Monday, July 17, 2017

Receiving the life-changing seed

Sunday afternoon I led two back-to-back Bible studies in Skagit County Jail on the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13. After introductions and an opening prayer, a volunteer reads the first nine verses. As I listen a strategy unfolds for the mere twenty minutes that remain.

I ask the fifteen or so men where Jesus was, who else was there and what they were doing in the story. Since nobody seems to remember, we read the first two verses again. Then people piece together the details.

Jesus had left his house and was sitting by the sea. Large crowds came around him so he got in a boat and sat down. The whole crowd was standing on the beach listening.

“Ok, let’s pretend I’m Jesus and here’s my boat,” I say, jumping up on a table pushed up against a disheveled bookshelf in the jail’s multipurpose room. How about if you guys all stand, pretending you’re on the beach listening.” All the men stand up, and I pretend I’m teaching.

“So what happens in this story that Jesus tells?” I ask the men.

Together we talk about what a sower is, and how in the parable the sower throws seeds out on four kinds of ground. Seeds fall beside the road, which end up getting eaten by birds. Seeds fall in rocky soil, which spring up but then dry up fast in the hot sun. Seeds fall in the sticker bushes, which get choked to death. Finally seeds fall on good soil, which is fruitful.

“Who do you think the sower and the seed might represent?” I ask the men. Standing there looking at me sitting on the table (in the imaginary boat) the answer seems obvious. Jesus is the sower and they’re the soil. The seeds are Jesus’ words. I invite the men to take a seat and continue.

“So seeds go into ground, but we’re not ground, are we? How do invisible words enter into us?” I ask.

“We hear them,” someone says, and I remind them that Jesus ends his parable saying “He who has ears, let him hear.”

“So who has ears?” I ask, and everyone looks around and someone says, “we all do.”

So the sower scatters seed in all these places, which represent all kinds of people in different states of openness. If Jesus reveals God, what’s God like according to this story?”

“God doesn’t discriminate, he scatters his seed to everyone,” someone says.

“He’s generous and doesn’t judge. He teaches everyone,” someone adds.

“So he doesn’t say—‘no, I’m not giving that guy anything, he’s a sex-offender. Not that guy either, he’s addicted to porn. Not him either, he never goes to church and is a felon,’” I say, and then suddenly realize I’m speaking to inmates from the sex-offender pod. Nobody seems offended though. It feels like I’ve got their full attention.

We talk about how Jesus believes in the people, including us. He tells anyone who has ears, “hear.” There’s still a little time left so I invite someone to read the next verses.

“And the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” Jesus answered them, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted.”

“So the disciples want to know why Jesus speaks through these not-so-easy to understand stories,” I say. “Does his answer sound kind of harsh, even discriminatory?”

The men look down at their Bibles silently, some of them probably thinking that the good news they’ve barely heard is about to be snatched from their trampled path souls by the birds.

I ask if anyone knows what a disciple is and nobody answers. I ask a man in front of me what’s his profession, and he answers: “I’m a chronic alcoholic.”

I acknowledge his confession but probe deeper, learning that he’s a mechanic. I tell him that if I came to him and asked if I could shadow him because I wanted to learn how to work on cars like he does and he agreed, I’d be his disciple.

“That’s like an apprentice,” a guy who says he’s a metal worker chimes in—and people get it.

“So the disciples come to Jesus with their questions and concerns, and he helps them understand,” I summarize.

“When we don’t understand something, we can come to Jesus and ask him. Of course we can’t see him. But we can tell him and ask him for wisdom and understanding. That’s called prayer. Jesus tells them in other places: ‘Ask and you will receive.’ ‘Seek and you will find.’ ‘Knock and the door will be opened,’ I say.

“Any of us can speak to Jesus or the Holy Spirit by faith. If you do this God will give you clarity, like Jesus says: “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.”

“What if Jesus is just saying that if you don’t understand something and don’t ask, you won’t get the clarity?” I ask.

The men seem to like this answer, so I dare to have them read the next verse and ask them what they think it means. Someone reads:

“For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.”

A heavily tatted-up guy probably in his late twenties humbly offers an answer.

“When we have faith and ask, God will give us more and our faith will grow. If we refuse to trust we end up with nothing.”

The guards pop the doors announcing time’s up, and we haven’t even prayed. I nod to the guard and ask if we can have one more minute to close with prayer.

“Any of us can be Jesus’ disciple if we want to learn from him.” I say. “You can be that good soil that receives the seeds of his word. He wants to tell you the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. While you’re in this jail you can be hearing and receiving his words, taking in these seeds. You can ask Jesus by faith and he will give you in abundance,” I say.

I invite the men to tell Jesus right then and there if they’d like to be his disciple to learn from him. Many of the guys are nodding that they want this. I bless the seeds of God’s words that have gone in, and prohibit the enemy from snatching them away. I bless whatever faith they have and then notice the guard peaking in through the door. Time’s definitely up and men file out. I feel God’s gentle presence and wait for the next group, wondering what’s going to happen.

Only three men come in for the second Bible study. A guy in his mid forties gets all choked up begins to cry when we talk about how Jesus doesn’t discriminate, but speaks to everyone in whatever state we’re in, calling us to listen, to receive the word so it can be fruitful.

He says that his mother-in-law, who he lives with, is a really religious person who goes to church every Sunday, and reads the Bible and prays every day.

“All the time she hugs me and tells me she wants me to live a long life. But I’ve been completely closed, feeling nothing. All I think about is where I’m going to get that day’s supply of heroin,” he says, sobbing.

“She doesn’t know, or I guess she probably does know that something’s wrong,” he reflects.

I’m deeply moved, and so are the other two guys. The man who’s crying suddenly realizes that these hugs are like seeds that are still there, waiting for the soil to be ready. Suddenly his heart is open, and the seeds of love are penetrating into the softened soil of his heart.

I ask if I can pray for him and the others, and people nod yes. I bless each of the men, asking the Holy Spirit to fill them, to cover over the seeds, make them germinate and grow, and become fruitful. I leave feeling like I can feel seeds germinating and growing, bursting out of my heart.  Let whoever has ears to hear, hear.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

A fresh look at Jesus’ final judgment parable (Matthew 25:31-46)

Jesus’ parable of the judgment of the nations is often presented in ways that associate our treatment of anyone who is hungry, thirsty, a foreigner, naked, sick and imprisoned as synonymous with how we treat Jesus. Many Scriptures clearly call us to care for the poor, excluded, immigrants and prisoners. But numerous details in this parable suggest a different interpretation.
Jesus here teaches on the future judgment of non-Jews (the nations=ethnos), whom he commissions his disciples to evangelize and make disciples of before he departs (see Matthew 28:18-20). This parable is not about the judgment of nation states as institutions (though they will be judged), but about Jesus’ future response to how people treat his followers who go out spreading the word.
In this parable the King, who is also a Son of the Father in Heaven, returns and is enthroned. He calls non-Jews together and like a shepherd he separates sheep from goats. He says to the sheep, identifying himself as their shepherd:
“Come, you who are blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
“For I was hungry… thirsty… a stranger… naked… sick… imprisoned” and “you gave me food… drink… hospitality… prison visits.”
These “righteous” don’t understand when they had done this for him, this Son of Man– the shepherd King. They hadn’t recognized him or made the associations he names.
“The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me’ (Matt 25:40).
Who exactly are the King’s “brothers” and also “the least of these” in this parable?
For most of my ministry I read this as referring to anyone in the category of hungry, sick, naked, a foreigner, or prisoner. This interpretation puts permanent pressure on all non-Jews to serve everyone who fits into these categories—or else you will be accursed and sent into “the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:42).
Is this the motivation Jesus is suggesting we should have as we minister to the poor, immigrants, refugees and prisoners? I don’t think so. God’s abundant and tender love for the poor and excluded is the only sustainable motivation.
I think that this parable is about God’s judgment of non-Jews who receive or reject followers of Jesus as they go to fulfill Jesus’ commission to make disciples, baptize and teach.
The King states “to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mineeven the least of them, you did it to me.”
In Matthew Jesus consistently refers to his disciples as his brothers distinct from blood brothers/sisters (see Matt 12:48; 28:10).
A key Scripture is Matthew 10:40-42, where Jesus says to his disciples:
“The one who receives you receives me,” and “whoever in the name of a disciple gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water to drink… shall not lose his reward.”
Jesus also calls fellow believers to treat one another as brothers and sisters (Matt 18:15 35; 23:8) of our common Father in heaven.
Western Christians may find identifying Jesus’ followers as the hungry, thirsty, naked, foreigners, imprisoned of this parable difficult due to our distance from the ragged and persecuted state of early Christ followers and today’s persecuted believers and precarious ministry workers. Yet Christians today are marginalized, persecuted and martyred like never before in history in many places throughout the world—including inside our prison system.
Jesus’ disciples who carry on his mission were sent out in vulnerability, without money, extra clothes or even sandals (Matt 10:10), as persecuted “sheep in the midst of wolves”—a big challenge to us now. They were often strangers and even foreigners as they went from village to village and to foreign lands, fleeing persecution (Matt 10:16-23). They were dependent upon people’s hospitality (those people of peace who received them). But they were often rejected, persecuted, imprisoned and martyred (Matt 5:10-12).
In Jesus’ parable, receiving them equals receiving him—a total identification. Jesus’ identifying himself, the King with the “least of these” represents his deliberate inclusion of the humblest of his recruits who go out on mission. When we receive a humble disciple of Jesus, Jesus says we are receiving the King, the Son of the Father himself.
May we welcome, provide for, care for and advocate for those who minister in Jesus’ name. May we intercede for the persecuted church worldwide, and be inspired ourselves to join the company of Jesus’ brothers and sisters—even the “least of these,” knowing that even if the world does not always receive us, Jesus has our back.

For further reflections on this, see my chapter eight of my new book, The Beautiful Gate: Enter Jesus’ Global Liberation Movement, which can be ordered here.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Lamenting False Saviors: A Good Friday Reflection

There is a grave danger this week for those watching global events– to become excited and drawn into alignment with pretender saviors of the vulnerable. Today I am trying to deliberately contemplate how Jesus came into Roman occupied Jerusalem as Savior of the World, in contrast to global leaders like Assad, Putin and Trump. It seems we must continually decide who saves and how it is effectively accomplished.
The US bombing of the Syrian air force base in retaliation for Assad’s use of chemical weapons to kill 80 defenseless civilians brought together liberals and conservatives. Both groups and many others share outrage at a horrific crime and guilty perpetrators. The defense of innocent children was the pretext and rallying cry. Abuses then and now are certainly barbarous and must be stopped, but how?
Today a fleet of US Navy destroyers, aircraft carrier and submarines accompanied by Japanese warships heads to the Korean Peninsula to intimidate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un ahead of possible nuclear weapons tests. Would Jesus council these acts of intimidation and possible bombings and invasion to remove this dictator should he refuse to back down?
I readily admit that destroying weapons of destruction like MiG fighter jets appeals to me. But leveraging the use of violence and fleets to threaten more violence and calls to remove thug dictators in defense of women and children move us all closer to more death and chaos.
We can certainly see evidence that US intervention to remove dictator Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya brought further violence and chaos to these countries. And we must remember that the United States of America and the United Kingdom are the #1 and #2 weapons producers in the world—so can their council be trusted?
The US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson said earlier this week that the USA would come to the defense of innocent civilians “anywhere in the world.” Considering our track record in Iraq and Afghanistan it is unlikely that our way of defending will bring peace. Better that we begin by taking logs out of our own eyes.
Barely two weeks ago the US was directed by Iraqi security forces to bomb two buildings in Mosul, Iraq that that were full of women and children, killing over 200. US forces have recently been active in combat in Syria in which defenseless civilians have lost their lives (see this article). In our attempts to save we kill, as violence begets violence, spilling over and consuming unintended victims.
Closer to home thousands of unaccompanied minors fleeing gang violence in Central America are being deliberately kept from crossing the US-Mexican border, or are being deported back into life-threatening situations.
Should Assad and Kim Jong-un refuse to bow to pressures and continue forward with their plans, how will the US administration respond? Will war erupt that will take yet more lives and breed more chaos? Today the USA dropped a 22,000 pound bomb (its largest non-nuclear bomb) to eradicate ISIS fighters in Afghanistan, and I cringe as I anticipate the results. Now is the time to expose efforts to unite people against demonized enemies.Today on this Friday of Holy Week we’d do well to remember how the crowd was easily rallied by religious leaders against Jesus as they called for his execution. In taking the place of the innocent victim as God in the flesh, Jesus subverted forever the scapegoating mechanism that brings false unity to punish and kill. It’s now up to us to continue to live in the freedom of that subversion.
Jesus absorbed human hostility at his crucifixion, interceding for us in our blind violence: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Let us agree with the mission of Jesus, who “draws all people to himself” in a true, redemptive unity rather than going along with calls to beat up on more bad guys. Let us find inspiration and empowerment from the resurrected Prince of Peace, waging peace alongside the vulnerable instead of war against the guilty. And the resurrected victim Jesus promises to be with us, to the end of the age.
For further reflections on Jesus’ mission, see my new book, The Beautiful Gate: Enter Jesus’ Global Liberation Movement, which can be ordered here.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Seeking and finding lost sheep in a Scottish prison


Descriptions of God as a shepherd who looks for, finds and brings home lost sheep have always caught my attention, inspiring me in my calling to seek and find the forsaken. My own journey has taken me from suburban Seattle to rural Honduras and back to a jail and prison in Washington State and beyond— including a recent visit to a Scottish prison in Perth.

As a lonely teenager I remember longing for some wise and caring person to find me, even accidentally. I prayed seemingly in vain that someone would see me, notice my pain and reach out tenderly to me in my isolation, so I wouldn’t have to risk further shame of taking the initiative in making my need known. My own perception that I was not sought out or found while growing up inside the church underlies my own calling to seek and find the not yet reached—and recruit and equip others to do the same.

I have always been moved by the prophet Ezekiel 34:1-10’s critique of Israel’s shepherds, who refused to feed, strengthen, heal, bind up, bring back or seek after lost sheep. I love that God commits to doing this himself when humans don’t.

“I myself will search for my sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for my sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day” (Ezek 34:11-12).
I myself experienced God’s unmediated search and rescue when half way up the Salathe Wall on El Capitan in Yosemite as an 18-year-old rock climber. There, on an exposed ledge amidst a lightening then snow storm, I cried out for salvation and experienced peace and a seemingly miraculous eventual descent. And yet Jesus’ life shows us God’s preference for mediated seeking and finding—which we are all called to emulate.

Jesus embodied God’s pursuit of the lost, the strays, rejected, and law-breakers. In another favorite text Jesus describes himself as leaving the 99 sheep in the open pasture to seek until he finds the one that is lost (Luke 15:4). Jesus describes his access to sheep using language that resonates in prison contexts. 

"To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out" (John 10:3). Jesus describes himself as the “good shepherd” who lays down his life for his sheep. "I know my own and my own know me," says Jesus (John 10:14. “They will hear my voice,” says Jesus confidently (John 10:16). But how exactly does this work should we desire to join Jesus in his shepherding ministry?

Uniting ourselves to Jesus by faith is the first step, along with deliberate surrender to the Holy Spirit. A personal tie to Jesus the Good Shepherd gives us access to his Divine intelligence as to the location and identity of his at-large sheep. Jesus deputizes us and empowers us through the Holy Spirit with prophetic revelation and courage to join him in his lost-sheep finding missions—though risk on our part is always necessary. The Spirit’s equipping includes gifts of prophesy, healing, discernment and more.

Recently a Church of Scotland prison chaplain named Ken invited Gracie and I to offer a day of training to some 20 prison ministry visitors and chaplains in HMP Perth prison. This prison had been founded to incarcerate 4000 French prisoners of war after the Napoleonic wars at the turn of the 19th Century. We knew Ken as he and two other Scottish prison chaplains had taken our recent Glasgow-based Certificate in Transformational Ministry at the Margins (see www.tierranueva-europe.org).

As we were going through security to enter the prison I asked Ken if we could visit with inmates after the training. He told us that he hadn’t gotten the needed pre-approval. However when his supervisor formally welcomed us he unexpectedly volunteered that we were welcome to meet with inmates if we wanted to.
After completing our training, Deirdre, a part-time chaplain who actually shepherds real sheep her other half-time, offered to take Gracie and I back to meet with inmates for just a short ten minutes visit. I was surprised when she led us straight into a cellblock where inmates were circulating, taking showers and engaging in other activities. She quickly gathered eight of so of the men she had a weekly Bible study with in a side room, and introduced us.

Aware of our limited time and this amazing opportunity, I asked God for any impressions he wanted to give us so we could minister to the men in the minutes that remain.

Immediately the word Hepatitis C and knife pain in the lower back came to mind, and I asked the men if any of them had these conditions. A man with a big scar across his neck and right side of his face said he’d been feeling sick from his Hep C and we immediately prayed for him. Two other men and the chaplain herself said they had pain in their lower backs—but none of them had been stabbed. Gracie and I prayed for the men and Deirdre, and the men noticed immediate relief. We prayed for other conditions the Spirit revealed and the men were visibly moved.

Then a strong looking guy who was clearly spending a lot of time in the weight room walked in. I introduced myself, shook his hand and asked him how long he’d been there. He said seven years. He asked what we were doing and I told him we were praying for people. “Can we pray for you for anything?” I asked.

“No, no thanks, not me,” he said.

Immediately the word “mechanic” came to mind and I risked asking: “Are you by any chance a mechanic?”

“Yes,” he said, looking shocked, and I told him that I thought God was saying that he is a man who needs and likes to know how things work and that God really respects his integrity. I shared how that same curiosity about how things work applies to how God works too, and that he could ask Jesus questions directly. But just like a car won’t fix itself, but requires that you get out your tools and work on it, you have to get personally involved with Jesus to know whether he’s real. You can’t be a spectator but must crawl under the car, so to speak, experiencing for yourself the reality.”

I was surprised by what had just come out of my mouth—but was delighted to see the man visibly soften and take a seat with the others. Meanwhile Gracie had asked a man who had pain in his heart to put a hand on his heart and she began to pray. He was overcome with emotion and told everyone that something was happening in his heart, and that he felt heat going all through his body. Another even taller, tougher-looking guy came in at the end, and asked for prayer for a fellow inmate who was too sick and distressed to leave his cell.

Our ten minutes seemed to expand as the Spirit seized the moment to reach each man in a personal way. This was only possible because Jesus the Good Shepherd knew his own and was mysteriously calling them by name through us. The connection that was made possible through the Spirit’s presence was a rare and precious foretaste of the heavenly banquet feast to come… and I am longing to taste this again and again.

Order my new book, The Beautiful Gate: Enter Jesus’ Global Liberation Movement here.


Friday, March 24, 2017

Clear from the Inside Out

In recent Bible studies in Skagit County Jail and in our Tierra Nueva worshipping community I have been struck by Jesus’ unusual approach regarding substances, whether they be food, drink or drugs. In substance abuse and recovery circles (and vegan and other religious circles too) there is often intense scrutiny around what goes into the body—via stomach, lungs or veins.  Jesus’ words to the crowd in Mark 7:14-16 are counter-cultural to twelve-step and religious communities. 
“Listen to me, all of you, and understand!” Jesus insists, inviting his audience to pay particular attention to what follows-- Jesus’ underlined and bold-faced message. But will we understand?
“There is nothing outside the person which can defile him/her if it goes into her/him; but the things which proceed out of the person are what defile the person” (7:16), states Jesus, followed by an emphatic “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear. 
At this point I define “defile” as “to make unclean.” I add that back in Jesus’ time most religious leaders considered someone becoming unclean through the contagion of direct contact with the dead, lepers, the disabled, blood and through eating certain foods prohibited by the Old Testament law, like pork. Being unclean was seen as keeping people from God’s presence, and from religiously “clean” people or places. 
“What kinds of substances are viewed as making someone unclean today?” I ask. 
People mention drugs and alcohol, and more specifically meth, heroine, and weed. Some also mention cigarettes. I bring up our local Skagit County District Court Drug Court, and ask what substances could show up in someone’s urine that would get them in trouble should a person under drug court supervision be suddenly subjected to a mandatory “UA” (urine analysis). 
People mention how the presence of THC, methamphetamines, opiates, and alcohol would make someone legally “not clean,” unleashing penalties including banishment from drug court and incarceration. 
“So what exactly does Jesus say again about what makes someone not clean?” I ask, inviting someone to re-read the first half of Mark 7:16. 
A man in the jail recovery program haltingly reads, “there is nothing outside the person which can defile him.” 
“So what substances make us unclean according to Jesus?" 
People seem almost afraid to admit the obvious—“nothing!” They give me confused smiles, wondering where this is going. 
I remind people that Jesus has just introduced these words with a strong call to attention: “Listen to me, all of you, and understand!” So according to Jesus, it is really important that we get that we are not made unclean by external substances—even illegal ones. 
“So if substances, including food, drink and drugs don’t make us unclean, what does?” I ask, inviting someone to read the second half of Mark 7:16
“But the things which proceed out of the person are what defile the person,” someone reads. 
Let’s see what those things might be?” I ask, inviting someone to read Mark 7:17-19. There Jesus’ answers his disciples’ question about the meaning of this in a frank and clear manner, really getting down on his people for being so narrow minded 
“Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” Thus he declared all foods clean.” 
Before going further in interpreting this verse I remind people what I often hear from addicts about their drug use— they say they use because of the pain of traumas, and losses-- “heart wounds.” Others use because of regrets or guilt due to their misdeeds. 
“So do drugs and alcohol heal those heart wounds or take away guilt and shame?” I ask. 
People are emphatic about how substances do not heal, but only comfort, or numb-- permitting temporary and costly relief. I show them that Jesus is in full agreement with them. Drugs, alcohol and food do not penetrate the heart, but only go into our stomachs, lungs or veins. So according to Jesus they cannot make you unclean—because it is what comes out of the heart that makes you unclean. We read the next verses to see how Jesus invites still deeper analysis.  
“That which proceeds out of the person, that is what defiles the person. “For from within, out of the heart of people, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. “All these evil things proceed from within and defile the person.” 
We talk about how substances do not make us unclean. Nor do they heal or in any way address all these evils mentioned. Rather they can remove inhibitions or weaken our wills, so we don’t hold back from acting on these destructive thoughts in our hearts.  Men in jail admit that most are there for crimes committed under the influence. 
“So how can our hearts be effectively healed? I ask, inviting people to turn to Psalm 51 for some ideas. 
We use the remaining time to read through the Psalmist’s lines, identifying what he is doing and what we think about it. 
We see that the offender King David, fresh from an adulterous affair with Bathsheba and the killing of her husband Uriah, is not kept from God’s presence, but speaks to God asking for mercy. 
“Be gracious to me, O God, according to your loving kindness; according to the greatness of your compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin (51:1-2). 
David’s concrete actions of asking God to show him grace and forgiveness, to wash him and make him clean are attractive as they are possible for people here and now. 
This Psalm models confession of sin, repentance and turning to God in ways that inspire people when they know substance abuse, denial and running just get them into deeper trouble. 
I suggest that the only remedy for healing the heart is God’s forgiveness applied directly when we acknowledge and renounce sin. 
We read verse 6 about how God desires full-on transformation of our deepest selves, and people seem truly inspired. 
“Behold, you desire truth in the innermost being, and in the hidden part you will make me know wisdom.” 
The Psalmist shows us the way forward, asking God to do what only God (not drugs, alcohol or religious striving) can accomplish, crying out: 
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” 
People are especially moved by the Psalmist’s strong words about God not wanting sacrifice but true contrition and deep change. 
“For you do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; you are not pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
Everyone is game to pray, and we take time to ask for God’s mercy, to confess and turn away from the sins the Spirit reveals, to ask for forgiveness, and to also forgive ourselves. I exercise my pastoral authority and declare all of our sins forgiven in Jesus’ name. There’s a palpable relief in the air, a feeling of lightness and even joy that comes in these times… and I’m ready to repeat this Bible study again and again. 

Order my new book, The Beautiful Gate: Enter Jesus' Global Liberation Movement here.

Monday, January 23, 2017

"The Beautiful Gate: Enter Jesus' Global Liberation Movement" is now available!




In these times of mass movements I'm delighted to announce that my new book recruiting people into Jesus' beautiful liberation movement is now available on Amazon. Here is a brief description and the Table of Contents. 

"The Beautiful Gate is the site of the first healing Jesus’ disciples facilitate after Pentecost. Peter and John encounter a man lame from birth, disqualified and excluded outside the temple. In this prototype miracle, care for the poor and marginalized, respectful presence, relational connectedness, empowerment, and holistic healing in Jesus’ name coalesce, freeing the man to move through the gate, into the company of those who had previously excluded him. Once inside, the apostles offer a prophetic challenge, calling people to confession, repentance, and conversion. We are all sent out to join Jesus in his global liberation movement now."

1 Enter Through the Beautiful Gate
2 Prototype Disciples: Peter & John, Me & You
3 Empowering Presence
4 Authority, Faith, and Empowerment
5 Embracing the Rejected One: A Theology of the Cross
6 Transformation in Whose Name?
7 Repentance and Conversion
8 Persecution and Breakthrough

You can click here to order a copy. 

Friday, January 6, 2017

Electing a King or Embracing Jesus as King


This Epiphany as we celebrate God’s self-revelation as King Jesus, I am struck by the extreme danger of choosing to trust in self, other gods and human rulers.

Today in America, Western Europe and beyond people are expressing their desire for stronger, more authoritarian leadership in a climate of increasing fear and insecurity. Many are calling for leaders who will put up walls, enforce laws with greater vigor and take stands for citizens against the rising tides of refugees, immigrants and terrorists. Jobs, borders, and benefits for us—not them.

In the days of Samuel the people of Israel tired of corruption and threats from menacing Philistines to the point of saying to him: “Now appoint a king for us to judge us like all the nations” (1 Samuel 8:8). Samuel was unhappy with this request and went to the Lord, who said: “Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them” (v. 7)

Today in America we see too many of God’s people reflecting a similar fatigue and request, and it appears to have been granted them in the recent presidential election (81% of White Evangelicals and over 60% White Catholics voted for Trump). While God’s prophet Samuel went along with the people’s request for a king in obedience to God, he did not endorse the majority sentiment and choice, and neither should we.

Rather God told the prophet to solemnly warn people (v. 9) of the miseries that awaited them, which were played out in graphic detail as king after king did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and the people ended up in exile. Samuel warned those who “elected” Israel’s first king of many negative consequences (see 1 Samuel 8:11-17), bluntly stating “then you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day” (v. 18).

Samuel anointed Saul and then the Old Testament prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power stepped into high gear. Now is the time for a resurgence of prophetic ministry informed by Word, Spirit and street realities. It is critical that anyone stepping into this calling be rooted and grounded in God’s love, be informed by sources dear to God’s heart, exercise great wisdom, and are bold in speaking truth.

Scripture informs God’s prophet, who learns that the One awaited as God’s Messiah is a King not like the leaders of other nations. This King puts the poor and vulnerable at the center.

“For he will deliver the needy when he cries for help, the afflicted also, and him who has no helper. He will have compassion on the poor and needy, and the lives of the needy he will save. He will rescue their life from oppression and violence, and their blood will be precious in his sight” Psalm 72:12-14

Attentive listening to the poor and marginalized in our communities will alert us to the failure of political parties past and present to address the deeper wounds, maladies and injustices that breed chaos in our streets and the high-priorities that elected officials must address.

Urgent is the need for reformation of the US prison and immigration systems, and the way law-enforcement is practiced. Our legal systems require a deep overhaul, without which vulnerable people will continue to be crushed under the weight of sanctions, requirements and debt. Effective reformation can only happen if the voices of prisoners and their families, undocumented immigrants and their advocates, those struggling with addictions and mental health disorders and their advocates are pursued, heard and responded to. Are there any signs that these are the priorities of today’s political leaders? If not, we must call for this and ourselves embody lives of reformation in alignment with the Biblical prophetic call for justice.

Without reformation from the bottom up (as well as from the top down), there will no peace in our lands—but rather growing chaos and the rise of the police State. And without the one and only Peacemaker Jesus himself-- and a growing movement of people devoted to following him, there will be no peace. 

This is the One who the wise men from the East were led to by the star, the One wrapped in swaddling clothes, who the shepherds first found. Jesus must be lifted up by Christians as Commander-and-Chief in these perilous times. Jesus’ inauguration happened on the cross as he was robed, crowned with thorns and crucified King of the Jews, and continues to be effective now. If you are an American, consider commemorating Jesus’ inauguration as King this January 20 through reading the Gospel account, celebrating communion or affirming your own declaration of allegiance.

Unlike a strong armed, authoritarian leader Jesus came to: “break the yoke of their burden and the staff on their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, as at the battle of Midian. For every boot of the booted warrior in the battle tumult, and cloak rolled in blood, will be for burning, fuel for the fire. For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on his shoulders; and his name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:4-7).

Following Jesus, the Prince of Peace is about joining a movement that began long ago and must continue forward through the humble work of loving neighbors: feeding the hungry, inviting in the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting prisoners. (See the Matthew 25 pledge). Stepping into Jesus’ movement is joining the only side that brings God’s government into our broken world, as Isaiah 9 beautifully prophesies. 

“There will be no end to the increase of his government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this.” May you be filled with zeal for Jesus and his Kingdom this Epiphany and beyond as you begin 2017.

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