Sunday, October 23, 2016

Hungry and Thirsty

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied." 

I had to memorize this verse and the rest of the beatitudes when I was a child. What they meant to me 25 to 30 years ago, is so different to my understanding today! 

What were once "feel good" sayings, are now words of inspiration, of encouragement, of conviction and of challange! These beatitudes, are words, that should embrace every millimeter of our lives, not just snippets of it. These are words that bring the Kingdom of God to earth and in our midst! These are words that should embrace the whole Christian community, not just us as individuals. These beatitudes, are words, that should bring us closer to God, words that inspire us to be more like Jesus and to follow His ways!

Jesus embraced all the beatitudes 24/7, with His whole life. These words were lived out, in both word and deed, internally and externally, wherever He went. He brought His Kingdom to earth, and lived out the prayer he taught us to pray, "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is heaven". He calls us to do likewise.

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” 

When I memorized this verse as a child, I thought all it meant was we had to read our bibles, pray, and if we're really good, fast a lot. I also thought it meant being good, by making sure we didn't swear, we listened to the right music and went to Church twice every Sunday. I did all that, apart from fasting, but I didn't feel satisfied, I was disillusioned and felt ripped off. It didn't make sense! I felt frustrated at God.

When Jesus said "blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness", He was challenging and convicting us with something far deeper and life changing. My hope and prayer is to encourage you all this morning. 

The first question I want to ask is; "What does this word righteousness mean?"

When I went to Bible College in New Zealand, I briefly studied Greek, and one of the first things we examined was the meaning of the word "righteousness". The greek word is "dikaiosune", and basically, through looking at this word and the root words we find that righteousness and justice are related and should not be separated. Vines Expository Dictionary describes righteousness as "whatever is right or just in itself, whatever conforms to the revealed will of God." Righteousness is about making what is wrong, right, or making what is unjust, just! 

A second point of clarity about the word "righteousness", it is used differently by different authors in the New Testament. Righteousness in the book of Romans indicates how we were wrong, but God, through His grace, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, has made us right before Him. Matthew, however, uses righteousness in a different way; to him it's our "ethical conduct in keeping with God's will." In other words, Jesus wants us to live by His standard, not our own way, and He clarifies this in Matthew 5:20, by telling His followers, "For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven".  

When Jesus speaks of righteousness here, He is calling us, as believers, as people who've been justified by God, to live a life where we bring heaven to earth. Righteousness is doing what Jesus wants us to do, in the way that He wants us to do it! This means, loving our neighbors, being peacemakers, being meek, being merciful, being pure in heart, being poor in spirit and, of course, following the example of Jesus in what we do and say. 

The second question I want to ask is; "How do we Hunger and Thirst after this Righteousness?" 

In the ancient world and in certain parts of the world today, droughts cause starvation and death. Obviously, in such climates, hunger and thirst are the strongest biological drives for humankind. It's hard for us to understand this concept here in Chicago, because food and water is so readily available. Today, we might say, we need to hunger and thirst after righteousness just like an addict craves after her fix, or an alcoholic needs his alcohol, or some of us need to be online, on our phones or need to watch the next episode of our favorite shows! Jesus is talking about a craving so powerful, it's next to impossible to resist! 

Basically, Jesus is telling us we live in a messed up, unjust, violent world and our strongest cravings should be to right the wrongs around us! We need to represent and imitate Jesus in our midst. We need to bring the values of heaven down to earth, we need to live out His kingdom values here in our neighborhood, we need to be salt and light in our communities and wherever we may roam.

The third question I want to ask is; "How do we live out this verse here in Uptown, in Chicago, today?"

We live in a neighborhood that's hurting. We live in a neighborhood where we witness and know of too many things that are so unfair and unjust. We just need to walk out our doors and see the tents down the street to know that inequality exists. Within our neighborhood, whenever I speak to those who are poor, mentally ill, addicted or have physical disabilities, I mourn over the huge obstacles they face. I listen to their cries for justice! I listen to those who have been oppressed because of their race, and see how they weep over how unjust and unfair things have been and are for them! 

It's sad, but every day, I witness and experience things that are not right! It's not right that my 67 year old friend, who's mentally ill, has cellulitis and is a veteran remains homeless. It's not right, when a few of us at CCO witnessed police taze a young man who wasn't violent and wasn't being a threat. It's not right, when I turn on the TV and see the rich and powerful get away with horrible crimes, while I watch Clarence get tossed in jail for stealing some cough drops. 

It wasn't right, when my friend named Bernard came to see me on Wednesday. I helped him get into a place recently, but on this day, Bernard had tears in his eyes. His 22 year old son was shot and killed in Englewood last Friday. 

All this isn't right! This world isn't fair! This world needs the Kingdom of God to reign right here on earth, right here in Uptown. Uptown needs God's will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven! 

In Luke 4:18-19, Jesus proclaimed his mission, what bringing heaven to earth means; “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lordʼs favor.”

Jesus is calling us to saturate our surroundings with righteousness. Jesus is calling us to fight for those who are weak and poor! He calls us to be salt and light to those around us! Just as Jesus lived out this verse, we need to do likewise.

He calls us to hunger and thirst for the elderly, widows and orphans.
He calls us to hunger and thirst for those who struggle with mentally illnesses.
He calls us to hunger and thirst for those suffering with sicknesses and disabilities.
He calls us to hunger and thirst for those in prison and who continue to suffer because of their past.
He calls us to hunger and thirst for those who are experiencing homelessness. 
He calls us to hunger and thirst for those who suffer because of the color of their skin or because of their gender. 
He calls us to hunger and thirst for those who've been abused, bulled and assaulted
He calls us to hunger and thirst for anyone and everyone who's been brought down by the cruel hand of oppression and injustice! 

Craving for righteousness, doesn't mean we all become activists chanting and waving signs in the street. Craving for righteousness can be loud. It can be quiet. It can be peaceful. It can cause chaos! Craving for righteousness is the desire to love our neighbors as ourselves and trying to bring the ethics of God's loving Kingdom to those around us! 

Craving for righteousness is quietly sitting by a cancer patient. It is changing someone's tire. It is singing songs in a nursing home. It is hugging and listening to a victim of abuse. It is visiting those in prison. It is buying someone a sandwich. It is not abandoning the veteran who suffers with PTSD. It is making every effort to spread the love of Jesus to all we come in contact with. It is bringing the good news of the gospel, even when people try and stop us! 

Loving our neighbors and bringing the gospel into our streets will cause reactions! Jesus broke the rules, He healed people on the Sabbath, He dined with prostitutes and He harshly challenged and rebuked the religious and political leaders of His time. Craving after righteousness attracts haters, it brings about persecution. Let us not forget, craving after righteousness took Jesus to the Cross.

Through my job, I have the privilege of knowing a lot of people in Uptown, and when we talk about Jesus, most of them tell me they love to see Christians uniting together to overcome what's wrong in this world. They want to see us living out the gospel. They want to see us challenge injustices. They want to see us taking risks. I constantly have folks asking me, questioning me, or even thanking me about our role, as Jesus People, in the community! When people see believers coming together to live out the gospel, I've seen even those who've turned their backs on God, glorify Him. I've seen it time and time again! Despite the opposition, when the Church hungers and thirsts after righteousness. God is glorified and people are drawn to Him! 

The fourth and final question I want to ask is; "if we hunger and thirst after righteousness all the time, how will we be satisfied?" 

As with all the beatitudes, the final phrase of the verse carries mystery. How can we always be hungry and always be thirsty, while at the same time, always feel satisfied or filled? It doesn't make sense.

I believe these beatitudes carry the "already, not yet" tension of the Kingdom of God. In eternity, we won't need to hunger and thirst after righteousness, because our God makes all things just and right and we'll be perfectly satisfied. But while we're here on earth, our cravings to overcome the wrongs should never cease, and yet at the same time, Jesus promises us we'll feel satisfied or filled. Jesus lived this way, we should too! 

I would describe it this way; I have the honor of helping homeless men and women get housed. I hunger and thirst that our homeless brothers and sisters overcome whatever barriers stand in the way and successfully move into their own homes. It gives me so much satisfaction and joy when I have the opportunity to take a picture of someone, like our friend Linda, proudly holding her keys! Yet, as much pleasure as it gives me, I know that as soon I finish congratulating them, there's plenty of other folk needing to get off the streets too! Within me stands a tension of mourning and hope, and in that, I'm mysteriously satisfied. 

Sadly, there will always be inequality, violence and unjust laws wherever we go. So when we fight to bring the kingdom of God into our neighborhoods, when we hunger and thirst to bring hope, to bring peace, to bring mercy, to bring love, to bring the gospel and to bring Jesus into our surroundings, Jesus promises us, we will feel satisfied at the same time. 

This beatitude is a mystery that's hard to describe, so I want to close with a story that summarizes what I've been trying to say. This was a time where God taught me about the importance of craving after righteousness. This is also a story where God filled me up when I thought I'd feel empty. 

Years ago, when I was relatively new at CCO and Chris was out of town, I had to run our soup kitchen. It was crowded, there may have been 200 people in our dining room. A group near the front of the line called out to me and snitched on this guy who was pushing in. I approached him and told him he needed to go to the back. He didn't like my request, felt embarrassed and refused to move. When I got persistent, he got irate!

He didn't stop. He followed me around the room. He got in my face, was yelling at me and threatening me. This happened before we all had cell phones, so I approached the front desk and started dialing 911. With the phone against my ear, this guy winds up and punches me twice in the face and runs out the door. 

I was angry. I was embarrassed. I wanted revenge! The room was crowded, and everyone saw it! I couldn't stop, I couldn't run away, people were hungry and needs had to be met, so I went right back to running the program. I suddenly found myself in an awkward position, people were watching me to see how I'd react.

I had onlookers who offered to mess this dude up for me, people who could have and would have done serious damage! On top of this, because of my position and because he was homeless, I had the power where I could have made this man's life a lot harder than it already was! People were watching and wanted to see what I'd do! I had to ask myself, do I seek revenge or do I hunger and thirst after righteousness? 

I knew what Jesus wanted and I knew what I wanted! I wanted revenge! Jesus wants mercy, love and forgiveness, and this was the challenge. I didn't want to see him again, I wanted another staff member to address him, but that didn't happen. It was up to me! Jesus wanted me to be merciful and a peacemaker. He wanted me to face my fears, face this man and restore what was wrong. I couldn't do it on my own, I knew the only way I could do it was through prayer and God using me in my weaknesses. 

It wasn't easy and it took a while. Through prayer and pursuing what was right, our broken relationship was restored. I learnt his name, Clyde and I became friends, I was able to help him with his housing and Darrell and I attended his funeral a few years ago, where we were honored to meet his mother. The fight to right this wrong, gave me this mysterious satisfaction. It filled me up! It gave me hope, because I realized God can use a broken vessel like me to make what seems impossible, become possible. 

Through getting punched by Clyde, God taught me something. He taught me, however weak we may feel, He wants us to hunger and thirst after righteousness, and when we take that risk, He'll strengthen us and use us to bring heaven to earth and to glorify His name.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Uptown's Hope Alley!

When people come to us to stay in our shelter, they are often in a state of desperation; all are homeless and over 80% percent of our residents are without income! They come seeking hope and answers!

When people from the neighborhood come to us for food, clothing and assistance, they are often in need; most are dealing with poverty, food insecurity and limited resources! They come seeking hope and answers!

This week, the people who came into our alley, found hope!
Hundreds of hungry tummies were filled.
Hundreds of tired bones found rest.
Hundreds had showers, got toiletries and fresh clothing.
Hundreds felt safe, found community and ongoing support!

This week, hope reigned, because there were some who were also blessed with keys to their new apartments, symbolizing a long journey of perseverance, through networking, case-working, finances, a whole lot of effort and a ton of love.....

Congratulations Bernard, Cedric, Ali, Tim, Robert, Robyn, Anthony and Greg; for all successfully moving into your own apartments this week! You all did it; Yay!

And isn't this what the Kingdom of God is all about; Jesus calling us to "love our neighbors as ourselves", and "whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me"

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Another Crazy Eclectic Successful Day!

People often ask me what an average day looks like to me, and to be honest, I always struggle to answer that question. Most days are different! Any hope for routine and structure vanishes quickly almost every day. My chaotic job requires me to always be "on my toes" and be ready to respond with the love of Jesus to whatever or whoever comes my way. Despite any lack of normalcy, I actually like the chaos, I like the variety!

Today (Wednesday) built onto an already crazy-filled eclectic week. It was nonstop busy, but great things happened and lives were touched. It was a blessing to have lived it; it was a blessing to see God working. It was also a blessing to see how networking and collaborating together with other people truly helps others successfully move forward. 

The day before, I'd ventured out to find certain people and tell them about appointments they all had. This outreach effort paid off! Even though it was raining this morning, they all came except one, who sadly landed in jail the night before. 3 out of 4 ain't bad, and then unexpectedly, the 2 brothers showed up as well! These appointments were vital, because they were with someone who helps homeless people find suitable housing. The end result was, these 2 brothers should be off the streets and into their own apartment tomorrow. Yay! 

As the "Housing Locator" was meeting with each them individually, I was assisting one of them get her ID. With her boyfriend locked up, she expressed her very real fear of sleeping outside alone, so I called another outreach worker. He had a unit available, so by the end of the day, she got her key and started living in her new crib! 

These 3 individuals, who together, had amassed well over 50 years of homelessness, were suddenly all getting housed within 24 hours! I couldn't believe it! 

As these things happen, there's always random questions and needs being asked and responded too. 2 ladies came to CCO and were trying to secure housing for families experiencing homelessness. As a result, we were able to set up vital meetings, which enabled parents to know their rights as they send their kids to school this year. This is important, as homeless kids in schools need advocates who'll make sure they're given a fair, just and unbiased education.

During lunch, I had to make sure a working freezer was taken to the Gym, where our men sleep. The old one had broken, so today, they got a new one, ensuring what needed to stay frozen, stayed frozen! 

As these things were happening, a mother and her adult son were dropped off to us. This is nothing unusual, but we occasionally get ones which take unexpected turns and call us to be creative. Today was one of those days! We quickly found out that this fella had seizures, short term memory loss and his mom had to administer his medication, resulting in knowing that there was no way he could stay at the Gym. How would he walk those 8 city blocks without getting lost? What if he had a seizure on the steep stairs? How could he administer his meds on time and the right way?

Homelessness never fits into a box!

These 2 had been homeless in Chicago for a couple months. When they were dropped off, no one who'd organized this had revealed their unique circumstances. Unfortunately, this happens too often! People don't know how or won't make the effort to respond to a tricky situation, so they pass them on with smidgens of truth. The mother told us about their sad rugged journey of homelessness in Chicago; how they'd been robbed, ignored, given fake help and false hope, and now, they'd been just passed on, to us. We didn't want to be another place that said "sorry' and pushed them into the dark again. We needed to be creative! We needed to work something out! We had an opportunity to be the light in their dark journey.

Well, we did figure something out and they ended up staying with us! Together! Since they'd been robbed, they needed to start afresh. We began by assisting them with their birth certificates, IDs and transportation. Their Chicago homeless experience started changing today, their worrisome faces transformed into smiles and words of thankfulness. They felt safe, loved and hopeful that successful movement could happen.

Throughout the day, another reason for celebration happened; 3 men got jobs! This is no mean feat in today's climate. Yet, they faced a huge problem, they're all homeless, have no income, were employed in the suburbs and 2 of them needed steel toe boots. They were stuck! They could see the opportunity, but they needed help to reach it!

Obstacles, that seem small to some, are huge when experiencing homelessness!

We had to make this happen! We couldn't squash their hope! Through networking with the Emergency Fund, all 3 men had RTA cards and 2 of them had brand-new steel toe boots within the hour. It's hard to describe the delight these man had, they thought these jobs were just fleeting illusions. They had the guts to ask for help, and we were able to deliver! They were ecstatic, they thanked us empathically for caring and ended up praising Jesus. 

On Wednesdays, I help with dinner. Tonight, as I watched over 200 people peacefully eat a good meal, I saw an eclectic group of people who have been united by poverty and homelessness. It wasn't tense, it was chaotic, it gave me hope....

I watched the mother and her adult son being helped by people who are often rejected and feared; they smile, they eat and know they're safe. I felt at peace too!

I watched the brothers gobble down their food next to their friends; they leave the cafeteria with giant grins on their faces, we joke and they promise me they'll make to their appointment tomorrow, knowing keys are almost in their hands.

I watched the 2 guys, with their new steel toe boots, laughing and joking in line, knowing they got to grab this opportunity; they leave the facility, they both shake my hands, thanking me again for helping make what seemed impossible, possible.

I watched as single women got their trays, sat at tables and enjoyed their steak; as I sat there, I received a text from the outreach worker ensuring me that the lady I'd referred to him in the morning was now placed and safe in her own apartment. This made me smile, I felt peace and I texted him back a big thank you.

I watched as kids played and ate with giant smiles on their faces, making their parents relax and know that love and compassion still shines, even when you find yourself in a situation you never dreamed of being in; as these families left the cafeteria, they still had hope and they were thankful for the roof and food we'd been able to provide.

As I sat there, I was reminded once again of how we bring the compassionate Love of Jesus, His peace and His hope into the lives of so many.

There's no denying, lives were touched today, they're touched every day, and that's why I like to rename the street once known as "blood alley", to the more realistic "Hope Alley". 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Can't Read or Write

We live in a world full of computers, smart phones and countless signs that beckon our approval and need our attention every minute of every day.....

Imagine living in that world, but not being able to read or comprehend what you need to know.
Imagine not being able to read or comprehend instructions, texts or emails.
Imagine not being able to read or comprehend job applications, housing contracts or the countless forms we need to fill out to help us move forward.

There are many people experiencing homelessness who are highly educated, freakishly intelligent, or just have a good ability in being able to read and comprehend whatever is before them. Yet there's another side, a large number of individuals suffer with a crippling reality in today's world; they just can't read, write or comprehend what they see before them! 

By noticing this debilitating disability, I am often weighed down by the shame and agony people feel. I have to assist people read and fill out the simplest forms, and I see how this struggle makes small hurdles enormous. Being unable to read and write makes someone incredibly vulnerable in today's day and age.

Imagine just trying to get your Birth Certificate. Imagine not being able to navigate the Internet to work out how to get it. Imagine not being to read the form. Imagine not being able to fill it out. Imagine not being able to read the directions to the Cook County Clerk to finally get it. Imagine how embarrassed you'd feel having to ask for help to accomplish a task that should be quick and simple.

Even though I witness these realities every day, it shocks me that this issue is often ignored and forgotten among homeless providers. The Housing First model rightly tries to find those who are most vulnerable and get them into housing as soon as possible. It focusses on mental illness, substance abuse, physical disabilities and chronic health problems, but it often ignores those who struggle with a low IQ, are intellectually challenged or have a learning disability.

There are countless reasons adults struggle to read or write, but I do not believe it has to do with laziness. My son, Cyrus, has been diagnosed with dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia and ADHD, resulting in laboring through books, awful spelling and poor results in standardized testing. I tell you this, because Cyrus is smart, artistic and has an extraordinary ability of putting together difficult puzzles. His brain works differently, so he therefore struggles to navigate through our westernized system!

Because of our privilege and Beth's tenacity, Cyrus got the assistance he needed. Reading, spelling and filling out forms will never come easy for him, (other things do and will), but he now has the tools to survive in a world that isn't friendly to those with dyslexia. 

When I have someone in front of me who can't read, write or comprehend, I always think of Cyrus! I'm fully aware that if he didn't have the schooling, resources and opportunities he had, things could have been completely different for him! With his diagnosis, I realize that if he lived in a different location, had endless drama, limited money and a life fill of tragedy, his story would be completely different. Cyrus wouldn't have been someone who couldn't read any word, but he could have been a guy who lived without reading books or fully comprehending signs, forms or instructions. Cyrus, through tutoring and learning various tools, now enjoys slowly reading books like "The Lord of the Rings", something which wouldn't have been possible without the loving help he received and continues to receive.

Being unable to read or write is crippling! It is devastating! It is embarrassing, people facing this often hide their shame and that is why people don't want to reveal their secret. Very few people openly admit to this disability and become very good in hiding their struggles and that is why case-managers need to be alert, attentive and sensitive to this possibility. Noticing illiteracy in people and acting compassionately creates new opportunities and shows them we care and love them.

I could tell many stories of people experiencing homelessness, whose biggest obstacle to successfully moving forward is not being able to read and write. Unfortunately, people end up focusing on other vices, often ignoring or not noticing this one, not knowing that if they don't help in this area, important forms will never be filled out and movement doesn't happen! Even though it's awkward to read things out loud to adults and then help them fill out their forms, it needs to happen, for their sake!

Sidney, (not his real name), had been homeless for decades. When people tried to help him, they focussed on his obvious alcoholism, forgetting his complete inability to write anything except his name. Therefore, he lived all his adult life in Chicago, with no ID, no income, no food stamps, no benefits and no place to call home. He wanted these things, but he was stuck!

Sidney grew up in poverty, his parents died young and ended up homeless as a young teenager. Even if he'd had a stable, supportive background, reading would have been very difficult for Sidney, as he seems developmentally delayed. Even with all odds stacked against him, Sidney knows how to hustle and survive. He had his friends and his church, but he needed one more thing: to get off the streets and into his own crib.

When people started noticing this, reading for him and filling out the forms, good things happened. He was taken to get his ID, his Social Security card, his Birth Certificate and to housing appointments. Without the help he received, this 50 year old man wouldn't have been able to navigate this city, the internet or the forms placed in his hands.

Today, Sidney doesn't live in alleys, under bridges or in abandoned buildings, he lives in his own apartment, thankful that he survived well over thirty winters in this city which isn't friendly to those who can't read or write.  

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Networking And Collaboration!

It's pretty simple and logical: 
If we don't network and collaborate, successful movement quickly becomes stagnant. 
If we don't work with others, positive movement and progress won't happen!
If we don't come together, those who need protection and encouragement will continue to be victims of people's self-centered motives!

We ALL need each other! 
We ALL bring different gifts and talents!
We ALL have resources and assets we can bring to the table!
TOGETHER; good things happen when people unite together and fight for a common cause!

I know most of the people who live in Uptown's Tent Cities. I know them well! I know their drama, their struggles, their addictions, their backgrounds and their failures. I also know their faith, their hopes, their dreams, their successes and how they continually fight to overcome and conquer whatever obstacles stand in the way. 

Just as I needed people to get to where I am today, so does everyone else!
Just as I need people to keep on moving, so does everybody else!
This isn't about the poor being "moochers", this IS about humans needing other humans to survive and move forward. Just as the affluent often take plenty of handouts, loans and inheritances from various acquaintances to go to college, start their own businesses or buy a home, people experiencing homelessness also need others to come together for them. Those doused with privilege always have other privileged people networking and collaborating together for them, so why shouldn't those who are poor and experiencing homelessness receive assistance also?

Don't believe the hype, no one does it on their own! It's a myth that people just need to be motivated enough to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. People who promote and proclaim this, live in denial, because these very people often take advantage of the tons of resources and folks available to them; resources that are often denied or very difficult to get when someone is struggling in poverty. 

Even though everybody needs and uses others, what angers me is that there is a group of callous folks who seem to enjoy coming together to ridicule, humiliate and harass people who live in tents under bridges, live in homeless shelters and basically anyone who doesn't fit into their boxes. They seem to love using their power, privileges and prosperity to stomp on people struggling to rise. They use the Internet, the authorities and other resources to make life so much harder for these poor individuals. Too many folks living in my neighborhood think their properties, their dogs and their views have more value than the human beings living outside their doors on the cold hard pavement!

This negative force is strong, angry and full of hate, and this is one of the reasons why the forces for good need to unite strongly together! The power of love, compassion and hope needs to drown out and shame the power of evil. We live in a society where the rich get richer, the poor get poorer and those in power love to blame those at the bottom. We live in a society that loves to blame the victims, so the love of Jesus, His compassionate actions and the grace of God's Kingdom must be seen and overpower everything else in this neighborhood! Those Jesus calls the "Least of These" need to be recipients of those who are courageous enough to show God's Love.

To see successful movement among those with less privileges, less resources and less assets, people need to rally together with and for them. We will only see those living in homeless shelters, tents under Lake Shore Drive and in uninhabitable places move into housing, when caseworkers, activists, outreach workers, churches, neighbors and so forth come together to make more resources and opportunities happen.

Networking and collaboration must happen and it does happen! It's a powerful force here in Uptown. I've written about how that happens here: ("We Just Can't Do It On Our Own!")
This post is to challenge stereotypes. 
This post is to challenge the lies! 
This post is to challenge how our thinking has been distorted by propaganda. 
This is a post to encourage us to rally together.

Jesus stood up for the victim. Jesus didn't blame the poor. He would never mock those who live in tents. Jesus called his followers to love in both words and deeds, by loving those in prisons, hospitals and shelters. In His mercy and grace, Jesus went beyond and elevated those who society has taken pleasure in degrading and has given them places of honor in His Kingdom. Jesus loved with a love so powerful, that it took Him to the Cross. If we claim to follow Jesus, we need to do likewise.

When Jesus met the needs of the poor, He was hated and ridiculed, but that didn't stop Him. He kept on going and rallied His troops (His disciples) to love the "least of these". There will always be haters when we aim to live like Jesus, therefore we need to rally together with a common cause and goal. The whole New Testament echoes this sentiment....

In John 5, Jesus healed a man who'd been disabled for 38 long years. In summary, this guy wanted to walk again, so every day he waited by this pool that had healing power, but he could never get into the pool when the angel came and stirred up the water. Finally, Jesus came by and healed him, and then, in a sad and predictable turn of events, the elitist thugs of the day didn't celebrate, but bullied and made life difficult for Jesus and this man. 

Not much has changed since then, history repeats itself over and over again, and that's why there's a few lessons we can learn from this story. 
  • We need to keep on fighting when all the odds seem against us. Even though no one seemed to care, this guy somehow made it to that pool every day, seeking hope.
  • This guy could have been healed years earlier if people had rallied together for him and carried him into that pool at the right time. There are always opportunities to help our neighbors.
  • We can't assume there's only one option, we must be open to God's grace and creativity. Jesus didn't help him get into the pool, He used other means, because He had the power to heal him.
  • Even when good happens, there will be opposition and haters, but we must not give in. We must stay connected! We need to keep doing what we know is right! We need to stay focused!
...and this is why we need to network and collaborate together; there's too much hate in this world and it needs the love and compassion of Jesus. 

...and this is why we need to network and collaborate together; in a world that loves to squash the weak, we can give them a chance to rise!

...and this is why we need to network and collaborate together; those who are told there's no hope, will be given hope!

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Living In The Truth (Bridge Message)

Many years ago, I was a taxi-driver. I worked the graveyard shift. It wasn't easy. It quickly became one of the most difficult times of my life. 

I would drive cabs 6 days a week and up to 14 hours a day. What got me wasn't the long hours, it was more about trying to follow Jesus and live the way He wanted me to live, while being surrounded by people who were basically saying "forget that! Have fun! Eat, drink and be merry!" It filled me with jealousy and made me depressed.

It seemed, every night, all I saw or heard were things contrary to how I was trying to live. It seemed that every person who entered my cab loved what they were doing and would shove it down my throat. It seemed that everyone who entered my cab was doing what they were born or destined to do! They had their money, had a free night and they were going to make the most of it!

My evenings normally started with people sitting in my cab and endlessly rambling on about how they were about to fulfill their plans. Plans to party, get drunk, get high, get laid and so forth. As the night moved on, I'd see celebration and laughter if they'd conquered their mission or I'd see anger and tears if they'd failed. The way everyone spoke and acted, it seemed like the whole meaning of life centered around what happened in that night's actions. To them, it was their truth and they loved to tell me all about it.

Imagine hearing and seeing all this for about 70 to 80 hours a week, every single week. It makes you weary. It brings you down! It's tough! It's depressing. It makes you want to forget everything and embrace the same lifestyle.

In reality, I didn't know what was going on these people's lives and hearts, all I saw was a drive and passion to fulfill that night's lusts. I don't know where they stood with God, but I know I was drifting further away from Him and making an effort to distance myself also. I went from wanting what God wanted for me, to conforming to those I came in contact with.

Logic tells us that it shouldn't have been that difficult: I was brought up in a strong Christian family, had graduated from Bible College and had just done some overseas mission, but all that didn't matter, the pressure consumed me and I started believing that gambling, partying, getting drunk, getting high and having sex was what life was all about! I started believing life wasn't about loving Jesus and our neighbors, it was about making ME happy! I strayed from the truth and wanted what I thought they had. I believed the lies. I believed the people who jumped into my cab had the Truth, and I wanted to be set free. 

When I started this job, my initial goal was to be salt and light to all I came in contact with. My cab was going to be my mission field, but it didn't work out that way, I was affected by others far more than I ever affected them. I was overwhelmed. I felt like a lonely sheep surrounded by countless wolves. 

When all we encounter is people who glorify money, sex, alcohol, drugs and power; these things will take us down. We need to realize how weak and fragile we truly are. It took me far too long to realize I had been sucked into believing their passions. It took me far too long to realize I was also too weak to fight it on my own. I was trapped! I was depressed! I needed Someone to rescue me.

Jesus said in John 8:31-32; "If you continue to accept and obey my teaching, you are really my followers. You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."

While driving these taxis I had drifted from this truth; I may not have acted on all these fantasies, but my mind had strayed big time and I was worshiping things other than Jesus. 

When we are coming up against the world, and we are convinced we are in it alone, it's hard to keep fighting, it's hard to find the freedom that Jesus is speaking about. It's easier to go with the crowd. It's hard to go against the flow, it's hard to accept and obey the teachings of Jesus, especially when we think we're fighting the battle alone.

Even the great prophet Elijah sunk into depression because he thought he was the only one, but God assured him, there were 7000 like-minded people in Israel who had the same goals, passions and drive for God as he did. He wasn't alone, and neither are we! In fact, when Elijah cried out to the Lord about feeling alone, God provided him with a faithful companion who would go through his battles with him until the day God took him up to His new Home. God hears our cries and He doesn't want us to be alone, so when He does provide, accept His gift and run with it, just as Elijah did. 

We also need to find people who think like us. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, there'll always be people who'll take us down the wrong path, so we need to carefully choose who we're going spend quality time with. We all need others to lift us up. When I was driving my cab, I had isolated myself, there were like-minded people around, but I wasn't pursuing them. In a way, I pushed them away!

During this time, I sunk really low. There was plenty of internal wailing, feeling sorry for myself and prayers fro deliverance. Even though I pushed God away and had said regrettable words to my Heavenly Father, He didn't forget me. He called out to me and I realized how far I'd drifted from Jesus, and that's when I sought the truth of the gospel again. That's when I realized what a self-centered fool I'd been. That's when I realized again that truth comes through Jesus, and not the lusts and cravings of nihilistic people. 

Knowing it's foolish to want change, but continue living the same way, I made sure I reconnected with people who'd lift me up, encourage me and even rebuke me when necessary. No matter what we're doing, or where we're living, we all need others as we travel along our rocky paths! 

I eventually stopped driving taxis and came back over here to Chicago. It was a hard, but very important decision I had to make, because I knew my weaknesses and I knew that if I wanted to accept and obey the teachings of Jesus and if I wanted the truth to set me free, I needed to be around and among people where we could lift each other up. It wasn't a good longterm solution for me to keep driving cabs, it was too isolating and there were countless temptations every hour of every night. I came to realize that if I wanted to live and work among people, places and things that would bring me down, I needed to surround myself with a good support network, and I knew I had that here in Chicago. 

I learnt this lesson the hard way, we are all going to be around people, places and things that can bring us down. It doesn't matter if we're living on the streets, working in the financial industry, working in a church or anywhere else, we will be tempted to live a lifestyle other than what Jesus wants. So if we want to "run the race with perseverance", we all need to make sacrifices and also surround ourselves with people who will lift us up! 

Paul encourages us with these words; "Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary." (Galatians 6:9)

We all struggle with different temptations, cravings, passions and so forth. We need insight into our weaknesses as we pursue our hopes and dreams. I've always felt that God wanted me to work with and among people struggling with homelessness, addictions and being in prison, but I also learnt that if I wanted to not lose heart, I needed people who are on the same page as me and would lift me up along the way. If we want to "not lose heart in doing good", if we want to "not grow weary", we need to dedicate ourselves to the only One who can set us free and surround ourselves with those who desire the same thing! 

I want to close with a story about someone who dropped by to see us at CCO last week. His name's Lonny.

For years I'd known Lonny as this guy who stumbled around Uptown because of his chronic addiction and homelessness. He was a nice guy, but he always got caught up with the very people, places and things that he should have dodged. Because of this, he remained homeless, inebriated and suffered short and seemingly pointless stints in jail. Lonny had no money, he needed shelter and Uptown was his stomping ground, so it was nearly impossible for him not to be around the very people who offered him a drink, give him a blunt or help make some quick cash.

Then out of the blue, we started seeing a difference! Even though he still lived in the hood and still had to deal with the same crew, things started changing. We'd hear him talk about Jesus, he wasn't walking around the neighborhood with the same old guys and he wasn't tipsy every time we saw him. After years of resistance, Lonny listened, he made up his mind to accept and follow the teachings of Jesus, and we saw the change. We witnessed how the Truth set this man free.

I'm not going to say the battle has been easy for Lonny; but now he has this joy. He hasn't lost heart in doing good. He has stayed on course. He hasn't grown weary. Despite all the obstacles, he has continued to fight and rely on the Lord. He has also connected with folks throughout the city who lift him up and encourage him to keep on pushing forward. The other day, when I spoke to him, he had this massive smile on his face because he had just celebrated a year in his own apartment, a couple years of sobriety and he remains overjoyed of all the Lord has accomplished in his life.

Lonny gives us hope! When I look at him, I see a new man and I see how Jesus wants to set us free! Despite how alone we may feel and despite what our circumstances are, Jesus makes the same offer to each one of us tonight! He wants to set us free! 

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 8/2/16, in response to this question; "Living In The Truth!"
How can I live a truthful life when I’m surrounded by people who don’t believe the truth? How can you be honest when people do not believe the truth, and can’t be honest with themselves?

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Don't Limit God!

I have chosen to speak about the prophet Elisha, because, just like us, he could look around and see so much suffering, violence and poverty. I have chosen Elisha because he didn't fall into depression because of what he saw, instead he brought light and good news into his neighborhood. I have chosen Elisha, because his story encourages us to live out the words found in Romans 8:36-37; "'For your sake we are being killed all day long: we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered!' No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us."

Elisha was someone who wasn't swayed or controlled by the "powers that be". He submitted to the politics of God, rather than the politics of people. Elisha, as we shall see, "walked the walk", was known as the "man of God" and was compassionate and loving to those who were weak and suffering.

Elisha inspires me, because he took what God gave him and he ran with it! Fully! He didn't slow down. He didn't let up! He stayed on course and made it to the finish line! The life of Elisha inspires us to do likewise; his life encourages us to take what God has given us, however big or small, and run with it with the same energy and spirit as this man of God! Elisha brought good news and hope into a very bleak and depressing era.

I want to look at 4 ways Elisha teaches us not to put limits on what God can do through us. I want to look at how Elisha inspires us to bring the good news into our community and to those around us.

Firstly: Don't Limit what God can do in you! 
Don't Settle! Don't quit! Run with perseverance! 

Elisha refused to settle! He wanted whatever he could get from God, and he didn't stop until he got it. 

When Elisha was the servant of Elijah, he knew his master had something special. Elisha wanted what Elijah had. He didn't want to settle. He didn't want to be just another prophet! He wanted God to move through him and use him mightily as well.

One day, Elisha found out that Elijah was going to be taken from him, so he made up his mind that he was going to follow him until the very end; nothing would stop him! These 2 prophets go on a very long walk and on 3 different occasions, in different locations, both Elijah and then some local prophets encourage Elisha to stop. 

But each time, Elisha makes it blatantly clear that "as long as Elijah lives, he won't leave him." 

Finally they arrive at the Jordan river, Elijah uses his cloak to divide the water and they walk over on dry ground. Knowing his young follower won't depart from him, he asks him, "what I shall do for you before I am taken from you?" Elisha replies with these courageous words, "Please, let a double portion of your spirit be upon me." 

Elisha was persistent! He could have given up each time Elijah or the prophets suggested he stop, but he'd seen how God had used Elijah and he wanted what he had, he wanted God's spirit to flood him too. He kept going and followed him to the end. He endured, and finally, he watched as this chariot of fire came down from heaven in a whirlwind, picked Elijah up and took him away!

Elisha may have lost his mentor and hero that day, but he inherited 2 things: Elijah's cloak and a double portion of his spirit! 

Elisha made a decision! He refused to settle. He didn't want to limit what God could do in him. He could have just chilled out with all the other prophets, but instead, he grabbed the opportunity he had, he followed and gained what he could from Israel's greatest and most feared prophet. 

As a result of this persistence, Elisha's remarkable journey truly started. He lived a wild, crazy and godly life, and he refused to quit his whole life. Through the power of God, he was able to divide the Jordan river and walk across on dry land, he cured toxic food so people in a town wouldn't get sick and die, he raised a dead little boy back to life and saved Israel from invaders on many occasions.

His impact even lasted beyond his death. Elisha had been laid in a tomb, and one day, some people threw a dead body into his tomb and this body touched the bones of Elisha, and this man sprung back to life. 

Elisha teaches us to be open to the moving of God's spirit within us all. We all have different gifts and talents, but Jesus calls us to use what we've been given, however big or small, to bring the good news of the gospel to those around us. He teaches us, that when we don't limit what God can do in and through us, He will take us on a remarkable journey. 

God wants us to pursue Him. He wants us to take risks. He wants us to look foolish. He wants to use our weaknesses for His glory. He wants us to keep pushing and He wants to take us beyond what we can ever imagine! He wants us to become "more than conquerors through Him who loved us" 

Elisha refused to quit, and that leads us to a second lesson....

Don't Limit God's Mercy! 
We need to See the Need and Act! 

Elisha was open to doing things that may have seemed pointless and insignificant. Elisha teaches us that nothing is too small or meaningless for those living in His Kingdom. He also teaches us; nothing was too big for him either! Don't be too proud to help. Be humble enough not to be limited.

Even though Elisha was famous, he didn't limit himself. He saw the need and acted in love! He helped individuals. He helped communities. He helped towns. He helped countries. Nothing was too small or menial for him, nothing was too big. He was adaptable, he saw the need, had compassion and helped whoever stood before him. 

One day, a man was chopping down trees with an ax, the ax-head flew off the handle into the bottom of the river. This man was very distressed because he had borrowed it. This may have seemed small and insignificant compared to things like the wars and poverty at the time, but to Elisha, it wasn't! This man's distress was important to him; he wanted peace between the owner and the borrower, so he threw a stick to where the ax-head had sunk and suddenly it began to float. Peace was restored.

We all know about the troubles in Flint, Michigan. Elisha came across a town with a similar problem. This town had polluted water that was making people sick. He didn't think this was insignificant, and because he had power to make things right, he met the need. He threw salt into the water and it became clean and healthy. 

Elisha cared and loved his neighbors! Stinky polluted water and a lost ax-head were important to him. He could have ignored them both. He could have thought helping such people was beneath him, but he put aside all pride and used what God had given him to help those in need. 

I've noticed, while working at CCO, that the seemingly small menial tasks, are vitally important and can have lasting affects. Giving someone a pair of socks or helping someone get their birth certificate can truly change someone's life for the good. Elisha teaches us that being faithful in small tasks can have eternal value! 

Elisha didn't limit what God could do in and through him, he also didn't limit himself to only certain tasks, and now we'll look at another lesson Elisha teaches us....

Don't Limit God's Grace! 
He calls us to open our arms and hearts to those around us!

Elisha was open to love as God loves; he loved others, by not conforming to the politics and patterns of this world. 

We tend to put God in a box. We often believe God thinks exactly like us. We tend to think God only loves those we love! Elisha was flexible enough to see that God doesn't conform to our prejudices and biases. God's politics are vastly different to the politics of people! 

Jesus only spoke about Elisha once; in Luke 4:27, we read: “there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian."

Naaman was a very powerful, wealthy and respected man. He was a foreigner. He was a commander in the Syrian army, who were feared enemies of Israel. Naaman also had at least one Israelite slave. Yet, even though he had all this power and prestige, he was inflicted with leprosy. In other words, he was a very powerful man, who had a very obvious and isolating sickness. 

I don't have time to go through all the twists and turns of this story, but basically, through advice from his young Jewish slave girl, this proud man finds Elisha, goes through a humbling process, and is eventually healed. It's important to note; Elisha refuses to take any of Naaman's wealth and Naaman ends up becoming a dedicated follower of God. 

Nothing is normal about the healing of Naaman. God's way are not our ways. God's politics are not our politics. God's wealth is different from our wealth. God used the faith and courage of a little slave girl, the guts of a few servants and the extraordinary fearlessness and faith of Elisha to humble and heal a proud foreign enemy. Elisha could have refused to heal him, he could have taken his money or he could have executed judgment on Naaman for being different, but he didn't, he loved him and chose peace. As a result, the glory of God shone brightly among the nations that day! 

When Jesus spoke of this story, those listening got so mad, that they tried to throw him off a cliff. With that brief statement, Jesus infuriated the crowd. Those around Him wanted God's love to be exclusive! They didn't want a foreigner, someone who looked different and worshiped a different god, to receive God's mercy. Jesus was telling them that He cannot and should not be put in box. God's love extends to our enemies, those we disagree with and even those who may enslave us. God's love cannot be paid for or contained. God's love is creative and is there for anyone willing to take it.

Elisha and Naaman challenge us to look beyond all our preconceived ideas and prejudices. God loves those who we may struggle with and He calls us to love them too! The Jewish crowd wanted to throw Jesus off a cliff because Jesus pointed out how God loved and healed a foreign enemy of theirs. 

If we don't want to be like that crowd, we need to love as Jesus and Elisha did. We need to ask ourselves; are we willing to love those who are homeless or are gang members? How about those who are addicted to drugs, part of the LGBT community or have been in prison? Are we willing to love those who make our lives harder or who oppress us? Jesus calls us to love our enemies. Jesus calls us to love those who are vastly different from us. 

Finally, Elisha teaches us another lesson....

Don't Limit God's Power! 
We need to Pray that our eyes will be open to what's really going on!

Elisha saw things through the eyes of God! Just like Elisha, we also need to view the world through God's eyes and not through our own tainted lens. 

God had given Elisha insight into what Israel's warring enemies had planned. As a result, Israel was always one step ahead, and therefore, protected from their enemy. Knowing this, one king got very mad and wanted to kill him. So he sent his army and they surrounded the city with soldiers, horses and chariots. The people were obviously terrified and a servant came to Elisha. Then we read in 2 Kings 6:16-17..... 

“Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” 
Elisha prayed, “Lord, open my servant’s eyes so that he can see.” Then the Lord opened his eyes. Elisha’s servant looked up and saw the hills. He saw that Elisha was surrounded by horses and chariots made of fire.

Miracle after miracle happened that day, the invading army went blind and Elisha led them to the King of Israel. This king asks Elisha if he should slaughter them, but Elisha says "no, feed them instead!" The end result wasn't bloodshed, but a time of peace between the 2 nations! 

Elisha was able to see what no one else could see. He teaches us that when our eyes are open to God, we are able to see more options. We're able to see that we are not fighting our battles alone. God is with us! He is with us, strengthening us on our journeys. He does not leave us to struggle alone. 

When we're open to seeing things through God's eyes, we realize that our battles aren't as big or as daunting as they may seem! God loves us and has our backs!

Time and time again, I've been in situations at CCO where my fears have skyrocketed, the task ahead seems too big, the tension seems too high and everything seems too overwhelming. In those times, I want to run away or do something rash, but when I pray like Elisha did and view things through the eyes of God, the task ahead doesn't seem so daunting. When I submit to my own ways, I'm often motivated by revenge, retaliation and indifference, but when I submit to God's ways, I am motivated by love, peace and forgiveness. 

Jesus promises us that He will use our weaknesses for our good. He promises us that nothing can separate us from God's love. He also promises us that we can be more than conquerors in Christ Jesus. It's hard to believe these promises when we look at things through our own lens. When we take our eyes off ourselves, and look at things through God's eyes, hope is restored and peace is attainable!

When I lose hope, I'm reminded of a couple that used to live under the Wilson viaduct. They drunk, they smoked crack, they prostituted, they rotated in and out of jail and were both very sick. People throughout Uptown saw them as the "poorest of the poor", the "worst of the worst', and the "least of the least". No one saw any hope for them. 

But God hadn't given up on them and this couple possessed a glimmer of hope. That glimmer turned into a bright light of hope! They refused to limit what God could in their lives! They didn't settle. They started viewing things through the eyes of Jesus, knowing that they could be "more than conquerors" too. 

It's been over 10 years now. This couple is clean, sober and housed. They refused to settle and have overcome countless obstacles. They haven't shied away from whatever task laid before them and they're both very loving and compassionate to those around them.

They are "more than conquerors", God turned a hopeless situation into something that now brings glory to Him. They now bring love, hope and restoration to those struggling with addiction and homelessness. This couple testifies to the power of Jesus, and His ability to bring good news and light out of such a dark and dismal setting. This couple is living proof that Jesus is in the business of making His followers over-comers and "more than conquerors".

I know Elisha seems too big and unattainable, because he did supernatural things in a time of suffering. But God isn't calling us to do exactly what he did, He calls us to use what we have, however big or small, to bring the good news and the love of Jesus into our neighborhood. Romans 8 reminds us that we can never be separated from God's love and that, we too, are "more than conquerors" in Christ Jesus.

Just like Elisha, and just like this couple, we need to believe that God will take us, however small or weak we may feel, beyond our wildest imaginations. God wants us to move forward. He doesn't want us to become stagnant. He wants us to do whatever tasks stand before us, however big or small. He wants us to love and assist whoever stands before us, even our worst enemies, and He wants us to view whatever's around us through His loving and compassionate eyes. He wants us to be salt and light in this world.