Sunday, December 14, 2014

Breaking the Cycle!

When I first read tonight's question; I immediately thought of an elderly friend of mine who passed away a couple years ago. His name is Troy. This man's story showed me how change, even good change, can be scary and can intimidate us.

I'm going to head back to 2007; Troy was homeless, so we took him in and gave him a bed with us at Cornerstone. Troy had a reputation of being a hardcore alcoholic; he was known for sleeping in dirty alley ways or under viaducts, coddling a bottle of gin. He was doing well with us and staying sober. He hadn't touched a lick for months. I'd go to his area, his bed was perfectly made and his King James bible was always open. It was a good sign! We'd play chess together, have deep theological discussions and he'd attend a bible study Darrell and I were running at the time. 

I was proud of him, he'd come a long way. Our shelter was good for him. Troy had found freedom from the bottle and was doing great! Our goal at Cornerstone, is to help people move from homelessness and move  into permanent housing. With Troy, it was no different, he'd been with us for quite a while (over a year) and had actually saved a few thousand dollars with us. It was time he moved into his own crib.

We discussed his need to use that money, he'd express interest in moving, but nothing was really happening, so I set up a housing appointment for him. This place was in the same neighborhood, it was subsidized and he'd still have our support. It seemed like the perfect answer to meet his ongoing needs. It seemed like the perfect place for him to settle down and relax for his remaining years! 

The day of the appointment came and Troy wasn't around; he was nowhere to be found. After a couple of hours, he stumbled back to the shelter, slurring his words. He'd gone out early that morning and bought a bottle of gin. He was very intoxicated and a little aggressive; I couldn't believe it! 

It took only a couple minutes and a few sips of alcohol, but Troy's life started spiraling out of control again. We tried to set up new appointments, we tried to set up new goals, but that bottle had gripped him. I couldn't believe it, all that hard work was quickly washing down the drain. His area got messier, his bible lay closed and then it vanished, he was getting hostile and all that "saved money" was rapidly disappearing. 

I'll be honest with you all, Troy's downfall was incredibly hard to watch and live through. I felt helpless; I tried everything I could to get this man back on track, but at that moment, that liquor bottle was far more powerful than I. All I could do was pray for God's love and mercy on this poor wretched man that I loved and deeply respected! 

The reason I'm telling you about my friend Troy is this: even though we could have got him into good supportive permanent and subsidized housing, change terrified him! Even though this place would have been perfect for him, he obviously felt he needed to calm his nerves with a couple sips of gin. I believe he "freaked out", because he was overwhelmed by the fact that he was leaving his comfort zone, his security and his support network. This was a place where he'd found long term sobriety and supporting friends, and he felt intimidated, because he would be entering into something new; a place that was new and unknown to him!

Troy's downfall taught me something, it reminded me, that...
Change can be very scary.
At times, let's face it, change is downright scary. 
Change isn't easy; in fact, breaking our cycles, disrupting our routines, moving out of our comfort zones and making the needed change can be very hard and overwhelming!
Troy's story reminded me that we are often intimidated and overwhelmed by change!

I know I can feel this way too; change often scares, intimidates and overwhelms me! I can be scared and often want to stay just where I am! I don't want to change! I want to stay comfortable, I want to feel secure, even if it's not the best for me. Just like Troy, something needs to change, but I often don't want to take that risk! Just like Troy, I want to stay where I am! For health reasons, for my high blood pressue, I know I should eat better, but I don't! I know I should exercise for the same reason, but I don't! I know I should go to bed earlier, but I don't! 

I also see it all the time at Cornerstone. Someone has an appointment, and just like Troy, somehow and in some way, they sabotage it! They don't do it on purpose. I don't think people want to stay homeless. I don't think Troy wanted to stay homeless. I don't think Troy wanted to be an alcoholic, controlled by the bottle and unable to move forward! I think people want to get housed, but change triggers fear and overwhelms us. It could be they're scared of being alone. It could be the fear of failing. The fear of drinking again. The fear of losing friends. The fear of entering an unknown territory. The fear of feeling uncomfortable! 

Our fears of change are nothing new. We see it happening time and time again throughout history. Let's briefly travel back to the time of Moses.

God, through Moses, had just freed the Israelites from centuries of slavery and oppressive power, yet these people wanted to return to their old life. Even though they'd just seen the amazing miraculous power of God, they looked back. Even though God had promised them a new start, a new life and a new land, they looked back to their days of slavery and oppression. Change scared them. The unknown scared them. They were afraid. They wanted to return to their old life because they saw various obstacles or hurdles surrounding them! God was taking them into a better life, He had promised them freedom, they saw His miracles and power every day, but they kept looking back! They were scared to move forward. They wanted to return to what they know, or "stay put", in the security of their old life.

Imagine witnessing the 10 plagues that God fired down on Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Imagine seeing a pillar of cloud during the day and pillar of fire at night. Imagine knowing that God was doing all this for you. Imagine knowing that God was performing these miracles to set you free! These people knew God was in charge and had their back, yet listen to what the people said to Moses: “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” (Exodus 14:11-12 NIV)

They had the promises! They had God on their side! They had God directing them. They had God promising them and their children a better future, yet they still questioned him. They were still afraid, they were afraid of change, they were afraid of the unknown. Yet if I'm honest with myself, I stand here guilty of the same things. I see obstacles, I see difficulties, I don't like the look of the path God's telling me to go down, so what do I do? I often choose to stay put; I often choose to play it safe; I often choose fear over faith! 

Moses heard their complaints and now listen to what Moses told them; “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” (Exodus 14:13-14 NIV)

We know the story, God delivered them mightily that day; He performed another miracle! God parted the Red Sea and they walked through on dry land. The chasing Egyptians, the army that had oppressed them for centuries, drowned before their eyes. They were saved. They were delivered. They were set free! 

Yet, even through all that, these people kept doubting God and fearing change. He kept performing mighty miracles before their eyes. Because of their lingering doubt, rebellion and fear, they ended up wandering the desert for 40 years, but God kept all His promises and He kept delivering them. They eventually made it to the promised land, and God was faithful; He met all their needs and they saw His glory time and time again.

God's word to the Israelites, is also for us. It's for anyone who's scared of making the needed change. It's for anyone who doesn't know how to make the next step. God is telling us "do not be afraid, take a risk, stand firm, I've got you, I'm with you, I'll fight for you!" He's asking us to have faith and be courageous, so we can take the next step. 

There's a reason He can tell us to take that "leap of faith", He loves us so deeply and He has the power and ability to always keep His promises. He can tell us that, because He will fight for us! He's asking us to stand firm and obey Him, and when we do, we will see the deliverance of the Lord, we will see His miracles, we will know His love and we will see His promises come to fruition! 

My friend Troy hit rock bottom, he went back to passing out in dirty alleyways and under viaducts, but thankfully, his story didn't end in tragedy. He eventually took the risk and took a leap of faith, he tackled his fear, embraced change and found a place. Thankfully, Troy was able to live his final few years in peace and sobriety.

The abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, said, "if there is no struggle, there is no progress!" We make a major mistake if we think change is supposed to be easy; there will always be struggles and obstacles along the way. Moving down new paths takes a lot of courage; it takes faith; it means stepping out into the unknown. We can't move forward, if fear is controlling us. We need to move forward in faith, knowing and believing that God will keep His promises, knowing and believing that He is walking with us and knowing and believing that He loves us. 

As we go about our lives this week, think about the changes God is calling you to make, I want to encourage you all with one more verse. In Isaiah 41:10, God says; "do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand." (NIV) 

As you look into the unknown; take that "leap of faith" you know you need to take. Don't fear or be dismayed, because God is with you and He is your God. He loves you and promises to strengthen and help you along your path. Go in peace, knowing God is with you and He's got your back! 

A brief summary of why I wrote this: There's a ministry on the West-side of Chicago called Mission:USA; every Tuesday night they have a Church service called The BRIDGE. Their services are open to everybody, but especially those who find it hard to gel in their local congregations! Or to put into cruder terms; a lot of these men and women are ex-offenders, homeless and low-income folk who have felt ostracized and rejected by many churches, so their mission is to be a bridge between prison, the streets and the Church. The Bridge helps these wonderful men and women find churches that will welcome them with open arms.....
And isn't this exactly what the Gospel and the "Kingdom of God" is all about?
Every Tuesday night, The Bridge has a host team from a Church, who greet the guests and provide a meal. The guests anonymously submit questions about their "walk of faith", and staff from The Bridge pick out a relevant question. Meanwhile, they have invited 3 pastors from 3 different churches to come and give a 10 minute sermon each about this specific question or topic. In my humble opinion, this is a great concept and ministry, who's staff is very loving, compassionate and supportive to the "least of these".

This was a sermon preached on 12/09/14, in response to this question;“Breaking the Cycle”
I keep telling myself that I’ll make changes, and another day goes by, and nothing gets done. In a way I know I’m making excuses, but at the same time I just don’t know where to start. All I know is, I’m tired of being this way.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Mysterious Gifts of God

A few years ago I was unemployed; struggling to find a job and unsure of what I was going to do! My long term plan was to come over here to Chicago, but I had hardly any money and had just graduated from Bible College, so I also had quite a lofty debt hanging over my head. 

I was praying for a solution. I wanted God to intervene. Quickly! I desperately wanted Him to gift me with something. I didn't want to just sit around and collect the "dole" (the New Zealand term for receiving unemployment benefits). I knew how dangerous "doing nothing" could be for me, having once struggled through a crippling depression.

I needed something and I spent a lot of time praying for an answer; praying for God's intervention!

I was jobless for several months, and then out of the blue, a friend of mine from Church told me he could get me a job, painting houses! I was thankful to God. I viewed this opportunity as a gift from God. I was sure God had intervened and opened a door, just for me! So I took it!  

I remember driving to one of the richest suburbs of Auckland, called Remuera, and being alone inside this huge empty house and surrounded by white walls. Other people had spray painted, my job was to follow and touch up with a paint brush. The fumes were overwhelming. So I drove home that evening, feeling light-headed and with a headache. The fumes had got me pretty good; I was high! 

I knew the danger; white walls, overwhelming paint fumes and the potential to be immersed in my own thoughts. I knew such work could rapidly send me back into the horrifying depths of depression I had once wallowed in as a teenager! 

That night, I wrestled with God. Was this job really a gift from Him? Was it something He gave me? Would I disappoint Him if I quit?

That night, I also wrestled with the fact that a close friend of mine, from Church, got me this job. Many people knew this. I knew that if I quit, people may look down on me and judge me. I was scared people would see me as a slacker and a "dole-bludger". (This is a New Zealand term, meaning someone who is capable of working and could work, but has no intention of working and is collecting an unemployment benefit). 

That night, I wrestled so intensely, I felt so stressed, I hardly slept and became sick to my stomach. I wanted to do right, but the truth is, in that moment I didn't know what was right! 

The following morning I still felt a little sick, so I plucked up enough courage and called my new boss. We had one of those confusing, yet highly amusing, conversations; I told him I was quitting and he told me I was fired! And just like that; It was over! It was done! I could breathe again, but I had lingering questions and a cloud of guilt hovering over me. Did I deny a gift God had given me?

I can't remember the exact time-frame, but I know it wasn't very long at all. I saw an "ad", took a brief course, got my special license and started driving taxis. This job didn't feel like a gift from God, but it was there, so I thought I'd just give it a go. 

Cab driving was certainly not a glamorous job. It was hard! It was dangerous! It was long hours! I worked the graveyard shift and experienced and saw things I would have never imagined. I won't go into all the details, but I experienced the dark and evil side of the city. I saw it's disgusting underbelly. I saw what upright people do in the dark. I saw the secret and dirty lives of the rich, famous and elite. Yet, despite all this, I also saw how generosity and compassion can flow wonderfully out of people that society had deemed pathetic and unforgivable. 

Every night, I saw it all; whereas I saw plenty of love and compassion, the negativity was far more intense and gripping. The truth is; every night I couldn't escape the lasting and crippling affects of the rampant violence, addiction, poverty, injustice and inequality that plagues society.

Cab driving was intense. It was rough. It was painful. It was lonely. One night, I was even robbed! Two guys decided to press a knife against my throat while still driving, take my money and then toss me into my own trunk and drive me around in it! Another night, five young fellas decided to beat me and take my cash. All this to say; driving taxis was a traumatic adventure, filled with plenty of drama. (To read more about these stories, click on this link: Taxi Driving, Homelessness and A Life of Traumatic Events!)

You may ask: why would I give up the peaceful tranquility of painting white walls for this? Why would I sacrifice my own safety to live a life full of so much risk and danger? But you know what? That was just where God wanted me to be at that time. I didn't know it then, but I know it now! He gave me a gift, I just didn't know it. 

Isaiah 55:8-9 says; “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." (NIV)

This verse reveals the mystery and love of God. He knows what we need! He knows what we need before we know it! I believe He didn't want me to be stuck by myself, sucking in paint fumes in luxurious mansions, He wanted to prepare me for my future. He wanted to open my eyes to the world. He wanted me to do this dangerous job, because He had something bigger and better in store for me.  

(As a side note, I was also able to make quick money to get over here to Chicago and pay off my College debt.)

God's thoughts and ways are far above mine. He knows what we need before we know it. He gifts us in mysterious and strange ways, and often, we won't realize it until many years later. While we're crying "Why Lord? Why me?", He's doing loving works, mysteriously behind our backs. I look back now and say "thank you Lord" for enduring through my cab driving experiences.

For those who don't know, I work with people experiencing homelessness and poverty on the Northside of Chicago. I help run a large homeless shelter in Uptown. I work with a lot of people who've been locked up, struggle with addictions and face extreme hardships. I see and experience a lot of what I saw and experienced as a cab driver.

It's unmistakable to me now; driving a taxi was an essential part of my journey. I don't think I could do what I do now, without having first jumped into that risky job! God knew that back then, I didn't!

I want to now look at another verse; the Apostle Paul said in Romans 8:28: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." (NIV)

To be honest with you all; in the midst of it all, it can be hard to discern what gifts are from God and what are not! Sometimes what we perceive as good, can be so detrimental, and what we perceive as detrimental, will be good! The gifts that God gives us are often laced in mystery, but we can't forget, He gifts us because He loves us. 

This verse from Romans gives us hope; it echoes the verses from Isaiah, and together they are telling us that God mysteriously and lovingly works behind the scenes; making impossible dreams become possible. He has the power and ability to turn what's negative and detrimental into something positive and good! He does this, because He loves us so much!
I want to close by saying: God loves us, He's gifting us and is "working for the good of those who love him". In knowing this, I believe we must dedicate our lives to loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to loving our neighbors as ourselves. 

I want to encourage you all with this final word: Go out and live in these promises, trust that God loves you dearly, has your back and "works for the good of those who love him!" ��

A brief summary of why I wrote this: There's a ministry on the West-side of Chicago called Mission:USA; every Tuesday night they have a Church service called The BRIDGE. Their services are open to everybody, but especially those who find it hard to gel in their local congregations! Or to put into cruder terms; a lot of these men and women are ex-offenders, homeless and low-income folk who have felt ostracized and rejected by many churches, so their mission is to be a bridge between prison, the streets and the Church. The Bridge helps these wonderful men and women find churches that will welcome them with open arms.....
And isn't this exactly what the Gospel and the "Kingdom of God" is all about?
Every Tuesday night, The Bridge has a host team from a Church, who greet the guests and provide a meal. The guests anonymously submit questions about their "walk of faith", and staff from The Bridge pick out a relevant question. Meanwhile, they have invited 3 pastors from 3 different churches to come and give a 10 minute sermon each about this specific question or topic. In my humble opinion, this is a great concept and ministry, who's staff is very loving, compassionate and supportive to the "least of these".

This was a sermon preached on 11/11/14, in response to this question;“God's Gifts”

What does it really mean for God to give you something? How do I know when God would want to reward me? How do I know if something is a blessing from the Lord, or something I’m just chasing? And when I do get a gift from God, how am I supposed to know what to do with it?

"They Just Won't Believe Me!"

This question is very real; trust me, I hear it all the time!

I have people come see me and they're frustrated! They're trying, they are trying really hard. They're trying to follow Christ and they're telling everyone what He's done in their lives. The problem is, people, (especially the ones who know them the most), seem to be the very ones throwing the biggest stones. They are tossing their past around, reminding people of who they are and what they've done! They love reminding everyone of how they used to smoke dope together, gang-bang together, rob people and do other crazy stuff. They love to put their "tainted past" on parade!

The issue to them is, they know Jesus has radically changed them, so they cry out, "hey, take a look at me! Jesus changed me! He can change you too!" But those who hear these words, just laugh, mock and deny the miracle God has done!

I think this is hardest among the people who know us the most! People who know us the most, often think we're all words and no action. No matter what we've done, no matter how much we've changed and no matter how much we love Jesus, there will always be people who just don't believe us or they're not ready to trust us yet. They even did this to Jesus and He didn't have a "tainted reputation" to overcome.

When God radically saves people, especially those with "bad reputations", there's always going to be people who think and say; "how could Jesus save someone like you?", "I've heard this script before" and "quit playing; you're all talk, no action!"

Unfortunately, we also live in a society that doesn't forgive people, and it often doesn't want to either. It wants to just condemn and ridicule. It often resorts to punishment and retribution for those who are "already at the bottom." I work in a homeless shelter, and I see the consequences; they're harsh! Society doesn't care if you've given your life to Jesus. Society doesn't care if you've changed. The reality is, people can't get housing because they got caught smoking a blunt 15 years ago, another person can't get employed because he got arrested years ago for getting into a fight and another fella continually gets harassed by the police because he used to be a known gang-banger. You know the stories; felonies and bad reputations follow us around like a bad infection; they're next to impossible to get rid of. They're hard to escape from.

But we live in this reality, so somehow we have to deal it!

Tonight I want to encourage you all, because I know it's incredibly difficult; especially if you're trying your hardest to do everything you're supposed to. Jesus has forgiven you, but society hasn't, your friends haven't, and too often, the church is there, casting stones as well! It sucks and it's wrong! But somehow, we gotta deal with it and find a way to spread the miraculous love of Jesus.

People are going to "think what they think", and people are going to "do what they do"; but we can't let them "live rent-free in our heads". You know what God's done in your life, you know His love and you know the miracle. You want other people to know that too. My friends, it takes time, people aren't going to just believe in you or believe you immediately. They want to see it in your actions, you're going to have to prove yourself, and that takes time!

Despite the negativity that often gets flung at us, I believe deep down, people do want to see the miracles God does; they want to see Jesus changing people's lives, especially those who have done terrible things, but people have been duped too many times. People want to see God's Kingdom in action, they want to see changed lives, but as a caution, they hold people at arm's length, not wanting to feel like a sucker again.

It comes down to this: Words don't mean nothing until they see sustained change in our lives!

I want to encourage us all with 2 verses tonight; Paul says in Galatians 6:9-10; "Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith." (NASB)

Firstly; we must not lose heart. Paul encouraged his readers to not lose heart. He knew how easily distressed and discouraged we can become. He knew we could feel utterly defeated. Especially when everyone's slamming us, it's hard to stay positive. Paul tells us, "let us not lose heart in doing good."

Paul had to go through this himself; he got his reputation by persecuting Christians. He acted like a police man or government official who had permission to stone Christians to death. He took pleasure in doing this! He was a motivated and determined man! Paul had an awful reputation. But Jesus met him on the road to Damascus and miraculously changed him forever. Paul started preaching and sharing the love, but when people first saw him, they didn't want to believe him, they still saw him as a hater and a killer. Acts 9:19-21 says; they "were not at all sure they could trust him, they kept saying, “Isn’t this the man who wreaked havoc in Jerusalem among the believers? And didn’t he come here to do the same thing—arrest us and drag us off to jail in Jerusalem for sentencing by the high priests?”

Paul had to go through the same thing, he was labeled. He had to not lose heart! Paul would have heard similar things that some of you may have heard! You might hear; "once a thug, always a thug; once a crackhead, always a crackhead; once a rat, always a rat," Paul no doubt heard words like; "once a Pharisee; always a Pharisee; once a killer; always a killer!" You get it! Paul had to fight negativity, just like us; he had to not lose heart, just like we do today,

It took time for Paul, he had to prove that his words gelled with his actions. We need to shove aside the negativity and keep listening to the truth, the truth that reveals that Jesus has changed us and loves us deeply.

Be encouraged; do not lose heart, stay positive, keep the faith, keep your eyes on the cross!

Secondly; we must not grow weary in doing good. Despite all the opposition, Paul encourages us to keep at it! Do not drift away, do not give up, stay on the path. Despite the opposition, keep your eyes focused on the prize, and keep aiming at it! Persevere. Be patient!

This is imperative; weariness can be so deadly, it can be so destructive. Paul is saying, "don't let it defeat you." Because if you grow weary, it will eventually defeat you! When no one is believing us, or listening to us, it's so easy to lift our arms in despair and say, "forget it Lord, I want answers, I want to see results!"

We also have to remember that we become weary when we think we can do it all on own own. Jesus loves our friends and family more than we do. We need to remember that. They are in God's hands. Jesus is working in them. Jesus loves them more than we can ever imagine!

At this point; all we can do is pray! There's a time to just keep quiet and pray; say "Lord, they're yours, they're in your hands!" The psalmist said, "be still and know that I am God!" When we try and control someone's destiny, when we try and control the situation, when we try and make someone listen who doesn't want to listen, we will become weary. When we try and be God, we'll become weary! We need to let God be God.

When I feel weary, it's often because I'm trying to control the situation, I'm trying to force change! I'm not being still and letting God be in charge. When I'm trying to run the show, that's when I feel overwhelmed and helpless! I need to surrender myself back to God; I do this by praying. I can't change people! God does!

Let me tell you; there's so much peace in letting go. There's peace in praying. There's peace in being still and letting God be God.

Thirdly; Paul tells us to do good to all people whenever we have the opportunity. By surrendering to God, I'm not suggesting that we distant ourselves from the world to continuously pray. No; we need to be active, we need to "do good to all people". Our strongest witness will often not be our words, but our actions! People watch us, they want to see how we respond, how we act and how we react.

Paul wants us to keep at it; "whenever we have the opportunity". He's telling us, do good, all the time, to all people. Don't have vacations in doing good, don't choose who you'll be good too; help, assist and love the people you come in contact with. It doesn't matter if they're friends, family or enemies, let Christ work in and through you.

Doing good may be resisting the bottle, it may be giving away some of your money, it may be volunteering or it may be helping a neighbor carry her groceries upstairs.

One of the strongest displays of witnessing I have seen recently is; this guy who I know very well, who can become very angry, has the reputation of fighting. The other day, someone came up to him and started getting his face, calling him names and provoking him. This guy resisted that urge to fight and hurt that person. He could could have splattered this drunk man over the pavement, but he choose to do good! He choose peace. He choose to pray. When this happened, the people who know him, saw Christ working through him!

I want to close with something else Paul tells us in these verses, he says "in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary."

I want to encourage you all with this: It takes time, but it's about God's timing, not ours! God is at work in you and in the people we're in contact with. His Holy Spirit is maneuvering in secret and wonderful ways. He will use the good we're doing for His Kingdom! We need to let God be God, because God sees and He brings about change and salvation, we don't. We just need to just keep being faithful to Him, no matter the circumstances.

Do good and may God do His work in and through us all.

A brief summary of why I wrote this: There's a ministry on the West-side of Chicago called Mission:USA; every Tuesday night they have a Church service called The BRIDGE. Their services are open to everybody, but especially those who find it hard to gel in their local congregations! Or to put into cruder terms; a lot of these men and women are ex-offenders, homeless and low-income folk who have felt ostracized and rejected by many churches, so their mission is to be a bridge between prison, the streets and the Church. The Bridge helps these wonderful men and women find churches that will welcome them with open arms.....

And isn't this exactly what the Gospel and the "Kingdom of God" is all about?

Every Tuesday night, The Bridge has a host team from a Church, who greet the guests and provide a meal. The guests anonymously submit questions about their "walk of faith", and staff from The Bridge pick out a relevant question. Meanwhile, they have invited 3 pastors from 3 different churches to come and give a 10 minute sermon each about this specific question or topic. In my humble opinion, this is a great concept and ministry, who's staff is very loving, compassionate and supportive to the "least of these".

This was a sermon preached on 10/21/14, in response to this question;“Witnessing to my Friends”

I’m trying to witness to my friends and my family, and trust me, I want them to know all about how God has been good to me, but there are problems. Some of the people from my old life are just not hearing me at all on this, I haven’t exactly been a saint in my past, so people look at me kind of funny when I talk about church to them. Can I really overcome this? If so, where do I start? What do I say? I want to be a good witness for the Lord if I can, I just don’t know how.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Taxi Driving, Homelessness and A Life of Traumatic Events.

In my early twenties, while still living in Aotearoa (aka New Zealand), I drove a taxi-cab. During that brief epoch of my life, I experienced and saw some fairly intense trauma and drama! In fact, if you're planning on driving taxis, (especially the graveyard shift), expect your stomach to churn and your faith in God and humanity to be challenged in new ways. Being a cab driver means you're going to submerse yourself in an ocean of traumatic and dramatic events. For the purpose of this blog-post, I'm going to highlight 3 episodes I experienced in my cab and how they affected me.
It was late. It was Monday. Everything was closed. Everything was peaceful. I was just sitting there, waiting to be called up, waiting for that elusive fare. Two men appeared out of the dark and got into my car; the smaller fella sat in the front, while the bigger guy sat in the back. They gave me an exact address and off we drove, peacefully chatting about our day.

As we approached our destination, the bigger fella shuffled across the back seat to sit directly behind me. He grabbed my ponytail with one hand and rested a knife against my throat with his other. He positioned my head so I would never get a good look at their faces again. They calmly told me to do what they say, and despite this precarious situation, all of us remained extremely calm. I was praying. I was praying hard! I obeyed them and with his knife resting against my jugular, I gave them all my money and drove my "stick-shift" another mile to a "dead-end" street, where they told me to pull over. While still gripping my long hair and keeping the knife in place, they forced me out and walked me to the back of the taxi! They opened the boot (trunk) and made me climb in.

It didn't end there; they got back into the cab and drove off, with me lying in the boot. This was actually the most frightening part! In the darkness and silence of the trunk, I asked myself many questions and was internally screaming out to God for His mercy. I didn't have a clue what they were going to do or where they were going. My imagination was running wild! I was scared!

After what seemed like an eternity, they stopped the vehicle and opened the boot. Standing in the shadows, I was still unable to see their faces, they hovered over the trunk and waited to see if I was going to try anything. Ironically, they asked me, "are you alright mate?", "yep" I replied. They gently lobbed the keys into the trunk, slammed it shut and disappeared into the darkness of the night.

I yelled out loud for a few minutes. I didn't have a clue where I was. To my surprise, I found a lever in that trunk and opened it up. I climbed out and discovered they'd parked half way down a long driveway that led to 2 houses. This traumatic experience ended by driving to my parents house. They only lived about a mile away from this whole incident. When I told my family what just happened, they thought I was kidding. Their demeanor changed when the police came.

The 2nd incident happened a couple years later (1998). 5 local youngsters decided to rob a taxi driver. There I was, once again, peacefully sitting in the wrong place at the wrong time! This was a planned robbery; I picked up 4 young men, while a 5th was waiting at the destination with a getaway car and a steering wheel lock as a weapon. As I pulled up, the dude behind me grabbed my ponytail and throat and all the others started pounding my face with their fists. Thankfully, they never used their weapon, but my face received about 50 punches and I needed a few butterfly stitches in my chin.

These 5 young fellas were very different from the first 2! They panicked and failed to get all the cash I had in my car. In fact, I grew suspicious on our drive because of their very pointed questions and how fidgety they seemed. They'd also quiet down to a whisper, and with very serious and intense tones, they'd occasionally speak to one another in a Polynesian language; it seemed like they were planning something. Because of this, I started praying and taking note of "distinctive features" about them. My hunches were correct, but unfortunately, my observations and prayers didn't stop the robbery and battery. They sped off into the night with less than $16.00, all they bought was a pack of cigarettes and they were later apprehended by the police.

A few months after that incident, came another episode which shook me up more than the others. I picked up 4 young men who came out of a house in intervals. The final man was visibly aggravated and intoxicated, and he happened to sit directly behind me with a large glass bottle of whiskey. As I took off, he immediately started running his mouth, asking "pointed questions" and trying to provoke me. He wanted me to react or say something that would justify an attack.

I didn't bite, I refused to bite, in fact, I remained cautious and very polite. This guy enjoyed making threats of how he and his buddies would take pleasure in beating me senseless with that bottle and leave me in a vegetative state. He'd switch between laughter and crazy outbursts of anger! He'd also switch languages, knowing I didn't speak Samoan. He'd also spontaneously touch my head or shoulders. All these other guys thought this dude was hilarious and weren't trying to slow him down. No, they'd laugh and add their own little violent snippets from time to time.

Externally I looked calm, but internally, I was petrified! I didn't want this to be my final night on earth. I didn't want to be hooked up to a machine for the rest of my days. There was no way I was going to drive these fellas down a dark deserted road, I was looking for an escape route! I was praying. I was praying hard! After about 25 minutes of this torturous driving, they finally told me to pull over in front of a house. As they started getting out, I sat there riding the clutch and accelerator, ready to release the left and plant the right. At this point, I didn't care about the money, I just wanted them out of the car. I just wanted to survive!

To my utter surprise, they paid their fare and thanked me for the ride. The crazy dude behind me shook my hand and told me what a cool taxi-driver he thought I was.

As I drove up the street, the car was spluttering and bounced a little, as my heart was racing, my legs were visibly shaking and my knees were actually knocking. That's how scared I was. Have you ever tried to drive a "stick-shift" and go through the gears when you have no control of your legs? Let me tell you, it ain't easy!

All 3 of these incidents had a profound impact on my life. They affected me well beyond the few minutes I sat in my cab and was robbed, attacked, bullied and threatened by these guys. Traumatic experiences do that! Traumatic experiences permanently change us. Traumatic experiences can either take us down long depressing roads of despair and fear, or, if we take a courageous leap of faith, we can be transformed by God and His Kingdom, who takes what's intended for harm and uses it for good! 

Immediately after each episode, my faith in humanity and my ability to trust people was radically affected. I'd relive it in my dreams and I was nervous about heading out at night. I'd steer clear of certain areas, I'd get cold sweats if someone was "talking trash" in my cab and sometimes people would flag me down and I'd drive right past them because I had a "vibe" or they looked similar to my attackers. I'd feel guilty as I did this, because I felt there was gap between my actions and my beliefs of accepting and loving all. 

About a month after these episodes, this fear and distrust dissipated and I started picking up almost anyone and everyone again. Yet, these traumatic events, (along with a few I didn't mention), left me with one major lingering aftereffect that has remained until this very day; it doesn't matter if I'm driving, sitting in church, standing in a crowded elevator, walking down a hallway or riding in Chicago's packed el trains, I do not like having people behind me, especially when the area is enclosed or I have to keep still. I feel vulnerable. Age doesn't matter, race doesn't matter, gender doesn't matter, the situation doesn't matter, if they're someone I don't know or they are fidgeting behind me, I tend to get a little anxious. It makes me want to move to a location where there's a wall or a wide open space directly behind me and I can observe my surroundings. This is one of the main reasons why I tend to gravitate to the back or the side of many settings! 

Even though these 3 events were extremely traumatic, I believe the good that arose from them, has far outweighed the harm and negatives. It has helped me understand and comprehend the words Joseph said to his brothers: "you intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives." (Genesis 50:20 NIV)

Years ago, just after I had been tossed into the trunk of my own car, I would have never dreamed that I'd end up working with so many people who have experienced far more trauma than me and who struggle daily with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I would have never dreamed that God would turn this into something that would help me and benefit the hundreds of homeless people I deal with daily. These 3 taxi-driving episodes have given me empathy, compassion and a sensitivity for those who've been harmed by the lasting affects of being traumatized.

Homelessness, in and of itself, is a traumatic experience! All men, women and children experiencing homelessness are living with many losses. They have lost the very things we cherish as our protection and safety. Not only have they lost their homes and assets, they've often lost their families and communities. They also suffer trauma through the isolation, stigmatization and marginalization that society places on people, simply because they're experiencing homelessness.  

The stories I see and hear daily go far beyond the reality of just simply "being homeless". I mourn over the horrific stories and wounds of homeless veterans and the debilitating PTSD that has followed them. I anguish over the tales of rape and molestation that terrorizes so many women (and some men also) who are homeless. I weep over the bitter reality that people experiencing homelessness are often victims of mass incarceration, callous gentrifiers, unjust power-mongers and police brutality. How about all the scars people have shown me? They could be through bullets, knives, baseball bats, gang fights and prison riots. How about the hundreds of poor victims who are mocked or bullied, simply because they have a mental illness, a learning disability or a physical difference? How about those who are ostracized and assaulted, simply because they are transgender, push around a large shopping cart full of their belongings or sleep under a viaduct? 

I barely touch the surface here; the examples are too numerous to mention. The offenders are countless. The trauma is real and the homeless population is overwhelmingly flooded with her victims.  

When I came to Chicago, I entered this world! When I came to Uptown, I brought my own trauma, but I walked into a traumatized community. When I came to this neighborhood, I discovered a place where trauma wasn't being hidden or suppressed, it had risen to the surface and was screaming out for answers, it was screaming out for real genuine love. It still screams. It still seeks love!

When Jesus entered this world, He brought forth a Kingdom that sets captives free, elevates the afflicted and where sinners find forgiveness. He died on the cross and rose from the grave, so those traumatized may find compassion, hope and love through Him and His people. His loving Gospel turns what is meant for evil and harm into good. His Revolutionary Love, which should also be displayed by His people, turns our systems of oppression and violence into actions of humility and peace. Jesus, through his radical discipleship, said "NO" to the evil empires and turned this traumatized world upside down through His mercy and grace.

So here I am; many years later, living amongst a traumatized people! 
So here I am, trying to bring this radical and revolutionary Kingdom of God and Kingdom Love into our communities. 
So here I am; asking God to use me, asking God to use what several fellas intended for harm and transform it into something that He uses for good and maybe save a few lives.
And God has used me, my friends and colleagues, right here in good old Uptown. 

When we're living out the Kingdom of God, Jesus doesn't call us to tackle all the trauma on our own; it's too much! He wants Kingdom people to come together and lift up those who've been pushed down by all the trauma they've faced. 

He wants us to come together as a community, loving and supporting the "least of these". We need to come together for people like Kevin, George and Feliciano (not their real names); 3 men who've been victims of violence, familial death, continual rejection, bullying and homelessness. One is a Vietnam veteran who experienced horrific things, one was sexually assaulted in prison and the other tragically lost his twin brother. All 3 of these fellas found hope, compassion and love at Cornerstone and Jesus People. They came to us broken and rejected, but we took them in and they found something they'd never known before they entered our doors. They found people who truly loved them, accepted them and didn't cast them aside. They all eventually left us and successfully moved into their own cribs. 

These 3 guys are truly some of Chicago's "least of these", but they've been embraced by people who were willing to sacrifice for them, empathize with them and show compassion to them. Though they're still riddled with PTSD, their trauma has softened a little, because people chose to follow the example of Jesus and wrap their loving arms around these very broken men. 

Their stories aren't ending in hopelessness. 
What was intended for harm, has been turned into good. 
What was supposed to destroy these men, has been transformed into stories of Hope! 
God's Kingdom does that; it turns our world upside down and reveals Jesus, who relates to, embraces and deeply loves those who who've been traumatized and victimized! 
God truly gives the broken-hearted new found hope, because "a bruised reed He will not break, and a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish." (Isaiah 42:3)

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"The Midnight Taxi and the Christian Life" (A BridgeBox Devotional)

For a while now I've been involved with a ministry on Chicago's West Side; it's called The Bridge. They work primarily with men and women who have "come home" from prison and often struggle with the ongoing plights of poverty, homelessness, addiction and mental illness. 

The catchphrase on their website is: 
from the streets 
to the Bridge
to the church

The wonderful people who run it have asked me to come to their Tuesday night services and preach about once a month about a specific topic or question; we also collaborate together to help meet some of their needs. I go into more detail about their ministry on this page: The Bridge: Messages (you'll also find the sermons I wrote and delivered)

Recently they asked me to be involved with another aspect of their ministry; it's called BridgeBox; an online Church service. Every month, they pick a specific topic and use multimedia to bring sermons, music, bible studies and devotionals to those wanting to be challenged in their Christian walk. They asked me to write September's devotional.

This month's topic is: What Do I Need For A Healthy Christian Life? and here is the devotional I wrote....

The Midnight Taxi and the Christian Life (scribd version).

The Midnight Taxi and the Christian Life (evernote version).

Finally: if you're interested in receiving their monthly BridgeBox services about a variety of topics, the cost is only $8.00 a month. That donation helps support a wonderful group of people who are bringing the gospel and a "whole lot of Kingdom Love" to the "Least of These" in Chicago and around the world. 
If you are interested in checking out and supporting their ministry, please click the following link: bridgebox  (this website also explains in greater detail what they do at The Bridge and has past editions of BridgeBox that you can check out)

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Living Rent-Free in My Head!

Every day, this certain guy used to sit on a crate out on Wilson Avenue. He loved to preach. I used to sit down and chat with him from time to time and soak in some of his wisdom. He went to a local church and loved to share his pastor's "catch phrase" with me. 

One day, he said something that has stuck with me until this very day. It's fairly simple, it goes like this: "Don't let nobody live rent-free in your head!" 

I have used this "saying" countless times. I've said it to people in conflict, I've said it to people at the shelter, I've said it to people who are brewing over some issue and when someone and something is making me mad, I'll say it to myself.

Let me repeat it: 
"Don't let nobody live rent-free in your head!" 

I use it because I've seen guys let small things mushroom into massive things. I'm talking about people wanting to fight or kill one another over small things like $5.00, a plate of food, an accidental bump while standing in line or simply because someone's "mean-mugging" them. Each and every time they're letting other people live rent-free in their heads. They're letting small things or solvable conflicts escalate into something big. They're allowing other people or certain things to take up residence in their heads! 

This isn't something that just happens with homeless people at the shelter. It also happens with me; someone upsets me, something angers me and before I know it, I've let this small thing escalate into something huge. I've let someone take residence in my head! I suffer and so do the people around me. This is when I start repeating this phrase to myself; "don't let nobody live rent-free in your head!"

This isn't just a modern day problem. This is an on-going issue, it's been happening since the creation of the world. We saw this happen with Cain, Adam and Eve's first born son, he thought he was done wrong by God and Abel; and he just couldn't and wouldn't let it go! 

Listen to what happened to these 2 brothers....

Cain brought an offering to GOD from the produce of his farm. Abel also brought an offering, but from the firstborn animals of his herd, choice cuts of meat. GOD liked Abel and his offering, but Cain and his offering didn’t get his approval. Cain lost his temper and went into a sulk.
GOD spoke to Cain: “Why this tantrum? Why the sulking? If you do well, won’t you be accepted? And if you don’t do well, sin is lying in wait for you, ready to pounce; it’s out to get you, you’ve got to master it.”
Cain had words with his brother. They were out in the field; Cain came at Abel his brother and killed him. (Genesis 4:3-8 MSG)

So what can we learn from this story? 
What can we bring into our world today? 
What does Cain teach us about anger, especially when it starts to consume us?

1: When people or things are living rent-free in our heads; we need to listen to God. 

God came to Cain and questioned him, He gave him a chance to "do well". This warning was an act of love and compassion on God's part. He knew that Cain was brewing inside. He knew jealousy and anger were occupying Cain's head and God knew how deadly the outcome would be. God told him and gave him a choice, "if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; it's desire is for you, but you must master it!"

God's word to Cain is a message to each and every one of us; sin crouches at the door, lying in wait to take us down. He's calling us to make the change, we have to master it. When we fall into these tantrums and sulking, when we feel wronged, when we feel slighted and overlooked, we have to listen to God and make the right choice. We have to make the decision to master it! Cain didn't listen to God, but we must! 

God may not come down and talk to us face to face, but He'll speak to us through other people who care about us; He'll use our friends, the Bible, pastors, counsellors and other means. He's going to use people to step into our lives and to tell us about the sin crouching at our doors. We may not want to listen, we may feel wronged and our anger may be justified, but if we're allowing someone to live rent-free in our heads, we have to listen to that sound advice! 

2: When people or things are living rent-free in our heads; we need a change of heart. 

Cain never mastered his anger. Even though God warned him, he let it lay crouching at the door and it devoured him. He felt wronged. He felt justified in doing his terrible deed. He felt Abel deserved death! So he killed him! 

When we allow someone or something to live rent-free in our heads, we get devoured by it. We are captured by it. Hatred and retribution consume us. Cain was punished and suffered the rest of his life because of it. 

There will be times when the people who take up residence in our heads, don't even know we're mad at them. We're the ones losing sleep, making our blood pressure rise and punching things, meanwhile, the poor person we're mad at, doesn't have a clue! 

We need a change of heart for 2 reasons; for our freedom and for the sake of the person we're mad at. We need to let it go. We need to make peace with them in our hearts. Jesus calls us to forgive. He calls us to forgive not only our friends, but also our enemies. 

Abel didn't do Cain wrong, but think of how things would have been different if Cain had humbled himself and had a change of heart. Think of how things would have been different if Cain had sought internal peace, rather than retribution.

The other day I was walking home and Keith walked up to me. He was angry. Steaming mad! He'd been stewing over some dude he felt was "mean mugging" him. He told me how this guy better stay off Wilson or he was going to hurt him. The problem was; this dude didn't even know he'd done anything wrong. 

Keith and I talked for a while, he calmed down and listened. He agreed that he had let a sideways look escalate into something enormous; he had a "change of heart" about this dude and made peace with him. Internally!

The funny thing is; this guy never knew he occupied a space, rent-free in Keith's head. 
The good thing is; this "change of heart" made Keith feel safe and ensured that no one was hurt. 

3: When people or things are living rent-free in our heads; we need to strive for peace. 

Finally, even when we've been picked on, wronged, unfairly and unjustly treated, we need to strive for peace. When someone's living rent-free in our heads, strive for peace with them. This is hard; we can forgive, have a change of heart and the other person might not even know it, but this is taking it one step further. This is making a concerted effort to get on with the person we're mad at. This is peacemaking in action. 

We need to stop seeing them as an object. We need to see each other as fellow human beings, with beauty and faults, just like us. We need to see them as our brothers and sisters! 

The Apostle Paul emphasized this in Romans 12: "Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (Romans 12:17-18 NIV)

I'm going to tell you one more story. These 2 guys I know didn't like each other, in fact, they started hating on each other. It was over something small, minute, but now it was a power struggle and it was getting bad. They both wanted to hurt each other, they both had plans on how they were going to do it and they were both willing to go back to prison for it. They both had each other living rent-free in their heads.

It took hours, it consumed our whole day, but they finally listened. They finally agreed to forgive the other person and call off their plans of revenge and strive for peace instead. These 2 men finally started seeing each other as human beings, created in the image of God. 

Unlike Cain, these 2 guys listened and didn't allow their anger to master them. Sin lay at their doors, waiting to pounce, but they both chose humility instead! They chose to listen. They chose to forgive. They chose peace. They chose the better path.

I am amazed at how often peace happens when we strive for peace; when we strive to live at peace with others, our enemies often follow suit. Instead of labeling our enemies as thugs, bums and haters, instead of letting them live rent-free in our heads, we need to start seeing them as fellow human beings and find ways to do good to them. When we do this; peace happens and our anger won't master us. 

God calls us to make that choice, and let me tell you, that choice isn't easy. Where Cain failed, we have to overcome. But we're not alone, God is there helping us make that happen. Trust in Him. Cling to Him! He will empower us.

As we move forward, let us remember, when we get angry, when we have folks or things living rent-free in our heads, we need to "do well" and make the right moves; it starts with us! 

Listen to God. 
And strive for peace! 

A brief summary of why I wrote this: There's a ministry on the West-side of Chicago called Mission:USA; every Tuesday night they have a Church service called The BRIDGE. Their services are open to everybody, but especially those who find it hard to gel in their local congregations! Or to put into cruder terms; a lot of these men and women are ex-offenders, homeless and low-income folk who have felt ostracized and rejected by many churches, so their mission is to be a bridge between prison, the streets and the Church. The Bridge helps these wonderful men and women find churches that will welcome them with open arms.....
And isn't this exactly what the Gospel and the "Kingdom of God" is all about?

Every Tuesday night, The Bridge has a host team from a Church, who greet the guests and provide a meal. The guests anonymously submit questions about their "walk of faith", and staff from The Bridge pick out a relevant question. Meanwhile, they have invited 3 pastors from 3 different churches to come and give a 10 minute sermon each about this specific question or topic. In my humble opinion, this is a great concept and ministry, who's staff is very loving, compassionate and supportive to the "least of these".

This was a sermon preached on 9/2/14, in response to this question;Anger Taking Over
"Sometimes I get angry about things, and it’s like I just can’t seem to let it go. I keep thinking about things over and over, and I get more and more mad, and I end up taking it out on everyone around me. I don’t want to be that way, but I can’t just pretend that I don’t care. What should I do?"