Faith, Life, Ministry, Poverty, writings

Poor in Hope

“And when I thought of the poor I had met in my life, especially in recent years, it was clear that there were poor who were only poor—very sad, often angry, and certainly not blessed.

And then again, I recalled very well, there were poor people who were quite otherwise, poor people who wore their poverty beautifully.

Poor people who had the conviction that they were being guided by God, supported by his Presence.

Poor people who were able to love, in spite of their sudden vexations—poor people who were patient in trial, rich in hope, strong in adversity.

Poor people who were blessed because they could bear witness, every day, that God was present in their lives, and that he provided for them as he did for the sparrows of the ski, which possess no granaries.”

  • From I, Francis by Carlo Carretto

Having grown up middle class in a depressed part of Appalachian Ohio, I have always been around poverty. I’ve been on both sides of the poverty level, and for the last 12 years or so have floated above and beneath it. I’ve seen people with plenty live miserable lives, and I’ve seen people with little be beacons of light and hope in an otherwise dark valley.

I hold no degree in social work. I have no deep psychological training. I have only a varied and rich lived experience to base my thoughts. But what I see as poverty is not so much the amount of money you have, if any, or the condition of your home or possessions. What I see as the real poverty is a lack of hope.

I think that by and large, that is the real failure of social welfare programs from the government. The problem isn’t mass benefit fraud, though that exists. It’s not people being lazy and refusing to work, though that is certainly an issue for some. No, the failure of the War on Poverty isn’t a lack of money but a lack of hope. The government can give out money all day long. What it can’t do is offer hope and community. That can only come from other people.

In the Gospels, when Jesus called us the salt of the earth, he meant to convey a message that we are his agents in this world. We carry out his mission. And His mission is that we make disciples who love God and love others. And while I would say you can never successfully secularize, or remove the aspect of faith and conversion, from that mission, there is the universal need of hope.

From a spiritual standpoint, Jesus is the hope of the Gospel. A person who is lost in their sin, and even made aware of that by an honest inward look, has no reason to follow Jesus unless they realize that with him there is hope, indeed something far surer than hope.

As a Christ follower and one who has theology as the heart of his philosophy, I believe that it follows that the reason for many, not all, in not seeking to live their lives to the fullest, to their God-given potential, is a lack of hope. Sure, there are some that simply need to find a good job. But how many times has that job fallen through before, or discouragement or other barriers crept into their lives, and they give up? Yes, there are those who have deeper issues that need explored with a qualified professional, but I have seen time and time again where that counseling experience didn’t work because there was no hope of a change.

Jesus said that “the poor you will always have with you.” Let’s be honest. Some of us conservative Christians have used that snippet of a verse to justify inaction on behalf of the poor. Thinking to ourselves that because the Messiah said they would always be around that there is no sense in trying to solve a problem that will never stop. And contrary to what some televangelists and faith-healers would have you to believe, Jesus did not come to this world to eradicate poverty. But he did come to give hope.

And so it is with us. We will never eradicate poverty based on income levels and financial goals. But we can work to eliminate the mindset of poverty where people have simply given up. Even some of the most stubborn, some who might be called lazy, have not found a motivation, a reason for being. They need hope. Not the hope of riches or having nicer things, but of a new mindset, one that looks for the good and that sees the good. One that can live cheerfully and as Carlo Carretto said, wear “their poverty beautifully.”

So today, let’s encourage hope. Let’s seek to lift each other up. You don’t have to be financially poor to be hope poor. Be a blessing to others, and so fulfill the law of Christ.

Devotionals, Faith, Life, Ministry, writings

Happy Trials to You

No, I didn’t misspell trails. I promise.

James 1:12 says, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.”

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial… I do not know about you but I’d much rather this verse read: “Blessed is the man who has come out of the trial;” or “Happy is the person who has already gone through the storm” or “It’s a blessing to get on the other side of the mountain.”

The word here that James uses makarious and it means happy, blessed, fortunate. How in heaven’s name are you supposed to be happy during a trial? And what makes it more challenging: the textual structure of this phrase means it is not a wish or a description. It is not like James is saying “May you experience a blessing during this rough season of life.” Not even a “bless your little heart.” Nope. What James is saying here is a judgement, a verdict that the person who is steadfast under trial is blessed. Let’s unpack that a little bit.

This verse should not be taken to mean that everyone who is having a bad day is blessed. It does not mean that smile should cross the face of all who encounter a “Check Engine” light today. No, there are specific qualifiers as to what kind of person is blessed. Yes, they are going through a trial. All of us go through trials. Every person you see today or whose social media you see could very well be going through a horrific trial right now that you know nothing about. We hide them well.

James does not say just a person who is going through a trial. What do we know about this person? They remain steadfast. Steadfast means to remain, to reside in place, to stand one’s ground. Some images come to mind when I think of this idea of steadfastness.

I conjure up a basketball player on defense. His legs are bent, arms spread wide, the ball of his feet planted firmly on the court yet ready to pounce at any minute. He is ready to move, but he keeps his eye on the ball, ignoring what is taking place behind him. He has one goal, to stop that ball from making it into the basket. He is steady, he is alert, and ready to plant his whole foot down to draw a charge at any moment.

Or maybe it is the teenage boy at the beach in the surf. It is amazing how even small waves can shift the sand under you just enough to make you collapse in a heap. That is what happens to a lot of us in life. Seemingly insignificant waves of difficulty come and because our footing is not secure our life seems to crumble all around us. But this boy, he is learning. He knows that the top layers of sand move with each passing wave. So, he pushes his feet under the sand. Pushing his feet down several inches under the sand, he finds security. He knows now that he can stand up to the surf and dare the waves to give him their best shot.

You and I face trials often, most days if not all the time. Unfortunately, sometimes we try to stand and endure by our own strength. Sheer determination and stubbornness are not what God rewards but often it is what we try. Our marriage has hit a rough patch and we know that we are the ones in the right, so even though we extend grace to our spouse, we hold on to the ground we think we have won. We cling to the importance of being right, in our own mind at least, and refuse to give an inch. After all, doesn’t steadfast mean to stand your ground?

I have seen many people encounter a storm of their own making. They thought they knew what they were doing or allowed pride to prevent them from asking from help. Instead of steering clear of the storms, they piloted their lives straight into the rocks. To make matters worse, they identify themselves as the victims of others and remain committed to their task, convinced of our Lord’s impending rescue. The only rescue that can occur, however, is for them to surrender control of their lives to Jesus and stop trying to captain their own ship.

No, the strength required to endure does not come from within. It can only come from the LORD. You see God does not choose the “right people” to show his power through. He uses broken clay pots to display his glory and his power. He has chosen the foolish and the weak things so that He might be reflected in our lives. For what glory is it to God for us to endure a trial on our own? For even He could be glorified in that way, we could not endure a trial on our own.

We are blessed when we endure when we remain steadfast under trial. If you recall from earlier, one of the meanings of steadfast is to remain, to dwell or abide. Listen to the Words of Jesus in John 15:9-10

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my father’s commandments and abide in his love.”

How do we remain steadfast? We abide. We abide not in the storm, not in the tumult of our lives, but in the love of Christ Jesus. We cling to the truth that He loves us, that His love endures, and that there is nothing in all of creation that can separate us from His love. We confess that He is good in a world full of brokenness. We proclaim that He is faithful when all of life lets us down, and especially when we ourselves have not been faithful. He does not and cannot change. His grace is sufficient and His strength is shown to be more than enough in our weaknesses.

And so, friend, as the trials of life wear you down, remember that you are now blessed. Jesus is working in and through you to the glory of God and your ultimate good.

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” (James 1:12 ESV)

Devotionals, Faith, Life, Time

Don’t Put Your Pen Away Just Yet

One of the best habits I’ve developed in the last few years is that of journaling. I still struggle to keep track of to-do lists and reminders, but I’ve gotten good at journaling my devotions or quiet time with God. It usually goes like this: I get a fresh cup of coffee, my journal, Bible, colored pencils for marking passages, and my ink pen. If a verse sticks out to me, or a prayer forms in my mind, I try to make note of it. Each day, I fill 3/4 to a page of notes from my devotions.

But this morning, as I was finishing filling up the page (lots of good stuff this morning!), something clicked in my brain. You see, as I was finishing, I closed my eyes for a time of reflective prayer and I instinctively clicked my ink pen. After all, I was finished, I was done. I had written a whole page! I said all that I needed to say.

But what about what God wanted to say? No, I don’t hear voices and I don’t think I’ve ever heard an audible voice from God. Yet here I was, closing out the time of communication with my creator, having read his words back to him, adding my own petitions along the way, without bothering to ask if he had anything more to add.

Lest some of you more seasoned theologians worry about my beliefs concerning continuing special revelation, rest assured I don’t mean God has some massive revelation for me that I must tell the world. No book deal, no prophecy conference… But what if the Lord has something to remind me of? Have I “been still and [known] that [he] is God”? Or have I finished my prayer time, checking one more thing off the list that I have to do today? God help us when we come to the point that he is just one more item on the list.

Henri Nouwen said about time with God, “Pressing my eyes against my hands is not praying, and reading about your presence is not living in it.” How true! Simply calling my morning routine “devotions” does not make my morning devoted to Christ. It doesn’t mean that I have listened for the leading of the Holy Spirit. In fact, if I put away my ink pen and journal, I might just be closing the door on a great blessing of the Lord showing me some grace or giving me needed assurance. It is one thing for me to tell myself that I am a child of God. It is another thing altogether to hear it from him.

So today, Christian, spend some time in God’s Word. Underline it. Mark it up. Journal. But don’t put your pen away until you’ve listened for the Master’s voice.

Henri Nouwen said about time with God, “Pressing my eyes against my hands is not praying, and reading about your presence is not living in it.”

Faith, Life, Ministry, Uncategorized, writings

Manure and Church Bells

The US is not the only country with a “cultural Christianity” problem…

From Christianity Today news article:

The French government has passed a law protecting the “sensory heritage” of the nation’s countryside. Vacationers and tourists will no longer be allowed to file official complaints or sue over crowing roosters, manure smells, or early-morning church bells. In 2018 a visitor to the village of Jettingen complained about a 5:40 a.m. bell. The villagers voted 427-73 to continue ringing it, though mass no longer takes place at that time. In 2019, someone sued Saint-Chartres in Vienne over the volume of the 7 a.m. bell. An estimated 5 percent of French people attend church regularly.”

Christianity Today, April 2021 Issue

Okay, so several things are going through my mind as I read this gleaning of worldwide religious news. First off, who goes on vacation to the French countryside and does not want to smell manure, hear the roosters, and wake up to church bells. That is the whole point of escaping there in the first place, n’est pas?

Who goes on vacation to the French countryside and does not want to smell manure, hear the roosters, and wake up to church bells. That is the whole point of escaping there in the first place n’est pas?

But the main thing that gets me is the last sentence. “An estimated 5 percent of French people attend church regularly.” Now, taken by itself, that is not such a surprising statistic if you know much about the religious habits of Western Europe. It is increasingly secular in most aspects, though it retains a good deal of religious customs and traditions. Western Europe in many ways has what I would call a “secular Christian” culture, but little “Christian” practice. What’s amazing to me is that the government, from the national level all the way down to the ity-bity villages, would pass laws to protect this religious heritage when many fail to practice that religion.

In the US, we have some similar trends. The percentage of those who observance of religious traditions, particularly Christian ones, has been declining gradually for the last several decades. It began accelerating before COVID and early indications are that church attendance will decline by around 15% nationwide as we (hopefully) emerge from the pandemic.

But there remains a cultural tug, especially for those of us of white European ancestry to keep certain cultural aspects in place. Especially in rural, white America, there is a religious element to much of what we do, even on a secular level. Folks who have never darkened the door of a local church building complain about sporting events on Sunday, even as those events are often led by otherwise church-attending people. There is the drumming up of support for the “culture wars” every major holiday season over whether the local municipality should be allowed to have a manger scene or not.

And my question, as a Christian Minister, is, “Why?”

I think there are several reasons, and to each their own, but what I have noticed over the years is how people are satisfied with a Christian veneer to culture if it makes no significant demands on their lives or challenges their choices. We will endure, even cherish, the 5:40 a.m. church bells if it means we are not actually expected to attend an early morning church service.

It reminds me of the religious Pharisees in Jesus’ day. Now while these Pharisees would be the ones who got up for the early service, they would also neglect matters of the heart. Jesus compared them to beautiful tombs; they seem great, but inside there is spiritual death. That is what happens when we settle for a veneer, an outer appearance, rather than the real deal.

So as a history buff I say, “Good for France!” But as a follower of Jesus, I say “Get your butt to Church!”

Devotionals, Faith, Life, writings

How Thirsty Are You?

How much water do you drink everyday? Probably not enough, right?

For years, I’ve struggled with dizzy spells off and on with no known cause. I’ve been through a battery tests, from thyroid to cardiac and everything in between. Some days, after breakfast I will feel so icky, so dizzy, that I have to lay down. Maybe a nap would help, maybe it wouldn’t. Because of being overweight I was afraid I was developing type 2 diabetes and maybe it was my blood sugar. But nothing seemed to help.

Then a couple of weeks ago, I tried an experiment. I would drink large amounts of water, interspaced with a coffee or two, within the first hour of waking. I wasn’t thirsty. My mouth wasn’t dry. But I made myself drink. Guess what? It’s lessened the amount of dizzy spells I have dramatically. Yep, good ol’ H2O.

Sometimes in life we get confused, dizzy if you will. With no known cause, we feel out of it. Life seems topsy-turvy and to be spinning out of control. And I wonder… I wonder if it’s because deep down we’re dehydrated and don’t even realize it. Our souls are parched and yet, we think there is some other cause. Maybe we convince ourselves it’s because we aren’t happy or need a new car, spouse, or career. Or we tell ourselves that what we really need is to just do what makes us happy, all the while the world seems to keep spinning out of control.

God, the creator of our very personhood, knows the problem, and it’s remedy. He calls us to come to him and find rest and satisfaction. He says this in Isaiah 55:1-2:

“Come, everyone who thirsts,
    come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
    and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
    and delight yourselves in rich food.

Today, you might not even feel that thirsty, but take some time to drink from the fountain of God’s presence and His word. Filling up will make all the difference in the world.