Monday, April 27, 2015

Butterflies in the Desert.

A few years ago, a good friend of mine introduced me to this amazing short film called "The Butterfly Circus"

A guy named Mr Mendez was traveling through the desert with a bunch of friends. They see a carnival, so they stop to check it out. This carnival has what's called a "freak show", a sideshow, where they stare and laugh at a few people who are different. 

Finally, they come to the final curtain and the announcer, the carnival ringmaster, cries out: "And now, a perversion of nature. Cursed from birth. A man, if you can call him that, whom God Himself has turned His back upon. I give you.... the limbless man!"

He pulls back the curtain and there stands a young man without limbs. His name is Will; he was born with no arms and no legs. The small crowd looks shocked, groans and even laughs at him. As they disappear, two young boys remain and pull tomatoes out of their pockets. One of these kids throws one at this defenseless limbless man, as the horrible ringmaster mockingly laughs. The second boy is about to do the same, but Mendez steps in and takes the tomato out of this kid's hand and tosses it aside.

He then walks up to Will, get's real close, looks him straight in the eyes and says, "you. are. magnificent!"

Will was surprised! He was confused. No one had ever been nice to him before. Was this guy for real? Was he mocking him too? So, in anger, and by retaliating the only way he can, Will spits in his face.

As Mr Mendez walks away, he apologizes for getting so close and calls him his friend.

The man behind the next curtain laughs and mocks Will and tells him who this mysterious Mendez is. He's the Showman, the Ringmaster, of the Butterfly Circus; a traveling circus that brings color and wonder to poor people in the desert! Upon hearing these words from his obnoxious neighbor, Will somehow escapes from the carnival and starts traveling with this bunch of entertainers. 

Will believes that by joining the Butterfly Circus, he'll just be placed in another sideshow or "freak-show". He is convinced that's all he's good for. Mendez let's him know his circus is different, and they didn't have a sideshow. He let's him know, he's a very different Ringmaster and none of his people will be ridiculed or exploited.

A little later, Will was observing everyone in the circus having fun and bringing life to poor people living in a little shanty town. Will was standing off in the distance, feeling sorry for himself; Mr Mendez sees Will and dramatically repeats the words the old ringmaster used to say about him: "a perversion of nature. Cursed from birth. A man, if you can call him that, whom God Himself has turned His back upon". Will is horrified by Mendez's outburst and asks him why he'd be so mean and say that, to which he responds; "because you believe it!" 

Mr Mendez doesn't stop there, he wants to make a point by saying; “If you could only see the beauty that comes from ashes.” 

He goes on to show Will how each person in his circus had once wallowed in ashes too, but their beauty had come out of it. There was an old man who was once a homeless beggar, another man who was an alcoholic and a drunken bar fighter and a woman who was once a prostitute, but now they were all stars of the show in their own unique ways! All 3 of them had lived very tough sad tragic lives, with many struggles, but Mendez had rescued them and now they were using their past weaknesses for the good of the circus. Now, they were all smiling and dancing, by bringing beauty, color and life into the lifeless desert! 

As a response, Will says, "but they're different from me!" "They're not me!" "My obstacles are harder!" "My Life is harder." "My temptations are worse"

Mr Mendez responds with some amazing words: "yes, you do have an advantage! The greater the struggle, the more glorious the triumph" 

This group had been carrying Will from the minute he joined the Butterfly Circus. Feeding him, carrying him and helping him. Then one day, they were all chilling around this pond, having fun. Will falls over on the rocks and Mr Mendez refuses help him up. He tells him he can do it, and walks away. He struggles and manages, with great effort, to get up. He's so excited, but no one notices! As he presses on, he falls into the pond and no one is there to save him. He starts sinking, but in that moment, in his desperation and in his struggle, Will discovered he wasn't helpless, he could float, he could swim.

At that moment, Will found his "beauty that comes from ashes". At that moment, the words, "the greater the struggle, the more glorious the triumph" came to life! He became the greatest act, the main act, of the Butterfly Circus; they would hoist him up 50 feet into the air and he would free-fall into a tiny pool. The crowd would go wild and people everywhere were inspired by Will and his act of bravery.

Isn't this what Jesus is doing with us? He hasn't forgotten about us, he sees us struggling, he sees us being rejected, he sees us being tempted, and he sees us being knocked down. Jesus sees it, but he gives us a new chance and a new life. He does this time and time again. He knows life isn't easy. He knows life is hard. He knows some people in this life have it a lot harder than other people. Jesus knows this and He gives us hope.

Jesus turned everything around and upside down. The Kingdom of God, the gospel, contradicts the message of the world. This world is all about promoting and glamorizing the rich, strong and powerful; this world is also about degrading those who are poor, homeless, weak and prisoners. This world loves to kick people in the guts who are already down. That's what the world did to Will. Jesus came into our world and didn't forget about those suffering and struggling. He came into our world and told those who are weak, sinners, prostitutes and prisoners, "you are loved and are vitally important to me and my Kingdom!" 

Jesus said time and time again; "the first shall be last, and the last, first!" Every word Jesus said and every action Jesus did turned things around and upside down! He said, "blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven" Jesus wanted the poor, sick and sinners to know they haven't been forgotten, they are loved and that he is with them. He wanted them to know, His Kingdom is for them!

The Apostle Paul knew this very well, that's why he wrote: And He (Jesus) has said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness." Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. (2 Corinthians 12:9 NASB)

Everything isn't easy. In fact, there are times when nothing seems easy. We live in a messed up world, and everything and everyone seems to be against us. But Jesus gives us hope beyond all hope; He takes us in our struggles and weaknesses and transforms us into someone or something new. "Power is perfected in weakness", Jesus uses and transforms our weaknesses into triumph. It's what he does! It's hard to believe, because this world glorifies pride and strength, but Jesus doesn't look at the world that way, he uses our humility, sicknesses, poverty and weaknesses to transform us and to transform this world. 

I've seen this happen time and time again, and I marvel at seeing the Kingdom of God working in our midst. I constantly see "power perfected in weakness" happen at the shelter, with people experiencing homelessness. I see lives being transformed because they hit rock bottom, and God has used their homelessness, addictions, imprisonment and poverty to touch the lives of others. The truth is; it is often the people who've "been though it" that God uses to touch those suffering.

I also see "power perfected in weakness" in my 10 year old daughter, who has a limb difference herself. Her "special arm" has touched countless souls because she doesn't see her arm as a curse, but as a blessing from God. When kids surround her in a playground, wanting to touch her arm and bombard her with questions, her beautiful response is "God made this way and I can do anything you can do!" 

Nick Vujicic, the actor who plays Will, uses his differences to bless millions of people around the globe. He lives out the message of the film; he doesn't view his weaknesses as a curse, but as something God can use for the good of His Kingdom. He's a Christian, who's an incredibly positive person, motivational speaker and author, who travels all over the world bringing a message of hope. He is truly an inspiration to many!

Paul knew this too and believed what he wrote. He suffered a lot. He was tempted. He had a thorn in his flesh that the Lord would not take away. God knew Paul needed this thorn to live the life God wanted him to live! He faced many hardships, temptations and many people rallied against him and told him he wasn't worthy, but he didn't fall into despair.

No, instead, he cried out triumphantly in Romans 8: Just as it is written, "FOR YOUR SAKE WE ARE BEING PUT TO DEATH ALL DAY LONG; WE WERE CONSIDERED AS SHEEP TO BE SLAUGHTERED." But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. (Romans 8:36-37 NASB)

The reality is, we live in a messed up world. People are going to make us mad. People are going to keep offering us drugs and invite us to drink our lives away. People are going to keep on saying hurtful stuff and they are going to keep on tempting us. People are going to keep on exploiting our weaknesses. That's a fact, that's the truth, we can't escape that. 

So, if we're serious, what do we need to do? We need to cling onto the hope that Jesus gives us; the hope that is found throughout the Bible. What the world exploits, Jesus uses for good! Hope tells us that we can overcome, and more than that, we can become "more than conquerors through Him that loves us." 

Will, the limbless man, wallowed in despair and self pity. He thought he was worthless, he thought couldn't overcome or conquer anything, he thought he was only someone to be mocked and ridiculed in a freak show. He needed to be transformed, he had to believe and walk in the truth that Mr Mendez told him, "the greater the struggle, the more glorious the triumph and he had to discover the beauty that needed to come out of the ashes". 

When Will took these words to heart and lived it, what he become? He triumphed and became "more than a conqueror!" 

As you go out tonight, as you struggle through this messed up world, as you're tempted and mocked and as people try to knock you down, remember this, live in the truth that you are worthy, God uses your weaknesses for good and he wants to make each one of you "more than conquerors!"

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 4/14/15, in response to this question;“Living A Godly Life in a Messed Up World”

"I’m serious about being a Christian, but sometimes it seems like the whole world is working together to take me off my square. At every turn there’s someone making me mad, someone offering me drugs, someone telling me I’ll never make it, or someone backsliding and trying to take me with them. How am I supposed to react to all this? If God wanted me to live such a straight life, why did He put me in the middle of such a messed up world?"

Friday, March 27, 2015

Homeless to Housed! it's a complicated journey...

Cornerstone Community Outreach is a homeless shelter, and it is a very eclectic, busy, hectic and chaotic place! It is raw and we live in the trenches; but we aim to be a place where the disenfranchised, lonely, rejected, forgotten and those who've lost hope will find acceptance, friendship, hope, love and a home with us! 

We have a number of different facilities and programs, where we serve just about every population in modern-day America. It doesn't matter what race, gender, age or sexual preference someone is, we'll take them in, give them a bed, and without bias, we'll offer whatever services we can.

This wide range of folks often includes well over 500 people, who we house, feed and outreach daily. In our cafeteria, all these programs meet and we see hundreds of people come together for nutritious meals, and this is where we see all the eclectic beauty of CCO and Uptown. 

By gazing over the cafeteria, we see a newly homeless single father with his 2 young kids sitting next to a Vietnam veteran who sleeps under a local viaduct and has been homeless for over a decade. On the next table, we see a young Hispanic mother and her 5 children sitting next to a few Congolese men and women speaking French, who had to flee political persecution. As our eyes drift further, we see a lady pushing 80 quietly eating and sitting next to a young couple with their newborn baby, causing us to wonder; "what happened and why?". As our eyes shift from table to table, we see so much eclecticism, and there's no escaping this reality: each table tells it's own unique and gut-wrenching stories of pain, miracles, terror, bravery, compassion and love. 

This wonderful eclectic group, who are united by homelessness and poverty, are assisted in a variety of ways; whether it's jobs, benefits, treatment, NLOB mats, food or something else, our ultimate goal is to help people move out of homelessness and into permanent housing. Our goal is to assist people move toward self-sufficiency. 

Over the past few years, we've played a big part in helping many homeless and chronically homeless people achieve this ultimate goal. They have successfully moved from being homeless to now living in their own apartments. In my personal opinion; this success has been remarkable. This movement has been astonishing, because every person or family experiencing homelessness is different and have their own struggles, personalities, obstacles and goals. We cannot, should not and do not treat everybody exactly the same way.....
  • I'm talking about many men and women who've been existing on the streets and in shelters for over a decade or even decades. 
  • Many of these people struggle with debilitating mental illnesses, devastating addictive personalities, criminal histories, cognitive concerns and major health issues.
  • These men and women often face insurmountable obstacles, making their journeys seem impossible. 
I want to dwell on how we, at Cornerstone, help people successfully move into their own cribs. Whereas no one should be experiencing homelessness in such a wealthy country, I consider these moves "Modern Day miracles". I want to illustrate how we aim to assist people achieve their goals in 5 different ways...

1: We Aim to Treat Everyone Equally, BUT Differently!

I have worked on the front lines for well over a decade and have seen numerous successes, while also observing many failures. While it is essential not to show bias toward certain individuals or to discriminate against others, it is equally important to treat each person we encounter as unique individuals. Every person and family should not be labeled or put into a box, we aim to treat each and every person as the unique individual God created them as! 

I've come to embrace and cling onto 2 catchphrases that do not degrade people! These 2 words are "Housing First" and "Harm Reduction"! I wholeheartedly agree with what these 2 terms stand for; they view everybody as unique, created and loved by God, and possessing an indelible right to be housed and not discriminated against. These catchphrases also respect each individual's dignity, personality, struggles and dreams, while working hard to provide them with a permanent home. The "Housing First" model reverses the usual trend of making sure someone sorts out all their issues before they get an apartment. It takes very vulnerable people off the street and helps place them into their own homes. The "Harm Reduction" model does not call for instant perfection or complete abstinence, but helps individuals reduce the harm they are doing to themselves, others and society. When these 2 models work hand-in-hand, everyone benefits!

2: We Aim to Utilize Efficient and Reliable Tools.

In this line of work, it didn't take me long to discover, technology can either be a wonderful blessing or a wretched curse. Even though we live in this age of instant knowledge, gratification and results, the Internet and smart phones can either take you away, or draw you closer, to the very people we're supposed to be engaging. There are certain computer programs that are mandated by the "powers-that-be", so we have to work out how they won't occupy too much time, control us, lead us in pointless directions or invade people's privacy. We have aimed to work out which technological devices and databases are the most efficient for us and we use them well. It is essential to utilize the technology that creates opportunities for vulnerable people in a quick and workable manner.

Let me give you an example of this process works; Kevin was sleeping outside, I'd given him a NLOB mat and a few other essentials to make an uncomfortable life a little more comfortable. Even though Kevin needed the socks and blankets we gave him, what he really needed was a place to call his own. One day he was standing in front of McDonald's, so I pulled out my iPad, went to a specific and filled out a questionnaire that put him onto a very efficient housing list. A couple other homeless fellas surrounded me and I placed them onto the list as well. The very next day, I received a phone call from a housing locator who was going to help Kevin find an apartment. Using this technological tool not only helped Kevin, it also helped one of the other guys I interviewed too! Today, another veteran is happily housed in his own crib through using these tools! 

3: We Aim to Use Successful and Reliable Resources.

Within the chronically homeless population, stagnation happens because people don't know how to navigate through the complicated maze and cut down all the red tape. Rising out of homelessness is extremely frustrating and hard, so to help people successfully move forward, it is essential to know what to do, where to go and how to make that happen. What is often just minor nuisances for the middle and upper classes, are major challenges for homeless folk. Our job, as caseworkers, is to assist our participants in overcoming these obstacles; it may be finding a mere $15.00 for a birth certificate, giving someone a transit card to get to an appointment, purchasing a pair of steel toe boots for a new job or guiding someone to the right program that will meet their needs. If people are unable to make these things happen, those in need remain stagnant and accomplish very little.

Far too many people come through our doors lacking their basic necessities. A large percentage of those who come to us are without identification, and unfortunately, they often do not have the knowledge or finances to get a new one! This isn't about a lack of willpower in the homeless community, but rather, it's about poverty stricken people trying to navigate through a very complicated and costly system. I've known some chronically homeless people who have lived without these vital documents for decades, making them ineligible for countless opportunities. I am not exaggerating, every year we help hundreds of people obtain their birth certificates and IDs. Without these 2 documents, moving forward is virtually impossible. 

4: We Aim to Network with Faithful and Reliable People.

Another essential tool for successful movement is to actively build relationships with workers from all over the city. No one person or agency can do it all on their own! We all need each other! It is important to know which organizations have proven themselves to people experiencing homelessness, but even more importantly, it is essential to network and collaborate with faithful and reliable people operating on the "front lines". We must choose wisely who to trust and how to work together; I'm speaking about building relationships with people who are like-minded, hard working and have the same passion. It is vitally important to network together with people who deeply love, care and advocate for those marginalized and the "least of these"!

The successful movement we see, could not and would not happen without a few people and agencies coming together for the sake of other people! Outreach workers, case-managers, housing locators and others must all come together and be on the same page. We need them, they need us, and most importantly, our participants need all of us networking and collaborating together! 

We love networking with compassionate ministries like New Life for Old Bags; these wonderful mats that NLOB makes, not only give people sleeping outside more comfort, they help bridge gaps and open doors for new opportunities. When we hand them out, everyone is thankful; it builds trust and then we can move onto helping them with their individual needs. This bridge leads to us to working together with agencies like Heartland Alliance, and this collaboration and networking has ended up with hundreds of homeless individuals and families being assisted with both their housing and health.

5: We Aim to Form Trusting and Respectful Relationships. 

I believe this reason is the most important, if we didn't dwell on this one, the first 4 points should all be rendered absolutely worthless. This is the exact reason we do what we do! It is essential to know people experiencing homelessness in deep and meaningful ways. It is essential to stick by and persevere with our homeless friends. We must be willing to travel through their deepest and darkest valleys with them, so we can also climb mountains with them. This goes far beyond just knowing about their plight, endless needs and where to go for help, we must be willing to create and form lasting and loving relationships and walk down their paths with them, so they will grow to love and trust us! 

In other words; if we're trying to help people experiencing homelessness and they don't know or trust us, all our efforts will be futile. "Street people" and "shelter folk" know the difference between those who truly have their best interests at heart and care about them, compared to those who are just aiming for numbers and a paycheck! They know who talks "down" to them and who respects them equally. This is where we need to ask ourselves hard questions like; "are we willing to crouch down on the cold hard pavement next to someone who is chronically homeless?", "are we willing to visit lonely and marginalized people in hospitals and Nursing Homes?" and "are we willing to keep helping and listening to someone with debilitating PTSD who keeps relapsing or getting into trouble?"

Many homeless people have been viciously stomped on for years; trauma has filled their lives in countless and horrifying ways! They've been the unfortunate recipients of too many broken and false promises by the "powers-that-be", therefore it is essential to be known as a reliable and trustworthy face in their landscapes of hostility and despair! Trust in the homeless community never happens overnight, building a positive reputation takes years. We have to remember; we're entering their world. Homeless folk chat among themselves and drift toward those who don't treat them as inferior, but as equals; as people created and loved by God! As we throw away the stereotypes and labels, we gain positive reputations by treating each and every person as unique individuals! Respect and trust is gained, when we show respect and love to those we're serving.

I want to close with a brief story which sums up what I've been saying; of how a few of us came together and helped a guy named Johnny.  

Johnny has lived outside for almost 40 years. He lives with one of the most devastating disabilities in the 21st century; he cannot read! He can write his name, but he cannot read a single word and that's crippling in modern day America. Johnny hardly ever slept in shelters, so for nearly 4 long decades, he's been sleeping in dumpsters, parks, alleyways and on porches.  

I've personally known Johnny for about 15 years. I've seen him both sick and healthy. I've seen him both drunk and sober. I've seen him very angry, but I've seen him laughing. I've had the honor of giving a spot out of the cold when he's been at the point of hypothermia. I've seen him faithfully going to Church for mass nearly every morning. Over the years, we've given him coats, NLOB mats, gloves, hats, socks, food and other necessities. Johnny trusted me, so one day he told me he was tired of living on the streets and begged me to help him get housed. I spoke to fellow outreach workers and we placed him on a specific housing list. 

His name eventually "came up", and by knowing him quite well, we knew where to find him and give him the good news. Due to his inability to read or comprehend simple instructions, his progress wasn't easy. A few of us from different agencies and churches collaborated together, we walked him through the process by utilizing the right resources, ensuring he made it to appointments and filled out the right documents. We helped him get his ID, social security card and birth certificate. I won't go into all the details, but Johnny's journey was very complicated, heightened by the reality that he needed all of us. Many of us came together for him, went with him all over the city and assisted him in different ways.

Together, we provided hope to a man who cannot read. 
Together, we helped someone who was homeless for almost 4 decades! 
Together, we saw a unique individual, someone who's been marginalized and discriminated against for decades, and let him know that he is loved and adored by God and by those who've stood by him! 
Together, we witnessed the Kingdom of God dwelling in our midst, loving the "least of these" and seeing Johnny being a grateful recipient.
Together, we saw Johnny successfully move out of homelessness.

Very recently, in March 2015, I went with Johnny to a housing appointment, where he signed his lease and got his own key to his very own apartment. I am happy to say, Johnny successfully moved and he happily sleeps in his own bed with a roof over his head. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Does Grace Run Out?

I want to look at Grace through the eyes of one of God's prophets; this prophet knew about His grace, he enjoyed it, hated it, loved it, struggled with it and even became angry over it. This prophet's name was Jonah.

God had seen the state of the city Nineveh, it was troubling Him, so He went to Jonah and told him to go to this wicked city and preach. Jonah doesn't say anything, he just gets up and takes off in the opposite direction. He was so opposed to God's idea, he pays money, jumps on a ship, heading as far away as he can from where God wants him to go. 

While on that ship, a vicious terrifying storm starts! Everyone on it knows it came from something supernatural. They were all in grave danger and the ship was about to tear apart. Meanwhile, Jonah, in his efforts to escape from the presence of God, and in his efforts to escape from the instructions God had given him, had gone into the belly of the ship and fallen asleep. God had stressed him out, by asking him to do something he didn't want to do. I'm sure that jumping on that ship was a relief, it enabled Jonah to chill out a little, because in his mind he thought he'd got away from the task God had told him to do! At that moment, he thought he could hide from God, he wasn't concerned about the storm or the fatality of the ship, he was concerned about only 2 things; getting away from God and ignoring the mission God had given him. 

Meanwhile on the upper deck, they were absolutely terrified, fighting the elements, tossing things overboard, knowing someone had disobeyed their god. Eventually, the captain finds Jonah sleeping. The crew couldn't believe it, how could this man be so calm through such deadly turmoil? They all drew straws, which how they determined who had angered the gods, and Jonah happened to draw the shortest one. Jonah admits to everyone that he ran away from God, and tells them to throw him overboard. The crew protests, they didn't want blood on their hands, but the storm kept getting worse! 

Eventually for the sake of everyone else, they agreed to toss Jonah into the raging waters. God had mercy on those in the ship, by making the waves and wind calm down immediately. Amazed and terrified, all those on the ship convert their allegiance from their gods to Jonah's God. They all started praising and worshipping God!

God didn't forget Jonah and had mercy on him. He didn't let him drown. God sent a huge fish that swallowed him whole.  For 3 days and 3 nights Jonah lay in the belly of that fish. Despite many pictures in children's books, where we see Jonah camped around a fire in a huge whale, I'm sure those 3 days were torturous. As he lay in there suffering, cramped and damp, Jonah called out to God. His prayer revealed that he was crying from the abyss, he was begging for His forgiveness and mercy. Jonah tells God he'll do whatever He wants him to do. God heard his cries and had mercy on him once again, making the fish vomit him up on to dry land.

God spoke Jonah once again; He told him to get up, go to Nineveh and preach! This time he obeyed, went in the right direction and did exactly what God told him to do. He entered this great city and told them, "in 40 days, your city will be overthrown!" They heard Jonah and believed his words were from God, they repented and had a citywide fast, saying "maybe God will hear our cries, see our fasting, turn from His anger and have compassion on us." 

As a result, Jonah 3:10 proclaims, "God saw what they had done, that they had turned away from their evil lives. He did change his mind about them. What he said he would do to them he didn’t do." (MSG)

You'd think everyone would be happy, Jonah had received God's grace, God had given him a second chance! Now God had also given this violent, wicked city another chance. They had repented, changed their evil ways and God had compassion on them. This should be a reason to celebrate, people who had done evil, were violent and deserved punishment, had changed and now were also recipients of the amazing grace and mercy of God.

Not everyone was happy with God's display of grace, we read; "Jonah was furious. He lost his temper. He yelled at GOD, “ GOD! I knew it—when I was back home, I knew this was going to happen! That’s why I ran off to Tarshish! I knew you were sheer grace and mercy, not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness!" (Jonah 4:1-2 MSG)

Jonah knew the nature and character of God. Jonah knew God's heart. God was too compassionate and loving for Jonah's liking. Listen to why he ran east and threw his tantrum again; "I knew you were sheer grace and mercy, not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness." Jonah was furious that God had showed grace and mercy to a group of people he thought deserved to be obliterated out of existence. The Ninevites had an awful reputation; they were violent, oppressive and had treated Jonah's people bad. He didn't like them and he wanted them gone. He wanted vengeance; but he knew God as Someone who loves to forgive! Jonah wanted God to violently fulfill His Word, he didn't want God to change His mind, forgive his enemies and be compassionate to them! He didn't want them to receive God's grace!

We can often be like Jonah too, can't we? We willingly accept God's grace, mercy and compassion in our lives, but we want God's vengeance to zap certain folks who irk us. 

Yet, there's also many of us, who struggle to accept God's grace in our own lives. We know what we've done, we know our thoughts, we think we've been too bad, too wicked and too violent. We can't understand how God could ever forgive us, and let alone, gift us with things we don't deserve.

This word grace is powerful and mysterious; it excites people, but at the same time, it frightens us. It doesn't make sense. It contradicts. It goes against all our first instincts for vengeance, justice, punishment and safety. While it makes people overjoyed, grace also makes us downright mad! We don't understand it! Grace challenges us to view things in a new perspective.

Recently, I was speaking with Michael, a homeless veteran and someone I've known through CCO for over 10 years. I know this man's reputation and intensity; he's given me several headaches, but on this particular day he opened up with tears in his eyes and with all the regret in the world. He cried, "you don't know what I've done. I'm not a good person, God can't forgive a person like me!" He remembered his days, fighting in Vietnam; "you don't know what I did when I was overseas, it was bad, it was nasty, how could God forgive someone like me?" Then Michael went on to talk about how he'd been in and out of prison for years, his violent tendencies, his life as a gangbanger, a drug dealer, a drinker and a crack smoker. He just kept on crying, "I've done too much; God can't forgive someone like me!" 

What Michael was telling himself was a lie! God's grace and forgiveness is never ending. It's always there; always available! The story of Jonah, the gospels and the whole biblical narrative reveal God as Someone who loves to forgive and set people free!

Michael, just like the people of Nineveh, has come to the place where God needs us all to be. Michael, like Jonah and the Ninevites, is begging for God's grace and forgiveness from the pit of despair. We need to come to God just like the tax-collector Jesus spoke about; this man couldn't look to the heavens, beat his chest in despair and prayed, "Lord, have mercy on me a sinner!" Jesus made it very clear, that this repentant sinner, and not the self-righteous Pharisee, was deemed righteous by our Loving God.

God out of His love says to us, along with Michael, the Ninevites and Jonah; "yeah; you're right! You don't deserve My grace, you've upset me and you've done a lot of things wrong; but I forgive you and give you gifts anyway!" This is what the Grace of God is, this is what the Kingdom of God is, it is Jesus showering sinners and those who are rejected with "unmerited favor". In other words, we don't deserve God's mercy, love and forgiveness, but He gives them to us anyway. Even though we should be punished, God showers us with His gifts.

The story of Jonah didn't end there, it gets even stranger. Even though Jonah knew God's character and that He loves to shower people with His grace and compassion, he remained furious. He was so mad, he blurted out to God; “So, GOD, if you won’t kill them, kill me! I’m better off dead!” This bitterness helps us understand how Jonah was able to sleep during that vicious storm; he hated these people with a such passion, he'd rather die, than see them live! Jonah decided to sit outside of the city and sulk. He wanted to wait and see if God would bombard Nineveh. He wanted to see a show. He wanted to see his enemies suffer and die.

It was a hot sunny day, so Jonah made a shelter for himself. God saw what he was doing and met with Jonah once again. God, in His mercy and grace, made a tree sprout up to give him shelter from the oppressive heat. Jonah was overjoyed and happy with God's act of kindness; life was looking up again. But that happiness quickly disappeared, because God then sent a worm that killed the tree. He was sitting there without shelter, and a blistering wind and killer heat beat down upon his head, making him feel faint. Jonah couldn't believe it, at that moment his life sucked, nothing was going right, Nineveh was still standing, the show he wanted to watch turned out to be a dud, God was still merciful, so he cried out in despair; "I'm better off dead!" 

God meets Jonah, by saying; “What right do you have to get angry about this tree?” 
Jonah responds, “I got plenty of right. It’s made me angry enough to die!” 

It may seem like God is messing with his prophet, trying to make him snap, trying to make him go up and down like a yo-yo, but He isn't! God uses this tree and worm to teach us all a valuable lesson; a lesson that ignites another display of God's grace. This worm helped Jonah and helps us sees the true heart, grace and compassion of God. I want us to hear how God responds; this verse also shows us His heart, grace and compassion for each and every one of us; no matter who we are and what we've done!

GOD said, “What’s this? How is it that you can change your feelings from pleasure to anger overnight about a mere shade tree that you did nothing to get? You neither planted nor watered it. It grew up one night and died the next night. So, why can’t I likewise change what I feel about Nineveh from anger to pleasure, this big city of more than 120,000 childlike people who don’t yet know right from wrong, to say nothing of all the innocent animals?” (Jonah 4:10-11 MSG)

God is Someone who loves to give people second chances, third chances, fourth chances or even the number Jesus said; "seventy times seven"; it's what God loves to do. He loves to change what He feels from anger to pleasure, from punishment to forgiveness and mercy. He showered this wicked, evil and violent city with His grace. He also gave Jonah multiple chances. He wants and loves to shower us with His grace too! 

Grace is a hard concept to understand or to live by! Jonah understood God's compassion, but it angered him. He didn't want others, people he didn't like, to receive it. God doesn't want us to follow Jonah's example, He calls us to follow the example of Jesus, by loving those who don't deserve it. He calls us to love and have grace on our enemies, the "least of these", foreigners, sinners, outsiders and anyone we come in contact with.

When we deem another person, or group of people, unforgivable, we have to remember, not one of us deserve God's grace! However good or bad we think we've been, one thing is for certain, we don't deserve His grace, but God gives it to us anyway. That's what God does. That's the love of God; a love that's always there and is never ending.

We need to embrace it with open arms, and thank the One who freely gave it!

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 3/17/15, in response to this question;“Does Grace Run Out?”

I don’t know why God would give grace to us if we don’t deserve it, and I basically never feel like I deserve it. 

Does God’s grace ever just run out? 

Will He answer my prayers even though I keep messing up? 

He knows how many times I’ve messed up, and I just keep coming back to Him with a longer and longer rap sheet. 

How can I be sure that God isn’t waiting with a thunderbolt the next time I come to Him after messing up?

Friday, February 6, 2015

Making the Impossible Possible!

When I first came to Chicago about 18 years ago, I got to know this chronically homeless couple who lived in Uptown. At that time, I was helping run a soup kitchen, so every Thursday, Friday and Saturday, this fragile couple would stumble into our cafeteria and eat. They would occasionally sleep at Cornerstone, but most of the time, you'd find them sleeping outside in various uninhabitable places; you could find them either in the park, in abandoned buildings, under a local viaduct or, if it was really cold, I'd find them sleeping in the entrance way of our building.

This couple was out there! They were out there bad! It's hard to describe what I saw every time I bumped into them. They were normally drunk and high, hunched over and looking very sickly. Barely able to move; they would shuffle along with their shopping cart, assisting each other. Due to the harsh reality of their lifestyles, addictions and homelessness, they would rotate in and out of jail, prisons and Emergency Rooms. It was sad and hard to see!

They had a reputation, and it wasn't a good one! People saw them as absolutely hopeless. Their homeless buddies grieved over them. Even the police, who dealt with them a lot, feared they'd die on the streets. They'd been "out there" for well over a decade! As you can imagine; It was hard for me to see any hope for this couple; the bottle, the pipe and so many other things gripped them and they weren't letting go. When we'd talk, I got the impression they didn't seem to have any hope for themselves either. They seemed to have resigned themselves to a life of drinking, drugging and living on the streets.

And then, surprisingly and completely out of the blue, they disappeared from Uptown. No one knew where they'd gone; they just vanished! But a memory of them had remained; where they often slept, they'd etched their names into the wet cement under a local viaduct, so I every time I'd walk to the lake, I was reminded of this quiet fragile couple. I'd pray for them and wondered what had happened to my friends. Were they still alive? Were they still homeless? Were they still drunk? Were they still hustling? Were they still alone? 

To my utter surprise, as quickly as they had vanished from my sight, we were suddenly united again. This time it was through Facebook. I had a friend request, but I didn't recognize her name at first; so we "instant messaged" and quickly realized that I was speaking to the lady who's name I'd seen hundreds of times, etched deeply into the concrete. I couldn't believe it; she and her husband were alive and well in another city. They were successfully housed. They'd been clean and sober for over 5 years and now she actually has a job motivating people to overcome their addictions. I couldn't believe it: What a turnaround! What a miracle! 

These 2 names that had once symbolized so much despair and hopelessness, now symbolize so much grace and hope. Their names and their stories have helped me realize that change is possible, miracles happen and hope is real. When I see their 2 names etched deeply into that concrete, I know God has the power to turn even the most tragic of tales into glorious stories of hope. 

I want to encourage you all tonight! Each and every one of us is fearfully and wonderfully made. God wants the best for us all and loves us all deeply! No matter what we've done, no matter what's been done to us, no matter how bad our reputations may be, God's love is there and the thought of this couple, spurs me on and reminds me of these truths. The thought of this chronically homeless couple teaches me that, God is able to take the worst of all situations and turn it into something wonderful and good! This couple encourages me, because when I encounter hopeless situations today, I know with God, "anything and everything is possible". 

Jesus reminds us that in Luke 18:27: "Things that are impossible with people are possible with God." (NIRV)

We need to believe this and cling on to the forgiveness, grace, mercy and love of Jesus! When Jesus died on that cross, He made radical change possible for anyone and everyone; when Jesus died on that Cross, He made the impossible, possible! it doesn't matter if we're an arrogant crack smoking Wall Street broker, sitting on death row, sleeping under a viaduct or faithfully going to church every Sunday, we all need His salvation, forgiveness and grace. Jesus has made that change possible! 

When I look back at this couple: Everyone, and I mean everyone, including themselves, had given up on them and saw no hope, but God saw potential; God had hope; God still loved them! This is the power of the Cross. He made new Hope possible for this couple, and when they were at their weakest, they accepted His hand, His loving offer, grabbed it, ran with it and haven't let go! 

King David was at a point of despair; he'd done some terrible things. One day, when he was supposed to be at war, he watched this beautiful woman bathe. His life spiraled out of control, as she was married to another man, he lusted over her, used his power to sleep with her, got her pregnant and then used his immense power again to have her husband murdered to hide the pregnancy. After doing all this, he married her! People thought David was a great king, but I'm sure he was racked with terrible guilt and didn't know what to do, so he hid it. David was able to keep the terrible things he'd done hidden from other people, but he couldn't hide them from God. 

God's response is beautiful and gives us hope, He didn't cast David aside, ignore him or kill him. God responded out of love. He met David and didn't forget him. David was disciplined by God, but He also made new opportunities available. Even though David had been very unfaithful, God made a loving decision and to send Nathan, his prophet, to confront him. As a result, David humbled himself, broke down in tears and prayed these powerful words; "God, create a pure heart in me. Give me a new spirit that is faithful to you. Don't send me away from you. Don't take your Holy Spirit away from me. Give me back the joy that comes from being saved by you. Give me a spirit that obeys you. That will keep me going." (Psalm 51:10-12 NIRV) 

God calls us, just like He came to David! He makes the moves, calling us to Him and renewing our Hope. We need to come to Him humbly, just like David did. We need Him, as He will cleanse us and make miracles happen. He renewed David, and gave him another chance. God renewed the couple under the Wilson Viaduct and gave them another chance! If we listen to God and humbly come to Him, He will renew us and give us, yet another chance!  

When I think of King David and his renewed life, when I think of my "once chronically homeless" friends living their renewed lives, hope washes over me as I think of another chronically homeless friend of mine, nicknamed "Red". After decades of sleeping outside, drinking gallons of vodka, riding trains in a drunken state, rotating in and out of Nursing Homes and stumbling half comatose around good ol' Uptown, I got Red into a detox program last Friday. Due to his past, a tainted reputation and countless failures, this may seem like a hopeless, pointless and impossible endeavor, but hope reigns, because Jesus makes the impossible possible! There is still hope for Red, and maybe, just maybe, this will be the time Red clings on and doesn't let go! Maybe, this is the time the impossible becomes possible! That is my prayer! 

When Jesus rose from the grave, the impossible became possible! We must believe in the power of the cross, the power of the resurrection, because no matter what lies you're telling yourselves, no matter what rut you're in, no matter what reputations you've earned, these things do not have the power to keep you down or to keep you from changing. As believers, we are called "New Creations"; the old has gone and the new has come. Jesus died on that Cross, Jesus meets us in our afflictions and in our weakness, so we can start afresh and become new creatures!

As new Creations, we are given promises that we need to grasp onto; promises of change, promises that God won't forsake us, promises that God is with us and will fill us with His Spirit! Listen to one of these promises, found in Romans 8:37; "No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us." (MEV)

Even though we may have been very unfaithful, even though we may get attacked on all sides, even though our reputations may be tainted, there is hope! There is hope, even beyond our wildest imaginations. This verse gives me so much hope, because it's telling me that we can not only conquer our struggles, but we can be "more than conquerors"; this verse speaks of unlimited potential. This verse tells me that God is able to take the most unfaithful person, turn them around and use them, powerfully for His Kingdom.

This promise isn't just empty words. This is the power of the Gospel. This is the power of His Kingdom. These words speak the truth of how God turns things around time and time again. He takes people in their affliction and weaknesses and makes them "more than conquerors". Look at what He did to Moses. Look at what He did to King David after his murderous acts. Look at how He changed the Apostle Paul and look at how he took this chronically homeless couple, hopelessly living under the Wilson Viaduct, and transformed them into motivational speakers, addiction counselors and agents of change.

If God made all of them "more than conquerors", He can also do the same for Red. 
If God made all of them "more than conquerors", He can use us, change us and make us "more than conquerors" also.

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 2/3/15, in response to this question;“Staying Faithful”

How can I stay faithful to my wife, my friends, and to God, when I've never been faithful before? I'm afraid I don't know how.