Tuesday, April 26, 2016


    I read in Luke 3:7-14 about John the Baptist calling on people to repent.  “What should we do then?’  The crowd asked.  John answered, ‘The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.’”

   I thought on this first part of his answer before I moved on to the specific repentance agenda JtheB gives for tax collectors and soldiers.  John’s first instruction seemed to be a general one, to the general person in the crowd.  As I thought about it I figured maybe this has something to do with me, and you. 

   As a Christian believer I consider repentance to be necessary for a healthy spiritual life.  I am conscious that I am a sinner.  Sometimes I actually realize I have committed a sin, though I admit that sometimes my sins happen so fast by omission or commission, or by thought or attitude, that I didn’t even realize I was being tempted or acknowledge to myself or God that I was doing wrong.  Later, after the fact of my sinning, it sometimes comes home to me that I have failed God.  Yes, sometimes I do know full well I am being tempted and full well I am choosing to sin.  Those moments don’t make me feel good about myself.

   Is it possible that JtheB is exposing some sinfulness in me that I didn’t even realize I had when he says this to the crowd?   What did I do except work hard enough and save enough to have food and clothes?  Even before he comes, later in his remarks, to stealing and exploitation and oppression from authority he is picking on regular, ordinary, working type materialists; like us. 

    We are all materialists.  We have to be to live in a material world, but Jesus nails us in Luke 12 about this propensity of ours to worry about normal and necessary things.  Here John calls on us to share with those who are without.  It seems he is even calling on those of us who might only have two tunics, or just a little extra food, to share with those who have none.  This would imply a sacrificial generosity and not simply a generosity of surplus.

   This prompts me to think, and to pray, and ask Jesus to help me to look for those who have such need.  I am prompted to think about and care even before I am asked by someone for help.  In fact, now that I think about it, being preemptive in merciful giving to those who are without might be a better way of showing love than just responding at the moment of a request by a panhandler.  Maybe it might look like I thought about them even before they thought about me. 

   Then it occurs to me that a lot of us don’t know any poor people.  We don’t hang out with them, we don’t go to their neighborhoods, and we prefer to do our proactive mercy through agencies where we drop off our old clothes or canned goods.  This repentant life seems to want to affect my lifestyle.  Oh, I do believe in grace, forgiveness, the washing away of my sins by the blood of Jesus, and that salvation is by faith.  I don’t think of repenting as a way of gaining God’s favor.  I think of it more as the way God wants me to live, and that he can empower me to live the way he wants by his supernatural power.

  Lord, open my eyes to see the poor, to feel their need.  Lord, move me to give once I see.  Forgive me for waiting so long, for waiting until I no longer want what I have so that I can give without any loss to myself.  Lord, give me faith and courage so that I won’t be afraid of becoming poor myself, that my security would not be my idolatry.

Monday, April 25, 2016


What is the difference between a critique of a situation, event, or person and complaining?  That is easy for me; when I do it then it is a critique, but when others do it they are complaining.  How I wish I was really that righteous and could say that in all honesty.

   I sometimes jokingly tell people that my spiritual gift is criticism, but it is actually a confession of sorts.  I have been trained, and I am inclined, to analyze events and performance.  I have often demoralized people who work for me and with me by telling them how something could have been better instead of thanking them, or complimenting them on their efforts.  I am grateful that some of them had the courage to let me know they didn’t appreciate my “helpful” comments.  Evidently they didn’t want to improve, but at least I learned something.  (I do hope you “get” sarcasm when you read it.)

    I have caused damage to my marriage, to my children, and to the staff and members of my church because of my “natural” inclination.  Now, sometimes I have been really disappointed in someone’s performance or even in the circumstances that God in his providence decided I had need to experience.  Instead of rejoicing always, and in every situation, I have certainly let God know that he could have done a better job at providing, or guiding me, or controlling me or the situation.    I may not have balled my fist or yelled out at him, but certainly the attitude of my heart was doing the same thing.

  [My comments here are about fairly superficial circumstances, and not that of “the dark night of the soul” or a deep struggle with God about the death of loved ones, suffering, and injustice.  Sometimes a very honest discussion with God is necessary, but the only righteous conclusion of such an argument with God has to be, like that of Job, where the Lord is acknowledged as justly and righteously God in his wisdom and decision.]

    I realize that I need lots of praise, expressions of appreciation, and encouragement.  At times I think I have been desperate for it.  My emotional well-being depended on hearing from people I respected; that I was saying, doing, or being what they thought was important and worthwhile. Yet, when others have looked to me, or listened out for just one good word, I have been silent.  Their excellence and their contribution to my event or goals was what I thought it should be and I walked away as if I took it for granted, which I have far too many times.  May God forgive me, again.    “…How good is a timely word.” Proverbs 15:23

    When we complain about people, especially to other people rather than the one about who our complaint is about, we may be guilty of slander.  It is so easy of course to “evaluate” others, to see their mistakes and failures.  Sometimes when we are in authority we have to hold those people accountable, correct them, or even to dismiss them from employment.  We have no right to mock them, impugn their motives, or deride them to others.  We certainly wouldn’t like it if they did that to us, so when we do it we are guilty of not loving others as we love ourselves.  Guarding our tongues in this can be difficult especially when we work in a place where we have to discuss the performance or behavior of others and how they relate to the ministry or organization for which we have responsibilities.

    How we speak about the institutions we are part of, (for whom we work or have been willingly associated with), also exposes our integrity, our ability to respect authority, and our faith or lack of it when it comes to reflecting out loud on how this or that institution might be treating us or others.  Some of us feel free to disparage (from within) the very ministries, organizations, or companies we are supposed to be building, managing, and helping to prosper. 

   I am often startled by how members of a church or a denomination can at one moment vociferously denounce it while remaining in it and even enjoying the blessings and privileges it grants them.  “A perverse man stirs up dissension and a gossip separates close friends.” Proverbs 16:28  This kind of grumbling seems to come out quickly and suddenly with seemingly no self-awareness of hypocrisy.  I confess, all organizations and institutions fail to be perfect.  It is sort of a logical necessity that fallen human beings collectively working together will screw things up.  What is amazing, by the grace of God, is what actually goes well and is done well.

   I am not abandoning the desire for excellence.  I certainly need to aspire to greater and better achievement, to accomplishment, to good work.  I need to stop cutting myself so much slack in evaluating what I am doing and excusing my failures.  However, I know I need positive response to keep going, encouraging response from others to cheer for me on my run through this life.  If I need it so badly, then I pray for God to open my mouth so I will let others know they are running well, or even that at least they are still running when it looks so hard to do so.  “The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life…” Proverbs 15:4

   We need to be careful with our grumbling, with our complaints, with our astute observations of the weakness and incapacity of others.  We dare not insult a very good and faithful God about his performance.  What will we do when he demonstrates that he can be really good at holding people accountable for the stupid things that come out of their mouths and which expose their hearts?

Thursday, April 21, 2016


I want to speak about investments for a moment.  Yes, this has to do with money.   No, it has nothing to do with getting your money back, at least not for yourself.  

    Churches make decisions on investing.  Either that do or they don't, and just as in financial markets when and if they do invest some of those investments are wasted and lost, while others pay a big return.   Everyone wishes they knew the "winners" so that all their investments would pay off, and thereby minimize risk.  Since there are no guarantees in an investment risk is necessary, but there is one thing we can all be pretty confident about; if we make no investment there will be no return at all.

    Targeted investment requires focusing on where you think there is potential and then putting into that target enough to show significant return.  To "starve" an investment means there might not be enough capital to bring the investment to success.  To "drown" an investment might be to too generously swamp the target and not allow for the industry that arises from hunger.  It is a delicate balance, and needs a lot of research and consistent relationship with the investment.

    All of this investment talk has to do with the future of the Church of Jesus Christ, and here I speak of our young people and those we hope to see take on ministry and missions in the future.  Churches need to think about the future, take action to bring about the future they want, and not simply hope for it.  We are taught to pray that the Lord of the harvest would send forth laborers into his harvest, and so we hope somehow He will do that.  Yet, the answers to our prayers often lies in our youth groups, our college students, and our seminary students.  Too often we leave it to them, their parents, and maybe the schools they attend to do the investing.

    When I said this had to do with money I mean we must spend money in the equipping of people for ministry.  We must spend money in giving young people spiritual direction and challenge for ministerial vocation.  We must spend money for spiritual and ministry experience for their lives.  

   What money has your church invested in individuals that hint at having the giftedness to preach, teach, lead, cross cultures, show mercy, and serve in ministry?  Does your church have any funds set aside for this purpose?  Do you scholarship individuals who have offered themselves in service to Christ, who are witnessing and sharing Jesus, who have a hunger for God?

    What money has your church spent on ministry internships, on sending people to short term missions, on hiring a college student or seminarian for the summer, for a year, for a couple of years so that they could be mentored and grown into effective service?  Who is doing the looking for such individuals in your congregation?  Is it the Pastor, the Elders, the Missions Committee, the Youth Director, and if they should see someone with such potential how do they go about getting the money to give some wings to make that young person fly?

   If your pastors and elders are too busy to mentor young people into ministry one questions if they actually know what their job is supposed to be, or that they know how to do it.  The challenge here is not to be perfect at this task, but to be about this task.  Not every leader is great at mentoring or discipling, but better leaders know how to find someone to do what they personally are not good at, and deploy them for the task.  

   How many sermons have you heard from your pulpit where the members of the congregation are challenged to think about whether or not they have been called to ministerial vocation?   We are not advocating a superior godliness for such as opposed to every other honorable vocation, but we are advocating common sense.  If we don't challenge young people to seek the possibility of God's call for ministry is it any surprise to us that we don't have enough laborers for the harvest?   Maybe your church just waits for a visiting missionary to do that.

   Most pastors that I know would love to have as part of their legacy a significant number of folks that they had led to Christ, or came to Jesus through their preaching.  They would also love to be able to say how many have come out of their congregation and gone on to various kinds of ministry.  This result is a glory to God, it is the fruit of the Gospel.  

   We are not speaking here of just another job, but a passion, a call, a hunger to win the lost.   If you see such a young person in your church find someway to invest all you can in them to unleash that great potential for the expansion of the Church of Jesus Christ.  Yes, we are speaking about money here, but also prayer, guidance, encouragement, opening doors, and love.

   Some folks are good in managing their own investments.  Others trust money managers and use "mutual funds."  Whether you invest in individuals as a congregation or you help the denomination through its agencies do it, just do it!  Prayerfully, with faith, with expectation.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016


One of the great challenges of the modern American era is finding solutions to public violence, especially in regard to homicide in and among the poor, most particularly concerning black on black crime.

   All violence is and ought to be disturbing.  Something surely must be wrong with us if we find violence to be acceptable, even appealing, especially outside of the realm of sports.  Even then we seek to contain it inside of the rules of the game.  There is legal violence, also known as “force” to coerce criminals, law breakers, and enemies to cease nefarious and threatening activities, and ultimately legal sanction to kill them if they will not and cannot be controlled. 

   There is a difference between the “blood-thirsty” and the hero, between the sadist and the warrior; one who might be good at killing but pursues it only under law and by necessity, and never with relish.  We have laws and definitions to demarcate these things, even rules about violence known as the “laws of war.”  There is a difference between authorities who have the power of the state to coerce or kill lawfully, and authorities that use power illegally, using the power of force to oppress.  From time to time this happens, even in democracies, whether it be from corruption or from prejudice.

   We are beset with an epidemic of violence, especially in poor black communities.  The rate of violence is higher than among Latinos or whites or middle class black communities.  Social scientists measure how much greater violence is in poor matriarchal communities, such as in housing projects.  The statistics of absent fathers, low income, low educational and literacy achievement, the risk of prison, unemployment, etc. all go together.  The measurements are there and there doesn’t seem to be any sense to deny them or reinterpret them so as to equivocate between populations in regard to violence for the sake of politics or emotional sensitivity.

   Having said that, what value are the statistics in changing anything?   Social scientists have the task to measure but after they measure, then what?  Surely we measure so we can understand, and work our way from analysis to a strategy for change. If numbers simply proclaim failure, if they disparage, if they reinforce prejudice, if they bring despair, one wonders if the measurements serve any useful purpose.  One supposes they reinforce political opinions, but they also reinforce fear.

    The people most in fear are the mothers and the children who live in violent  communities.  “Will my child be murdered today?”  Or the child may ask, “If I go to school will I be shot today?”  Will bullets come through the window or the wall while a family is watching television?  Is it safe to sit on the front porch?  “What happens if I go to the playground?”

  Recently in my city a man was shot while doing yard work in his front yard.  Three young men asked him for money and when he didn’t have enough they shot him.  Is the NRA solution for us all to be armed while we do yard work?  Is the NRA solution for all inner city residents to go armed, or is their solution only for white people?

   The police are called on to stop the madness, so they start pulling cars over in certain neighborhoods for any kind of “probable cause” or they stop and frisk the citizens, but usually of only one color or in particular zip codes.  This increases the chances for sudden and angry interactions or unplanned confrontations with mortal endings.  Instead of solving the problem we create another one, and the focus changes to the heavy handedness of authority versus the decay of community culture and the much greater amount of death it deals out compared with either racist cops, or inept ones, or unlucky ones.

   The late Harvard Law School professor William Stuntz in his book “The Collapse of American Criminal Justice” calls for the involvement of inner city young men in the democracy of their own communities.  In short, many inner city young men have no stake in what happens to their neighborhoods, and no political power in regard to its policing, or in the court system that sends many like themselves to prison.

   Once I was asked to speak as a veteran at a high school assembly at a predominantly African American high school.  It was Veteran’s Day and as a retired Army officer the school asked me to speak because they wanted to honor veterans and hopefully inspire the students.  I remember asking rhetorically if they as students held anything in their lives worth dying for, and as soon as the question came out of my mouth a male voice rang out so all could hear him, “No!”  He was in fact making a public statement that he would not die for his mother, nor his family, nor his community, not even for his ethnic or racial group, not his country, and not his religion; the answer was just firmly, and tragically, No!”

   This brought to mind what Martin Luther King, Jr. had said, that, “if a man hasn’t found something worth dying for then he isn’t fit to live.”  That young man, from that school, in that neighborhood has a far greater chance of dying simply for being on the wrong sidewalk, or wearing the wrong colors, or looking the wrong way at someone than he had for any idealistic cause.  He will not die a hero, he will die a victim.  Or he will kill out of fear, or revenge, or simply some misguided sense of pride, and thus instead of being a hero he will simply be a gangster, a convict, and one more incarcerated statistic.

    The avoidance of communal love, liability, and commitment for the sake of personal self-interest doesn’t make one’s life safer it actually puts one’s life more at risk; albeit for cheap and selfish reasons.  Gangs tend to create a more immediate sense of solidarity, of belonging, of loyalty.  The adolescent and hormonal drift toward the proving of manhood creates a drive to prove to one’s group that slights or attacks from rival groups or neighborhoods will not go unanswered.  So death is risked, but not for great causes, and not for positive transformation of the community.  Body bags of lives wasted, gurneys from funeral homes carting away aborted potential, personalities extinguished, leadership capital unused, swirling down this toilet of crime after crime after crime.

    I remember once my wife listening to a news report about another incident of African Americans committing a violent crime.  Some white person, who was being interviewed, made a comment about how black people need to take responsibility for their own communities.  My wife became slightly incensed, asking if such a comment was ever made about the white community. 

    I so wish we could get to the place where all of our children in this country mattered to all of us.  Certainly each family needs to take responsibility for itself, and there is no doubt that there is a terrible lack of parenting going on in this country.  The liberal concept of existential individualism has invaded the nursery and we reap the results of it in all kinds of bad behavior from brats grown older.

  But bemoaning the fact of broken homes and families, and bad parenting due to a culture that has lost its collective mind doesn’t give us a present solution to stop the killing.  And as an aside, I don’t equate broken homes with bad parenting.  Two parents working either against each other, or with each other in a terrible live and let live philosophy, or with a hypocritical legalistic authoritarian and emotionally abusive style can ruin children just (not) fine.  Broken homes just simply begin with inadequate or incomplete parenting, though there are “super moms” and “super dads” trying to prove it a lie.

  Yes, each community should take responsibility for its children.  From our neighbors to our neighborhood, to our local school, local church, city, etc. all of our children should be a source of pride, or shame, to us.  If we have invested in them we should care about their outcomes.  If we have not invested in them we should feel guilty or embarrassed about those outcomes.  It is interesting to me that when the Olympics come along children, that we knew nothing about until they arrived on the world scene, become our national possession.  Every single child we bury due to violence, and every single one we send to prison, also fit that description.

    How can our children know that we care about them, and that our call to them is for them to take ownership of themselves, their future, their family, their neighborhood, their city, and their country?  Here are a few ideas that maybe someone wiser than me can take and develop.

1.     Stop thinking that institutions are something people ought to go to and find help but rather change institutions so that they go to people in their own homes and neighborhoods and deliver immediate and responsive resources.  Here I include all neighborhood actors such as churches, schools, clinics, state human services, and policing.
2.    Create a softer force for community action that interacts with neighborhood youth prior to police action.  Community activists or chaplains that are CQ² (cultural intelligence and community intelligence) so that they will know which families, which youth, are the ones falling apart and falling into violence.
3.    Demand community policing that is actually in the community, teams of officers who patrol on foot or bike, who speak and interact with the people prior to responding to calls.  Officers who know the names of the people they are called upon to serve and protect. 
4.    Pay police officers and public school teachers generously, and hold them to high standards, especially if they work in poor communities.  We don’t need services that are simply adequate in these communities, we need great officers and great teachers.  We need a lot more of them.
5.    Invest in every child that invests in him or herself.  Each effort a child makes to learn, develop a skill, participate in a positive experience should be met with some kind of investment in them so they can do more.  If they come for training in something, pay their way for a membership, a trip, a book, an instrument, etc.
6.    Provide lots of “next chances” in poor communities.  There should always be vocational training opportunities, low skilled job opportunities, drug and alcohol rehab, help for young mother’s, helping young moms learn to read to their kids, job training and job placement. 
7.    Economic resources should be used to help young adults do public works on infrastructure and receive pay quickly, even after failing a drug test.
8.    Provide policing that is more intelligence oriented, with the use of security cameras on corners or streets where shootings frequently take place, giving solid evidence on bad actors.
9.    Create better “strategies of return” for those returning from incarceration.  How can people be put in different communities so they don’t fall prey to the old temptations?  How can they be socialized prior to reentry?  How can they have a job waiting for them?  If prison is part of a life-cycle than we are going to have to integrate them into communities instead of continuing to think of them as isolated and uninvolved institutions.

10. Strategize on how we can give young and poor African American individuals a political stake in their own communities.  We must find ways for them to achieve power, and a sense of power, beyond that of a handgun.