Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Loving Those On The Margins

Context: This was our message at Titirangi Baptist Church on July 19th: Beth started by telling a story about Denise, reading Luke 8:40-48 and then she gave some thoughts about this lady Jesus healed, who'd been bleeding for 12 years. I concluded by delivering a message about "loving those on the margins"....

If I was able to introduce you to Denise today, you would see a very petite woman in her late 50’s with bright eyes and a wide, welcoming smile. It was my privilege to get to know her earlier this year while she was living at Naomi House, Cornerstone’s homeless shelter for single women.

Denise’s past was filled with a solid and consistent work history. For 30 years she was employed with Illinois Bell, a large phone company. She began in the mail-room and was promoted 12 times. Following Illinois Bell, Denise began working for a moving company, but after 8 years that business relocated to Florida. Denise found herself unemployed and alone. Finding a job proved difficult and she eventually lost her apartment. As she was looking for work, she faced the hardship of being too young for social security benefits, but old enough to experience age discrimination. Denise didn’t know where to turn to for help.

Denise had a storage unit that was about 3 meters by 3 meters. It was located in a large lot, filled with other storage containers, on the far south side of Chicago. The space held all the items from the apartment Denise had lost. And with no immediate solutions, Denise moved into crammed small space. 

Without a heat source and only a few flashlights for light, Denise told me she prayed, read her Bible and cried a river in that storage unit. Keeping clean was a real challenge, and while trying to wash up in the local public bathrooms, she told me she endured people who seemed to fear or despise her. Her former life became utterly lost. 

For three years, and throughout the harsh Chicago winters, Denise stayed in her storage unit and begged God to deliver her. This sweet hard working woman had been forced so far out on the margins that she couldn’t find her way back. 

In a state of utter desperation, while fearing the deadly cold of January, Denise found her way to Cornerstone. It didn't take long, because I am happy to report that Denise has a full-time job working at a domestic violence shelter, she is saving up and looking for a place. She is no longer alone and she is a source of encouragement to everyone around her. She gives God all the glory for bringing her back from the brink. 

Denise’s story reminds me of another woman we find in scripture. They both were pushed to the margins by society and they both serve as examples of God’s absolute unyielding love for those who are often overlooked.... 

Read Luke 8:40-48.....
The woman, even in the jostling noisy crowd, was alone. She was considered unclean and she had lived without the sympathy and understanding of people. She lived without everyday kindness and fellowship. She had spent all she had on cures that never healed, and now she was destitute. She had been broken by harsh judgements and the knowledge that others viewed her as “undeserving” had seeped into her own soul. She began to believe it and lived accordingly. She stumbled along after Jesus, at a safe distance.
Jesus was being hurried to the deathbed of a child. Not just any child, the child of an important and religious man. Everyone felt that this was a worthy mission. Word traveled quickly that this would be no ordinary miracle; this was special, this was a young person with a good name, and therefore, truly a justified miracle. In everyone’s eyes she was deserving of healing and health, after all, she was a little girl. 

Her father, Jairus, a respected leader of the synagogue, had openly begged Jesus to heal his daughter; physically flinging himself at Jesus in a loud and desperate way. His display of faith was so different from the woman’s secret faith. This sick woman was timid and private, but she had faith, and maybe for the first time in a long time, had hope as she watched Jesus. In the rushing moment, in the churning crowd, this marginalized woman took her chance, she crept up behind Him, crouched low and touched His hem. 

She was timid and private in her faith, but Jesus was aware, public, relentless and wielded a love that is beyond all reason; “Who touched me?” It was no mistake. He knew the answer to the question, “who touched me?” The timing even was no mistake. The sweet child, who’s life was slipping away, and this isolated woman, trailing behind and so easily forgotten. She carried her inferiority with her, yet her faith was there too, even while the excited crowd pressed ahead toward the sweet dying youth. The urgency and the worthiness of a miracle for this child was palpable, but Who would stop for the woman hiding on the margins with her shred of faith; grasping and cringing?Jesus!

The noisy parade had come to a halt. The crowd became angry with this pause in the journey, and why shouldn’t they be? They were backing up Jairus, a reputable religious man, who was so desperate to see his daughter's life to be saved from the power of death. 

The procession stopped, because clearly, Jesus wanted this woman noticed. He wanted her faith noticed. He stopped everyone, and frustrated even his own disciples, to question, probe and search. Did the disciples think that this was the moment, the opportunity for Jesus to get his foot in the synagogue door? To get in with the religious leaders? These were not the thoughts in Jesus’ mind; His thoughts were on more important matters, they were on His daughter, trembling there in the dust. Can you imagine the angry or dismissive faces in the crowd, in contrast to the look of love on the face of Jesus? The verse says, “When she realized that she could not remain hidden, she came trembling and fell down before Him.” It is clear that she did not desire attention or feel worthy of the miracle that she sought.

This private woman was intentionally given a very public reception by the Son of God. The crowds were made to stop, see and watch Jesus make a loving spectacle of the shamed and forgotten woman. He turned the attention of everyone on her and lovingly called her "Daughter".

This woman on the road, on the margins of the crowd, she was alone, but only up to the point when Jesus looked at her with compassion and called her "Daughter". No longer was she alone. She was taken into His family in a way that her reach of faith could not have predicted. She was recognized as a beloved daughter, accepted into an eternal family and she was home.

Loving those on the margins:
When I think of Jesus healing the bleeding woman, I am reminded of when we first opened our men's shelter back in 2001; there was this one man who entered our doors who challenged my faith and my love in a brand new way. 

Over the years, there's been many fellas who've challenged me in different ways, but this guy stood out from the rest, which is hard to do in a homeless shelter! I'd seen him before, often wandering around the streets by himself, dumpster diving and being picked on by the public. He was a loner who looked "homeless", had a stench and often didn't know how to look after himself!

In the evenings, when the guys entered the shelter, there was a routine, they were often chatting to their buddies and would sign in for a bed. They'd approach the table, quickly write and sign their first and last names, along with their age, and then hurry to set up their mats for the night. But this guy was different, he'd slowly limp up, get his face really close to the paper and take an eternity to write just the 4 letters of his name: N I C K! That's all he'd write; no age, no last name and often missing the lines.

Nick was his name, and he was alone in this world. I don't know much of his history, but I think he was Polish and Italian, been homeless for many years, had rotten health, bad eyes, an inability to read or write, no money or home and a severe mental illness. Nick's mind was young, he reminded me of a 7 year old boy, trapped in an adult's body. But there was something special Nick did have, he had this beautiful child-like faith; he loved Jesus, believed in Jesus and always wanted to know more. 

We tried to help Nick in many ways, we tried to make him feel part of the Cornerstone family, we tried to make him feel loved and I believe he felt it! I believe he found love, not just with us, but also with those who were homeless with him; who slept on the mats next to him. We all tried to lift him up, and he found love amongst a bunch of people living on the margins. 

Even though Nick felt love with us and we were trying to help him with his ongoing severe health problems, we still live in a cruel world, and due to some "homeless haters" and unfortunate situations, Nick sadly ended up dying under a tree in Uptown. Even though Nick was invisible, alone and marginalized throughout his life and death, we can now rejoice, because I have no doubt, Jesus has lovingly accepted Nick into His eternal family and Kingdom. His pain, suffering and sorrow is no more!

Nick's life and death changed and challenged me in new ways. All homeless folk are marginalized, but there are some who are even more marginalized and Nick was one of those; he was the least of the least, the lowest of the low, the poorest of the poor! He was a modern day outcast. 

When I think of this woman creeping up and touching the fringe of Jesus cloak, I could imagine Nick doing the just the same, wishing to be healed from the many things that plagued him! The crowds would have pushed him aside; they would have told him he was dirty, stinky and wasn't worthy. But just like this woman, Nick had a strong faith and was determined to find healing through Jesus! 

Nick's life and death challenged me to change how I view those around me; to be like Jesus, to follow in His steps! Jesus could have ignored this woman, let her go freely, she was healed, but He didn't, He stopped and focussed all His attention on her! He was busy, He was being told to rush, because He had something very important to do, there was an important person down the road that needed His tender loving care. But He stopped and focussed all His attention on her! He didn't do this to embarrass her, but because He loved her and He wanted her to know of His love, He wanted her to feel that love, He wanted her to feel accepted, He wanted her to know that she was important to Him and His Kingdom! 

We can't let our busyness get in the way of His Kingdom! I've done it too many times! We can't let our friends or the crowds stop us from seeing the needs around us. I've done that too many times too! Jesus stopped and focussed His attention on this marginalized women, why? because she needed Him and He knew it! 

What Jesus did here is a glimpse of how He wants us to live out His Kingdom, that we need to take notice of those around us who are rejected and marginalized! The Kingdom of God calls us to see and love those who the world bullies and ignores. The Kingdom of God doesn't want us to respond to just powerful and rich people like Jairus, the Kingdom of God needs us to respond to those who are weak, fragile, poor and despised; to those quietly hiding in the shadows.

God used the tragic death of Nick to inspire me to notice those in my life who are marginalized and reach out to them. 

In Uptown, where I live, I have people, all day, everyday, coming to me, needing help; as a caseworker and outreach worker, it's part of my job, it's extremely busy! These people are often louder, more confident and eccentric. It's a similar challenge that a teacher has, where certain kids always get their attention and some can easily be forgotten. I constantly have to challenge myself to see past the rowdy ones, the trouble makers and the needy ones, to notice the invisible quiet ones hiding in the corners; they need just as much help, if not more, but are too shy, too afraid and too embarrassed to ask!  

Over the years, I've had many Nick's come into my life and to be brutally honest, it would be easier to ignore them, and too often, I've done just that; ignored them! Despite my selfishness, God constantly reminds me, saying "love your neighbor as yourself, and that person standing over there, in the shadows, on the margins, is your neighbor; go to them!" 

The Kingdom of God is calling us to see those invisible, marginalized and forgotten people in our midst, meet their needs and to love them! Loving the marginalized can actually be energizing, fun and exciting, but it can also be depressing, tedious and difficult. Loving the marginalized also invades our lives; our time, our money. But I believe, when we live out the Kingdom of God, there's a reward, a joy, that comes with the sacrifice. 

Over the past couple of winters, the temperatures in Chicago have been horrifying, with record lows and record snowfalls! Right down our street is a glaring need, there's dozens of people sleeping outside under bridges. Every year, my heart is heavy, because I know all these men and women could get frostbite, get hypothermia or even freeze to death! 

During these past few winters, I've been able to witness and be part of the Kingdom of God moving in our midst; right there in Uptown! Loving people would notice these folk living outside and bring them blankets, tents, sleeping bags, gloves, hand warmers, toe warmers, socks, hats, coats, hot food and hot drinks. We were able to be part of this movement, by bringing many of them out of the cold and offering them a bed and warmth in our CCO cafeteria. 

Not only were people's lives, fingers and toes saved, but they also experienced the love of Jesus. I'd talk to these men and women and they'd share how random strangers would stop and flood them with love; and they'd in turn, thank Jesus for not forgetting them in such a hostile environment.

This reality isn't Auckland's reality; no one is going to freeze to death here. But there are people around us who are depressed, lonely, lacking food, in abusive relationships, bullied and struggling to get around. The needs are numerous here also. Whenever we come down here, I love seeing how people don't forget their neighbors, and reach out to them, by baking biscuits and hot meals for that lonely neighbor, driving that disabled friend to her appointments and visiting that depressed friend who struggles to get out of bed every morning. 

One night, Beth and I had just been sharing at home group and we went to supermarket down in New Lynn. A formerly homeless young man recognized us from TBC and we drove him home. We chatted for a while, he shared about how someone at TBC had taken him in and how he felt the love of Jesus. These actions may seem small and insignificant, but they are huge in the Kingdom of God.

Another guy who challenged my faith and love in a new way was this dude named Walter, he was the grumpiest, most stubborn, most hostile senior citizen I've ever met in my life; and I've met a few! He would swear at you and wanna beat you with his cane for being nice to him, but God reminded me with his still small voice "he has no one, be his friend and love him" Life would have been a lot easier to ignore him, but the Kingdom of God calls to remember lonely grumpy old men like Walter and to love them. I remember driving him to some appointments one day, frustrated by all endless his ranting, hatred and complaining, then all of sudden he surprised me by saying, "thank you Jeremy for being a friend!" I couldn't believe it, those words gave me goosebumps, they gave me joy, and I prayed God would continually speak into this man's heart.

Then I think of Thomas, who is very different from Walter! He is quiet! He is extremely humble and polite! People wouldn't know he existed; he blended into the background and never asked for help. I watched a friend, a coworker, notice this abandoned, lonely Vietnam veteran and take him under his wing! I watched the Kingdom of God in action. Thomas had been homeless for 30 long years. Ignored and forgotten for 30 long years. He'd been invisible in countless shelters and on the streets for 30 long years until he came to Cornerstone and met my friend! This friend knew Thomas needed to get housed, so he figuratively held his hand and took him to countless appointments, which he never would or could have done on his own. The good news is, Thomas was seen and has now moved into his own apartment. 

God doesn't call us to choose between what's comfortable or hard, he calls us to represent His Kingdom here on earth. He calls us to respond when we see the need. He wants us to take leaps of faith and leap into the unknown. He calls us to be strong and courageous. He calls to do all this, but He doesn't leave us alone, no, He's got our backs and He's given us His Holy Spirit to strengthen us, guide us and empower us!

What does Jesus tell us in the book of Matthew: "When we see someone hungry, feed them. When we see someone thirsty, give them a drink. When we see someone homeless, take them in, house them. When we see someone lacking clothes, clothe them. When we know someone's sick, visit them and comfort them. When we know someone's in prison, visit them and write to them."  

We are all called to love our neighbors as ourselves, we all know people who are like this women who crept up and touched the fringe of Jesus cloak and we know people in need, who are marginalized and need to be touched by the love of Jesus. 

As we go into a time of reflection, I encourage you to look around and take notice of your families, communities, work places and schools! Look around and I wanna encourage us all to take a leap of faith, pray for courage and leap into the unknown. I want to encourage us all to think of those neighbors, school mates and friends who would enjoy a hot cooked meal, a shoulder to cry on or someone to drive them to a doctor's appointment. I want to encourage us all to think of people who need a little more love in their lives. I want to encourage us all to not forget about those who live on the margins and to love them with an unconditional love....

Friday, May 8, 2015

Betrayed By A Friend!

It amazes me how often these questions from The Bridge relate directly to something happening in my life at the time. I ended up spending over half my day on Sunday helping a brother out in Cook County Jail. He had overreacted or wrongly reacted to a loved one who had ripped him off, taken advantage of him and played him. He thought he could trust her, but she betrayed him and played him for a fool, so he snapped. 

Unfortunately, I gotta be honest with you; This sort of dilemma happens time and time again at CCO, and it's always hard, very hard, to deal with. People build trust, they become friends and create bonds, only for one of them to end up getting ripped off, and to make it worse, it's often colored by countless lies and endless games! 

I've seen people want to kill or maim each other over this sort of drama. Especially when money's involved, everything starts going crazy. The rage starts, the intensity increases and revenge seems to be the only answer!

When people come to us at CCO, we tell them, never give your PIN numbers to anyone, don't tell others about your money, even people you think you can trust. It's dangerous. It's risky. We also tell them; If you do get ripped off, don't come crying to us. 

We may tell people this, but you know what, it happens anyway, and they come running to us. They're mad, so they want justice, they want vengeance, they want revenge; but because they gave away their info, we or the police, can't do much about it. 

I remember these 2 families that were super tight, they'd known each other for years, brought up in the same neighorhood and were united again at Cornerstone. Everything was cool, they were doing everything together; both good and bad! Then one day, one of the families gives the wife of the other family their Link Card, with specific instructions of what to get at the store. 

That's when the drama started, she didn't come back when she said she would. When she did arrive, there was no money on the card, no money in her hand and no groceries, but she did have glazed eyes and a big elaborate story. She tells everyone how she was robbed in an alley, how her life was in danger and other things. 

From there, everything escalated. These families were yelling and screaming, there was a lot of vulgar language and name calling, the husbands wanted to fight, the kids disappeared, and the wives were egging on their husbands. Thankfully, this conflict didn't go to blows, but they now had a tainted relationship. They wanted us to solve it. They wanted us to miraculously make this money reappear. They wanted us to make this lady say what really went on.

In the past, I used to make a big mistake, I'd try and convince the person playing the games to tell the truth. I'd try to make that person change, but I'd fail repeatedly. I'd push and push, and the more I'd push, the more elaborate their story would end up. I'd see their contradictions, but they'd keep on rolling with their stories. With these 2 families, there was absolutely no way this lady was going to tell the truth, she was not going to admit she'd ripped her friends off. She just kept living in the lie. Only she and God knew what really happened.

Tonight, I want to highlight 3 things I've learnt over the years, when dealing with situations of betrayal like these. 

1: We cannot make others change....

We do not have that power! We cannot control people! People make their own decisions! Sometimes they will listen, but normally, when people have started lying, cheating and scheming, people are going to keep lying, cheating and scheming. Unfortunately, they dig themselves into a deeper, darker hole, and we need to be wise, and make the needed adjustments, so we won't get exploited again.

Let me tell you, and from my experience, it's torture trying to convince those stuck in the lie to step out of the lie and into the truth. I've tried, it just isn't fun. When we think we have the power to change people and they don't change, we're going to feel guilty and defeated. 

It is good to speak truth into people's lives, but it isn't our job to twist people's arms into submission. If we do that, people will often run away. This is a never ending lesson I keep on having to learn time and time again. 

It's like trying to convince an alcoholic to stop drinking, that person knows he needs to stop, but until he's ready, he won't stop drinking. It's the same with players! When we speak the truth and they don't listen, we cannot take it personally and we should not feel guilty, such a burden is too much to carry. And the truth is; they are often hurting themselves far more than they're hurting us. 

We have to remember, we do not have the power to make people change.

2: Let go and let God....

When people won't listen and keep on lying, leave them in God's hands. Pray for them. Let God do His work. 

When a guy comes into our office at CCO and we know he's lying through his teeth. He's telling elaborate story after story, and he's not ready to hear the truth or be real. We know he's lying, in fact, his lies are so bad that you just want to shake him. We got a saying that we frequently use; we simply say, "They're not ready yet" and leave them in God's hands. 

I've busted too much sweat and lost too much sleep over the years trying to change people that aren't ready to be changed. But God tells us, "that's not your job, leave them to me!" God will do his work in his time and at His pace.

The apostle Paul said in Romans 12:18-19If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 

This isn't easy, because when we've been exploited or betrayed, we want the truth, we want justice, we want revenge, and we want it now! But Paul is telling us, "Let go, and Let God!" Let God handle it. Don't end up in prison or hurt, because some fool is playing you. Let God handle it; He knows the truth, he knows what to do, He knows how to handle the situation, He loves you and He loves your friend. He knows what's best and His timing is perfect! 

3: Overcome evil with good....

I know it's not easy to leave people in God's hands. Especially those who are lying in your face and ripping you off. Paul knew this too, when we "let go and let God", what are we supposed to do? Paul doesn't tell us to ignore them, no, instead he tells us something very humbling, he follows his last statement with these 2 verses.... 

On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:20-21 NIV)

Our job isn't to rally up a few friends and a couple of baseball bats, our job isn't to exact revenge, no, our job is to forgive and love! In fact, Paul tells us to surprise them with compassion. Feed them. Give them a drink. Meet their needs. As God does His work, as God works out what's best, our job is to simply shower them with love and compassion. 

I know this doesn't make sense. I know compassion in these situations seems impossible. We want a wrong righted. We want revenge and revenge is sweet, right? But often, what Jesus wants us to do, doesn't make sense! He flips things around. We wanna hurt the fool playing with us, but instead, we're told to show compassion. Paul tells us, "in doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head!" Compassion shocks. Compassion surprises. Compassion changes things. 

As God does His thing, we need to do ours; we need to be compassionate and love our enemies. This is the power of love, this is the power of His kingdom, this is the power of God! Next time someone betrays you, don't end up in jail like my friend did last Sunday, instead, let God do His work, be compassionate to them and overcome evil with good.

In closing, I want to encourage us all with verse 18: If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone, and verse 21: Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. 

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 5/5/15, in response to this question;“Betrayed By A Friend!”

 What should you do if someone that you’ve been friends with betrays you? What do you do when they continue to betray you, even when you help them out, and let them use your credit card, and they lie about using it, but you know they were the last one to have it? What should I do with this person? We’ve been friends for years.

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?"