Sunday, November 29, 2009

Pen-pals

Well, I've finished the book of Daniel and have only the last dozen short books of the Old Testiment left to read. I think I can knock those out in the next few weeks and then move on to Romans where I left off in my reading of the New Testiment. Romans is pretty deep so I'm not betting I'll complete the entire Bible by the end of the year, but at least I can rest knowing I made it this far without aborting the effort.

Today I learned about the Chronological Bible, one in which the events are written in chronological order and not repeated as they sometimes are in different books of the traditional Bible. I may begin reading that next year to help me resolve some of the confusion I have which is predominately related to the out-of-sequence nature of much of the traditional Bible. I'm so glad the wiser men of the men's discipleship group I attend indulge my questions!

In the event you are interested, below you'll find the guidelines that have been put together for the pen-pal component of the prision outreach ministry at our church. I've been working on organizing this for two weeks now; we go live next Sunday with a group gathering together to sign Christmas cards for the inmates. If you are interested in taking part in this ministry, please let me know!

Prison Pen-Pal Ministry

Thank you for volunteering to write letters of encouragement and discipleship to a Gwinnett County inmate. Few people are willing to share their time with these men and women, and as a result loneliness is one of the greatest challenges they face. Inmates who have concerned and supportive contacts in the outside world have a much lower recidivism rate than those who do not. Your act of writing a letter is indeed an act of faith - faith that you can make a positive difference in another person's life.

Here’s how the Prison Pen-Pal Ministry works:

1. An inmate will request a pen-pal by completing a response card and mailing it to the Perimeter Church pen-pal address.

2. An email will be sent to interested parties asking if you would volunteer to write to that inmate.

3. Volunteers will be matched to the inmate of his/her choosing based on his/her personal criteria and level of comfort. Once matched, you will mail the first letter from your home or business to:

Inmate Name (Required)
Inmate ID Number (Required)
Housing Unit (Optional)
Gwinnett County Detention Center
2900 University Pkwy. NE
Lawrenceville, GA 30043

You must always use the following return address:

Perimeter Church
c/o Prison Outreach
9500 Medlock Bridge Road
Duluth, GA 30097

4. Remember to put the return address on the upper left hand corner of the envelope and include it again in the body of the letter in case something happens to the envelope. The prison won't accept letters without return addresses.

5. When the inmate writes back, your mail will be forwarded to you from Perimeter Church.

6. You would then write again to your pen-pal as long and as often as you feel comfortable doing so.

Before writing your first letter, it is important to familiarize yourself with the guidelines used by our ministry:

1. Focus your letters on words of encouragement and discipleship. Your uplifting words can make their prison sentence more bearable. Encourage them toward getting an education while in prison, learning a trade, becoming more spiritual, etc.

2. Feel free to ask questions, but let your questions be about the person and not the reason why he/she is in jail. However, if the inmate volunteers information about his/her crime, it is then okay to discuss it.

3. Be careful that your questions do not lead to unrealistic expectations. For example, “Where will you live when you get out?” may be construed to mean “I want you to live with me when you get out.”

4. Write a little about yourself - your interests and hobbies, your faith journey - but avoid sharing too much personal information. Most volunteers use only their first names in all correspondence with their pen-pal. Do not reveal any information that could result in you being identified and located (full name, personal or business address, phone numbers, date of birth, etc.).

5. Indicate how often you are willing to write; twice a month is a good standard. If you are only able to write once a month, let that person know so that he or she doesn't expect your letter sooner and then become discouraged.

6. You may choose to write only inmates of your own gender, or you may write an inmate of any gender. However, if you are writing an inmate of the opposite gender, please exercise extra caution to avoid giving the appearance that you are interested in a romantic relationship.

7. If you feel strongly that you do not want to write an inmate who has committed a particular crime, you must conduct that research yourself by reviewing the inmate’s crime data at http://www.gwinnettcountysheriff.com/ (click on the badge, then “Docket Book” on the right margin, then by the first letter of the last name). While we do not object to volunteers screening the inmates, our position is one of neutrality.

8. Do NOT include stamps, money, gifts or photographs in your letters. Be aware that all inmate mail is opened and inspected at the prison before it is given to an inmate.

9. Don't write to more than one inmate at a time; it can create a rivalry between inmates.

10. You may be tempted to visit you pen-pal while he/she is in prison. This is a personal decision but one that cannot be made lightly. To visit an inmate you must give your full name and address to the prison officials, and you will be required to wear a name tag bearing that information while you are in the prison. One should be extremely cautious about creating unintended expectations; inmates may mistake your kind visit as a commitment or opportunity to exploit.

11. If you should become offended by or incompatible with your pen-pal, simply write a letter explaining your reason for choosing not to write again in the future. But please remember, all inmates are not the same. You will find every denomination, race, educational background and class inside prison walls. If you discover you don't relate well with one inmate, don't let that stop you from writing to another. As with any new person you meet, each inmate has his or her own unique qualities which may or may not be appealing to you.

Please direct all questions regarding pen-pal procedures and issues to Greg Lang at gregoryelang@gmail.com.

Write, bless and be blessed!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Catching Up

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 feeling pretty bad that my writing for this blog has fallen to the wayside. I assure you, it is not a reflection of my waning commitment to learning the Word this year, but rather it is because I’ve been walking the Word so much I’ve had little time to write.

I have so enjoyed the hours each week I spend in service, including the time spent with the Stephen Ministry, Youth Mentoring Ministry (Cameron’s doing great), Men’s Discipleship, the food drives for Children’s Restoration Network, our Neighborhood Congregation, writing for Kingdom Investments and Community Outreach, not to mention the times spent with each ministry that I interview for the other blog … it goes on and on.

But somehow God makes time in my day and I manage to do the above, read the Bible, work on my real job, and attend to all the stuff Jill (and honestly, Linley and Meagan too (now when do young adults stop asking parents to do things for them)) keeps adding to my list. Funny how, except for the occasional unexpected and unbudgeted my house is a money pit reminder of that fact, I’ve found more joy in my life as I’ve done less for me and more for others. It really works that way, and it ain’t karma either.

I am excited about a new task, well two tasks actually, I’m taking on. First, I’m becoming a member of the Executive Board with Community Outreach which will oversee our grant process. More than a year ago I had such an interest in non-profits and fundraising for same, and now I’m given an opportunity to learn even more about the financial aspects of both. I still think there is a development role for me somewhere in my future.

Second, I’m volunteering to coordinate the inmate pen-pal ministry at our church. There is a fellow I interviewed for a story back in the summer who visits the jail every Thursday (and has so for the last nine years) to lead a Bible class. He said back then he had been praying for volunteers to write letters to the inmates, but until now none have stepped forward. This has been pressing on me for a while now, so I finally raised my hand. We have our first planning meeting today, and I’ve already rallied a dozen people to sit down with me one afternoon to sign those Christmas cards I mentioned a few days ago. Please pray for our efforts in launching this ministry, asking God to bless the volunteers and embolden them to teach a little of the Gospel to the prisoners in each letter.

Bible reading update: I hope to finish Ezekiel today. Man, I am so ready for the good news of the Gospel I’m often tempted to skip the remaining books of the Old Testament and jump into the New, but I plod along one page at a time.

Publication update: Hopefully you’ve noticed the new book covers on the right margin. These books will be out in the early spring and I’m excited for them. These books have been on my mind for several years but I’ve not been able to convince a publisher to do them until now. What’s unique about them is that they are in direct response to fan requests; I got the initial idea from you!

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, November 12, 2009

Storms

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.

One of the great things I got out of Sunday’s service was the reassurance God does not arbitrarily mess with our lives just to see what happens. Rather, he places obstacles in our path to help us see where our faith is; he shapes the events of our lives in order to help us shape our faith and character. Now that makes a whole lot of sense to me. It made me think: If the reward for failing to acknowledge Christ is death, what sense does it make that our Creator would leave our life or death decision to chance?

The teacher used the story of Jesus and the disciples in the boat during the storm (Mark 4: 35-41) to illustrate his point. He really changed the way I think about what I find while reading the Bible. Not a word is incidental or inconsequential.

For example, it was Jesus who said “Let us go across (the water) to the other side.” Did Jesus, Son of God, not realize a storm was brewing? Or did he intentionally put himself and his men in the path of a storm? Read: he places obstacles in our path to help us see where our faith is.

In the midst of the storm the disciples awoke Jesus and said “Do you not care about us?”, to which Jesus, after he stilled the waters, responded “Have you still no faith?”

In other words, “After all I’ve done for you and provided for you, after all the miracles you’ve seen, do you still doubt me?” We do, in our weakness and fear, begin to doubt our Lord when we think he is not in the moment with us, when we are enduring a painful loss, challenge or hardship. But when we remember the cross we must also remember the pain and suffering He endured for us so that we might live. That’s just how much faith He had in us. At the very least we should show Him the same courtesy.

Do the storms of your life cause you to think that Jesus doesn’t care about you? If so, be assured that no matter what storm you are in, you are still in the hands of God.

On another note, a few friends and I have agreed to become a letter writing ministry to benefit the inmates at the Gwinnett Detention Center. It houses 2400 prisoners. That’s a lotta letters. We’re going to begin with 60 inmates, but I reason why limit ourselves. Who knows what good may come if each inmate received a birthday card. Please pray for our efforts and ask God to send us a growing body of volunteers so that we may reach as many, if not all, of these prisoners. They are, after all, ranked among the least and the lost.

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!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Going Extreme

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.

Now and then I receive a comment pertaining to a post I’ve made on this blog. The following comment came in response to what I wrote on November 4th:

“When I first came to Marietta in 1994, I sought a church with a rep for single activities. I wound up at a contemporary church and eventually went with the Sunday school class to a few Buckhead bars on Friday nights. I kept thinking ‘this ain’t right’ because some of the members would get hammered...I mean hammered. I like the tolerance of the new church…so to speak...but somewhere inside do you feel we've fashioned church around our lifestyles? I think extremism on either side is wrong, like the tee totaling preacher that would holler at you for an hour and then go outside and talk down about minorities. What do you think?”

I’ve thought about this a good bit. Now as I’ve said before, I’m no theologian, just a redneck with a Bible and a heart for honoring the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And to be clear, I’m not angry about or offended by the comment above, so don’t mistake my response for a fight. I’m just electing to give a lengthy answer. If you aren’t put off by what I’m about to say, praise the Lord, and if you are, chalk it up to my blissful ignorance and then please pray for me.

Yes, we, some of us at least and to one extent or another, have fashioned the church around our lifestyles. My church homes during the last ten years have been filled with a congregation wearing jeans and flip-flops. Worship music was delivered via a rock band rather than an organ and choir, we’ve had ballerinas and stomp dancers on stage (oh, and yes, we have a stage, not a podium), we’ve used black lights, spot lights, fog machines, big screens, stage props, movie and sitcom clips, visual artists, nerf balls, bad jokes, sports analogies and more to get a point across in a fresh and interesting way. Heck, once the preacher drove a Harley onto the stage. We even have a climbing wall, pool tables, basketball hoops, video games and a coffee bar in our indoor youth program, and a pool, ropes course and zip-line for their outdoor use.

So yes indeed, we’ve fashioned the church around our lifestyles. And as a result, we have three services each weekend to accommodate the swelling crowd (4000+ members and growing). Our teens hang out at church on Sunday and Friday nights! Hundreds of men attend discipleship groups on Monday nights (including me and the others who discussed Heaven while sitting in a bar a week ago), and over 200 volunteer ministries operate under our umbrella.

And we have baptisms, we plant churches, we serve our community, and we have communion every week. We offer a career support group for the unemployed, a divorce support group, a recovery support group, a counseling service, a youth mentoring program, an adoption assistance program and so much more, whether or not you are a member of our church.

So no, we don’t look at all like a traditional church, certainly not like the conservative ones I attended when I was a teen. Some might say we are extreme on the progressive side of the continuum. But I have to ask, when God looks down and sees that his house is full and his people are engaging the surrounding community, do you think he really cares what we’re wearing?

And yes, we have drunks, addicts, unfaithful spouses, self-righteous folk, liars, thieves, politicians – oh my, SINNERS - in our church, but where would you’d rather they be?

And yes, sometimes our meetings spill into the surrounding environs, including the bar down the street. But then Jesus hung out with the money changers, prostitutes and thieves, for he knew that those who needed him most were the lost, and through his mercy and grace, even the most broken could, and still can, become saved people, signaling to all that indeed everyone can inherit the great promise if only we’d follow Him.

So that’s my long and enthusiastic answer to a really good question, and thanks for asking!

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, November 04, 2009

New Releases and more

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.

First of all, please notice the cover designs of my two new books which will be available in early 2010. Originally titled My Daughter, My Heart and My Son, My Heart, these books have been on my mind for at least three years. I’m so glad to see them finally come to life! Thank you Sourcebooks!

Now on to other things…

A few nights ago the men’s group I’m in decided to go off the church grounds to hold our meeting. For some reason we ended up in a sports bar overcrowded with Monday night wannabe warriors, all cheering for either New Orleans or the Falcons. We must have been a sight, five guys encircling beer and hot wings, our heads bowed as we prayed. Who knows who watched us and how long he thought about it afterwards? Or what impact we might have had on observers as we talking about God while in the midst of all that debauchery? God knows…

Similarly, I meet a friend for our weekly breakfast at a NY deli yesterday morning. We always begin and end out time together in prayer. Yesterday as we talked I overheard a conversation at a nearby table – two men also talking about God. So again I wonder what people think as they see men in public with their heads bowed in prayer? But I wonder only because I’m curious, not because I’m concerned.

You see, I’m no longer embarrassed about expressing my faith in public (oh how foolish I once was). In fact, I love the moments when someone could rightly point to me and exclaim, “Look, a Christian!” Yes, I am!

I have a question for you. OK, several questions. In my men’s group we’ve challenged each other to ask tough questions about the scripture to stir us into deeper study of the Word. Here’s what I asked:

What happens when we die? Does the body and spirit of all lie in the grave until Jesus returns, or do Believers' spirits go to Heaven at the time of death? What is the purpose of the time of Judgment if deceased Christians are already in Heaven? Do people who are alive at the time of Judgment die before going to Heaven or do they ascend? Do non-Christians' spirits go null and void or literally go to Hell? When, at death or at Judgment?

If you have thoughts on this topic, please share.

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!

Monday, November 02, 2009

Two heads are better than one

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’ve made it to Ezekiel in my Bible reading. I’m beginning to doubt that I’ll finish the Bible by the end of the year, but what matters most is that I finish it, not the timeline. Life has been much busier in the last three months than it has been all year, so my reading time has been compromised. The good news, though, is that my service time has increased!

We recently had the second meeting of our neighborhood congregation and it’s really going well. Not only do we enjoy the two hours we spend together, we tend to run long and we talk theology most of the time. Sure, we have a few differences of opinions, but for me at least the debates help me to better understand my own understanding of the Scripture. Funny thing, these conversations are spilling out of the formal meetings and into our social events, too. Jill and I attended two parties this weekend (I love Sweet Bottom Plantation!) and had God conversations over beer at both of them.

Speaking of parties, one was a Halloween event and Jill and I attended as conjoined twins. We both managed to fit into a 4x long-sleeved shirt. You should have seen us waddle around, four legs, two arms and two heads!

In the devotion I lead two weeks ago I used this verse (Isaiah 55:7-9): "Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

I used the verse to help address the question, “Can we know God’s will?” In the end I left the question unanswered, but reassured the group with this final quote I found somewhere: “The will of God will never take you to where the grace of God will not protect you.”

Here’s an excerpt from a new article I wrote for the church blog about a program serving homeless women:

“The Reverend Nancy Yancey, CEO, opened the ceremony and told us Rainbow Village was ‘a place of transformation where God’s love, mercy and grace abound.’ Lynnette Ward, Adult Program Director, followed and told us of her own tenure as a resident of Rainbow Village before taking her first position with the organization. Recalling the woman who served as her mentor before her own graduation, Lynnette had asked her, ‘What can I do to repay you for your kindness?’

‘You can do for another,’ the mentor had answered back then. Lynnette turned to the anxious graduates. ‘And that’s what I urge you ladies to do,’ she said, ‘to do for others. Because what we go through is not for us, but for someone else.’

Each graduate in her turn stood before the crowd and told her story. Stories of domestic violence, eventual homelessness and poverty, moving children from hotel to hotel, fighting back hunger and the temptation to return to an abusive spouse just to have a roof overhead. Stories that all wove their way to a confession of helplessness and hopelessness, until they found Rainbow Village. And while at Rainbow Village, they found hope, self-respect, new skills, and most importantly, the power of God. One graduate ended her story telling us that while at Rainbow Village she finally learned to “love who God has made me to be.”

A young man, probably a high school senior, was given a chance to speak. He told of a time when he lived in his mother’s car or dingy hotels. In the sixth grade at the time he and his mother moved into Rainbow Village, he said he had never finished a school term in the same school where he had begun that year. Being homeless meant constantly moving from temporary shelter to temporary shelter. It also meant having no permanent friends.

He paused for a moment and looked to his mother who was sitting in the audience. ‘I came to Rainbow Village when I was twelve years old,’ he said. ‘And for the first time in my life I attended the same school all year long. I made friends, I had stability. And I watched my mother change, and I became so proud of her.’

When he finished he took a seat behind his mom, Sondra Blue, a graduate of Rainbow Village and now its Children and Youth Program Director. She looked over her shoulder at her son, smiled broadly, and then reached to gently cup his face in her hand.

I looked down at my program to hide my tears, and my eyes came to rest on a phrase describing Rainbow Village’s mission: Breaking the Cycles of Homelessness, Poverty and Domestic Violence.

After what I saw that evening, I had no doubt that Rainbow Village is excelling at doing God’s work.”

Don’t you just love that line, “What we go through is not for us, but for someone else”? Those wise words are in my memory bank forever.

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!