ATLANTA – I’ve always been intrigued by John 5. It’s the story in which Jesus questions an invalid who had waited 38 years to be healed at the pool of Bethesda.
When the healing waters stirred, it was believed that the first person in the pool would undergo miraculous healing.
I imagine the thoughts that spun through the invalid’s mind when a Jewish rabbi came up to him and asked, “Do you want to get well?”
The man probably wondered, “A question? From a Jewish rabbi?” Why is this well-known rabbi named Jesus even speaking with me?
Rabbis were known for always asking questions. In fact, they often answered questions with more questions.
Why did Jesus have to pose this question to the invalid? Didn’t he see the paralysis, frustration and pain the man had endured for 38 years? His clothes were probably ragged and dirty. No doubt that had body odor. Didn’t Jesus know that all this poor guy wanted was to be healed?
Yet Jesus always starts with trying to understand people – who they are, “where they’re at” to use a popular idiom, and I don’t necessarily mean a physical location like the healing pool at Bethesda.
What would it look like if we started trying to understand “where people are” before we rush to offer to help them?
We see it all the time when we encounter the invalids in our midst. They don’t have to be invalid in terms of economic circumstances. They don’t have to be physically impaired to be paralyzed, blind or lame in some way. Perhaps they’re stunted mentally, spiritually or economically – or a combination of all three. They may be “in the place they’re in” because they’ve made bad decisions. Or perhaps they’re trapped by circumstances over which they have no control. Jesus knows.
Whatever people’s afflictions, some Christians often presume to know best. We know how to fix them, and sometimes with the snap of a finger. We don’t bother to ask questions, or get to know them in a relationship. We know what’s best.
People make assumptions all the time about low-income neighborhoods and the people who live there. I know I have. I’ve assumed I know about the homeless guy panhandling on the street corner. I’ve been so knowledgeable, I’ve been so smug, that I don’t need to ask questions. I’ve struggled hard to overcome that impulse to assume. I’ve struggled to love the person through Jesus’ eyes
What if Christians’ first impulse to help began with asking questions instead of making assumptions? This impulse to act would come with a catch: Sometimes the worst thing you can do is hurl questions. Asking questions can come across as nosy and intrusive. It takes years to earn someone’s respect in order to ask questions. I have made that mistake many times, asking questions before I earned trust and gained respect.
Jesus respected the man at the well – he respected him enough to ask questions.
Questions are good when the timing is right, and you’re with the right people – and part of what we need to do is to have the right physical posture, to be genuinely concerned and willing to listen with your heart.
Oscar Morayu, a pastor from Nairobi Chapel in Kenya, told me that the worst question an American Christian can ask a Kenyan is, “How can I help you?” Because that question assumes that something is wrong, that the person can’t do anything about it, but you know you can.Morayu informs me that when Westerners visit Kenya (and the people do want us to come), he recommends that we hang out and just listen.
I believe that we need to learn the art of questioning. Don’t ask questions to try to fix people or to be known as “the answer person.” Just be someone who tries to understand what’s going on beneath the surface. Assume a posture of humility, compassion and empathy as you listen, and listen closely.
That’s the approach Jesus took with a man who had waited 38 years to be healed at the pool of Bethesda. It’s the same place from where Jesus invites us when we try and help each other in any context.
Sit Through the Pain With Me: A Path to Racial Reconciliation
ATLANTA – Every day we deal with false motives and people with agendas in our urban ministry. One of the most painful realities we deal with is racism. As I facilitate Dignity Serves training, which deals with the best ways of serving one another, we run smack up against unjust structures in our culture.
In three years of sharing the principles of Dignity Serves, I have learned much about race and racism and the loving and appropriate ways to respond. I am still learning.
Two very specific instances stand out in the past three years as we have gone through “lesson four” in the Dignity Serves curriculum.
Both times, friends of color have shared an extreme amount of pain and frustration as members of a minority in a world dominated by one culture.
One sister shared with a group recently about her journey. She has been stereotyped and judged. She has not been heard.
It was a joy to hear this sister tell this to the group of 30 people sitting in a circle. Even more joyful was witnessing her walk across the room to embrace and cry with her friend who has sat with her in her pain and her honesty. It was a beautiful moment.
This friend has chosen time and time again to sit in the uncomfortable conversations around race, racism and privilege. When she shared and her stories become uncomfortable, they did not leave.
The more I dig deeply into this, the more I discover the importance of listening to the pain of others and the hardships they endure as members of a minority in our world. For those who claim racism does not exist and isn’t a factor, I pose this question: Have you ever talked with someone who experiences discrimination? As my friend Ethan wrote recently, “If you think racism doesn’t exist, you’re probably white and have only white friends.”
How do we move past this? How do we heal as a nation? I say we learn the art of “Shiva.” In the Old Testament, when Job was experiencing a tremendous personal loss, he had friends who “sat in the pain with him”.
They didn’t fix things. They didn’t say the pain didn’t exist. They sat and listened. Most important, they loved.
This is why relationships are the first steps to heal this nation. We need to be with people who are different than we are. We must listen to their experiences. We don’t need to “fix” each other. We must learn to be with one another, in community, so the Spirit of Christ can heal us, and prompt us to grow together.
Finally, I firmly believe that we must find commonality through the cross of Christ. When Paul describes the “New Humanity” in Ephesians 2 being formed together from the division between Jews and Gentiles, he talks about the death of Christ brining these people groups together. The cross of Christ is vitally important because it deals with sin conclusively. And sin is what causes divisions amongst us.
Come, let us sit together in each other’s pain and find reconciliation through the cross of Christ.
By Adrienne and Dan Crain
ATLANTA – We love Easter. As followers of Jesus, we love all that it represents. The bunny. The chocolate. The ham. And spring outfits are nice, but what we love about Easter is the Resurrection.
Resurrection means new creation. New creation means new birth. It means the old is now done away with, and now new life is continuously birthed through the power of the Spirit.
Easter dinner for us this year looked different. We live in what is considered an “at-risk” neighborhood. Instead of leaving our neighborhood for Easter we decided, along with some good friends of ours, to stay. We wanted to be with our neighbors on this special day.
We invited neighbors to gather at our house around 4 for a very informal dinner. Promptly at 4, our friends started showing up. And then kids from the neighborhood came. Then many of the young men and women into whom we pour our lives showed up. Next came neighbors who we have been inviting to dinner for two years came. Next thing we knew, there were about 40 people in and around our house. Some were in the yard, jumping on the trampoline. Some were playing corn hole. Wherever they were, they enjoyed really unhealthy food.
Then the highlight: A friend and neighbor who is caught up in the world of selling her body strolled by. We invited her to share some food.
It didn’t hit us until later that night how significant the moment was. Jesus is very clear about welcoming the last, the least and the lost into fellowship. To share food. It was such a joy to welcome this woman into our home for a meal, and to make her feel welcome. What Jesus modeled as table fellowship was becoming a reality.
What a joyful way to celebrate Easter and the Resurrection and new creation, by sharing a meal with this neighbor.
She is a beautiful, and probably a lot younger than she looks. Her role in our neighborhood at this present time is to please men who drive by who willing to pay. Wherever she is on the sidewalk or road, if you look around, you will see her man standing close. He is always watching. Always waiting for her to get in to a car. Always anticipating the money she will hand him when she is done.
When we saw her in our dining room, helping herself to ham, side dishes and a drink, it made our Easter Sunday. Even if she was here for only a minute to fill a plate with food, it was one minute not on the street. She was in a safe place where she was welcomed not because of her body but because she is a woman. A woman who is loved by Jesus.
She isn’t a project. She doesn’t need to be fixed. She has a name and she is our neighbor. And she likes ham. So do we.
Maybe next year she won’t take her food “to go.” Maybe next year we will sit next to her on our couch and we’ll eat ham together. That breaking of bread would surely transform our lives. Maybe her life, too.
Maybe all that God calls us to be as neighbors is walk side by side, to sit side by side, with the people who are right next to us. As friends.
The Gospel of the Kingdom
TGIF Today God Is First Volume 2, by Os Hillman
TGIF Today God Is First Volume 2, by Os Hillman
"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" (Matt 3:2)
God is doing a unique work on the earth today. There are seasons in which the Holy Spirit speaks things to the Church. During one decade it might be a focus on evangelism. During another, it might be a greater awareness of the Holy Spirit. During yet another, it might be a focus on social problems in cities.
Today, God is speaking very clearly to the Church about societal transformation. Fifteen years ago, the idea of a community being totally transformed through the Gospel of Jesus Christ was a foreign concept. However, according to George Otis, Jr, director of the Sentinel Group, there are over 500 communities that are in some form of quantifiable transformation process today.
The defining characteristic of a community that is being transformed is that the socio-economic traits are being positively affected. The crime rate goes down, the economy is improved, and the number of Christians in the city increases, prayer increases, and the city leaders become Christians. It is the manifestation of Deuteronomy 28:13, "The LORD will make you the head, not the tail. If you pay attention to the commands of the LORD your God that I give you this day and carefully follow them, you will always be at the top, never at the bottom."
In order to go beyond the Gospel of Salvation to the Gospel of the Kingdom we must exercise a different level of faith for our communities. Jesus talked about the kingdom of God more than 70 times in the New Testament - much more often than he mentioned salvation. While salvation is part of bringing the kingdom of God on earth, it includes much more.
When the Gospel of the Kingdom comes into a life and a community, everything in its wake is transformed. How might God want you to be the catalyst to bring the entire Gospel of the Kingdom into the lives and communities you are called to influence?
Today God Is First (TGIF) devotional message, Copyright by Os Hillman, Marketplace Leaders.
ATLANTA – February 1, 2004, was a game-changer. That day, God asked me to step down from ministry.
It was my first ministry experience, and it ended badly. Without going into details of the whole experience, on one Sunday three pastors resigned from the church. Their resignation letters were read from the pulpit in the morning service.
I was one of three pastors. I vividly remember sitting in pew beside my future wife, surrounded with students I have loved for almost three years. Tears streamed down my face. How had this happened? I had graduated from one of the best Bible colleges in the country; I had interned at a mega-church with a thriving youth ministry; I had built this small youth ministry to a group that increased fourfold.
At this tearful moment I realized that, after journeying to the depths of my soul for seven years, I needed the ministry more than the ministry needed me. I now what I was struggling with was something called co-dependency. Knowing this allows me to put language to what I struggled with so mightily:
Codependency is defined as, “to be dependent with.” Summed up simply: People (like me) need something from relationships to feel safe in the world.
I needed ministry to feel safe. For me, ministry had defined me. It is what I found validation and acceptance in.
The question becomes, maybe we need _________ more than that _________ needs me?
That Sunday day in February 2004, Jesus called me out of ministry by calling me to Himself.
We all do it. We all find validation and acceptance in things or possessions or people other than Jesus: jobs, cars, clothes, relationships with spouses or “soul mates, children, or friends. What would happen if Jesus decides to strip away these things or people? Would we be able to function if Jesus were to tell us: “Leave everything and follow me”?
A counselor friend, who knows my journey and has spoken into my pain, continues to challenge me to “hold ministry loosely.” Without a continued recognition of my emptiness, I can so quickly succumb to how ministry validates and feeds me.
This is why I love the way Paul opens his letter to the Ephesians. Verse 3-10 contains three long sentences, specifying all that Christ has done for us. His words are:
· “Spiritual blessings in Christ”
· “He chose us in Him”
· “Adoption to sonship”
· “In Him we have redemption“
· “He made known to us”
· “He purposed in Christ”
That’s how Christ defines us. He alone feeds our soul. Not ministry. Not positions. Not relationships.
Nothing external can ever provide that for which our soul longs. That, alone, is Christ. How do you define yourself?
Hope of Dignity Serves
What impact do we hope Dignity Serves makes in someone’s life?
We hope that people feel the call of God to relocate to a neighborhood of distress and join their neighbors in God’s restoration of that place with the gifts of the community.
We hope that people be more attentive to their neighbors right next to them and discover their interests.
We hope that people learn to give and receive with those God has placed around them.
We hope that people be attentive to that homeless person at the gas station and share a meal with them.
We hope food pantries become food co-ops in which community and dignity is created and honored.
We hope churches and ministries stop enabling people in need by continuing to give out handouts that separate and divide the haves and the have-nots.
We hope that short-term missions trip become more about discovery, learning and building relationships rather than giving out underwear to poor third-world children.
We hope that these same short-term missions trips become about partnering together to do development work among the poor involving their assets.
We hope that the homeless person you got to know and share a meal with, that you do the same thing next week and the next and the next.
We hope that when you serve in under resourced neighborhoods you do so on the agenda of the neighbors there and not yours.
We hope that you see the amazing joy of learning the stories of people who come from a different socio-economic background. Once you do it completely changes everything.
We hope that the homeless person you have been getting to know and share a meal with that you allow them to teach, help and pray for you.
We hope you support ministries that have devoted themselves to development work among the poor realizing that this work has a proven track record of improving the well being of any place or person.
We long for the transformation of our own brokenness, the way we see others, the way we listen, the way we neighbor, our own racism, under-resourced neighborhoods and our commitment to God and others.
We hope that people move closer relationally and geographically to people in distress and through Dignified Interdependent relationships begin to do Asset Based Community Development together."
Ultimately we hope for the reconciliation of all things under Jesus.
Come, let us seek God’s peace and prosperity together in the city along the path of Dignified Interdependence as together we redeem the culture of service.
The evangelical church is waking up to the needs of the poor, and this is a very promising change. Since the early 1900s, during what church historians call the “Great Reversal,” mainline conservative churches have been wary of substantial involvement with the poor, or “getting their hands dirty.”
The Great Reversal was a pivotal point, when conservative and liberal theology parted ways about church involvement in social action. Liberals sought to bring the Kingdom of God on Earth through social action. Conservatives recoiled at this new so-called “social gospel” and focused primarily on the world as a fallen place, and getting everyone out of this mess into heaven.
Until this point, the church had been very active in taking care of the poor and vulnerable. In fact, as Rodney Stark writes in his book “The Early Rise of Christianity,” this was the primary path as the early church grew: Believers welcomed the poor and homeless into their churches. When plagues would sweep through cities Christians were the ones who gave up their lives to save those affected.
In the past few decades there has been resurgence within the conservative evangelical Church ranks to care for the poor. Many have realized that the Gospel is not just spiritual or physical. It is both.
Unfortunately the way many churches have responded causes more damage than helping. One such expert on alleviating poverty, Phil Hissom, commented that, in many ways, “The church is not a sleeping giant waking up, but rather a bull in a china cabinet.” Churches are serving the poor, but are doing so on their agenda. This breeds unintended consequences that separate the affluent from the poor.
A verse Polis references often is Proverbs 19:2, “Passion without knowledge is not good, how much more will hasty feet miss the way.”
We should applaud and affirm churches serving the needy. God is at work in people’s hearts in taking care and getting to know people in times of distress. But we need to do so in the best possible way.
Polis has a unique voice in this conversation, particularly though Dignity Serves. We are learning as we go along, allowing the poor to teach and mold us. We have discovered that the poor hold strong perceptions about outside churches and their ministries coming into help. We have asked our friends in distress what they think.
Too often, churches ministering to the needy are amazed at what they see: the homeless who are starving for a meal, how many people show up to eat, or their children running around in diapers. Some Christians will actually invite others to see the poor people and how they live in order to get a proper perspective on how much God has given them. This is a visit to the zoo gone horribly wrong. No one likes to be objectified, so why do we think people in poverty like to be?
So, let me repeat: Let’s affirm and applaud churches that step up to help the poor. But let’s remind our brethren not to miss a relationship built on giving and receiving. As Bob Lupton writes in his book Toxic Charity, “To be a recipient of charity is to sacrifice some of your human dignity.”
Let’s serve people in need but do so in the best possible way. Let’s be involved in their lives but make it clear that we are not there to “solve their issues” but to offer ourselves as friends. We cannot be for someone until we are with them.