Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Deep

This is an account of my efforts to put into action what I learn while reading the Bible, an account of my journey to become closer to God.

I continue to read the Bible nearly every day; I’ll begin the book of Jeremiah tonight. So far I’ve found several books and passages that grip my heart so I’ve dog-eared those pages to find them more easily when I want to come back to that place. I’m still not much of a memory verse expert but at least I can say “somewhere in the Bible is says something like….” Right now my new favorite verse (and no, I’m not trying to memorize it) is Hebrews 13:20-21:

“May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever.”

What I tend to remember more readily are the proverbs or aphorisms I find as I read the work of Christian writers. For example, and unfortunately I don’t have a reference, I saw this recently:

The only thing a person can contribute to their own salvation is the sin that makes it necessary.

Now that’s worth remembering; that’s deep.

Speaking of deep, I have a number of flesh wounds. Cameron wanted to go to the airsoft battlefield, an indoor airgun range where participants really shoot at each other with plastic BBs). I wish I’d known to wear thick clothing. I entered wearing only a t-shirt and became an immediate target of the more experienced shooters. I counted 14 quarter sized bruises on my back, arms and chest. Whomever named the toys airsoft was flat out lying!

Next weekend Cameron and I are spending time together in somewhat less dangerous activities. It will be the Compassion in Action weekend, a time when a number of churches in the metro area work together to mobilize their members on service projects. Working as a roving reporter, I’m visiting ten such projects and dragging the kid along. It really pleases me that he enjoys doing the volunteer work with me. I suppose that makes it worth taking a few direct hits on the battlefield.

I interviewed three more ministries (a homeless shelter, shelter for child victims of sexual abuse, and a faith-based substance abuse program) last week so will have some really touching God stories to tell you in the coming days.

If you have the chance, I STRONGLY recommend making time to see the movie “Lord, Save Us From Your Followers.” It is promoted this way: “If you were to meet ten average Americans on the street, nine of them would say they believe in God. So why is the Gospel of Love dividing America? Dan Merchant decided to find the reason why. He talked with scores of men and women all across the nation and he interviewed many well-known activists in today’s Culture Wars. Lord, Save Us From Your Followers is a fast-paced, humorously touching, thought provoking and highly engaging documentary that explores the head-on collision of faith and culture in America.”

I shed tears during this movie. It asks the difficult but necessary questions many Believers either won’t address or haven’t even pondered. See it and be moved.

OK, enough for now. Gotta do my discipleship homework before our men’s group meeting tonight.

Thanks so much for visiting my blog, and please pray for me and my family. Now go out and hug somebody!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Straight Paths

I stood back and observed as men pulled groceries from shelves and filled bags with what the waiting women would turn into meals to feed their families. In what might have been a somber setting, I was struck by all the good cheer.

The men horsed around like teenage boys in a locker room. They teased each other and burst out in belly laughter as one or the other suffered the brunt of an inside joke.

The cheer was infectious. The women, those who had come into the Norcross Cooperative Ministry (NCM) with their heads hung low, now couldn’t help but to crack a smile. Not only were they happy to receive the much needed groceries, their spirits were lifted by the sounds of jovial fellowship that filled the food pantry.

I asked the men why they volunteer. Each had an interesting and inspiring story.

One gentleman readily admitted he first came to NCM as the result of court ordered community service. “When I was drinking I thought it was all about me,” he said. “But then I came here and saw that my selfishness was nothing but foolishness. When you witness someone brought to tears when you give them a few cans of beans and a loaf of bread, it changes your perspective. How could alcohol mean so much to me when these people were going hungry?”

This man now volunteers twelve hours a week on his own accord. Sober, saved and grateful, he turned away from me and insisted on helping a woman carry her bags of groceries to her car.

Another volunteer told me he once came to NCM as a client in need of food. “I was down on my luck and just couldn’t make ends meet,” he said. “But everyone here was so good to me I just felt I needed to give back.”

That was three years ago; today he hands food to others in need with a special compassion in his heart. He knows what they are going through, and he gives them hope that things will get better. “God is good all the time,” he said as he winked at me and then opened a case of canned goods. He began to restock the shelves and in spite of his disability, he worked swiftly.

A third man joined the conversation. “God has blessed us all,” he said, “and we want to help others just like Jesus did. I first came here a year ago because of Compassion in Action, but I got hooked on it.” He now volunteers one day a week. “I’m retired now,” he added, “and want to use my time in meaningful ways. Working here has made me passionate about helping people.” He then pointed to a fourth man. “You should talk to him,” he suggested, “he’s been here longer than any of us.”

I approached this gentleman; he is a little older than the others and he looked tired. For good reason, I learned. Today is his first day back after taking a break for cancer treatment. I also learned that his wife, his customary companion when he works at NCM, is receiving treatment for the same disease. She is not yet strong enough to return to volunteering.

“She wanted me to come back as soon as I could,” he told me, speaking of his wife. “We come to share the good news, to demonstrate the love of Christ. I’m here for both of us until she gets stronger.”

Many of the women who turn to NCM for food do not speak English, but they understand laughter, smiles, gentle nods of reassurance, and the love that is extended to them by the men who show up to serve them. The men I met that morning; men of different walks of life, but men who were now all walking along the same straight path.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

John Mark

A little something I wrote (I'm actually having a good time researching this stuff) for the investment fund of our church which gave a $25,000grant to the Cairo Festival:

John Mark the Apostle traveled down dusty roads into Egypt, the country of his birth, sometime around AD 40. He wanted to return to his homeland to sow the seeds of Christianity among his former countrymen.

Walking into Alexandria, Mark encountered a cobbler whom he asked to repair his broken sandal. The cobbler did so but not without injuring himself with one of his tools. Mark miraculously healed the man’s wound, and this event led to Mark’s first baptism of a believer in Egypt and the birth of the Coptic Church.

Beginning with Mark’s work, Christianity continued to spread throughout Egypt until the Muslim Conquest in AD 639. As the language, culture and commerce of Egypt shifted toward Arabic traditions, the Islamic faith began to overtake Christianity.

Today, 90% of the Egyptian population is Islamic. It is against the law for someone born into Islam to convert to another religion. Bibles translated in Arabic are prohibited throughout the country unless they were provided by the Coptic Church.

It may seem that the fruit of Mark’s work has all but disappeared.

But what about the other ten percent of the Egyptian population?

That is where the Cairo Festival comes in.

A three day Christian festival organized to reach those among the ten percent who are not yet Believers, the Cairo Festival is held each year to reintroduce Christ to the Egyptians people. The festival events include music, drama, dance, sports, food, and an evangelical message each day. In 2008, nearly 18,000 people attended the festival; four thousand of those accepted Christ as their Savior, twice as many people than those who responded to the call in the prior year. An additional half-million Arabic-speaking viewers throughout North Africa, the Middle East and Europe heard the Word via Satellite TV.

The fruit of Mark’s work in Egypt is not lost, and today the Cairo Festival, along with the Coptic Church, is reaching many in the name of Christ. With God’s blessing, Christianity is taking root in Egypt once again.

Six partner churches in the U.S., including Perimeter Church, are sending volunteers to the Cairo Festival in November, 2009.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Preparing for the Storm

This is a stroy I wrote about a local ministry for our church blog:

A man in a battered van piled high with ladders and covered in paint spatter pulls into the parking lot and lets his wife, baby in arms, out at the curb. They chat only briefly; he is headed to work. Work he may not get if he doesn’t secure a good spot on the right corner in time.

In the corner of the lot sits an old sedan, its windows fogged with condensation from the breaths of the mother and two children asleep inside. For a few days passersby think the car arrives early to get a choice spot in line, but the truth is the family lives in the car. They’ve chosen the parking lot as their home because they feel safe at night under the security lights.

A man steps out of the woods, damp with morning dew, his clothes soiled from sleeping directly on the ground. Someone has stolen his sleeping bag - again. He hopes another one has been dropped off for someone like him to make new use of.

These are the common sights as dawn breaks over the Norcross Cooperative Ministry (NCM) on Mitchell Road. Even though the doors don’t open until 10 AM, people begin arriving as early as 6:00 to assure their place in line. Sixty to sixty-five people can be served per day, and word has spread that those coveted places in line are claimed earlier and earlier now as more and more people find themselves in need of charitable assistance.

On this day approximately seventy people stand in line. Only a dozen or so, those who had already been in line for hours, were dry under the canopy over the front door. The others stood solemnly in the rain, pressed against the wall hoping to keep an arm, a shoulder, or a baby, dry. The doors open a half-hour early to bring the soaked people in from the storm.

Within minutes the lobby is full of anxious, even embarrassed, people of every race and nearly every age. Most are single moms, many with small children in tow, but a few men are there too. They are the quiet ones. They are the new profile that has been arriving recently – men who have been unemployed for months and are now asking for help for the first time in their lives.

Last month three hundred new families turned to NCM for help.

Today was going to be a busy day; several volunteers were unable to serve this particular morning. The staff hopes the shortage of hands and feet will not cause them to turn away more than the usual twenty or so late arrivals. It takes as many as twenty volunteers a day to keep things running smoothly; the demand is so great and growing.

Last month over 3,600 people in need walked through the front door.

The first client on this morning takes her seat with a volunteer counselor. She needs food and clothing for her family of four. She also needs diapers, and her eyes turn downward in disappointment when she is told there are none in her child’s size. Diapers, like many other things, are in short supply. Donations of all kinds are down. Hard times have hit everyone.

NCM is spending up to $5,000 a month to restock its food pantry, and still nearly a third of its shelves are empty. Last month NCM distributed over 3,300 bags of groceries, but received donations of only 290 bags to replenish its food inventory.

Another mom sits down and places her infant son in his carrier at her feet. She too needs diapers, and also hopes for a car seat. She too is told neither is available, but she is happy when she hears she’s able to select new clothes for her children from those sorted by gender and size and hanging in a separate room.

A third mom sits down, this one with an eighteen month old chatterbox in pigtails on her knee. It turns out three generations live in the same household and little Brittany is the youngest. Too young to understand that her grandmother’s health is failing and her mom’s back injury is the real reason she stays home all day.

Brittany also doesn’t understand the discussion about how much rent assistance her mom will receive, how NCM will help negotiate the balance due on their past due utility bills, or why the man in the corner is struggling to hold back tears as he shares his story.

It is his first visit to NCM. Self-employed for years, his business dried up during the last twelve months. The money his wife earns is enough to buy food and pay the utility bills, or pay the rent, but not both. His landlord has already told him an eviction notice is in the mail. His voice trembles as he tells of the changes he has required his three children to adapt to. Adapting to homelessness is something he just couldn’t believe he might have to require of them. He wrings his hands together and swallows hard.

Brittany smiles, waves and shouts goodbye to this man as her mom carries her past, and her cherub face evokes a brief grin on his otherwise strained face. Brief. It fades fast when he resumes telling of how difficult it is to find a job right now, especially when you are his age.

Not quite two hours after the doors were opened early about half of those who would be served today have met with a counselor and were now deep in the heart of NCM. They pick through the donated clothing trying to find what would adequately clothe their children and themselves during this change of seasons. They search the used toys and books hoping to find a gift to take home. One woman selects a child’s Bible and clutches it against her chest. Another fills her plastic shopping bag with bread, and a child points in disbelief as a volunteer brings a cart of canned goods to his mom. “Look, food!” he shouts.

The mom quiets her son and then does her best in her broken English to thank the volunteer. She takes the grocery bags loaded mostly with canned and dry goods and exits the building, her son close behind.

The son stands on the sidewalk beside his mom waiting with her for their ride and admiring his new treasure, a donated and worn action figure, but his treasure. His mom looks down at him and then into the sky. It has stopped raining and the sun is trying to break through the clouds.

For the moment the storm has passed. For the moment. But another one will come.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Jesus Paid It All

This is an account of my efforts to put into action what I learn while reading the Bible, an account of my journey to become closer to God.

I’m about halfway through reading Isaiah and am finding it an interesting book. I don’t always get the significance of the historical chapters (the prophecies about Egypt and other tribes/lands) but I do get the references to the coming of Jesus. It’s very impressive to read those prophecies and realize they were written 700 years before Christ was born!

Cameron and I finished our first model car this weekend! Now on to the next one. It’s a great exercise; a setting for teaching him patience, planning and pride in his work. We’ve only been together a little over six months now as mentor/mentee but I’d call it a tight relationship. I’ve been delighted with how my neighbors have come out to meet him and have been so kind when getting to know him. I hope our relationship is breaking the cycle he was caught up in. I still find it hard to believe at times that I’m being used to guide someone onto a straight path, but in spite of my disbelief I’m glad to be doing it. Actually, God is doing it; I’m just the tool through which His work is getting done.

Speaking of His work, Jill and I, along with another couple in our neighborhood who attend the same church as we do, hosted our first neighborhood congregation meeting last night. Eleven people came together for nearly 2.5 hours to have fellowship and talk about how we can support each other in our faith journey as well as reach out to our neighbors who may be seekers. Ten more people want to participate but couldn’t make it last night. Wow, over 20 people coming together to share worship in each other’s homes!

A funny thing, an Elder from the church asked to meet with us before we held our first meeting to make sure we were going to launch the neighborhood congregation in the spirit in which the church intends. As we sat around the table talking, we all discovered we were “rebel” Christians, people thinking outside the box in the name of reaching the unchurched. We agreed that you’ve got to go to the people to reach them wherever they are, you can’t sit back and wait for them to walk into the church. So don’t be surprised if one day I’m posting about our Beer and Bible party!

I know a few people are rolling their eyes at me right now but let me explain myself by repeating what a very popular Christian author and retired seminary faculty member once said: “I lead my life in such a way that Christians may doubt my salvation but the unsaved will want to know what I’m so happy about.” That sums it up nicely, I think.

On a final note today, I once wrote that I answered “because I have a lot of sin to cover” in response to a question about why I do so much missional work. As I look back now nearly nine months after I began my daily Bible reading, I see what a misinformed answer I gave. I can’t repay my sins, nor does God want me to do good deeds because of my overwhelming guilt. Jesus paid the debt of my sins past and those to come. Only He can redeem me; I cannot redeem myself. Today I’d answer the same question differently: I do good deeds to spread the good news. I do good deeds to share the joy of my salvation. I do good deeds to bring glory to God. As the old hymn says, “Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe.”

Well, I guess that’s enough for today. Thanks so much for visiting my blog, and please pray for me and my family. Now go out and hug somebody!

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Dude Time

Cameron and I were standing in the aisle of a toy and craft store the other day. We were given a model car recently and were ready to begin assembling it. He has never put together a model car. I've built nearly a hundred of them, albeit long ago.

We were discussing paint choices for our little Honda rice rocket when he looked around and saw a wall stacked high with model cars, ships, tanks, airplanes, spacecraft and the like. "Wow," he reacted. "Look at those!"

It was like looking back through a time machine. There were the same old WWII battleships, fighter planes and army jeeps I had built, the very same street rods with flaming stripe decals and fat rear tires, and a large replica of the Saturn rocket, too. I pointed to a P-51 Mustang. "I had one of those hanging above my bed," I recalled.

"Who taught you to do models?" Cameron asked.

"My dad," I said.

Soon we were in my office over the garage, sitting at a table covered in newsprint and sorting out all the parts of our model. I explained how to read the assembly diagrams and then we finalized our color scheme. In the backyard I taught him how to paint with a spray can and not get bubbles or runs on the doors and hood. In my office I coached him not to squeeze the tube of glue so hard, and to always point an X-acto blade away from his face. He smiled large as we completed another step and he sat the bucket seats aside for later.

An hour passed and our car engine was neatly assembled, the two-door body was painted red and we had glue smeared on our fingers. We snapped chrome wheels into rubber tires and examining the underbody, I explained how shock absorbers worked and what the transmission and driveshaft are for. All things my dad taught me.

Cameron absorbed every word. We were having fun.

"Now I'm understanding what I need to do when I have kids," he said.

It took me a while to clear the lump from my throat, but when I did, right after I dropped Cameron off with a promise we would finish the model in a few days, I reached for my phone.

I called my dad.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Cleaning Fish

This is an account of my efforts to put into action what I learn while reading the Bible, an account of my journey to become closer to God.

A few weeks ago I had an annual physical and found that my cholesterol was 220. My doc wanted me to consider taking a statin; I resisted, pointing to all my other indicators and insisting I was fine. We agreed that I’d get a heart scan to check for calcium deposits, and let that result dictate whether or not I go on a statin. I’m proud to report I have 0% calcium deposits. I have a clean heart.

I’ve been prancing around the house ignoring my wife and little bit whenever they’ve called into question my character, reminding them a man with a clean heart cannot be guilty of what they’ve accused me (or as W. Churchill would have said, “guilty of that about which I have been accused”).

That was before I read the book of Ecclesiastes, my read over this weekend. It reminded me of this: (Ecc. 7:20) “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins.” Wow, humbling, resetting, grounding. I’m sure to reread this book again and again during the coming years. I’ll keep my head straight and my heart well-meaning.

I’ve stopped bragging that I have a clean heart.

This moment of realization reminded me of a service a few weeks ago when the Teacher was talking about the wrongheaded Christian who compares him/herself to fellow Christians for the sake of ranking oneself above others and finding comfort in the thought of being a “better” Christian. He ended his lesson reminding us that we are all broken and sullied by sin; none are better than the other. He then reminded us that it isn’t our job to judge or save others. That job belongs to Jesus. Our jobs are simple and well defined – to love one another and introduce the lost to Him. He ended the lesson with a statement he imagined that Jesus might have told his disciples; “You catch ‘em, I’ll clean ‘em.”

That spoke very loudly to me. Amen to that once again.

Well, I guess that’s enough for today. Thanks so much for visiting my blog, and please pray for me and my family. Now go out and hug somebody!

Thursday, September 03, 2009

My Interpretation

This is an account of my efforts to put into action what I learn while reading the Bible, an account of my journey to become closer to God.

Whew – even though school has been in session for a few weeks now we are still trying to adjust. Linley has to be on campus an hour earlier this year and Jill has begun her graduate studies in the evenings. Add to that our discipleship meetings (and the neighborhood congregation we are launching in ten days), lacrosse practice, my volunteer responsibilities, and more. Most evenings end with Jill and I sprawled out on the sofa, breathless. No wonder my writing for this blog has slipped.

But the good news is the books are coming along fine and should be released next spring season, everyone is healthy, Cameron is doing well in school so far this year, Linley has made loads of new friends at school and Meagan is getting along swell with her two new roomies. She even got a pet – a Beta fish she’s named Harold.

I’m halfway through Proverbs and enjoying the read. I confessed to a fellow the other day that I see myself in most verses, doing the wrong thing of course, and I’m finding the reading a good exercise in self-examination and correction. As always, but now with more fervor, I pray for wisdom every day.

Proverbs 20:9 and 10 in particular speak so clearly to me right now: “Who can say, ‘I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin’? Differing weights and differing measures, the Lord detests them both.” In my interpretation that means don’t hold others to a higher standard than you hold yourself, and don’t look down upon the sinners because by gosh you are one too. Not sure if they are meant to be taken together, but it works for me.

One thing I love about our church is its focus on reminding you that God never promised us a rose garden. Life is going to have its pains and problems. Shouldn’t it? Stop and think about it – if our earthly lives were perfect, what would be our inspiration for seeking our way to Heaven. There, and only there, is where perfection can be found.

This message from our bulletin: Prepare to expect bumps and disappointments. Prepare to know that others will have bad times too. Prepare to look for comfort that can only come from Him, and prepare to be a comforter to others for His namesake. To do that you must call on Him. Only He can prepare the way.

I’ve learned that only God can restore us, and just as Jesus restored us to God’s favor, we are called to be agents of restoration, to do deeds of mercy and speak words of grace, all in His name.

OK, on to other things before the rain sets in…

Thanks so much for visiting my blog, and please pray for me and my family. Now go out and hug somebody!

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

A Beacon of Hope

Here's my most recent ministry article:

Sussan Ponton admits from the get-go that when she discovered she was pregnant, she felt like a child herself. In her naïve youth, she never considered the possibility that she could get pregnant. In fact, to the contrary, she thought she would never become pregnant at her young age.

She also admits that believing she could never experience an unplanned pregnancy was simply an act of lying to herself.

Any girl, regardless of age, who is post-puberty can get pregnant, it turns out.

Sussan’s story plays poignantly in black and white in a video clip featured on the website of A Beacon of Hope, a Pregnancy Resource Center in Alpharetta.

Unnerving statistics about sexual activity among teens, teen pregnancy and the frequency of abortion in Georgia weave in between frames of Sussan’s words and pensive expression. Those statistics pale in comparison to what Sussan says next, however.

“Overwhelmed, terrified and alone, I decided to get an abortion, but when I began to call the clinics, I found that they were all booked full. I couldn’t get an appointment.”

According to the A Beacon of Hope website, over 30,000 abortions are performed annually in Georgia; 75% of those are in Fulton and DeKalb.

It was then, during those dark, seemingly hopeless moments when she felt trapped by her circumstances, that Sussan became aware of A Beacon of Hope. “It was like a light of hope being shined into my life; I discovered I had other choices available to me,” she says.

Over a dozen years ago an individual walked into Mount Pisgah Church with an idea for launching a pregnancy resource center. She wanted to give women with unplanned or crisis pregnancies an alternative to abortion if they had elected not to keep their child. Beginning humbly in an unassuming little brick house, A Beacon of Hope served sixty-four women within its first year of existence. The first baby born under its care was eventually adopted. This year there will be twelve candles on his birthday cake.

A Beacon of Hope has grown steadily since that first adoption. Now over 3,500 individuals are served annually, without regard to age, race, income, nationality, religious affiliation, disability or other arbitrary circumstances.

“We are very grounded in our spiritual beginnings and want very much to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ,” explains Talli Moellering, Executive Director, “but we do not achieve that by forcing morals on our mothers. Our method is to come alongside them, love them and provide the information and resources they need, hoping to let them see who Jesus Christ is in the midst of their situation.”

Yet, while pregnancy prevention and intervention are the center’s primary objectives, evangelism is equally important, Moellering added. “In fact, we begin every morning with our staff in a devotional gathering.”

Beacon’s website affirms Moellering’s assertion. “God has invited us to become a part of building a culture of love and life for the men and women we serve, ultimately providing them with comprehensive care that empowers them to choose life,” it says.

And that is what A Beacon of Hope is really all about, encouraging and helping expectant parents to choose life when they may be considering the alternative. To that end Beacon offers its target audience of women ages 15-26 a comfortable, confidential and caring environment where they can receive pregnancy testing, limited ultrasound, counseling, adoption referrals, and pre-natal and post-natal educational programs, all free of charge and delivered in a loving, life affirming manner by Christian staff.

Of its wide range of service offerings, one of the most impressive and touching aspects of Beacon is its Hope Store. Expectant mothers who choose life and participate in the Beacon programs earn points that can be redeemed for new and gently used baby goods and supplies. A look inside reveals a store filled with clothing, diapers, food, toys, and many other new mom necessities.

In 2008, Beacon served 286 women, 206 of whom were determined to be pregnant. Of those, more than a third chose life.

In other words, through the efforts of A Beacon of Hope, last year over seventy babies were born who may not otherwise have seen the light of day.

Beacon relies entirely on donations to operate, and its current capital need is $10,000. That money, once obtained, will be used to upgrade Beacon’s DeKalb site, The College Women’s Center, to a fully equipped medical site. As a medical site it will be able to provide limited ultrasound services, a very important factor in Beacon’s mission. “We’ve found that approximately seventy-percent of the women who see their child in an ultrasound will chose life instead of an abortion,” Moellering explained. But obtaining the ultrasound equipment is just one step toward upgrading the College Women’s Center. It also needs volunteer counselors, nurses, and a radiologist in order to complete its offerings.

So whatever became of Sussan Ponton? Near the end of her video a shy young girl appears in her lap. Sussan smiles as her face presses against her child’s and their arms interlock. Sussan’s voice lifts when she tells us she’s learned from the people at A Beacon of Hope that when things get tough, “God is there holding my hand.”

A Beacon of Hope has two websites; one for pregnant women, the other for volunteers and donors.

For pregnant women: www.abeaconofhope.com
For volunteers and donors: www.friendsofbeacon.com