Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Psalm 119:70 The Good Life

The ability to see the good in the troubles of  life doesn't happen in isolation. It requires living intentionally for God in the good times, the bad times, and on the ordinary days.
Though the arrogant have smeared me with lies, I keep your precepts with all my heart.Their hearts are callous and unfeeling, but I delight in your law.

Psalm 119:70
In Ephesians 4, Paul describes the difference between the people who are calloused and unfeeling in the face of affliction vs. those who delight in the midst of troubles.

Pay attention to the connecting and transitioning words in his description of the calloused people.

So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed. (Ephesians 4:17-19)

If you follow the trail of those underlined words, Paul lays out a progression from A to Z.  He describes people whose entire focus in life is on gratifying the desires of their five senses. They've trained their hearts to constantly be on the hunt for new kinds of impurity and new ways to satisfy their greed, doing their best to avoid negative experiences. With their hearts hardened in that pursuit, they become ignorant of what God is really trying to do in their lives. Because of ignorance, they're darkened in their understanding and also separated from the life of God, two things that go hand in hand.

It's all too easy to think, oh sure, I know people like that. Most of us, though, have toyed with pursuing desires to the point of dancing awfully close to the edge of that cliff.

Afflictions and troubles and disasters are a natural result when people pursue their passions over the precipice. To compound the problem, those trivial pursuits have ill prepared them to learn from the hard times. Instead, they respond with more poor choices.

It's going to be difficult for anyone trapped in that downward spiral to see the good in the mess they're in. They don't have the habits or the resources to recognize God's hand at work.

A new perspective only comes through a complete reversal of that lifestyle chain described by Paul. He lays out the return route in a step by step fashion.

That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:20-24)

The way out must begin with Christ. Sure, there are other philosophies that can help people deal with life in a constructive way, but only Christ provides the resources and power and purpose for true transformation. Life in Christ means learning about Christ, learning Christ's plan for put off and put on, and Christ's power to renew your mind and make you into a new person with a new purpose.

Becoming like God and pursuing His righteousness and holiness is the only way to move beyond making lemons out of lemonade toward intentionally turning a desire-centered life into a God-centered life.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Driven to Serve

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” 
Mark 10:42-45 42
Becoming a slave to all.

That means being a slave/servant to everyone: to the people you respect, but also to the ones whose lifestyle choices are the opposite of everything you stand for.

How can you stand firmly AGAINST them and yet still be their SLAVE??

Many Uber pax (that's Uber-driver lingo for passengers) are headed out for an evening and want to be able to drink whatever they want and not have to think about staying sober enough to drive home.

I’m generally opposed to drunkenness and carousing, as the older versions of the Bible call it. But I’m even more opposed to drunkenness and driving. By giving these folks a ride to their night on the town, I’m acting as their servant. I’m showing my love and concern for their well being (and for the well being of others) by being an integral part of their safe-drinking plans.

Now, I do have limits.

9 PM is when the demand for Uber starts to really pick up, staying high for the next 5-6 hours, until all the night owls have been Ubered home safely from the bars.

I’ve chosen not to be an active Uber driver late at night. Nobody wants me behind the wheel at 2 AM. I’m generally home around 9 PM, when I’m starting to become too tired to drive safely.

I'm also content to let someone else can be their servants at that end of their night on the town. My son also drives for Uber and he’s usually starting his Uber night around the time I’m shutting off the app and heading for home. He’s 30 years younger and has always been a night owl. Plus, his day job is as a corrections officer with a county sheriff’s department, so dealing with a few drunks is nothing new for him.

I'm also not going to let pax behave in a way that isn't reasonable or safe (or legal). In my first few weeks driving, I've learned to say No to pax who think I should be willing to let them do whatever they please. I told one group of pax that were headed to a wedding that no, they could not bring their open containers of alcohol with them. Not only is that illegal in Columbia, it's not something I want to be part of.

Driving for Uber is good way to learn to be a servant to people I might otherwise avoid being around in my normal daily life. Whether the trips are conversation-filled or quiet rides that offer people-watching opportunities, I learn a little about what makes them tick.

People who choose to live differently than me are not, as my son called them when he was little, “those bad people.” Yes, some of what they do is bad, perhaps even evil. But observing them closely shows me the complexity and contradictions in their lives.

I'm also reminded, over and over again, that I too am“one of those bad people.” I behave badly on a daily basis. Sometimes I’m downright evil. I have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

I’m generally better at hiding my evil thoughts and lifestyle choices than many of my pax. But being a respectably religious evil person is not better than being a brazenly non-religious evil person.

By seeing myself as very much like my pax, traveling the same rough roads with them, I’m able to humbly serve them. I'm hopefully helping them to wake up to yet another morning and enjoy yet another opportunity to consider the glorious evidence of yet another sunrise.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Psalm 119:69 Goodness Wins

Though the arrogant have smeared me with lies, I keep your precepts with all my heart.

Psalm 119:69
It's personal

The Psalms are a textbook for prayer, but they're not a dry, theoretical treatment of the topic. It's the personal journal of one man's conversations with God on the the road of life.

Each traveler experiences their own troubles along the way.

For David, trouble frequently came in the form of personal attacks. His enemies, in their arrogance, have manufactured every sot of fake news they can piece together to slander him. They've invented creative ways of making their lies appear like truth, and even more clever ways of making their libel stick. David's reputation is in as much peril as his life.

As a shepherd who rose to be become king, David's reputation was precious to him. The temptation to fight liars with lies is great. Or with gossip, ridicule, and political spin.

I find it all too easy to be dispassionate when I read the many Psalms about David's struggles to be a king after God's own heart in the face of attacks and attempted coups. I've never experienced anything like that. I'm not a king. I'm not even a particularly ambitious man, not a career climber.

But while many of David's personal experiences don't match up to my own experiences, his response to those struggles do speak to my life.

When David is being hounded and hunted by Saul and his army (I Samuel 24), David refuses to to take advantage of an opportunity to kill the king, because God had anointed Saul as king.

When David is dealing with his rebellious son Absalom, who wants to take his father's crown (II Samuel 13-18), David repeatedly restrains himself and his soldiers from taking his son's life. Instead, as a man after God's own heart, he bends over backward to be a restorer and reconciler.

When Shimei, a man from Saul's clan, pelts David and his soldiers with stones and curses the king as a murderer (II Samuel 16), David refuses to let one of the guards kill the man. Instead, he takes it as an opportunity to learn a lesson in humility, to accept that he is indeed in need of God's mercy.

When I find myself being mistreated, do I make the choice to seek revenge? Or do I honor God by treating my enemies like I would want to be treated?

When I'm betrayed or abandoned by someone close to me, do I turn the cold shoulder to them? or do I nurture a heart of patience and reconciliation?

When someone dares point out my shortcomings, do I take offense? Or do I take note and seek guidance from God?

It's so easy to take everything too personally, to lash out at the people who dare trample on my dignity. It's much more difficult to turn the situation into an opportunity for God's goodness to change the situation.

Goodness is always the good choice.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Psalm 119:68 Doing Good

For some of the people I've met in the prison chapel, transformation seems nearly impossible.
Janie confessed one day that until the first time she went to prison, she had never in her young life been sure she would get to eat three meals in any one day and have a bed to sleep on at night. Born into the make-do culture of generational poverty, the only “meals” she’d ever known consisted of whatever food could be scratched together. Sleep happened wherever she happened to be when the time came. To her, the proverbial “three hots and a cot” of prison life is a luxury.

In prison she has found her niche. She's learned the institutional rules - both the official rules and the unwritten ones - and she knows how to get through her days without too many problems. She even has a circle of friends to make her life a little brighter.

Her outlook turns dismal whenever she finishes a prison sentence and is released back out onto the streets. On her best days she has difficulty seeing beyond the needs of the moment. Being out in the world only worsens her reasoning capabilities. Life on the streets offers too many choices. Before long, she shifts back into a poverty-level approach to life, crosses the wrong lines, and finds herself back inside the only place where she feels comfortable.  (Breaking the Link from Poverty to Prison, Christian Standard, December 2014)
Janie's grew up in the poverty class of America, where the "hidden rules" of every day life are different than the way most of us approach our days.

For the millions entrenched in generational poverty, "good" is a moving target. Survival trumps goodness in the real world where the only absolute virtue is making it though yet another day. Bringing your family and friends along with you might also be important, but when suffering and affliction arrive like a cyclone, personal survival wins out for many.

When people who have lost any objective sense of goodness land in prison, they'll grasp onto anything to survive. It might even be church and faith.

Teaching or counseling them can be frustrating. Basic truths fall on ears that can't even comprehend ideas like sacrificial love or humble obedience.

The only way to break through is to introduce them to God. As they come to know the heart of God and the heart of Jesus, they begin to understand.

God is good. His goodness is like nothing they've ever experienced. In fact, His goodness is so contrary to everything they've come to accept as truth, they're forced to make a choice: run from Him or run to Him. Retreat or change.
You are good, and what you do is good; teach me your decrees. 
Psalm 119:68
That's why we teach them the Word and about how it applies in concrete ways to daily life decisions. That's what the Bible is for. Those decrees, laws, and principles help us understand the heart of God. Without the guidance of the scriptures, people like Janie are doomed to fall back into their old ways of thinking.

If you're starting to feel pity or compassion for these poor folks trapped in their warped way of life, that's great. Now look in the mirror.

Middle class people and wealthy people are just as much the victims of the society in which they live. Their sense of goodness is just as warped, but by a different set of "hidden rules". They've lived by those rules for so long, some start to equate there middle and upper class ways with godliness and faith.

It's just as hard to shake them out of their ingrained life habits as it is to change the mindset of a person in poverty.

Goodness is not found in any particular lifestyle or culture. Goodness is found in God. He is good and He does what is good. He's willing to teach you if you're willing to be taught.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Psalm 119:67 Learning Curve

I've heard it over and over again in the prison chapel.
"Getting sent to prison is the best thing that ever happened to me."
Most people who have never been inside a prison would consider that statement absurd. Surely no one would actually say such a thing.

Most of the people inside prison would agree. They hear one of their fellow inmates say this and they just shake their heads. Absurd.

But for some, it's true.

They were on a freeway to destruction. The road to perdition is paved with the freedom to follow your worst inclinations.

Prison is where that road ends. The highway patrol has chased you all over the backwoods of your life and finally pulled you over in a dark alley. There's no more freedom, nowhere else to go. Except rock bottom.

They've been brought low. They been humbled. Everything they've been relying on for life has failed them.

And they're ready to turn to God.

For many, it's a return to God. Every time I ask the question in the prison chapel, the majority raise their hands and say Yes, they went to church when they were kids. Someone, a parent, an aunt, a neighbor, a friend, invited them to church and introduced them to an ordinary volunteer Sunday School teacher who planted seeds of faith in their hearts.

And now, when they've wandered from their faith and hit bottom, those seeds sprout.
"Getting sent to prison is the best thing that ever happened to me."
They turn back to God, they praise Him, and they glory in the very idea of grace and forgiveness. Their hearts leap with the joy of promised transformation.

They're ready to listen, to learn.

I tell them, you're right. This is the best thing that ever happened to you. But it won't last.

If they don't grab hold of that joy and combine it with the training of spiritual disciplines, it won't last.
Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word.

Psalm 119:67
Affliction can be the beginning of a new life, the trigger that prompts transformation, the turning point in the journey.

But only though the discipline of the Word will that transformation find its true, sustainable form. And only by talking to God about the new road you're on will the traveler maintain focus on Him.

Suffering alone will either crush a person or motivate them. Suffering + God's Word + Relationship with the Lord will transform them.

And it will be good.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

When God says it's time to quit

About six weeks from now my wife Karen and I will make our last Monday evening trip to the women's prison in Vandalia.

When that day comes, not only will our involvement in that ministry come to an end, the Christian Campus House's involvement in the prison ministry will also end.

The time has come when God has said it's time to quit.

Date Night at Our Happy Place

On a Wednesday evening in the summer of 2004, Roy Weece tapped me on the shoulder after the mid-week gathering at the Christian Campus House.

"I need you to do something for me," he said. "I need you get involved in the prison ministry. We need someone who isn't a student, someone who will be around for a while."

The prison ministry was important to Roy. When the Mizzou Christian Campus House opened in the Fall of 1968, it was one of the ministries he set up as an integral component of training college students to serve the Lord.

My application to become a Volunteer in Corrections flew through the Missouri Department of Corrections bureaucracy at a pace that would never happen today. In less than a month I entered the prison for the first of what would be over 14 years of Mondays.

Four years later, with Roy gone and most of the other VICs having either moved on to other things or severely reduced their participation, I found myself all too frequently making the trip alone. That's when my wife Karen, who had frequently gone with Roy to the prison in the early 80's when she worked in the CCH office, went through the process to become a VIC. It took her seven months. That long and arduous certification process would contribute to a sharp decrease in the ability of CCH students to be involved.

For the past ten years we've traveled to Vandalia by ourselves the majority of those Monday evenings.  We'd leave as soon as I got off work and then stop for supper in Mexico. We called it "date night."

If you want to strengthen the bond between you and your spouse, I highly recommend becoming involved together in some sort of ministry, especially one that stretches both of you beyond the edges of your comfort zone. The necessities of working together, planning together, and thinking on our feet together have forged us into a cohesive team. The long drives there and back provided opportunity for many great conversations.

And together we built relationships with the women in the prison chapel. Some of them became (and remain) good friends. Some inspired us, like Carlene Borden, pictured above. They all challenged us to embrace grace and practice the love of Christ.

Karen has startled them many times by cheerfully describing that prison chapel as "our happy place."

Out Date 

Among the prisoners, the "out date" is what their all counting the days toward. One of their most common prayers is for an early out date.

Now, we're looking ahead to our out date, the last Monday in June.

We would prefer for there to be no out date. We'd love to continue on forever. I fought back tears when I called the prison chaplain to discuss a timetable for ending this ministry.

The truth is, the prison ministry no longer matches the realities of our life. We're not as young or as healthy as we once were.

If all we had to do was go to a prison here in Columbia and put in an hour with the ladies in the chapel, then arriving home after a five minute drive --  we could continue on a lot longer. There would be no long drive home past our bedtime. There would be no more exhaustion that lasts through Tuesday and sometimes beyond.

And so we can no longer take the lead in this prison ministry. We've missed way too many Mondays because we were unable to physically make it, and there was no one else to take our place.

We've had others who have helped us. Dan Gibbins' energetic love for the Lord filled the women in the chapel with joy. They loved Steve Henness, who led worship and played his own songs for them. Jeff Loftin gave them a walking, talking example of a species many of them had rarely encountered: a quiet, gentle, and genuine Christian man. When Dennis Messimer preached, they sat enraptured by his stories of places and experiences they never knew a Christian could go and do. They loved hearing Lance Tamerius preach, feeling like he was speaking to each of them personally.

But each of those VICs (Volunteers in Correction) had jobs, families, and other ministries that limited their availability for the prison ministry. As much as they contributed, it was never and could never be enough to take over the role of being the ones who could commit to always making Monday at prison their number one priority. And now we can't be the ones to do that either.

The prison ministry also no longer matches up to the missional priorities of the leadership of Christian Campus House. Lance and i discussed the future of prison ministry over lunch one day, back in March. A few days later I received this note from him in an e-mail:
After talking and praying with staff, I do not think the prison ministry is something we can invest more time in. I hate saying that but in relation to CCH, what I am paid to do and the number of students affected, I cannot justify spending such an enormous amount of time on something that relates to the CCH mission so little.
I have to agree with him. The mission of CCH is - and always has been -  ministry to the students. Because of increasing restrictions and complications piled on by the Missouri Department of Corrections, the number of students participating in the prison ministry has been dwindling.

With so many other things going on, it doesn't make sense to have one or more of the paid staff members assigned to devote every Monday evening to to what has become a peripheral part of the ministry.

I wish it were not so, but it is what it is.

God has made it clear to all of us that it's time to quite.

Missio Dei.

It is, after all, God's ministry, not ours.

This was never Roy's ministry. It wasn't the Christian Campus House's prison ministry. The ministry doesn't belong to Karen or to me or to any of the other volunteers who have participated over the years. Dan and Steve, Laura, Aaron, and Jeff. Jim and Jud and Corey and others.

It's God's ministry. All any of us have done is to say Yes when he invited us to join Him.

Yes to serving the people God has put in our path. Yes to the divine appointments and misisonal opportunities He sends our way.

And now, we say Yes when God says it's time to quit. He's made it abundantly clear to Karen and I over the past several months, to the point where the message has become almost deafening.

However, as Roy was fond of saying, there's not one word in all of scripture about anyone ever retiring from ministry.

There will be something else ahead for us. We have no idea what it will be. Throughout our 40 years following God side by side, Karen and I have never really had a clue what God was going to ask us to do next.

But there has always been a next thing. We're praying and we're keeping our eyes open for the next assignment.

There have been many tears in our eyes as God has made this decision clear to us. And there will be more to come: more tears of compassion and more adventures.
But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go to next. (Frederick Buechner, A Crazy, Holy Grace)

Psalm 119:65-66 Good Training for Good Judgment

A young man grew up learning about the Bible and about faith in God. When he was twelve he surrendered to the Lord and was baptized. But during his teen years he drifted away from faith and from the church.

Now, in his thirties, he and his wife have returned to church and are growing rapidly in their faith.

He texted me the other day, asking a question about a scripture passage he was reading. They generally work hard to try to understand difficult verses, but when they can't quite put it all together, they've learned to ask questions from people who have been studying longer than they have.

In the midst of our conversation, he mentioned to me that a week or so earlier a random stranger had approached him at the store and asked him a question about the nature of God.

As we talked about this experience, I assured him he had responded well and gave him some suggestions for future situations.

I also assured Him there would likely be similar encounters in the future. It's clear to me that God recognizes his faith and knowledge are developing to the point where he's ready to handle opportunities to stretch his faith in a missional way.

I went away from the conversation overjoyed, knowing God is actively working to teach this young man wisdom.

The standard definitions for wisdom include the idea of knowledge, instructed and challenged by experience, resulting in good judgment and discretion. Those are the very things David talks about in these verses:
Do good to your servant according to your word, LORD.Teach me knowledge and good judgment, for I trust your commands.

Psalm 119:65-66
Wisdom comes from learning God's Word and trusting His commands to be both relevant to daily life and reliable for guidance in the good life.

Devoting himself to increasing his knowledge of the scriptures is vital to my young friend's growth. But merely storing up facts and meditating on the ways of the Lord are not enough to produce wisdom.

He'll also need to rely on God's good will in assisting his good efforts. The Lord's divine appointments can be challenging, even frightening at times. But there's no better training ground for wisdom.

If only we trust Him.