, had stayed out of trouble and out of gangs and was very focused on his education and was planning on going to college.  His son had visited him last weekend and that he felt blessed that God had taken care of his family, when his choices had not allowed him to.  Gavin showed us a picture of his son playing football.  Reyes began opening up about his family.  He told me he found it hard to trust anyone, but that he had accepted Christ last year.  His oldest son, at 17, had written him a letter that broke his heart and led to him seeking God.  He gave me the letter and asked that I read it to the table.  The letter his son wrote was angry.  He asked “Why did you choose drugs and gangs over your family.  I  need a father and you are not here.”  Reyes then told us his story.  He worked for one of the big Mexican gangs running drugs from Mexico to Georgia.  He had been a leader and had made so much money that he owned ranches, trucks, and lived in a mansion. He had been arrested at 22 years old and had spent most of the last two decades in prison.  His heart was broken by his failure to be a father to his son.  He stated he was up for parole soon and he was afraid he might go back to the gang for easy money.  He stated that when he gets out, they will meet him, give him ten to twenty thousand dollars of seed money, and get him back into it.  He stated he was going to tell them no, that he had accepted Christ and that they would leave him alone, but they would be watching him.  He said if I do anything, drugs, etc., that they would be angry with him and possibly kill him.  We wanted to get out, get his kids and move to Fort Worth or somewhere far from the valley. 

  At lunch Sonny opened up to me and stated that he had spent the past ten years in prison, and had 15 more to go.  He stated he had been in the Air Force, suffered severe burns on his hands, and had been mustered out.  He had a hard time finding a job, got into drugs and soon was involved in an aggravated assault where a man had been killed.  He cried remembering what had happened. “ All I want is a life out of here.  To get married, have children, be a dad.”  I know he was doing the punishment for his crime and deserved it, but that God had forgiven him and that there is a life for him when he gets out.  We discussed this and he prayed with me.

Terry had a way of deflecting whenever things got heavy.  He used jokes and a tough exterior to deflect, but there were many times I saw the wall being broken down stone by stone.  He told me that no one in the world cared about him, unconditionally, except for his Grandmother.  He challenged me, stating “Are you going to come back?  Do you really care?”  He found it difficult to believe that all these men would give up their time and money to come into the prison just to show agape love

Jose began to open up to me as well.  He had been so distrusting of me at first, but by Saturday he was very open with me and had shed a few tears.  He told me that tattoo picture on his neck was his father, who still loved him and still visits with him.  He was hurting about his kids, as he stated “their mother won’t let them communicate with me.”  He stated he would be up for parole soon, but he didn’t know what he would do out in the world.  He had been in prison for half his life.  He was honest and said he was still in a gang and wasn’t sure he could get out of it.  We talked and I witnessed to him that if he truly wanted to change his life through Christ, he would have to leave the gangs.  That if he stayed in them, it wouldn’t be long before he was back in prison.  He cried and hugged my neck, the pain of  a father missing his family, a lost person in a deep hole.  Later he drew a poster of a ladder of Christ descending into a deep hole to allow you to crawl out to glory, freedom, and love.  God was truly working on Jose throughout the weekend.

Wayne was a Christian, who quoted the Bible, and loved the Agape he felt.  He might have been one of the inside team with his sharing of wisdom and Christ’s love for all.

Gavin was quiet, just as he had been in school, but he took it all in and wowed us with the following poem:

“Christian Action….What it is, or should I say what it was, it really don’t matter because we are all from up above.

Heaven is the Home of peace and happiness.  Look at this world today.  Can you tell me what is happening?  Destruction we bring to this world of ours, when will we stop?  Today?  Tomorrow?  Next year? 

The pain we bring amongst ourselves make me shed a tear.  Selling drugs, shooting slugs, walking around the world with mean mugs.  Why not walk around showing love and giving hugs, too much pride got us messed up.  Open your eyes and make a change, accept Jesus in your life to erase the pain because God is at your door, if you really want to change.”

Harold Z______, Tracey’s prayer partner sought me out.  “I hear your wife is praying for me.”  He said with tears in his eyes.  “I need it brother.  I need to know people care.  My grandmother is raising my daughters, and she is sick.  Please prayer for us.  Tell your wife how much her doing this means to me.”  I hugged him and stated I would tell her, and that others were praying for him as well.

It was George’s birthday, and at lunch we all sang Happy Birthday to him.  He came to me in the evening and hugged me stating that this was the best birthday he had ever experienced.

That day I, as one of four newbies, were taken out to do the Prison cookie run.  Two Kairos servants assisted us (they did all the real work of handing out the cookies).  Our job was to smile and speak to each man in the institution.  It was easy on the regular cell blocks.  The men were all happy to get the cookies, and most wanted to shake my hand and say thank you.   I greeted them with a smile, God bless you, and when I saw someone who seemed to need it, I promised them that we were praying for them.  The small cells were really tiny, and there were two metal bunk beds in each, with a small toilet.  The movies don’t do such a place justice.  The smell, the feel, and the sight of it will remain with me forever.

I then went to the Ad-Seg, or Administrative Segregation cell block, where men were separated from everyone else for 23 hours a day in their small cells.  When we first entered, they were yelling, cussing, and talking about Kairos Cookies.  I had to wear a flak vest to be allowed into the cell blocks.  It was amazing to me how when I approached  each of the cells, the men would stop whatever they had been doing or saying and give me a hard stare.  I would smile and say, “God Bless you.  Enjoy the cookies.  We are praying for you.”  Every one of the men, nodded, smiled, said thank you, or returned a God Bless you too.  It was an eye-opening experience.

Saturday evening we took part in a forgiveness ceremony, where we forgave those we had not forgiven before.  Terry was really taken by this, and crying he revealed to me that he had never forgiven anyone for anything before, but that the ceremony meant a lot to him.  Again he asked me, “Are you really coming back to visit me?”  I promised that I would, as it is a vital part of the Kairos ministry that we come out every month for groupings.  By the time we all parted ways, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place.  Imagine hardened criminals, gang bangers, tattooed all over, with scars, one man with Adolf Hitler tattooed on the back of his neck, all hugging each other and sharing, and singing, praying, and laughing together.  It was a sight to see!

Here are a few other observations I made.  I witnessed one inmate witnessing to a guard about Christ’s love and forgiveness.    One of them said, “When we leave here and go back to the blocks, what had been a dungeon for us, isn’t any longer.  We’ve been set free.”  Jose cried remembering his mother telling him, “Tell me who you are running with, and I’ll tell you who you are.”  Wayne said, “I’ve been in prison a long time.  I appreciate the blessings God has given me since I’ve been locked up.  He looks out for my family and keeps them safe.”  Another man said, “Behind bars, I have lots of time to think.  What I shoulda, coulda, woulda.  It’s time to make better choices.  We can’t do none of this without God!”

It had been a very good day.  I had what I had come for.  I had seen Christ reflected in these men.

Kairos 54: Friday a Revelation

We ate breakfast, had a quick team meeting where we turned in one more letter for an alternate that had joined the group, then reentered the prison.  Some of the guards looked at us like we were crazy to come into the prison, some seemed indifferent to us, but there was one guard who would check us in everyday, who was friendly, but distant.  I wasn’t sure how he felt about us at the time, but I would learn. 

As the brothers in white came in that morning, they were again greeted with cheers and I met Tony and George and took them to their assigned tables.  I then went to my table (Table of Matthew) with the Table Leader, Robert, and the other Assistant Table Leader, Arlo.  Robert is a quiet, well-spoken man who is a picture of quiet dignity.  Arlo is an African-American with a quick smile, and the love of God exuding from everything he did and said. Before the Brothers in White arrived, we each prayed for the men that would be joining us on the table of Matthew.  I prayed that God would reveal himself to them, and that they would find what they needed.  I prayed that their walls would be torn down and that they would allow Jesus to enter their hearts.

We were then introduced to our Brothers in White who would also be part of the Family of Matthew. Wayne, was in his late thirties, a short, good looking African-American with piercing golden eyes that I found somehow familiar.   He was quiet and reserved, though he seemed to be enjoying the experience.  Next was Reyes.  He was in his mid to late 30s, a Hispanic man with a regal bearing and slight build. He seemed very distrustful and wary of all of us.   Next came a tall, good looking white fellow who I expected to be in his mid-20s though he was actually 32.  He reminded me of my cousin Sonny Wayne, so I’ll call him Sonny.  He had “sleeves” which were tattoos going from his elbows down to his wrists.  He was very polite and seemed receptive to what was going on.  Then Terry the Gamer joined us.  He grinned at seeing me at his table. His grin seemed so familiar to me. Next came Jose, a small statured Hispanic male, with a tough demeanor and tattoos everywhere with full sleeves, and more on his neck and back.  On the left side of his neck was a tattoo of an older gentleman.  He was quiet and seemed distrustful at our first meeting. He sat directly on my right, while Wayne was on my left.  Across the table we were joined by Gavin, the last pilgrim, a light-skinned African American in his late 20s.  He had a quick smile and wore large glasses and he also seemed very familiar to me. 

  As we began the first talk and meditation, I couldn’t shake the sense of knowing Wayne, Terry and Gavin from somewhere.  At the first break I asked Terry if he had played football, and he stated he had been starting left tackle at his high school and he gave me a funny look of expectation, that I didn’t quite understand.  Robert asked him where he had played football, and he grinned, looking at me, “Hastings High School.”  My mouth dropped open.  This was how I knew Terry.  He had been a student in my World History Resource class at Hastings High School in the mid 90s.  He laughed, “You remember me now don’t you!”  I nodded and grinned in shock, not quite believing this.  Wayne and Gavin also looked perplexed and both admitted they had also attended Hastings High School.  Wayne had attended from 91 to 93, and though I hadn’t taught him, I realized I had seen him before.  Gavin laughed and said he had also gone to Hastings, and he too had been my student.

Now I ask you, what are the odds that in all the great state of Texas, in all the institutions, that I would be sitting at a table with 3 kids who went to the school I taught at, and two of which were actually my students?  As a Christian I believe God set who would be at these tables, and this was proof I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.  This knowledge unlocked so much between all of us, and soon we were sharing Hastings memories.  I told Gavin I didn’t remember his name, but I remember him and that he had been a quiet, good student.  He stated he had changed his name, but that his Christian name had been Tommy G________.   I remembered that name well.  I also remember Terry.  He had been a true ADHD kid in my class. Always up and bouncing around the classroom, a class clown, who always got in trouble in most other classes but who had really loved history.
As I looked around the room I realized that all these men could have been my students.  Every year we have a few kids who are difficult, who run with gangs, get involved with drugs, and who believe no one cares about them.  As I thought about this, I began to cry.  We must do all we can to save these kids, before they too have to come to this horrible place.

I was to go out of the prison and bring in the lunches.  The big officer helped me bring it all in and get it into the prison.  I realized he really was happy we were here, though he still spoke only a little to us.

We spent Friday discussing God’s love, Agape love, and choices.  We prayed, meditated on individual truths, and shared much.

After noon they brought in a prayer chain with each paper circlet containing a name of a person who was praying for them this weekend.  It went all the way around the room, probably 300 feet long.  It made an impression on them, and us.  I had never seen a prayer chain that long, it took about twenty men to bring it in, and hang it up around the room.   I made sure to check in with George and Tony, and by the end of the day they were both smiling and enjoying themselves.  I heard one of the brothers in white commenting, “I don’t even feel like this is prison.  I feel like I’ve come home.”

That night Tracey joined us and she would work Friday night and all day Saturday on the outside team. She was also praying for an individual brother in white named Harold Z________. 

Kairos 54: Wednesday to Thrusday

This testimony is long, but so much happened.  I'm breaking it into three parts.  May the story bless you and keep you.

I had heard of Kairos for years as I had been very active in the Emmaus Community.  I had promised Crazy Ray Coward that once my time with Emmaus was over I’d come over to Kairos.  So after the Fall of 2011 I had been a Lay Director for Emmaus Walk 86, Ray called.  He asked me to work in the July Kairos Walk, but due to boy’s summer camp I couldn’t do it.  I told him I’d do it during the Holiday season .  All I knew about Kairos is that it was a prison ministry designed to show Agape love to those who know little of love.

I started attending meetings in October of this year.  We had four full day meetings to prepare as an inside team for the Kairos 54.  The Lay Director, Paul Draper, did a great job teaching us about our roles in the Walk, what we could legally do and not do, and previewing Christian talks (much like Emmaus).

I’ve never been inside a prison, and certainly not a maximum security prison like Ferguson.  The prison is huge and holds up to about 2500 prisoners, most with multiple year sentences to life.    It also takes almost 500 guards  In order to carryout the Kairos Weekend it takes about 25 team members who will go into the prison including several clergy, and another 25 or so Kairos graduates  from previous walks who work as Table Servants and make sure everything is in place to support the walk on the inside (remember these are current inmates who have given their lives to Christ and want to show love for others through service).  There is also an outside team of 5 to 20 individuals who prepare and transport all the agape, cookies, and meals during the weekend.  Kairos Cookies are a big part of the ministry.  It takes about 3000 dozen cookies for each weekend event.  Basically most wardens would not allow us to bring in a dozen cookies for just the 42 inmates as this would be considered “special treatment,” but if we agreed to provide every inmate in the prison and every guard  a bag of a dozen cookies it would be allowed.

I went to my church (First United Methodist Church of Caldwell), Area 3:16, and Friendship Baptist and explained to them the purpose of Kairos and asked for their support for the walk.  They pulled through in a big way by baking and packaging over 160 dozen cookies.  My wife Tracey made another 40 dozen.  Before Christmas our refrigerator, and freezer were totally packed with cookies.  So much so that there was no room for Christmas leftovers.  The churches also signed up for the prayer chain (promises to pray during the weekend), and I ended up with over 8 sponsors for inmates.  To sponsor an inmate for the Walk costs $125.00 (this pays for food, supplies, and other extras).  My Methodist Men brothers also sponsored me for the weekend to pay for the food and the hotel room.  It was a true outpouring of Christian love and I am very grateful to all who helped.  I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention Marge Witz, and several other folks in Bryan (including Preston Dubose) who also volunteered dozens of cookies to support this endeavor.

So Wednesday afternoon I packed up and set out for Madisonville the the large First Baptist Church there who had graciously agreed to allow us to use their gym and kitchens as a base of operations.  We also had the services of four men from the local House of Hope who came in to cook all the meals.  The team assembled and held a final training and finished writing 42 individual letters and placing the letters in each of the inmates bags.  Yes that’s 25 people writing 42 individualized letters each.  After the meeting I went to the local motel and it is a total rat trap.  Holes in the walls, little lighting, forty or more years old, with a major cold draft coming through the front door, little water pressure (crossed your fingers every time you flushed the toilet), and it was kinda scary parking and walking up to the room.  Of course mine was in the very back of the motel on the second floor.   

Got up Thursday morning and attended a Prison training by a Captain and the Chaplain.  They explained all the dos and don’ts while we were in Prison and the Chaplain said he didn’t believe in “Rehabilitation” but “Regeneration,” and that he had seen many changes in the men who had attended previous Kairos Walks.  We were also warned not to wear anything white in the prison, “Wear white and spend the night.”  We were also reminded by Paul that we were not to ask about their conviction, what they had done, or how much time they had left.  That was not the purpose we were there.  We were going to share God’s love with these men.

Thursday evening we drove to the prison.  My first impression was just how big the entire complex was, surrounded by fences and razor wire.  We were met and checked in by the Chaplain, then went through the metal detectors and a full pat-down/search before being led into the prison proper.  We went through one big gated door to a waiting area.  A sign hung on the wall that said, “No hostages will ever be permitted beyond this sign.”  I couldn’t help but wonder what laid beyond the next gate.

We entered the main corridor of the prison.  Prisoners always walk single file against the wall, while “Free Worlders” are to walk in the middle of it.  I saw about 70 men lined up to be taken somewhere.  They eyed us suspiciously, but no words were said.  I forced myself to meet them eye to eye, and said, “God bless you.” A few seemed shocked to be spoken to, a few others nodded, and one or two said “God bless you” right back.  What really struck me about them is how young they all seemed, and how quiet they were in line.

We made it to a door that would lead up to the education center two flights of stairs up.  As we waited for the guard to open the door, I heard clapping and laughter up ahead.  As we moved up to the Education center we were greated by the Prison Team of Kairos convict-volunteers.  They were joyful, with genuine grins/smiles, applauding us for coming and greeting each one of us with a hug and a God Bless you.  Many of them knew the members of the inside team of Free Worlders from previous Kairos Walks, and the joy of reunion with friends was palpable. 

I was given two name tags for the two men I was to “host” for the evening.  I was given (changing names for confidentiality)  Tony and George.  The men in white chosen to take part in this Kairos Walk were sponsored by other prisoners, placed on a list, and had to be approved by the Warden and Chaplain.  Some of the men had waited up to seven years to be allowed to attend a Kairos Weekend.  The big draw for many of them was the “good, outside food” and the break from the monotony of Prison life.

As the pilgrims in white were escorted into the education wing, they were also greeted with applause, and each was announced as they entered.  Some grinned shyly at the attention, some laughed, some looked around like they had just landed on Mars, and a few were stone faced and unsure.  As the men’s names were called the host would move to them, say hello and place the name tag around their necks.  Tony was an older gentleman, probably in his late 40s, or early 50s.  He grinned from ear to ear feeling the joy of the occasion.  George was also a bit older, maybe in his mid 50s, and was an African American.  He had the eyes of someone who had seen and done a lot in his life, and as I would learn he had become a very wise fellow in Prison.  I took them to a table and introduced Kairos, explained what would happen during the weekend and got to know them a little bit.  And of course there were cookies which were consumed with much joy.  Tony stated he had tried for years to get onto a Kairos Walk but had always been denied, but that he was curious about it.  George said he had no idea what to expect, but he wanted to take it all in and see. My two guys were the oldest on the Walk with most of the other men being in their 20s or 30s.  We then gathered and made introductions. 

A tall, strongly built African American named Terry, stood up and stated that he enjoyed playing Dungeons and Dragons and other role-playing games and that he wanted to be a writer/game designer.  His smile was contagious, but his eyes were hard, even when he smiled.  When it was my turn to speak I stated that I was a History Teacher, which drew some derisive, yet fun boos from the group.  I also stated that I was a game designer and writer, and Terry pointed at me and mouthed, “I’m gonna talk to you.”  When I answered the question Why are you in Kairos, I stated that Jesus was very precise when he said, “visit those in prison, for when you have done this for the least of these, my family, you have done it to me.”  I told them that I had come expecting to see Christ reflected in my brothers in white.

During the break Terry did seek me out, and I told him about Savage Worlds, and asked how they play in Prison without dice.  He told me they made spinners for each die type.  Tony told me about the various  Prison recipes they had and how he could make a key-lime pie in his cell using varied ingredients.  The ingenuity of the these men really blew me away, and I thought about what they could have accomplished with such ingenuity in the free world had it not been for the drugs and gangs that got most of them locked up.

We then participated in a meditation that invited them to listen, join in, and learn from the experience.

We parted for the evening and returned to the hotel.  We had to go to sleep quickly as it was about 9 pm and we had to be back at the Church for breakfast by 6 am. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Reflection: God's Grace


Our salvation begins and ends with God.  It is through God’s action, not ours that we are saved, redeemed and forgiven.  This is what makes Christianity different from all other religions.  It is that God is always seeking and loving us, Not what man does to reach God.  All other religions are man-centered—what man must do to reach God.  Christianity is about what God has done for us.
Divine Love is the key.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Reflection: It's Not about You

It’s Not about You

People are always trying to make a name for themselves.  We are always so concerned with our reputations and how other people see and react to us.  This is an example of the sin of pride and a form of idolatry—as we are seeking to attain something other than God.  If we place ourselves in the center of our lives, as if everything, and everyone revolves around us, then God is not in the place of honor in our lives.  Living in such a way is destructive to our relationship with God and with each other.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Christian Reflections #2

You are created in the image of God.  Not in our fleshly bodies, but in our spiritual connection with Him.  This allows us to be capable of knowing, loving, and obeying Him.

This includes our capacity to love, but also our every feeling, thought, word, and deed.   Our human character should reflect what God is--Love.

Genesis 1:27 states "So god created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them."

You are a divine being.  Now go reflect Christ's love to others in everything you do.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Christian Reflections #1

Everyone in our society is so concerned with being repected, we often forget what it means to be respectful.  What do we mean when we say we want respect?  To be appreciated for our efforts?  To be adored by others?  To be above others in some way?  Is it to be loved?
  Do we desire respect out of our own pride or even arrogance?
  Jesus said in Mark 9:35-37 "Whoever wants to be first must be last and servant of all."  He then took a little child and put it in his arms, and he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."
  We should treat everyone we meet as if they are Jesus.  Is this difficult to do? Yes it is.
  Remember, Christ give us the victory.  So be willing to be a servant, to step out of your comfort zone, to show love for your fellow man.  Be a reflection of Christ to someone today.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Almost a Christian

I was invited to preach at Chriesman United Methodist Church yesterday.  I had been reading Wesley's 2nd sermon about being almost a Christian and knew what I wanted to say.  I met with Dr. Jordan, my minister, and he gave me a lesson on how to preach with illustrations.  I made a point of adding them herein.  I got off script, and spoke about each.  Holy Spirit helped me with this one and I think it went well.  Good lesson and it definitely speaks to me!

Almost a Christian

Acts 26: 28-29 “Agrippa says to Paul, “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?” Paul replies “Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am.”

So what does it mean to become a Christian?  We are all familiar with John 3:16 that says God gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.  So of course, a Christian is someone who has given his life to Christ, believes that Jesus was the son of God, who died for our sins, so that we may have eternal life with Him.

My question for you today is this:  Is that all there is to it?

We believe that when someone truly accepts Christ as his/her personal savior, than we become spiritually reborn, forgiven of our sins, and able to have a personal relationship with God.  But what does that mean?  How is this expressed in our everyday lives?  What does it mean to become such as Paul became?

Illustration:  I remember time when my wife Tracey and I were at our lowest point.  It was in the spring of 2002.  Baby, Autism, depression, I wondered, “Is this all there is?”  She said, we are going to church.  We did, and I learned that I was not what I thought I was.  Christian in beliefs, but not in service.  Christian by word, not by deed.  Saved, but stuck in my ways, no personal relationship with God, I guess you could say I was a baby Christian.  I had been born again, but I hadn’t progressed beyond that point. 

How many people are stuck where I was?  Christians, but not fully experiencing the great love of Christ, of having a real and personal relationship with God? 

Of course there is another type of person.  A good person, who has never accepted Christ as their savior.

Most people in the world today are not evil.  They go about their busy lives, helping others when they can, seeking justice when it’s not too difficult, most don’t steal, commit crimes, or are out to hurt others.  Good people, but being good doesn’t make them a Christian.  There are even some really good people who work daily to feed the hungry and help those in need as part of their everyday lives, but they don’t know Christ.  Indeed this is what Christians are called to do, so they are not far off the mark, but they are still only almost Christians.
Who could not study the life of the Buddha or Ghandi and not be impressed with their righteous ideas of treating others with respect and dignity?  Great human beings, but not Christians. 

You know these two types of people, the baby or almost Christians and the good, non-believers, both may work hard to do good works for others.  They may seem to be Godly people in their actions and their lives.  The Christian may even attend church, partake of Communion, and even try to lead others to Christ.  They may have a prayer life and practice the forms of religion.  But they are missing out on the greatest aspect of being a Christian.  A personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  John Wesley, the founder of Methodism said, “They need sincerity and the faith to truly accept Christ in their lives.  Sincerity is the inward principle of belief in Christ.  It is from this faith, this true belief, that our Christian actions flow.  For indeed, if we don’t have this crucial faith in Christ, we are just good people, maybe we are only almost Christians. 

Illustration:  John Wesley’s life:  Raised in the Anglican Church, became a minister, came to America, failed, ran out of town, escaped back to England.  He doubted his Faith, his calling, He did not have a personal relationship with God, and he referred to himself as an almost Christian.  Then he went to Aldersgate, heard the word, felt God’s touch, and came to understand that God wants more for us.  He wants a personal relationship with each one of us.  That when Jesus suffered and died on that cross, he died for each one of us, individually.  In other words, if you had been the only one who would have accepted him as your savior, he loved you enough to die for you.  This realization of God’s overwhelming, divine, and personal love for us is the key to growing in the faith. 

We all need to first accept Christ as our personal savior, then we need to accept the personal relationship God offers us in our lives. To become an authentic, fully developed Christian.  We are all in the process of being sanctified by the Lord.  That is growing in the faith to gain in understanding of God in our lives both inwardly in our souls, and outwardly in our lives. 

We, as Christians should truly know the love of God.  We are taught the greatest commandment by Jesus when he said, “Love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”  Such a love fills our hearts with affection for all mankind, and fills our souls to capacity in our love for Jesus.  Such a Christian has a spirit that continually rejoices in God the Savior.  He delights in the Lord, in the Lord’s creation, and his/her desire is to serve god in all aspects of their lives.  This person is a servant to all, not seeking personal glory, but seeking to extend the kingdom of God.  Wesley said this kind of Christian dwells “in love, dwells in God, and God in him.”

The second greatest commandment according to Christ is to love thy neighbor as yourself. So who are our neighbors?  Every person in the world for every child is God’s child.  This includes our enemies, the enemies of God, and any who stand against us.  We are called to love even those who are hard to love.  We are to love them as Christ loved us. Paul explained this type of love for us.  He described it as a love that is “long suffering and kind.”  It does not envy others, it is not rash or hasty, and does not judge others.  It is not puffed up with pride, but makes us the least of mankind, a servant to all.  This person seeks to do good to all others that they might be saved.  We are called to reflect Christ to all we meet wherever we may go.  Love is not wrathful, thinks of no evil, and rejoices in the truth.  This kind of love covers all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things in the name of the Lord.

That my friends is the new law of Christ.  Love God, love each other.  Finally the authentic Christian is to have faith that Jesus is the savior of mankind, to trust in a personal relationship with God, and to witness through our actions, not just our words.

Authentic Christians, according to Wesley, not only believe that the Holy Scripture and the Articles of our Faith are true, but also have a sure trust and confidence to be saved by Christ.  That we are reconciled through the blood of the lamb at Calvary. 

So the big question today is, are you a non believing good person who needs to accept Christ today, or are you a baby Christian who needs to grow in the sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit, or are you an authentic Christian who reflects Christ throughout his/her life? Ask yourself:  Do I practice justice, mercy, and truth as God would have me do it?  Do I act like a Chrsitian but do not have true faith?  Do I look for ways to do good and help others?  Do I keep the word of God and do as Jesus instructed not to judge, but to love others and to represent Christ on earth to them, so that they might come to know the power and saving grace of God?  Do I do all these things with the sincere desire to please God in every aspect of my life?

Have you gone that far in your walk with Christ? Have you been good at being almost a Christian?  Has God seen true sincerity and faith in you?  Where do you devote your time and your money?  Do you reflect Christ to a hurting world where ever you go and whatever you do?

If you need to accept Christ as your savior, want to rededicate your life to Him, or simply want to speak to me about a personal relationship with him, I invite you to come down during the last hymn, or you can simply pray and worship where you are.  I pray that we may all experience what it means to be a true and authentic Christian, justified by his Free grace, forgiven our sins, and knowing eternal peace and joy rejoicing in the Glory of our God, so that he may fill our hearts with the Holy Spirit and lead us where he would have us go.  Amen.

Grace Revival

I was invited to preach at an old time Saturday all day revival.  It was on my heart to talk about grace, love, and acceptance of all people.  Here it is:

Hello all my brothers and sisters.  It’s wonderful to be here with ya’ll today to worship our Lord, to break bread together, and to love each other.  It’s amazing to think how awesome all this is, considering we are all base sinners.

 Does that shock you?  All these wonderful preachers and muscians that have come before you today.  They are sinners too.  I am.  We all are.  See we have all sinned and fallen short of the Lord.  I don’t care that we all try to be good, do good works, and go to church or come out here in fellowship.  We can never measure up to earn our way to heaven.  I always think of those signs  at rides at theme parks that say, “you must be this tall to ride this ride.”  I remember when I was a kid at Six Flags in Dallas being mad that I was just an inch shy and couldn’t ride the ride.  Anyone else ever have that experience?  Have you ever wanted to be included in a group, a club, or an organization, but never quite fit in, measured up, or was good enough, popular enough to be included?  Then I’m talking to you today.  If you are one of the popular, successful people who never experienced any of what I’m talking about, then I’m really talking to you today!

My friends, we live in a fallen world, we live in a sinful state.  None of us deserve eternal life with our Holy God.  The ancient Hebrews understanding of the word Holy is “set apart” .  God is Holy, He is set apart, he is perfect Goodness and perfect Love and perfect Justice.  No human being can measure up.  We are always divided and set apart from God’s Holiness as we cannot be purely good, show perfect love, or live according to the law.  We cannot live without sin.  We can try.  We can devote our lives to living as good as we can, but we always fall short of perfection.  Some of us may live better than others, and some of us don’t even try.  My prayer is for those of us that know we need to change and need help, and for those of us who think they don’t.  We all sin.

So what is sin? Dictionaries often define it as a transgression against a religious or moral law; deliberate disobedience to the will of God; or a condition of estrangement from God resulting in disobedience that is often shameful, deplorable, or utterly wrong.

My understanding is that sin is when mankind makes a choice to be disobedient to God’s will, to separate from Him, to live without Him, to break the relationship with God.  We do this by choosing to do things that hurt our relationship with God.  When we put other things before doing His will, we hurt that relationship.  For instance, we may choose sex, work, drinking, drugs, or anything that is purely ego-centric that does nothing to further the kingdom of God.  These things may be crimes, but they do not have to be.  Sins may be small sins like lying, lusting, addictions but it could also be murder and rape. Big or small, they are all sins.  They all violate the holiness of God and hurt our relationship with Him.

Adam and Eve willingly sinned against God.  They made a choice to taste the Tree of Knowledge, and in so doing broke the relationship man had with God.  If a wife or husband lies to their spouse, does this hurt the marriage relationship?  Of course it does.  The same is true here.  To make sin even worse, it is in direct opposite of God’s Love.  In effect God cannot look upon sin, as it is an anathema to His divine character. 

So man chooses to break the relationship with God, to deny God’s will for our lives, to live in a selfish, egotistical lifestyle that is man centered, not God centered.  So now God cannot look upon us, as man has basically divorced himself from God.  Sin has caused the death of man, the end our spiritual relationship with God, and the death of our bodies.  And don’t think that Christians are immune to sin!  Paul writes in Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fallen short of God.”  Sin is universal.  Romans 5:12 states “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all have sinned.”  Those who live self-righteous, outwardly pious lives are not better than anyone else in God’s eyes, as “There is none righteous, no, not one.” (Romans 3:10).  So we chose to live apart, to not follow God’s will, and selfishly seek our own earthly things such as power, money, sex, and influence.  This all leads to death, destruction, and nothing we make or do on this earth will last forever.  So what can we do about it?  What can Man do?  Nothing!  It is not in our power to fix this problem.  This is what we mean by man living in a fallen state. You can’t be good enough, do enough, love enough, sacrifice enough, tithe enough, to earn your way to heaven, or to heal the broken relationship with God.

But like a good parent, God allowed us to try.  He created the Law and allowed man to try to live righteous lives under it, to sacrifice, to tithe, to keep His commandments.  But it was impossible.  Man couldn’t do it, and the Old Testament proves mans failure at this time and time again.  The problem is that now that we have knowledge of Good and Evil, sin is beguiling, enticing, sexy, and deceitful.  It makes us believe that we don’t need a relationship with God.

So, the relationship is broken, we can’t fix it, all mankind is doomed for our own love of the earthly things.  Do are we eternally doomed to death?  Is the God of Love done with us?  Is there no hope?

My friends I bring you Good News!  The Greatest News ever shared.  All your sins are forgiven.  All your brokenness may be healed.  God became human, lived amongst us, experienced our emotions and feelings, taught us wisdom, and then died brutally on a cross meant for you and me as punishment for our sins.  He was an innocent lamb, sinless, but sacrificed so that you and I may be reestablished in a personal relationship with God.  We are redeemed in the blood of the lamb.  Forgiven, the sins which once stained us, are clean, our chains are broken, we are set free.

  See, the greatest love ever shown was given to humanity by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  Because through it all, everything truly goes back to God seeking us.   It’s not what man has done to reach God.  It’s what God has done to reach us.

  God wanted a relationship with us. He wanted us and loved us so much, that he sent a part of Himself to become human to repair our relationship with him. Think about this. It’s all about God seeking Man. It is not about what man can do to achieve or be worthy of God. In Christianity there is nothing we human beings can do to be worthy of Heaven, of a relationship with the Creator of everything. He sought us and is still seeking us. That’s amazing and one of a kind in the religions of the world. That’s Grace. God seeking us. God seeking you.

 Hear me once more, as I want to make this perfectly clear: Jesus, though fully human, was sinless. He was obedient to God’s will and as such became the sacrifice necessary to pay the costs of our sins (death), so that we might have eternal, glorious life with God. He died on a cross for the redemption of our sins. He paid the cost of our sins. My sins. Your sins.

He suffered and died on that cross for me, for you, for all humanity for all times and places. But you want to hear something that will blow your mind? He would have done it just for you. If you were the only one willing to follow him, accept him, he would have suffered all that, for you.

As he was dying, he asked God to “forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

And he died. 

Three days later he was resurrected and defeated sin and death, thereby establishing a permanent relationship between people who accept Him into their heart and the God of everything.  Remember that God couldn’t look upon sin?  Once you accept Christ as your savior, accept Him to live within you, you become a changed person.  Christians say you have been reborn.  Now when God looks upon you, he sees Christ.  Your sins have been forgiven, you have been redeemed, the eternal relationship between God and man has been restored.

With Christ you do measure up.  You can be part of the Body of Christ.  God is calling each of us.  No sin is too great for God to heal, to restore us into that relationship our hearts yearn for. 

God Seeking Us. God Seeking you. That’s grace. Do you have grace? Do you know him? Do you want to? Simply ask Him into your life.  Tell Him you want a relationship with Him.  Perhaps you have never truly known the love of Christ.  Perhaps you have gone through the motions of Christianity, but have never truly understood or accepted his gift of grace.  That tug you feel upon your heart is God talking to you.  Remember none of us are good enough.  No not one.  But through Jesus all are made perfect, all are redeemed.    Everyone one of us is offered the gift of grace.  It is not a society of saints that Jesus seeks. Matthew 11:19  speaks of Christ being The Son of Man, feasting and drinking, and you say, 'He's a glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and other sinners!' But wisdom is shown to be right by its results."  Mathew 9:13 says, “Go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”  Jesus came to seek and save what was lost, Let me finish with this from 1st timothy: “This is a faithful statement and worthy of our full acceptance, To this world the Messiah came, sinful people to reclaim.”

No one is worthy of God’s love, but he loves us anyway.  All of us. You don’t have to look right, dress right, vote right, have the right job, live the best life.  You can be the absolute worst amongst us, and God will forgive you.  He will show you grace.  He will accept you and love you.

You will be amazed at the transformation, the peace, and the hope and the joy that He offers you.

Please consider this Good News and wherever you go, share the love of Christ with everyone you meet.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

When Men Fear a Child: Truth Always Wins!

This is partly taken from today's sermon by Dr. Todd Jordan of the First United Methodist Church of Caldwell:

"I have the right to education."
"I have the right to play."
"I have the right to sing."
"I have the right to talk."
"I have the right to go to market."
"I have the right to speak up."

These are the words 14-year-old Pakistani Malala Yousufzai wrote that put her on the hit list for the Taliban.

 To which the Oh-So-Brave sounding spokesperson for the Taliban responded, "We do not tolerate people like Malala speaking against us."

About a week and a half ago in the Taliban-heavy region of Swat Valley in Pakistan, armed gumen pulled over a van on its way to a girl's school.  When Malala was identified, they shot her.

Amazingly, she lived.  She fights for her life in a hospital in Birmingham, England.

The Taliban have stated that if she survives, they will attempt to finish her off.

Their (the Taliban's) plan to suppress girls is backfiring. Whatever they thought they were doing is not, and will not work.  People all over the world are rising up and becoming all the more determined to fight for freedom and rights for girls and boys all over the world.

Even other children are more determined than ever to make sure they go to school and get an educations.

The best response I read yet comes from a Pakistani professor who teaches at the University in Maryland said, "Just as the Taliban scare us with terror, we must scare them by making them unable to operate...We must terrorize them by investing more than ever before in educating girls."

We as Christians must affirm and support such cries for justice and freedom wherever and however it shows up.  This is what Christ calls us to do.  We must not back down in fear, nor allow others to be bullied.  We must use weapons greater than guns, we must, like Malala, speak the truth, even in the face of death.

In one of her interviews, Malala said, "God will ask you on the day of judgement where were you when people were asking you when your school fellows were asking you, when your school was asking you, 'Why am I being blown up?"

Someone asked are they really that afraid of a little girl?  Are all those grown men, trained fighters armed with more weapons than you can count, really that afraid of the words of a little 14 year old girl?

Yes.  Yes, they are.  And do you know what?  They should be!

They should be shaking in their combat boots.  Because when anyone speaks with  the kind of truth and conviction Malala does in the face of almost certain death, she becomes more powerful than the mightiest army, and can accomplish more than any leader, any president, any general, any dictator.

Malala can change the world...because she is right.

She speaks the truth.

Now my (Ed's) commentary extending on these thoughts.  One person can make a difference.  One person, speaking the truth, living his/her convictions can change the world.  Proof?  Ghandi.  Led peaceful protests, was jailed, beaten, threatened, and eventually brought India to freedom from British rule.  Proof?  Rosa Parks.  She refused to give up her seat on a bus, was arrested for being an African-American in a white's only section of a bus, and was threatened with eviction from her home, and death threats.  She started the Modern Civil Rights Movement that would lead to the Equal Rights Act of 1965 forever ending segregation in our nation and guaranteeing equal rights for all people regardless of skin color. Proof? Little Malala.  A 14 year old girl who simply wants basic rights.  What John Locke called the Natural Rights of Man.  What Thomas Jefferson called the Unalienable Rights all people are born with.

All people who want to make the world a better place, all Christians who believe we are called to seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God, must seek justice for all people.  This is a call to action.  It is not action to attack, to judge, or to threaten, it is a call to love!  A call to live the word, in the Word.  To represent Christ to a hurting world.  The true disciple may face threats, violence, and even death, but if you are willing to go where God wills, to do His bidding, to show love to all, to pray for your enemies, and to have faith that God will provide all you need in the journey, than you can change the world.  That's conviction.

Now, back to Dr. Jordan's sermon.  The biggest obstacle to such discipleship is our own nature.  The status quo is safe, it is hard to move forward and seek change.  Ecclesiastes 11:4 states, "Whoever observes the wind will not sow; and whoever regards the clouds will not reap."  In other words, when you wait around for everything to be perfect in order to start, you will never start.  If you are waiting for clear instructions and a plan of action to begin following or serving Jesus, it's never going to happen.

When Jesus asks, "Are you able?" he doesn't mean, do you have the power and strength to live out the Gospel even unto death.  He already knows the answer to that:  No.  We don't.  What does Jesus mean when he asks James and John in Mark, "Are you able?"  He is asking are you willing to go where I say go?  Are you willing to speak what and when I need you to speak?  Are you willing to serve how I need you to serve?  Are you willing to give what I need you to give?  Are you willing to sacrifice what I need you to sacrifice?

Even if it is costly, uncomfortable, or threatening to do so.

Jesus does not need our good intentions.
Jesus does not need our good will.
Jesus does not need our warm fuzzy Christian experiences we get when the band or choir sings our favorite songs.

All of these things are well and good, but not sufficient.

Jesus needs the commitment of those who are willing, those who are faithful, those who are able to follow, then to follow through; for you to stand up and be counted.

A Korean theologian in a Disciples Bible's study video told his story.  He grew up in an orphanage in South Korea during the Korean War.  He remembers a story of how the Communist North Koreans made a sweep of the South and rounded up some Christians.  After given them a hard time with interrogations and intimidation the N. Korean General finally asked, "Are you Christians?" He knew they were, but they all remained silent and simply stared.  Finally one hand was raised.  "Only one? "  He turned to his soldiers, "Take the others and get rid of them.  This is the only one with conviction, the only one worth saving."

We don't know what will be demanded of us--whether it will help us or hurt us.  What's more, we don't know what we will need, and most likely, if it is truly God's call, outside of his grace we won't have what is needed.

All we can do, finally, is go forth in faith.

And so Jesus asks us, "Are you able?"

Pray for those hurting, in the hospital, facing death, mourning, in broken relationships.  Pray for those that believe, and those that do not.  Pray for those, like Malala that are seeking justice.  Pray for the Taliban, that their hearts may change.  Pray for our soldiers in harms way.  Pray for the innocent boys and girls who simply want to be able to speak, get an education, or go to a market.

Remember: You cannot defeat the truth.  The Truth shall set you free.  Seek Justice, Love Mercy, and Walk Humbly with the Lord.