Freedom

18 07 2017

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John 8 tells the story of a woman caught in adultery and dragged before Jesus by the Pharisees. They wanted to see if He would uphold the Mosaic law and condemn her to death. As they gathered stones to throw at her, Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust. The tension built until finally he stood and said, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”

As the story goes, they dropped their stones and went out, one by one, beginning with the oldest. Because, you may be able to fool people, but when God turns the spotlight on your heart, you realize — no matter how diligently you’ve followed the rules — you can’t clean up the hidden places. Your actions may impress, but your heart will betray you every time.

I have no idea how long it took for that crowd to disperse, but Jesus waited. Then, when they were all gone, He looked the woman in the eye and said, “Where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

And she said, “No one, Lord.”

The God of the universe lifted her head and removed her shame by giving her the opportunity to confess with her own lips that she was no worse a sinner than the most religious people alive.

And then He gave her an even greater gift. He said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

It’s interesting to note that He didn’t say, “Go back to your lover. I get that he’s your soul mate — that your marriages were a mistake, but now you feel alive for the first time. Ignore the haters. Do what makes you happy.”

No. He said, “Go, and from now on sin no more.”

Jesus never suggested that her behavior was acceptable. He called it sin. And the only reason He was able to say, “Neither do I condemn you,” was because He Himself would bear the punishment for her guilt. (If there’s no such thing as sin, the cross is pointless.)

When Jesus said, “Go and sin no more,” He wasn’t pronouncing a restriction to hold her in bondage. He was opening her cage door and inviting her to freedom.

There’s no reason to think that she went home to an easy choice — that the feelings, emotional attachments, and pressures were miraculously gone. “Sin no more” implies a deliberate change, not for the sake of following rules, but for the sake of her own flourishing — trusting that God knows more about abundant life than she does.

Because here’s the deal. God is good. Always, only good.

He’s always good in what He gives, and He’s always good in what He forbids.

And here’s the other deal. Temptation is always the same.

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It begins with the whisper, “Did God actually say?” and ends with trusting our own perceptions — “that the tree is good for food, and that it is a delight to the eyes, and that the tree is to be desired to make one wise.”

It’s the same old lies that have derailed us from the beginning — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life making promises they can’t keep. God couldn’t possibly have meant what He seems to be saying. We know what we want, how bad we want it, and we know better than God how to find our own fulfillment in life. Lust becomes need becomes identity. And who are you to question my identity?

Lately I hear a lot of people saying Jesus gave only one command: “Love God; love people.” And I always want to ask them, “What does it look like to love God? How do you truly love people?”

Because the sense I often get from their context is that loving people essentially means saying, “Ignore the haters. Do what makes you happy,” and it definitely does not mean saying, “Go, and sin no more.”

But Jesus didn’t simply say, “Love God; love people.” What He actually said was, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

The Law and the Prophets show us what it looks like to love God and people. Jesus never negated the commandments. In fact, He said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

He also said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” This sounds a lot like, “Go, and from now on sin no more.”

And His final command? “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Jesus never released us from obedience, because our flourishing is found in obedience, just as His was. We aren’t fulfilled by satisfying our personal desires, but by increasing in our likeness to the image of God.

John tells us, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”

Loving God looks like obedience to His Word. Loving people looks like caring enough to tell them the truth (not a manipulated, massaged version of it), even when that means a call to drastic repentance, taking up a difficult cross, and denying self.

God is good in what He forbids. He forbids sin, only because He is good.

The Tempter will whisper, “Did God actually say . . .?” And the masses will tell you, “Go do what makes you happy!”

But Jesus is standing right in front of you with a better offer.

The cage door is open. The choice is yours.

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When we don’t recognize the answers to our prayers

11 11 2016

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To state the obvious, there’s a lot of pain, confusion, fear, and disappointment in the aftermath of the election. We’re all processing what happened and trying to predict what it might mean for the future. Tensions are high and words are often harsh and accusatory. And I’m not even referring to the general populace. I’m talking about those who identify as believers in Christ.

So, I thought it might be good to preach a little gospel to myself and anyone else who wants to listen in. Feel free to grab a cup of tea and get cozy.

Our culture may be saying a lot of things about us, and we may be saying a lot of things about each other, but God has also said some very specific things about His people. Here are a few of them:

We are created in His image, covered by the shadow of His wing, held in the palm of His hand, fearfully and wonderfully made, created for His pleasure and glory, chosen in Him before the foundation of the world, taught by the Holy Spirit, known, protected, shielded, shepherded, disciplined as beloved children, grafted into the vine, loved, cherished, set apart, adopted, His workmanship created for good works that He has foreordained for us to walk in.

Exhale.

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One good thing I already see happening post-election is that Christians in America are distancing themselves from political affiliations and reexamining their identity. As believers, we’re called to be in this world, but not of it. We may be citizens of a nation, but we’re called to live here as citizens of God’s upside-down kingdom. No earthly ruler is responsible for accomplishing what God has commanded His church to do.

God is calling His people to deep, meaningful, and powerful community. Can you imagine what would happen if we really believed all the truths God has spoken over us — if we walked into our inheritance and united our hearts, our creativity, and our energies in loving this broken world?

We need to own our identity as God’s sons and daughters and co-heirs with Christ, because the kingdom we live in determines the lenses through which we see all things, including the promises of God.

Consider Psalm 84:11-12. “For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly. O Lord of hosts, blessed is the one who trusts in you!”

When you read the words, “the Lord bestows favor and honor,” what comes to mind? Or what about the phrase, “no good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly”? If we view this promise through the lenses of the upside-down kingdom, we remember that “favor” from God may look like loving discipline of His child, and “honor” may look like bearing reproach for His Name, and the “good thing” He won’t withhold may be the suffering or persecution He knows we need to be conformed to the image of His Son.

The more we look through the lenses of the upside-down kingdom, the less God’s Word becomes about our personal or social agenda and the more it becomes about His glory and His kingdom.

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The only way to accurately see God’s promises and commands is through the right lenses, and when we do see clearly, life becomes a glorious adventure with Him. When we don’t get our way, we can still give thanks, because we believe in His sovereign plans and purposes and power. We trust that, whatever He chooses for us, it is an indication of our Father’s favor and His faithfulness to give good and perfect gifts to His children.

God is always only good in what He gives, and always only good in what He forbids. Therefore, the only true freedom is found in absolute submission to Him.

So, how do we live in submission to this King? What are the principles and laws of this upside-down kingdom?

They’re the exact opposites of the principles of the world or the so-called law of the jungle.

Jungle law says it’s every man for himself.
Kingdom law says consider others as more important than yourself, and the greatest in the kingdom is the servant of all.

Jungle law says might makes right.
Kingdom law says the weak confound the mighty.

Jungle law says kill or be killed.
Kingdom law says turn the other cheek, go the second mile, if someone asks for your coat, give him your shirt as well.

Jungle law claims that only the fittest will survive.
But kingdom law says become as a little child, the meek inherit the earth, and the pure in heart see God.

And here’s the secret to freedom and the unexplainable joy of God’s children. We know that the best gifts He gives are actually the ones that bow us the lowest, because God resists the proud and draws near to the humble.

God’s ways are higher than ours. He knows what we actually need (as opposed to what we think we want), and He is willing to crush us if that’s the way to resurrection. We see this imagery again and again in scriptural word pictures.

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Jesus is the vine, we are the branches, and the Father is the gardener. He prunes us according to His wisdom. To us it may look like He has cut away what was most beautiful in our lives, but He always prunes with purpose, that we might abide more deeply in Him and that we might bear much fruit.

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He is the potter and we are the clay. We feel the pressure and we want to squirm out of his grasp, but He is shaping us, molding us for His purposes. We can trust God’s love to be behind every painful stroke of His hand.

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He is the refiner and we are His gold. Left to ourselves, we would remain dingy lumps of metal with dirt clinging to our surface. His fire cleanses, purifies, strengthens. He knows exactly how hot the fire needs to be to burn away all our dross until He can see His face reflected in our lives.

We want these things in theory. We may even ask Him to prune our dead branches, to shape us into useful vessels, to burn away our dross. But when it happens in real life — when the sheers cut deep and the pressure feels unbearable and the fire burns hot, we can easily lose sight of God’s purpose and forget that the suffering is not only for our good and His glory, it’s the answer to our prayers.

Have you noticed that we never fathom the fullness of God’s ways? There’s always more than we can see. We look for physical healing and God heals our hearts. We ask for blessing and He sends pain that splits us wide open, because He knows that’s the only way our souls will ever learn to breathe.

Right now the people of God in America have an opportunity to be salt and light for such a time as this. May we welcome His working in us and trust His ways. And may we recognize the answers to our own prayers, even when they come disguised in the most surprising and unexpected packages.





This Many

10 09 2016

img_6416Yesterday I used the “I’m this many” photo above to announce my fifty-ninth birthday on social media. The responses were fun, enthusiastic, and appreciated. But there’s no getting past a simple fact. That’s a whole lot of fingers.

Have you noticed that a year is only twelve months, and a month is only a handful of weeks, and a week lasts about five minutes? At least it feels that way. Like I’m not just over the hill, but this hill is getting steeper by the second, and the brakes on my little red wagon gave out long ago.

The older I get, the more I can identify with those scriptures that say we are like grass, springing up in the morning, and mown down in the evening. The green is fading, and I can hear the mower engine cranking up in the distance.

Life is short.

img_6470This aging thing is getting a little too real, but I have to say, yesterday was a good day right out of the gate. First I was greeted by these flowers and this commonest of birthday phrases, whimsically lettered by a hand that holds my heart in the most un-commonest of loves.

This is one of the best gifts, and one that only time can buy. It’s the knowing that comes with overcoming together again and again — choosing against all odds to believe that broken things can be restored, that pain is purposeful, and that love is a battlefield worth defending. It’s hundreds of forgiven hurts and thousands of shared joys and a belonging that no amount of wrinkles or gray hairs can threaten.

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It started with the flowers. Then he took me to lunch at a French bistro. Lobster bisque, and warm goat-cheese salad with walnut vinaigrette, followed by a delicious fluffy-mousse-with-fruity-drizzle complimentary dessert from our waiter, which we’d mostly devoured before we remembered to take a picture.

But the best part of the lunch was the conversation.

“So, I’m fifty-nine,” I said. “Got any advice to offer from the other side of sixty?”

I was sort of joking/not joking, but he paused and then answered seriously. “Actually, to be honest, turning sixty kinda messed with my head. There’s no stopping this train, and there’s no going back.”

And then, almost in unison, we expressed the same thought — the same sense of urgency to make the most of this gift of time, redeeming the moments, filling them with meaningful, eternal pursuits. Let’s be fully present, we said. Fully engaged, fully aware — embodying the hope we’ve been given, the goodness we’ve tasted and seen, the gospel we believe.

While we have breath, let us praise Him with our words and our lives.

Even the best French cuisine can’t compete with that.

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Then, after lunch, a visit from grandchildren, with hand-drawn birthday cards, and sweetly sung birthday songs, and — later by text because they forgot but meant to — recordings of angelic voices lisping birthday prayers for Emzee. Early faith, fresh in the bud, sure to be tested, God’s to keep and mine to pray for, to love, to listen, and to speak into, when we sit in our house and when we walk by the way and when we lie down and when we rise up.

Grandchildren. Another gift that only time can give. A treasured jewel in the crown of “this many.”

In the evening we walked across the street to my father’s house — the place where we spend most of our evenings, sharing a meal, telling stories, watching tv. Tonight George has planned a special dinner, and I’m not allowed in the kitchen to help.

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It’s pork tenderloin stuffed with mushrooms and spinach, grilled butternut squash, and buttery dark-grain toast, followed by FaceTime fun with far-flung beloveds, opening cards and presents, blowing out candles under the loving gaze of the tenderest daddy on the planet, and then a thick slice of ridiculously rich chocolate cake served with vanilla gelato. And I honestly want to know. What could be better than this?

I may be edging my way past middle age, but I have no inclination to mourn my youth and no need to resist the relentless march of time.

I’m this many. This many years of experience. This many memories of grace. This many songs sung, friendships grown, adventures shared, roads journeyed, and fears conquered.

This many selfish ambitions let go, simple gifts received, and dreams refined.

This many assurances that all things work for good, all things serve His plan, and all things will be made new.

I’m small, fading like the grass, seen, known, and so very deeply loved. My little red wagon may be flying down the hill, but the wind is in my face, and I know the One who sets its course and knows the way I take.

Happy Birthday to me, fifty-nine fingers and counting. Thank you, friends, for all the ways you’ve made this journey amazing. You’re a beautiful part of “this many.”

 

 





A Word for 2016

9 01 2016

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A clay jar is a made thing, imagined and crafted by its maker. He determines its capacity and purpose, and expects only that it do what it was made to do.

In Perelandra (the second book in C.S. Lewis’ amazing space trilogy), the central character, Ransom, accomplishes a magnificent feat. He travels to a world inhabited by its first man and woman, and — by speaking truth to lies and ultimately defeating a demon-possessed tempter in hand-to-hand combat — he prevents a Genesis 3-type fall and secures a curse-free existence for all future inhabitants.

Before Ransom returns to Earth, he stands before the crowned king and queen of Perelandra, and the weight of what he has just accomplished begins to sink in. What will this mean for him in the future? What kind of fame, reward, and legendary status await one who rescues a whole world from brokenness, sin, destruction, and death?

An angelic being quickly reassures him with these words:

“Be comforted, small one, in your smallness. He lays no merit on you. Receive and be glad.”

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Not only does Ransom return home without trophies and accolades, he takes with him a wound on his heel that will remain a painful reminder of his battle with evil for as long as he lives. In a very literal sense, he is conformed to the image of Christ.

He receives the better reward.

And in his smallness, he is comforted.

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I think it’s safe to say that the wedding guests in Cana never gathered around the six stone water pots and lavished them with praise. The pots weren’t set on pedestals, festooned with garlands, and worshiped for the miracle of water into wine. Most likely, those water pots continued to function as ordinary water pots and the servants who’d filled them as ordinary servants. Except for what they knew. Which changed everything.

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But there is something in me that wants more. Something entitled. Something desperately selfish.

I say I want my life to be hidden in Christ, but I’m quick to bask in the praise of men.

I say I want to be dead to self, alive to God, and content with the portion He chooses for me, but I still find myself comparing, competing, envying, and resenting.

I say I want to be small in my own eyes, but my heart betrays me. When I don’t get credit for something I did? When I’m overlooked or excluded? When he answers my prayer for humility by actual humbling me? Then I see how far I have to go before I’m satisfied in Him alone, no matter what.

 

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Before John the Baptist was born, he was set apart to be the forerunner for Christ, and he fully embraced that calling in spite of the fact it largely meant a life of seclusion and eccentricity. And when the multitudes actually listened to him and redirected their attention to Jesus, John’s disciples were indignant for his sake. But he said,

“A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.

Stunning. But then? We get this glimpse at a tiny crack in John’s armor. He hears of all the miracles Jesus is performing, while he remains imprisoned in Herod’s dungeon, hidden, set aside, seemingly forgotten. So he sends messengers to Jesus, Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

And Jesus skips the question asked and answers the implied one.

“Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.

Jesus said this knowing that John would remain in prison, and Herod would behead him at the request of a dancing girl and her vengeful mother.

But I believe He also said it tenderly, knowing what we don’t know and seeing what we don’t see.

We don’t know what transpired between John and his Father in the moments before and after this seemingly senseless and humiliating execution. We don’t see what he saw or hear what he heard — the “well done” and “welcome home” of the One he devoted his life to serve. Every question at last answered. Every longing finally fulfilled. His joy once and for all truly complete.

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So, my word for the year is “small.” And I want to be like these little ceramic jars, made by a potter friend to be left in random places at Christmas time, each one unique, and each with a note explaining to the finder that the jar is a free gift, given because of all Jesus has given him. Given for the joy of giving joy. No credit sought, and much gladness received.

And I pray I’ll embrace this sacramental smallness not only with words, but with my life. That I will mean it when I tell God I want to be a living sacrifice — one clay vessel among His many, cleansed, set apart, ready for Him to fill and use however He chooses, whether anyone ever notices me or not.

This is my prayer — for freedom from selfish agendas, freedom from entitlement, freedom from offense, freedom to be small.

To be comforted in my smallness.

To receive and be glad.

All for Him.





Kocho

13 10 2015

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When you meet Kocho, the first thing you notice is his deep, abiding joy. You’d never guess that, in many ways, he’s a man without a country.

Kocho is from the Nuba Mountains in Sudan, which means the Sudanese government considers him a rebel. According to this June 2015 article in the New York Times, “A rebel army with many thousands of soldiers . . . governs the Nuba Mountains. The Sudanese government bombs the rebels and periodically attacks them, but the majority of its attacks seem to target civilians, apparently to make the area uninhabitable so that no one is left to support the rebels.”

The article goes on to explain, “The Nuba Mountains have no strategic value and neither the United States nor other governments have made much of an issue of the bombings, or of the lack of humanitarian access.”

Kocho’s people live in constant fear and endure unspeakable suffering, and no one seems to care. This alone would be enough to fill a man with indignation and fury.

But not Kocho.

KochoPreachingKocho preaching at the Hai Nuba Church in Doro

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Version 2Kocho in the Doro refugee camp, with Richard, a member of our team

I met Kocho last April in a refugee camp in Doro, South Sudan, and I was immediately struck by his smile, his intelligence, and his peaceful strength. He exuded radiant grace. We attended a service in the small, thatched Hai Nuba church, and Kocho not only led the joyful singing, he preached a powerful sermon in perfect English and interpreted into Arabic for himself. I remember thinking that, were he to show up in a college classroom in the US, he would fit right in. No one would guess his history.

Kocho’s father had four wives, and he has many brothers and sisters. Though his parents were both Muslims, he went to a school mixed with Muslims and Christians. When he was in 7th grade, his Kenyan teacher took him aside for Bible study. Kocho wasn’t interested, but he didn’t want to disappoint his teacher. So he studied the Bible. And, in his words, “I met Jesus.”

At the time he was living in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. His father had a good position and sent money to continue his next level of education. Then he received a Lost Boys Scholarship, and in 2010 he completed high school.

After that, Kocho says, “I prayed with all my heart” for a chance to continue schooling. Many of his buddies from the refugee camp were able to go to universities in the USA and Canada. Some of them had lower scores than Kocho in school, but he was stuck. He couldn’t say he was South Sudanese, and he couldn’t apply for papers from the north because they would see he is from Nuba and brand him a rebel. He worked a bit as a teacher, then returned to South Sudan and applied for University in Juba.

His application was denied because he’s from Nuba.

From there he went to a refugee camp in Unity State where he worked for Samaritan’s Purse for about a year. Friends then told him about possible job opportunities in Doro, so he moved there to work as a nurse assistant and save money for school.

His friends ask him, “What are you doing these days? You are probably finishing up university by now?” When he tells them what he is doing, they say that he is “wasting talent,” and those who are not Christians say, “God has forgotten you.”

But he says, “God is not done with me yet,” and he looks to Biblical examples of patience. Abraham waited 25 years for his promised son, he recalls. And David waited 15 years before he became a king.

And now? It looks like Kocho’s days of waiting may be coming to an end.

Missionary Care Trip 2015 - Jeanne 1176Cathy and Ruth with a refugee child

Enter Cathy and Ruth, nurse practitioners with SIM at the Grieve Memorial Clinic in Doro, who knew Kocho wanted to further his education, but weren’t sure how to help him. They approached African Mission Healthcare Foundation (AMHF) about setting up a support page for Kocho, and then they began the process of getting him to school.

None of this is simple. Kocho has no official ID or passport, and obtaining one will not be easy. But they managed to get him to Kenya, where he is enrolled in a business school now, completing his biology requirements on a temporary visa, and praying the official papers will come through before this term ends.

Kocho’s dream is to become a doctor, but not so he can get a good job, earn money, and make a comfortable life for himself. He said, “I can see how, when God puts His love in you, it is different than just being a medic and doing a job. With God it is not about the job or about getting money. I have prayed that if any gift is a stumbling block to me in my relationship with God that He would take it away from me. I want this gift of medicine to draw me close to God not further from Him.”

When asked if he wants to return to Nuba to practice medicine and alleviate the suffering there, he answered,“That is a big ‘Yes!’ But I want to follow God’s leading and go wherever His name is not known.”

Kocho may be a man without a country or an official ID, but he knows where his true identity is found. Galatians 2:20 is one of his favorite verses:

“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

He also points to Ephesians 5:15-17.

“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”

Kocho’s friends couldn’t have been more wrong. What the world may see as “wasting talent,” God receives as a life laid down, waiting for His timing, delighted to do His will.

God hasn’t forgotten Kocho. On the contrary, Kocho has been swept up into His holy purposes, adopted into His family, granted citizenship in His kingdom, and sealed as His own. And no one can deny him those credentials.

Will you pray with me for Kocho? Pray that God opens doors of opportunity for this hard-working, beautiful soul. And that he will be able to get the documents he needs to proceed to medical school when his biology course is finished.

And will you pray that the funds for his education come through?  At Cathy and Ruth’s request, AMHF set up a support page, and enough money has already been raised to cover his first year of medical school. Praise God for this wonderful provision! If you know of anyone who might want to pray for Kocho or help financially, will you share his need?

For his part, Kocho isn’t worried. His beautiful faith never wavering, he presses on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Ruth had the opportunity to speak with Kocho last week. Even as much of his immediate future remains uncertain, she said one of his biggest prayer requests was for the Hai Nuba Church in Doro, that they would grow, be strengthened, and “eat solid food, not desire milk like babies.”

Grant it, Lord. And may we, his brothers and sisters in the land of plenty, do the same.





Seek Peace

25 08 2015

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In April I spent some time in Doro, South Sudan, in a refugee camp that is home to 135,000 displaced people. In that place, God both exposed and broke my heart, and I returned home tender, repentant, and eager to do whatever He might ask of me.

We landed back in Dallas on a Saturday, and the next morning, Alysa was in the lobby of our church, recruiting volunteers to participate in a reading program for refugee children.

I went straight to the table and signed up.

DSC_0009Alysa preparing materials for Reading Circle

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Fact: According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are more than 50 million refugees around the world, half of which are women and children.

Fact: Less than 1% of the 50 million people seeking refuge are selected for the UN Resettlement Program.

Fact: Texas has led the nation in refugee resettlement for the past four years.

Fact: More than 10,000 refugees have been placed in the Vickery Meadow Neighborhood in Dallas.

Fact: I also live in Dallas.

The nations are at my doorstep.

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Sometimes I feel pretty good about myself. After all, I try to be kind to everyone (at least out loud), to take good care of my family, to practice hospitality, to pray for and encourage struggling, disheartened, or grieving friends. I serve my church and community in some useful and respectable ways. To be honest, sometimes I even feel a bit smug in my having-it-all-togetherness.

But then God invites me to witness what real love looks like. And I’m back at exposed and broken again.

When an expert in the law asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, Jesus threw the question back at him. What did the law require? And the man was ready. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Good job, Jesus said. Do this and you will live.

But the man wanted clarification. He was pretty sure he was already doing enough, but he wanted Jesus to sign off on his efforts. So he asked, “Who is my neighbor?” And, as Jesus often did, He told him a story.

A man was attacked by robbers on the road and left half dead. A priest saw him, but passed by on the other side. A Levite did the same. No doubt they had their reasons — didn’t want to touch what they supposed was a dead body and become unclean? Had full agendas and no time for interruptions? But a Samaritan — a man both the priest and Levite would have despised —  came upon the man, too. And he did not pass by.  He saw the man and took pity.

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The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine.

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He put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he paid he innkeeper and promised to reimburse any additional expenses for the man’s care.

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Jesus asked the lawyer which man was a neighbor to the wounded man. The lawyer answered, “The one who had mercy on him.” And Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”

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SEEK (short for “Seek the Peace”) is a non-profit organization operating within the refugee community in Dallas. The people who work at SEEK are like that Samaritan. They’ve heard the call to love their neighbor, and they’re willing to count the cost to follow through. They know these refugees have suffered unspeakable losses and extreme trauma, but they aren’t there to provide charity. The focus of their work is equipping the refugees to live purposeful, peaceful, reconciled lives right now, right where they are — as individuals, families, and a community.

SEEK pursues their goals through several programs, including the Reading Circle, which exists to equip refugee students for success through literacy. Three Saturday mornings a month, volunteer mentors gather the enrolled elementary-aged students from their apartments and walk them to the SEEK office, where each student receives personal instruction based on an initial assessment and his on-going progress. It’s all very organized, intentional, and a lot of fun.

The kids do improve in their reading and writing skills. But more than that, they build relationships with people who offer them presence, acceptance, encouragement, respect, and hope. And they soak it up.

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So, why am I telling you all this? Because I want to encourage you in three ways.

First, I want to encourage you to live with your eyes and heart open. I could have walked past that Reading Circle sign-up table and easily justified the reasons why I didn’t have time for one more ministry in my life. And I would have missed out in a huge way. Maybe the nations are at your doorstep, too? Or the homeless, the poor, the orphan, the widow? Neighbors have many different faces.

Second, I want to encourage you to pray. Pray for the 50 million people who’ve been driven from their homes by war, persecution, natural disaster, disease, economic collapse, and other traumatic events. Pray for their healing, comfort, and thriving. Pray against the greed, pride, hatred, brokenness, and evil that is forcing many of them to flee. Pray that Jesus will meet them in their suffering and make all things new.

There’s a lie that says you can spread your heart too thin. I know, because I’ve listened to it before. But this is what I’ve learned. When you love your neighbor — with your time, your presence, your creativity, and your resources — your heart doesn’t empty. It fills. Again and again and again.

So I have one more word of encouragement. This one is only for those whose hearts move them to respond. It’s not even a request. It’s an opportunity, with absolutely no pressure. SEEK is currently trying to raise funds for the next year — operating expenses, like rent money so they can stay in their office in the refugee apartment complex. They aren’t asking for big commitments. In fact, the specific request sent to their volunteers was to give $10.00 a month for a year, and to ask ten other people to do the same. And of course, any amount is deeply appreciated.

So, some of you reading this? You’re my ten. My fellow Samaritans on this particular road. And for others, maybe this isn’t an opportunity God has for you. That’s perfectly fine. My prayer for you is the same as my prayer for me — that we’ll go through life with open eyes and hearts, willing to recognize our part, and entering joyfully when we do. Because I believe with all my heart that the gifts we find waiting for us there far surpass any giving we may do.

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Fact: There are more than 50 million refugees around the world.

But facts don’t move us. Neighbors do. Here’s to loving them well.

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If you’d like to donate or learn more about SEEK the Peace, click here. Thank you!

 

 





When we need to lift up “Thanks to God”

4 06 2015

gloriaandodeliaGloria and Odelia, newborn

Hey, friends. Remember the virtual baby shower many of you attended for Zhanna and Stepa’s twin baby girls?

Remember how God moved our hearts, and many gave what they could, and together we helped raise the $40,000 needed to give those baby girls their very own bedroom? Oh, the big and beautiful things we can accomplish when we each do our small and humble part!

Now those sweet babies are six months old, and one of them needs our help again. Her name is Odelia. It means “Thanks to God.”

GloriaAndOdeliyaGloria (“Glory to God”) and Odelia (“Thanks to God”)

Odelia is not thriving, and her parents don’t know why. Here’s the unfolding of events as shared on Zhanna’s Facebook page:

OdeliaApril 17: “Please pray for Odelia’s health, we are in the hospital to find out diagnose.”

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Odeliya2May 30: “Hello friends, thanks for your prayers for our baby girl Odelia… Finally, June 2, we will fly to Bangkok, Thailand, to Bumrungrad International Hospital to find out diagnose. Here we just spent a lot of money and finally didn’t find the main reason of her health problem. Please – continue to pray for Odelia and now pray for Thailand doctors’ wisdom.”

June 1: “Dear friends, please pray for financial part of Odelia’s treatment in Bangkok’s hospital. For now, we know that examination will cost about $5000, but if they said that Odelia needs surgery- we don’t know how much it will cost! Pray for my English – that it will be enough to understand all medical words during treatment. Thanks:)”

InBangkokThen this, yesterday, June 3: “We are in Bangkok in Bumrungrad clinic. Pray for us [as they] start [the] examination.”

When I invited you to the virtual baby shower, I began by sharing a story about Zhanna and Stepa, because I wanted you to fall in love with them like I have. If you didn’t read it then, you can go back and read it now. But here’s one snippet from that post:

When you ask them how they’re going to handle all the changes and make ends meet? Their response is as calm as the one they gave the camp director when the power went out. They don’t know. But worrying about it won’t help. So they pray. And smile. And keep on tirelessly pouring out their lives and their love on these kids and their families.

I’ve never known anyone I admire and respect more than these two. Seriously. If the dictionary had an entry for “Salt of the Earth,” I’m pretty sure their pictures would be beside it.

If you’re wondering who “these kids and their families” are, they’re all of Young Life Central Asia and Young Life Capernaum (Special Needs) Kazakhstan. Zhanna and Stepa are not only raising four biological children in a small apartment, here are some of their other kids:

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This precious couple needs super-human strength and stamina just to function from day to day. I can’t imagine bearing up under their load. I know they willingly and joyfully carry it, but I also know they’re human, and they need rest. They need space to breathe. They need our help.

So, you’re invited again. And this time, we want to lift up “Thanks to God.” Isn’t that the sweetest thought? As we surround this family and this baby with love, we are tangibly expressing our gratitude to God for all the ways He meets our needs and for the privilege of being part of His family on earth.

I hope everyone reading these words will pause and pray for God’s healing touch in Odelia’s life and for blessing, strength, wisdom, and grace for her weary parents. If you feel inclined to help with Odelia’s hospital expenses (and all the other costs piling up for this family), you can give the same way you did when we hosted our virtual baby shower, through Orphanos. Here’s the drill:

1. Click here to access Orphanos’ giving page, and fill in the personal information.
2. Scroll down and select “Partners in Asia”
3. From the drop-down menu below, select “Central Asia Young Life (Kazakhstan)”
4. In the memo box asking how you want to divide your gift, write “Odelia’s Medical Expenses”
5. Indicate the amount of your donation in the appropriate box.
6. Fill in the billing info.
7. Solve the simple math problem (apparently to prove you’re an actual human with kindergarten level math skills?)
8. Click “Submit Donation” and you’re done! You’ve lifted up “Thanks to God.”

For those who prefer a visual guide, here’s a screenshot of a few key steps:

Screen Shot 2015-06-04 at 2.43.07 PMFriends, I mean it when I say no donation is too small. Your little bit plus my little bit added to lots of other little bits becomes immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine. And the result? “Thanks to God” is lifted up, the saints are refreshed, and all of our hearts are encouraged, to the glory of His Name.

“For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God.” 2 Corinthians 9:12

Grant it, Lord. And may your will be magnificently done in this sweet family’s life. In Jesus’ Name.

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Thank you, thank you, thank you, friends.
Please share this opportunity as you feel led.
The more people who participate, the more thanksgiving overflows.
I appreciate you so much more than you know.








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