Thursday, November 15, 2018

Welcome for the Weak

Jean Vanier (right) with John Smeltzer, a member of L’Arche Daybreak.
By Courtney Lott –
The first time my friend’s son met my eyes and asked me my name, I almost broke down into an ugly cry in the church foyer. He was around ten-years-old at the time and is autistic. Before I got to know this young man, before I taught him and his siblings swim lessons, before I saw his voracious desire to read anything he could put his hands on, I’m sad to say I probably would have categorized him as weird. Maybe I would have qualified that he was a blessing, but this would have been attached to a series of assumptions about him based on his differences.
I’m grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to get to know him, but I’m afraid others share the hang-ups I used to have. Though we are a far cry from hiding people with intellectual disabilities away in asylums, our churches often struggle to include them in our services, much less our community life.
This is one of the many reasons Jean Vanier began the L’arche community. After witnessing the sadness of one of the French asylums in 1964, Vanier purchased a small home and invited two of the men from the institution to come live with him. This safe haven grew quickly and, in 1968, Vanier was invited to host a retreat in Canada. As a result, he received an offer to start a similar home in Richmond Hill, just north of Toronto, thus starting L’Arche Daybreak.
“What was clear,” Vanier writes in An Ark for the Poor: The Story of L’Arche, “from the very beginning was the aspect of ‘living with’ people who have [intellectual disabilities], a desire to create family with them.”
From there, they expanded across the world, welcoming individuals from multiple religious backgrounds and traditions. Each community roots itself in faith. While some homes focus on a single religion, others are a mixture, and all are welcome whether they ascribe to a certain faith or not. All L’Arche communities strive to develop unity and family.
“Without this spiritual dimension and growth in holiness, L’Arche could become simply another group home,” writes Vanier. “It would lose what makes it unique.”
Through the retreats Vanier continued to offer, countless others were inspired to begin their own communities in which people live and work together. To date, there are 147 such homes, 18 of which are located in the United States.
Striving to live out their mission to “make known the gifts of people who have intellectual disabilities,” L’Arche employees and volunteers work to provide support and guidance unique to each individual’s needs. Those with disabilities who are a part of L’Arche have the ability to live independently or in a household with others and participate in activities and work programs. Together they build relationships, strive for unity, and build a strong sense of home.
L’Arche seeks to help those who are often overlooked in our society. Though they can’t welcome everyone who has a disability, they seek to serve as a sign that a truly human society must be founded on “welcome and respect for the weak and downtrodden.” Such a sign is a powerful reminder to the rest of the world of the dignity God has endowed all individuals, no matter their apparent limitations.

Shoes of Hope

Prayer time at Shoes of Hope. Photo courtesy of Heather Evans.
By Courtney Lott –
Of all the most profound and significant ways in which our Lord Jesus served those around him, cleaning the disciples’ feet is one of the most shocking and scandalous. The God of the universe humbled himself to do a job only the lowest of the low servants performed. Although it is a practice that is foreign to most people in our modern era, Jesus cleaned the dirty feet of men who he knew would abandon him a few hours later. As he so often did, Christ weaved together a lesson and an example, teaching us about how he purifies us, and showing us how we ought to serve each other.
Following in the curve of Christ’s humble and loving posture, Grace Church, a multi-site United Methodist congregation in Southwest Florida, has been blessing hundreds of families through their ministry, Shoes of Hope, since 2011. This back-to-school outreach event invites members of the community into the church. Together, they celebrate the coming academic year with a carnival, food, and games. The church also provides children and youth with brand new shoes, school supplies, and their very own Bible. Yet Grace Church goes a step further in serving and affirming the dignity of those who come.
“Once it’s time for them to get their shoes, they have their feet measured, then they are welcomed by their own personal runner, who takes them into the sanctuary to a foot washing station,” says Heather Evans, Grace Church’s Age Level Ministries Director. “Once the child is seated at the foot washing station with their family, the foot washer removes their shoes and starts to ask them how they’re doing, gets to know them a little bit, asks them about their summer and the upcoming school year. And as they’re washing their feet, they tell them a little bit about Jesus and why he washed the disciples feet. And they pray together with the family.”
Through this ministry, dozens of children have made a first time commitment to Jesus Christ, but they are not the only ones who are reached. Single mother Lisa Johnson testifies that she had strayed from God. However, after connecting with Grace Church through Shoes of Hope, the Lord called her back to himself. Now she helps lead a Bible study she started with Evans.
A new pair of shoes does more than protect the feet. They can create a sense of dignity and belonging, something extremely difficult for children and teenagers to find at times. Amber Wellman, another single mom, talks about how difficult it is to find shoes that fit her daughter. With the new pair given to her by Shoes of Hope, she “was ready to show them off to everybody.”
People with every kind of gift help make this ministry possible, Evans says. “It takes about $20 to $25 to sponsor a child, to be able to supply the good quality shoes and school supplies that we provide. [We also have] people behind the scenes before the event ever happens, that help with registration and gathering supplies. On the day of the event, we need so many people to do so many things.”

Reflecting God's Colorful Image

By Courtney Lott –
Our God is a very big God. So big and so creative that a single human never could bear his image perfectly. In his vastness, he uses male and female, black and white, smart and simple, single and married to paint as full a picture as possible of his broad and unsearchable character. In One Blood, Dr. John M. Perkins weaves this truth together with grace and humility, wisdom, and love. He celebrates our ethnic diversity and confronts the sin of racism with both seriousness and gentleness, all the while keeping the gospel of Jesus front and center.
Perkins is a legendary civil rights activist, author, and an evangelical statesman. He is the founder of the famed Voice of Calvary Bible Institute, the Christian Community Development Association, and Harambee Ministries.
Perkins deftly frames his appeal by drawing from scripture. We are ultimately one race, one bright and shining reflection of the Godhead. However, in order to justify slavery and subsequent racial structures, we did some illogical leapfrogging. Though steeped in the idea that all individuals are created equal, the slave’s dignity was downplayed in the worst possible sense. This is where the social construction of race came into play.
“[T]here had to be distinctions made between normal folks and this new breed of people that would be treated like animals,” Perkins writes. “The truth is that there is no black race – and there is no white race. So the idea of ‘racial reconciliation’ is a false idea. It’s a lie. It implies that there is more than one race. This is absolutely false. God created only one race – the human race.”
One blood, one race of people who, in all their diversity, produce a more complete picture of the godhead. When I first began to learn about ethnic reconciliation (a phrase Perkins considers more accurate than racial reconciliation), the sheer idea overwhelmed me. But in One Blood, Perkins lays out practical steps and devotes an entire chapter to each.
The Measuring Line. Perkins begins with a measuring line, a standard for what the church ought to look like. Citing the great congregation from every tribe, tongue, and nation as seen by John in Revelation 7, he describes experiencing a “prelude to heaven” while visiting Bridgeway Community Church, a multiethnic congregation in Columbia, Maryland.
For Perkins, Bridgeway was a “picture of the oneness and the diversity of the body of Christ … a physical representation of it,” he writes. “And it was glorious! The melting of the cultures was beautiful; the blend of ethnicities was evident across the ranks of the leadership and the membership. And the music carried me away. I saw echoes of the great congregation that will stand around the throne shouting ‘Holy, Holy, Holy! Worthy is the lamb!’”
This particular church modeled biblical, ethnic reconciliation, a vital part of the gospel, according to Perkins. Though Christ came primarily to restore our relationship with God the Father, he also came to restore our relationships with each other. Neglecting this aspect of the kingdom is a grave mistake and does a disservice to Christ’s work.
“This vision for unity is borne on the wings of the good news of the gospel. It’s good news and it’s for all the people,” writes Perkins. “It’s the good news that Luke proclaimed, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord!’ (Luke 2:10-11). This supernatural announcement is one of the most compelling signs that God intends for His gospel to reach all nations and cultures.”
Angels announced this good news to shepherds first. As social outcasts and caretakers of sheep, they understood their need for a sacrificial lamb, understood what it felt like to be on the margins. Never meant to be an exclusive club, Perkins reminds us that the kingdom of heaven is for all peoples, including those we might be biased against. This message the angels brought was one of hope and reconciliation, both with God and our fellow man.
Looking Back on History. Though the United States started with the idea of equality for all, we quickly got off track, Perkins says. In order to justify slavery, many used the social construction of race, focusing on the ways in which we are different. However, a close look at what scripture has to say about humanity reveals we are far more alike than our physical attributes might indicate. Perkins sites the creation of Adam in his argument that we are, in fact, one race.
“I understood from the Genesis account God’s intimate interaction with Adam when he created him, breathing into him the very breath of life,” writes Perkins. “I understood that God was literally breathing dignity and character into this man Adam … From this one man, Adam, who was created in the very image of God, the entire human race sprang.” 
Both scripture and science have been abused in order to perpetuate race theory, a concept that is foundational to racism and countless other ills. These wrongs run deep and at times appear insurmountable. There is, however, hope and Perkins has experienced it personally. After experiencing severe abuse – civil rights arrest and brutality – in his native Mississippi, he never thought he would be able to return to his hometown and the people who wronged him.
Then he met Jesus. “I left Mississippi with hate in my heart,” Perkins writes. “God brought me back with a heart that was overflowing with his love. I had been reconciled to Christ, and he prepared me to return to Mississippi to be reconciled to my white brothers and sisters.”
The love of Christ, the “ultimate reconciler,” is our only hope when it comes to achieving the unity we are called to. This is the foundation upon which Perkins builds the rest of the book. Reconciliation that works is based on the gospel.
One aspect of the gospel we often overlook is the call to corporate lament. As those brought up on the idea of individualism and the American dream, this heavy concept of corporately mourning can be uncomfortable, if not painful. However, if we are to be true to the Scriptures we know and love, we must face the reality that Christ calls us to lament. Though looking back on past shame is difficult, confronting our history is often the only way to move forward.
“Scripture was never intended to be used solely for individual application,” Perkins writes. “It was meant for the community of believers. The psalms of lament were meant to be tools in the community worship experience to bring the worshipers into the presence of our God. The lament is his gift to us, his church.”
Confession goes hand in hand with lament. It is in this section that Perkins explains the term “white privilege”— a highly divisive and potentially polarizing term — in a helpful way. Many white Christians might need to confess denying that racism exists and that we benefit from our skin color, he writes. As this is difficult to address without offending, Perkins draws a parallel to the privilege of being a citizen of the United States.
“Through no fault or responsibility of our own, most of us were born in the United States of America,” he writes. “Though poverty does exist in America it exists at a level far above the level of poverty in a Third World country. This could be termed ‘American privilege.’ We are afforded certain advantages just because we live in America. It’s not something that we should feel guilty about, but it is important for us to be aware of these realities … In a similar way being white in this country affords certain advantages that can be easily overlooked.”
We have tried to create God in our own image, says Perkins. Whatever makes us the most comfortable — liberal, conservative, Western, white — we remake Jesus into something that he is not: safe and sanitary. Fear drives us to this mistake and, according to Perkins, this is something else we must confess as sin. White individuals fear losing their power and status, black individuals fear the endless hard work that often doesn’t seem to bear fruit.
But God. Perkins’ refrain is always “but God.” But God’s word speaks into our fears and calls us to the perfect love that casts out all fear. God’s love can empower us to be uncomfortable and reach across the aisle, extending our hearts to one another. It also grants us the power to forgive in a way the world will sit up and notice.
As a profound example of this, Perkins sites the way the congregants of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, reacted to Dylann Roof, the young white supremacist who opened fire on a Bible study there.
“At Dylann Roof’s bond hearing, the relatives of the victims stood to address him,” Perkins writes. “‘I forgive you.’ ‘I forgive you.’ ‘I forgive you.’ These three words were spoken again and again as the family members of the Charleston church victims spoke to the accused. It was clear that they were struggling with deep emotion and grief. Yet they chose to forgive rather than to hate … many of them saying that they were praying for his soul. The nation watched, spellbound.”
This church’s example was an incredible witness to the world of just how powerful God’s love is. Forgiveness is a painfully difficult thing. It means letting go of resentment for a deep wrong others have committed against you or your loved ones. This is only possible through the power of the Holy Spirit who inhabits the heart of every believer, Perkins writes, and even with this power, it is still no easy path.
The Weapon of Our Warfare. Throughout One Blood, Perkins constantly models prayer, a practice he calls the weapon of our warfare. He ends each chapter with a cry to the Lord based on the subject he has written on, guiding the reader on a profound and grace-filled journey through a difficult topic. Pastoral in his counsel, he offers practical topics to help guide us in our appeals to the Holy Spirit for reconciliation.
Moreover, Perkins points to numerous examples of pastors and churches that have sought this kind of reconciliation. Motivated by the love of Christ, these men and women have developed more diverse congregations in their communities and strived to better image the great multitude from Revelation.
“It’s going to take intentionally multiethnic and multicultural churches to bust through the chaos and confusion of the present moment and redirect our gaze to the revolutionary gospel of reconciliation,” Perkins writes. “I really believe that each of our souls yearn for this vision. We want it. We know in our heart of hearts that it is right.”

Friday, November 03, 2017

We Need Each Other

“But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh” (Mark 10:6-8).
What a beautiful and frightening thing marriage is. Two souls on a journey, joining to carry each other’s burdens, to know one another deeply, to image the relationship between Christ and the church in a unique way, and to be fruitful and multiply. It’s fitting that weddings are celebrations, that family and friends gather before God to rejoice in a covenantal relationship, the creation of a new, single flesh.
As the bride walks down the aisle, resplendent in white, we are reminded of John’s description of Jerusalem in Revelation 21 “coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” We are reminded of how Christ sacrificed himself in order to clothe the church for her wedding day. We clap, we sing, we dance, we cry.
Most of these tears are free and full of happiness. Yet some are tears of longing, tears of fading hope, of loneliness. Torn between joy for friends and mourning for the feeling of being slightly displaced, these are the tears of the single, the divorced, the same sex attracted.
The Single. “We just need to get you married.”
I never quite know how to respond to such statements about my relationship status. Often thrown about with nonchalance, I don’t doubt the purveyors of such declarations mean well. They listen to my story, hear my words, and are sympathetic. Yet their solution is often the same: “We just need to get you married” as if this is as simple as finding a new pair of shoes, as if this always solves the problem of loneliness.
Within our culture, both Christian and secular, romantic relationships are held in high esteem. The secular culture snickers at virginity, slapping on the label of prude, while Christian culture assumes older singles are immature or too picky.
In movies, participation in one is often portrayed as a sign that the main character – once a stagnant workaholic/sad social pariah – has now arrived at life’s deepest meaning and will prance off into the sunset to be forever happy and contented. Phrases like “old maid,” “biological clock,” or “ending up alone” are hung around the necks of singles past a certain age.
More frustrating still, as our younger counterparts join the ranks of the married, we start to age out of our “allotted places” within the church. In my experience, most “singles ministries” are occupied by college students or recent grads. Anyone beyond this is semi-unwelcome, considered at least somewhat awkward, and makes everyone uncomfortable. I know, because when I was just out of college, I felt the same way about older singles. The plank in my own eye is a big one.
Who Sinned? As for our married counterparts, a great many (at least in the south) married young, right out of college or even prior to walking across the stage. Their claims to understanding our singleness ring somewhat hollow and their declarations that we simply need to be “content in the Lord” before he will bring us the right person sting.
There is a sort of unspoken assumption made based on this idea. Like the barren women in ancient Israel or the blind man in Jesus’ day, it seems as if the single is often viewed as an unfortunate misfit.
And we singles are not alone in this category. Many in the church bear a particularly difficult burden that often brings with it a painful dose of shame.  The divorced often feel that, like Hawthorne’s heroine, they wear a massive scarlet letter “D” wherever they go.
Communicating their experiences is difficult and uncomfortable. One or both separated spouses often must leave their shared church family after the relationship is broken, thus causing even more pain. A joined life is rent in two and the dynamics change. Like the single, the divorced can feel awkward in situations where most people are couples.
The Outcasts. Oddly enough, the writings of celibate same sex attracted Christians reflect my heart and understand my pain far better than anyone else. Writers like Wesley Hill, assistant professor of New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, and editor of the website Spiritual Friendship, speak of building community apart from romantic relationships, of mourning a certain kind of companionship you’ll likely never have. Spiritual Friendship, an online community of Christians who are primarily same sex attracted, embraces “the traditional understanding that God created us male and female, and that his plan for sexual intimacy is only properly fulfilled in the union of husband and wife in marriage.”
However, these writers also desire to change the discussion surrounding homosexuality. Through their blog posts, the contributors speak on “celibacy, friendship, the value of the single life, and similar topics.” Rather than relying on platitudes or the mistaken idea that God’s goal for all of us is marriage, this community laments their situation and challenges the church in a unique way.
I need them. The church needs them.
The Inner Circle. But I’m often too quick to dismiss the trials and tribulations of the married. Sometimes I get irritated when I hear their complaints. At least you’re not alone, I think. At least you’ll be leaving a legacy in your offspring. Yet when I take a moment to listen, to empathize, I realize they have lessons for me. When they tell me they are lonely in marriage, when they admit their children are driving them crazy, or even worse, when they confess to feeling trapped and embittered, I am reminded marriage is never happily-ever-after. It is not the end all be all, and it will not satisfy my deepest longings, for it is not the purpose of the Kingdom of God. I know this in theory, but I don’t really believe it, not functionally.
We all need each other. The married stay-at-home mom needs the single admin assistant. The single bachelor needs the father of 2.5 kids. The barren woman needs the mom with the child who has autism. The ultra conservative pastor needs the same sex attracted Christian columnist. Our different perspectives, our different paths, offer lessons none of us can learn on our own. Rather than dividing ourselves and telling one another “you can’t understand me,” when we share our stories, our tears, our joys, we unite ourselves in a marriage like covenant.
Within the church, no one should ever be truly alone.
This may all seem obvious. We’re the church. Christ died to make her his body. But we don’t always act like we believe this.
When people don’t follow our cultural norms, they make us uncomfortable and we do what we can to “fix the problem.” We try to get the single married, change someone’s sexual orientation, find a way to quiet the distracting child, or give the barren woman a platitude. What if we mourned with each other instead? What if, rather than trying to make ourselves comfortable by changing another person’s situation, we listened a little better?  
I need you. You need me. That’s part of how we reflect the Trinity. We’re made to be relational, even when relationships shove us out of our comfort zones, especially when they shove us out of our comfort zones. Life is hard enough without creating barriers. We’re meant to carry one another’s burdens, to mourn and lament the effects of sin in the world, to love and challenge each other to walk with the Lord.
We need each other.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

For the Love of Widows and Orphans

The family of JT Olsen (second from left, top row), including his adopted daughter Gracie (center, bottom row). Photo: Both Hands.
What would you spend your entire life savings on? Would you buy a house? That car you always wanted? The flow of our money generally reveals where our hearts, our passions, our desires lie. It’s an easy thing to hold onto, like a security blanket, or to toss around with gravitas like a lotto winner. For JT Olson, founder of Both Hands, a faith-based nonprofit that serves orphans and widows, a life savings was something that could be used to save a life.
One of five children, Olson grew up on a small farm in Harper’s Ferry, Iowa. Together with his parents and paternal uncle, the family farmed 380 acres of what he describes as some of the most beautiful land in the entire state. Eight people in a 1,500 square foot home might have been tight, the hours baling hay long, and a half-mile trek to the bus stop (uphill and in the snow) grueling, but Olson also remembers having a lot of fun. Not many children can claim to be allowed to drive before having a driver’s license after all, even if it was just an Oliver tractor.
Then, at the age of twelve, everything changed. On the way back home from celebrating their 16th wedding anniversary, Olson’s parents were killed in a car accident. When his brother told him the news, he simply remembers hitting the floor and crying. “You just don’t realize how much a mom and dad stabilize you,” said Olson. “It’s just one of those things you kind of count on. I know what it’s like to be an orphan, to hear those words ‘mom and dad are dead.’ To wonder what’s going to happen to us, who’s going to take care of us, or where we’re all going to go.”
Fortunately for Olson, three months before the accident his parents had made plans for their children in case anything happened. Therefore, when tragedy hit, the five siblings found a new home with their aunt and uncle, but not before the community gathered around them to help with the farm. “I remember [getting] off the bus … and there were all our neighbors in our fields with their tractors and their plows and their planters and they were planting our crops,” Olson says. “It was like all my dad’s friends were taking care of us. And I realized, this is what you do.”
Jonathan and Amy Whitt and their adopted daughter, Emery.
That sense of community established a desire in Olson to do the same for others caught up in the midst of tragedy. While working with college students for The Southwestern Company, he witnessed how an organization called Bethany Christian Services served young women in difficult situations. When one of his students became pregnant out of wedlock, the Olsons invited her into their home and Bethany came alongside her.
“What I saw, while she was pregnant, was the way Bethany Christian Services came in and ministered to her, helped her figure it out, helped her figure out what to do, and just loved on her,” says Olson. “It’s just a great organization and they didn’t charge her a thing. So when I left Southwestern, I said if I’m going to give my life away in a volunteer position it’s going to be with Bethany.”
During his work with Bethany, Olson participated in a number of fundraisers – such as golf tournaments – to drum up support for the ministry. It wasn’t until a friend refused to donate because he was “simply golfing,” however, that he realized there might be a better way. “He took a magic marker and scribbled on my letter: ‘JT if you told me you were working on a widow’s house I might have sponsored you, but you’re just golfing’,” Olson says. “’Nice cause, but not my money.’”
This got Olson thinking, but it took hearing a friend’s adoption story to convince him to act. About three years later, a man from church named Don told him he planned to adopt four kids from Moldova, an Eastern European country and former Soviet republic, and that it would probably cost around $65,000. It was this that spurred Olson on to organize what would later become the Both Hands ministry.
In order to raise money for the adoption, Olson and more than a dozen other men mailed letters to everyone they knew asking for people to sponsor them while they worked on the home of Ms. Lucile, a widow. The donations to fix the house rolled in. “Local merchants and individuals who loved what we were doing asked how they could help,” recalled Olson. “The only thing we spent money on was stamps. We ended up raising $72,000.”
Ms. Debbie served by a Both Hands project in 2016.
This success led to more opportunities to help widows and orphans. “We started our organization in August of ‘08 and since that time we’ve done 652 projects in 42 states,” Olson says. “723 widows have been served. 793 kids are no longer orphans. And we’ve raised $7.5 million for families for adoption. And of that $7.5 million we haven’t taken anything out for our expenses. I set it up that way. We don’t take anything out. Whenever there’s a project we take out a grant.”
One of these orphans includes the Olson’s daughter, Grace. In spite of his passion for adoption, Olson was initially hesitant to do so himself. Though financially comfortable, they did have four kids of their own and had only their life savings to live on. Then, one Christmas eve, Olson had a revelation in their attic.
“All I see is car seats, strollers, cribs, and I just thought to myself, ‘We’ve got everything we need, what’s wrong with using a life savings to save a life?’,” Olson says. “And that was my watershed moment in my life that made me realizes what’s important. What burns and what doesn’t burn.”
By the next July, they received a referral for a girl from China who they planned to name Gracie. Later on they found out that Grace was, in fact, the name an orphan worker had decided to call the little girl who’d been left on their doorstep. Now, whenever people ask why they went to China for their daughter, Olson says that this was where Grace was.

A Peek Behind the Curtain

Civil rights leader John M. Perkins, founder and President Emeritus of the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation-Jackson, MS. Photo courtesy of Voice of Calvary.
“I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” (Revelation 7:9-10 NASB)
In John’s vision of the kingdom of God we are presented with a very diverse picture of its citizens. The worshippers come from every race, every language, every nation. Far from monochromatic, the kingdom of Heaven is an undoing of Babel, a breaking of barriers, the unification of Christ’s body. But when we look at our churches today, at our congregations, what do we see? Though in many ways the church has taken great strides against racism, the after effects of old structures and mindsets remain like fingerprints on a mirror. As Christians, we are called to take a sober look at these things. Racial reconciliation is hard, but thankfully, many have undertaken to aid the church in this difficult journey. The following books are helpful perspectives for this conversation. Each voice is different and offers its own unique angle.
Holding Up Your Corner
For situations fraught with sensitivity, practical guidance is essential. In Holding up Your Corner, the Rev. F. Willis Johnson, a United Methodist pastor, provides wisdom and insight. Offering helpful definitions and sober advice that is practical rather than preachy, this book equips leaders and readers to approach racial reconciliation with grace. Through his accounts of the racial strife in Ferguson, Missouri, and similar events, Johnson gives his audience the unique experience of seeing the world through his eyes.
“Once we have acknowledged someone’s humanity, we can move on to affirmation – respecting their humanity,” Johnson writes. “Hear this: affirmation is neither an act of complicity nor condemnation. Affirming someone’s experience – their humanity in their own experience – does not mean you approve their ideology or behavior. We can love people without agreeing with them. That bears repeating: we can love people without agreeing with them. In the words of Howard Thurman, ‘Hatred does not empower, it decays. Only through self-love and love for one another can God’s justice prevail.’ In short, affirmation is a willingness to emphasize our interdependence and commonality over our difference.”
Holding up Your Corner is carefully rooted in the scriptural idea of balancing both justice and mercy, truth and grace, the practical and prophetic. It reaches out with gentleness and humility that challenges the reader in such a way as to promote conversation rather than dampen it. Johnson’s humble way of engaging his audience invites engagement rather than shutting it down. This book is a desperately needed guide through the difficult terrain that the church now faces in regard to loving the “other.”
Unashamed, the autobiography of mega-star Christian rapper, Lecrae, holds as its central concept the need for acceptance. From the first page, the writing conveys the painful sting of rejection. The reader can’t help but wince through the author’s childhood abandonment issues and heartache, then rejoice at the acceptance found in Christ. Yet Lecrae offers a starkly honest picture of his conversion and doesn’t shy from sharing his struggles with sanctification.
As a poetic artist, Lecrae makes a distinction between a “Pastor Rapper” and that of a “lamenter” – a passionate expression of grief or sorrow that is an outgrowth of his youth and the abandonment he felt. When he was free from trying to preach like a “Pastor Rapper,” Lecrae felt the words and rhythms flow when he allowed himself to be vulnerable and honest about his own battles.
Lecrae describes his unique position within the industry and how it provides him with the opportunity to reach people others might not be able to. He writes: “Operating as a ‘Pastor Rapper’ was hard work for me because it wasn’t playing to my strengths. Rather than letting the music pour out of me when the inspiration came, I would spend hours studying beforehand … Being theologically educated is a great thing. And using music to explicitly express theology is needed. But I mistakenly believed it was the only way to make music. On the rare occasion, however, I would let go and let the ‘lamenter’ in me come out. When I did – when I let Lecrae just be Lecrae – it would spark magic… Rather than make myself the winner, I allowed myself to be the loser… People wrote to say how much that song impacted them because it was real and vulnerable. And this was one of the first moments I began to wonder if maybe God was calling me to make a shift in my music and begin producing new songs that were truer to how I was naturally made.”
Who Lynched Willie Earle?
Centered around a specific event, Who Lynched Willie Earle approaches the issue of race from a historical standpoint. Bishop Will Willimon creatively reimagines Pastor Hawley Lynn’s thought process leading up to his sermon condemning the lynching of a black man accused, but not convicted, of murder. Pastor Lynn confronted his own congregation with the mindset he believed led to the lynching, the deeply ingrained attitudes that allowed the mob to pervert “democratic justice” and execute Willie Earle.
Willimon, prolific author and retired United Methodist bishop, proceeds to analyze the sermon. Not only does he take into consideration the history of America, but also connects this with Israel, the Gentiles, and the kingdom of God. Willimon also points out Pastor Hawley’s own blind spots, in which he failed to address systemic, institutional racism. In this, Willimon says, the church was able to “disassociate themselves from the sin and to bolster their confidence in Jim Crow.” In spite of his failings, Willimon calls Pastor Hawley’s sermon “heroic homiletics”.
“Though these sociological and historical facts about racism are significant, race is a specifically Christian problem because of the God we are attempting to worship and to obey,” Willimon writes. “In the gospel, we are given the means to be color-courageous, to talk about matters our culture would rather keep silent. That you have persevered this far in this book suggests you are exercising a bravery that is not self-derived. Paul says that, in God’s realm, Jews and Greeks, slave and free, ‘You all are one in Jesus Christ’ (Galatians 3:28). It is a baptismal call, not for color-blindness or arguing that gender or race are inconsequential, but rather a theological affirmation that Jesus Christ enables a new eschatological community where conventional, worldly signifiers don’t mean what they meant in the kingdoms of this world.”
Dream with Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win
Like Unashamed, Dr. John Perkins’ approach is extremely personal and humble. In spite of this, he does not shy away from calling out injustice and racism. Quoting Frederick Douglas and sighting the stark reality of his own experience with segregation, Perkins focuses on the “walls that have kept black people and white people apart, even in places where we had so much in common.”
“Anyone who knows my story would expect this book to ooze with justice issues. After all, the pain caused by injustice has motivated me to spend a lifetime working for social change on behalf of widows, prisoners, the poor, and anyone who struggles,” writes Perkins, the civil rights veteran who has led the Voice of Calvary Ministries in Jackson, Mississippi, since 1975. “So how did someone who has experienced the anguish of poverty, racism, and oppression end up wanting to write a book about love as his climactic message? Good question… I’ve come to understand that true justice is wrapped up in love. God loves justice and wants His people to seek justice (Psalms 11 and Micah 6:8). But I’ve come to understand that true justice is wrapped up in love. The old-time preacher and prophet A.W. Tozer had a way of making the most profound truths simple and palatable. He once said, ‘God is love, and just as God is love, God is justice.’ That’s it! God’s love and justice come together in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, and we can’t be about one and not the other. They’re inextricably connected.”
Perkins takes a strong look at motivation. By keeping in mind questions about his own choices, he tempers his assessment with a great deal of grace and mercy. Perkins challenges parents to be mindful of the way that education choices may have a positive or negative effect on black children in public schools. Additionally, he asserts that integrating our churches is at the very heart of the gospel, the very heart of 2 Corinthians 5:19.
If we want to work toward racial reconciliation in a country that desperately needs it, if we desire to share the love of Christ with all nations, we must take steps to build empathy for our brothers and sisters. The books on this list are testimonies, a mere peek behind the curtain, but they may also serve as first steps. Ultimately, God alone through Jesus Christ can accomplish this. Racism, comparison, pride, arrogance, greed all root deep down in the hearts of man. But thanks be to God that he does not leave us in this sad state!

Gorgeous Chaos

Photo provided by
Photo provided by
Chaos gets a bad rap. We cling to order and calm, presenting nice, tidy images of ourselves worthy of Facebook and Instagram and Pinterest. Behind them we hide, loathe to let others see what’s on the other side of the curtain. Yet, it’s often when things are upturned, broken, and exposed that we experience true growth and change. In her book, A Beautiful Mess, author Danielle Strickland suggests that God actually uses chaos to transform our lives and draw us closer to him.
A major in The Salvation Army in Los Angeles and an Ambassador for the global anti-trafficking campaign Stop the Traffik, Strickland knows how messy life can get better than most. Through her own encounter with the Lord and her ministry to brothels, she is intensely familiar with the ugly, dirty chaos of this world. Rather than run from it, Strickland chooses to embrace it.
“My experience of life with God is messy,” she says in her introduction. “It’s a mix of failure and success, courage and fear, faith and doubt. It’s-well, a beautiful mess…It’s beautiful because it’s a witness to the creative design of God’s love in the here and now of our lives. My life doesn’t look anything like it once did…I’ve been re-created by a designer who loves to recycle.”
This serves as a thesis statement for the rest of the book. What follows are stories of God working through the chaos of people’s lives to accomplish his good purposes. Interwoven between these is Strickland’s ongoing exhortation to embrace the messes we encounter rather than try to hide or cover them up.
One of the strongest points of A Beautiful Mess is the probing questions Strickland asks, and she starts right out of the gate in the first chapter. “What if the pursuit of order has created a love of the status quo and has removed the passion for justice? What if we have made a friend of comfort instead of change and as a result removed ourselves from the responsibility that demands that we fight for change to happen?”
Throughout the book, Strickland continues to prod the reader with these types of questions. They cause the audience to stop, to think, to reconsider. In harmony with her premise, this upends the nice little boxes we might have stacked neatly in our minds, creating the kind of discomfort that challenges long held beliefs. Somewhat ironically, she also adds orderly numbered questions at the end of each chapter as well, making it easy to use in a discussion group.
Chaos, Strickland says, is necessary to create something; and, in fact, an over devotion to order actually leads to breakdown. She writes, “If instead of clinging desperately to order we allow God to set the priorities, then the divine can and does speak a different kind of order into existence that promises permanent and lasting meaning for us personally and in the work that we are a part of.”
It can feel like chaos to give up control, to wait on the Lord’s voice and His timing, and it requires a healthy dose of courage. According to Strickland, however, it is only when we wrench our grip from the wheel and hand it over to the Lord that we can enter real life. Of the many stories the author tells in A Beautiful Mess, one of the most profound is a story that starts with an affair. After catching her husband being unfaithful, a friend of Strickland’s found her entire life turned upside down. Yet amidst the chaos and mess, she sought out the Lord. It was then that he led her to Africa. From what seemed to be a dead end, God used this woman to serve widows and orphans in desperate need of her gifts. Stories like this remind the audience that there is a bigger picture; that on the other side of messy suffering is a new path, renewed life.
“What is emerging from her chaos is something so beautiful and rich and different than her life would have been,” writes Strickland. “She now has the ability to look back and see that even the chaos was an opportunity to see God’s order emerge in her life. Even the darkness helped her [move] toward God’s Divine Order for her life.”
Chaos also often uncovers the truth we hide from, Strickland says. An experience in Russia just after the collapse of the Soviet Union taught her about the failures of scientific and orderly modernity to answer the deep internal questions. Strickland learned from her Russian translator, Olga, that the government had fed the people many lies to make them believe that things were good. Everything appeared neat and tidy on the outside, but the eventual collapse made it evident that this was not true. The citizens of the Soviet Union chose to believe the lies they were fed until the chaos forced them to see the truth.
Strickland writes, “It is sometimes simply easier to believe that things are ordered, reasonable, predictable, and completely under our control. But the reality of our world is that it is unpredictable, often random and unreasonable, chaotic and completely out of our control. And that’s when modernity’s promises run empty and its progress reports run dry.”
This is not limited to secular governments, Strickland says. The church also often trips into the same pitfalls, settling for “whitewashed tombs” rather than accepting the kind of chaos that asks hard questions and risks failure. “The truth would rather embrace honest chaos than continue to whitewash the tombs of our culture so we die looking good,” Strickland writes. “It’s really about allowing chaos to show a bit, and even enjoy it.”
Finally, Strickland says that chaos can actually bring light to darkness and allow us to join with God to create things. Injustice casts a pall over our world and when we seek to bring an end to it, a mess often ensues. As uncomfortable as this might be, it is necessary if we wish to make any kind of progress, if we want to join God in bringing his kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven. Strickland describes it beautifully. “We need a ‘curtains being pulled back in the morning’ moment where light or revelation floods in.” If we’re standing still in fear of the chaos, she says, we will never experience this kind of moment.
Strickland concludes A Beautiful Mess by encouraging the reader to create a timeline in which to track times of chaos within one’s life. This, she says, will help identify the process of God’s “Divine Order”, of how he uses the mess to bring us into his light. “We get to be a part of this incredible work of beauty – this art called life,” she writes. “And then we rest. We step back and breathe in the beauty of a love-filled, creative God. A God who uses every shade and vibrancy of colour to re-create our lives in ways we could never have imagined or dreamed. We get to stop working, and celebrate the incredible truth that we are, all of us, a beautiful mess.”

Finding Jesus in Iran

With nowhere to stay, Assyrian children try to keep warm during Iraq's long winder. Jeff Gardner, Picture Christians Project,
With nowhere to stay, Assyrian children try to keep warm during Iraq’s long winder. Jeff Gardner, Picture Christians Project,
At the age of sixteen, the Lord met Nastaran Farahani in a vision. While in the shower, she heard a voice telling her to repent and that she would be washed of her sins. Though at first she did not understand, God would soon make clear the message he had sent. Around the same time, Nastaran’s sister, who was then living in Holland, also received a message. A woman she knew came to her after having a vision in which she saw three women sitting on a bed, putting their trust in Christ. This friend gave her a Bible and told her she must go visit her family in Iran.
“When she got home to our family, she opened her bag and brought out a Bible and said, ‘I believe in Jesus.’ And all my family started to cry,” says Nastaran. “And I told her, ‘I believe in Jesus, I know Jesus, I do not know how, but I know him. I do not have any questions.’”
In spite of their initial reaction, the Lord was at work in the Farahani family. Within two months both of her Muslim parents came to know Christ as well and they all began to attend church. At the time, church buildings were still open in Iran, but when persecution came, they were no longer safe. The family then decided to gather at home, thus starting a house church. This marked the beginning of a long and difficult road for Nastaran. After returning to Iran from Dubai, she and her husband, Yuna Sabet, were arrested.
“When we arrived, the officer checked our passport and then called my name,” Nastaran says. “He took my bag and started searching. Then someone else told him to take my husband’s passport too. They took us to the separate room with no window and started to interrogate us. Lots of my close friends had been arrested in the past. One was held in jail for nine months. They were constantly telling her that she would be executed. So it was really scary for me.”
Believing that Christians planned to work against the Iranian government, the officers questioned Nastaran about her cell group. They wanted the names of
An Assyrian Christian refugee, living in Zarqa, Jordan, struggles to keep her faith and hope burning. Thousands like her are waiting to return to their homes on the Nineveh Plain in northern Iraq. Jeff Gardner, Picture Christians Project,
An Assyrian Christian refugee, living in Zarqa, Jordan, struggles to keep her faith and hope burning. Thousands like her are waiting to return to their homes on the Nineveh Plain in northern Iraq. Jeff Gardner, Picture Christians Project,
members who might have been connected to people outside of Iran and asked her what her plan was. Eventually, they let Nastaran go but kept her passport so she could not leave. Two or three times they called her in for further interrogation and did not release her husband for three months. During this difficult time, however, the Lord sustained her with his word.
“When I was interrogated, the word of Jesus in Matthew 10:19 came to me,” says Nastaran. “I was so scared and when I’m afraid I cannot talk. But I was given what to say just as Jesus promised. I told them things that would not have come up to me on my own. They kept telling me that I am a liar. He tested me to see if my hands were shaking. He offered me tea but I didn’t drink because I heard many stories about how they would give women something to drink that would make them fall asleep. I also heard stories of them raping women in the jail. And I was so scared of that.”
When they finally returned her passport, she was told to leave and never come back. In 2011, after years of serving the Lord in many closed countries including Iran, Turkey, Dubai, Syria, and Lebanon, Nastaran and her husband came to the United States. They now live with their two daughters in California, working with Farsi speakers from Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan through church planting. When asked how persecuted Christians feel about their Western brothers and sisters, Nastaran says that they do not feel abandoned, but do believe that they don’t appreciate the religious freedom they have.
“We know it’s not easy for those in other parts of the world to understand what life is like in Iran or countries like Iran because they live in freedom and they can worship God without the fear of being arrested,” Nastaran says. “However, these days because of the influence of…social media, it’s easier to know and to be aware of the condition of the people who live under persecution. For the same reason people in the West are becoming more aware and are getting more involved in helping their brothers and sisters, which I know is very encouraging to the people in Iran. I do not think the Iranians feel abandoned or uncared by other Christians in the West. Because, as you might know, there was some Christian prisoner who had been released as a result of Christian support in the West. However, they might think that people who do live in free countries do not really appreciate their freedom and take it for granted.”
Nastaran went on to say that there are many more ways the Western church can show up for their persecuted brothers and sisters, beyond using a hashtag to bring awareness. “You can keep praying for them. I know that there were people praying for me while I was going through that difficult time and it’s really encouraging, when you’re undergoing persecution, to know that your brothers and sisters are standing with you by their support, prayers, and also keeping your situation in the news. The governments like Iran are afraid of losing their face because of the [negative publicity] against them. So spreading the news of persecution can be a huge help and hopefully help release them. There are many ways we can help our brothers and sisters such as writing a letter to them, talking to the government officially, or helping their family outside of prison.”
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Friday, December 11, 2015

Garbage City, The Cave Church, and Mama Maggie

My first published articles! Be sure to check out the January/February issue of Good News Magazine for the pretty version. ;-)

Garbage City
We were told not to open the windows. Secretly, I was glad because I could practically see the smell.
For two days already I had toured Egypt. While I was enthralled by the sheer size of the Pyramids, amazed at the artistry of the Sphinx, and baffled by the detail of the statue of Ramses, the trash heaped up on the fringes of nearly every street appalled me. Refuse lined the Nile River Bed. Layers of plastic bags, cans, and paper bordered the canals and our guide told us that it wasn’t unusual to find dead animals floating in it. Worse still, he said, the water was used for cleaning, bathing, and drinking and the government’s only solution is to bury the tainted water, to hide away the filth.
Still, this in no way prepared us for Garbage City. As we entered the Zabaleen Village, located at the bottom of the Mokattam cliffs, our guide rolled up the windows of our car. The buildings cast shadows over our small group, over the narrow, trash lined streets. Droves of people waded through the piles. Many sorted through it, some carried it upon their backs, others drove trucks or wagons pulled by donkeys; everyone was smudged by dirt and grime of their work. I’d seen poverty in the U.S. and South America. I’d seen squalor. I’d never seen anything like this.
Driven to the area by a bad harvest in the 1940’s, these individuals quickly learned how to use Egypt’s waste problem for their advantage. While other portions of the country simply cover up the excess, the people of Garbage City, 96% of whom are Coptic Christians, recycle and reuse what they collect.   
My parents, who are currently living in Egypt for an extended time, describe the men’s journey into the city. “They load up trash on trucks, if they have them, or on wagons with donkeys.  These animals journey from the City to Maadi and other surrounding towns, taking freeways, as well as small roads into the towns.  It is amazing to see these little donkeys hauling huge loads that look like they'll topple over at any moment-right in front of traffic!”
Residents are encouraged to package up their trash separately from the garbage so that the people can recycle plastics and glass to make things. Both young and old can be seen transporting huge loads of rubbish through Maadi and Cairo, even amidst thick rush hour traffic.
I’d longed to visit this part of Egypt since a friend had informed me of its existence a few months before. While the pyramids and museums and food all held their allure, none intrigued me more than this particular group of people. How did they survive such deplorable circumstances? How did they hold on to hope? I wanted to see and to understand. I wanted to learn.
We drove through Garbage City, through mountains of trash, piles of discarded and broken things and on the other side, carved into the side of Mokattam, the Cave church rose up against a clear blue sky. The afternoon sun warmed the sandstone, a sharp contrast to the shadow within the city. No trash here. No darkness. No smell. Children played and laughed, tourists took pictures, people smiled.
Founded in 1974 by Father Abouna Samaan Ibrahim, the Cave church, also known as the church of Saint Samaan the Tanner, ministers to an average of 5,000 people per worship service. What began as nothing more than an open space for people to hear the gospel grew by the grace of God into the lofty one now seen covering an area of about 1,000 square meters.
Discrimination and hardship mark their lives as the religious minority. Many have fled the attacks of Islamic extremists. Yet the 4% of Muslims living among them know they are safe to build their Mosques without fear of violence from the Christians that surround them. Stories of God’s power, of healing, of miracles, are on the tongues of those who live in Garbage City, a people who live daily in the discomfort and dirt but who are also fully convinced of the reality of the God of the Bible. They look beyond their everyday struggles to the promise set before them, symbolized in the church carved into the heart of the mountain. 
Though they are afflicted, they are not crushed, though they are perplexed, they do not despair, though they are persecuted, they are not forsaken, though they are struck down, they are not destroyed (2 Corinthians 4:8-9). Their perseverance and faithfulness are a witness to the world, one that God uses to bring many into His Kingdom. 
How do the Coptic Christians of Garbage City live and work and praise God in such poverty and squalor? As Eric Liddell’s missionary father once told him: “You can praise the Lord by peeling a spud, if you peel it to perfection.” 
Book Review: Mama Maggie
She is known as the Mother Teresa of Egypt, but it’s unlikely you have heard of her. A once successful Marketing Executive, recognized for her fashionable clothing and wit, Maggie Groban gave up glamour and comfort to serve the poor in Egypt. The book Mama Maggie, written by Marty Makary and Ellen Vaughn, seeks to tell her story and the stories of those whose lives she touched. 
Born to a privileged Coptic Christian family, Maggie Groban had every opportunity to live a life of ease. Ambitious and smart, she excelled in both school and business and eventually went on to teach computer science at American University in Cairo. In this venue she worked with the brightest of students, encouraging them to reach their goals, challenging them to consider what they were doing with their lives. All the while, she contemplated she path she had chosen.
The death of her Aunt Teda, a woman who had spent her life ministering to the poor, served as a turning point. “I had the best students, the smartest in the whole country,” Maggie said. But in the wake of Teda’s passing, she sensed that “God wanted to promote me. He said, ‘Leave the best, the smartest, and go to the poorest of the poor.’” Though she already volunteered occasionally in the slums, Groban felt the tug to do something more significant, something that would require great sacrifice on her part. So Maggie exchanged her fancy clothes and finery for a simple white skirt, shawl, and t-shirt, and with the support of her husband, Ibrahim, formed Stephen’s Children. In spite of government resistance – it takes a year to get approval to start a Non-Government Organization if things go well – their ministry to the children of Garbage City received generous support from friends, family, and churches the Grobans had supported in the past.
Their first task was to tackle education. According to the book, one study reveals “the base illiteracy rate in Egypt is 24 percent for non-poor families and 41 percent in poor families.” Moreover, women receive even less education than men, often not being sent to school at all. They are expected to grow up, get married, and have children. The ability to read is not considered important for them, as they do not see it as something that will make them valuable or socially acceptable. Stephen’s Children works to combat these attitudes that often perpetuate the cycle of poverty.
Using a Montessori school model, Mama Maggie established schools for children as young as preschool age. Here they are given a basic education and taught about hygiene, as well as their religious heritage, whether Christian or Muslim. Families who attend the schools are also given access to free medical clinics. Many of her students eventually go on to her vocational schools, where they learn to work on looms or make shoes. “In these settings,” the book says. “They could begin a new way of thinking and living, a bit of empowerment rather than shame and dysfunction.”
The next step Stephen’s Children takes with its students is the bi-annual summer camp in which the children can escape from their difficult home environments for a few days. As Mama Maggie’s assistant Youssef says, “We can harvest what we’ve been doing all year.” Stories of repentance and healing mark these events. Children are given the opportunity to learn, to discuss their struggles, to sleep in a bed. They are taught to dream big dreams. Many are rescued from abusive home lives. Some are convicted of the abuse they have wreaked on others.
After twenty years of daily working in the poor cities of Cairo, raising awareness all over the world, and being nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, Mama Maggie has started to draw back and allow others to take over. Those she has poured into are now stepping up to take the reigns and continue the mission to the poor, to carry out Maggie Groban’s God-given vision. “I want to go on with our work for the poor more and more,” she says. “Until it spreads all over Egypt, the Middle East, and the whole world, to make a better future for humanity-especially the children. This is the real love story, the one that lasts forever. How many love stories on earth end or change within just a few years? As we set our minds on God, who loved us, and gave himself for us, we are filled up. In the poor areas, we provide simple work, but with great love. We draw a smile in the heart and spirit of every deprived child. I hope this goes on from generation to generation to generation.”