Manhattan Storage used to have a large billboard above the New Jersey-bound Holland Tunnel entrance that read something like this “If you store your belongings in New Jersey they will come back Republican.” Those guys at Manhattan Storage make funny billboards.
Well I don’t know about the political whims of storage items, but I do know that environment plays a role in shaping one’s perspective on faith, community, politics, economics, and family. My experience in rural Ohio for the first twenty years of my life helped to shape who I am today through my interactions with family, church, school, and work. Most of my work interactions were linked to family and church, and most of my school interactions were linked to church. So my circle of relational connections from 1975-1995 was probably smaller than the normal middle America young person. On September 5, 2020, it will be 25 years since I have lived in New York City. 5 years in Queens, 18 years in Brooklyn, and the last nearly two years in The Bronx. Nearly 3 years as a single, and now over 22 years as a married man. Living in New York City, actively participating with Urban International Outreach for five years, later with Followers of Jesus School for six years, an active participant for nearly 23 years with Followers of Jesus Mennonite Church in Brooklyn, and now these nearly two years with Believers in Jesus Church here in the Bronx has shaped my relationship with church, my heart, my relations, my view of politics, my view of economics, and my view of family. Let me clarify. The heart is what needs to be changed, and that change happens through Christ’s work and through the Spirit of God. But environment does influence who a person becomes.
Wow. If I’m going to go deep and wide here, this could turn into a book. So I think I’ll just go deep and narrow, if possible. Consider today the importance of the Word of God, that two-edged sword that opens our eyes to what is needed wherever we live. “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” Hebrews 4:12.
Now more than ever, a two-edged sword is needed to pierce through the polarization and extremes of nearly every current issue. From March until August, Covid-19 has taken such an emotional, economic, and physical toll upon the world that we may never actually be the same world again after this passes. Will it pass? My context is the USA, although I do like to follow world news, and here in the USA I have noticed that whatever worldview position one may have had prior to March of 2020, heels dig in and the position gets fortified with all sorts of information and misinformation. We really do need a two-edged sword. What I have seen and experience pre-Covid has made me inwardly groan and sometimes shake my head at the reactions and comments from others who have not experienced or witnessed what I have. So when I say “We” need a double-edged sword, I think “I” need it as much as “we.”
Just take the ongoing brouhaha about masks. Listen, if you want to say “Masks are the new swastika,” and categorically refuse to recognize any potential benefit for wearing masks AND you will not wear them because you are exercising your first amendment rights, you probably need a two-edged sword to break down this position. Just ponder “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” and let the sword do its work. Put the mask on in deference to your neighbor, or in deference to the regulations. I’m sure if I was having open-heart surgery I’d be happy to find out that the surgical team was wearing masks. Yes, there is SOME benefit somewhere, I’m sure. The mask issue is not a violation of your rights or freedoms, and it is not a hill to shed blood on, of that I’m reasonably certain.
But on the other extreme of the mask discussion are the mask shamers who shame people who don’t wear masks and who say that if you don’t wear a mask you may (or will) be responsible for the death of your elderly Grandma or your neighbor’s sick, diabetic son. My neighbor, in his 40’s, was wearing a mask for most of the time I would see him over the last few months. He had a physical a while back and the doctor looked at him with some concern and told him his oxygen level is dangerously low. The doctor told him to stop wearing a mask. This guy is in his 40’s. Listen, if you want to wear a mask, go for it. I’m with you on this one. But for the sake of neighborliness please extend some grace to the ones who don’t want to wear a mask, or cannot wear a mask for health reasons. We really do need a two-edged sword to cut through this. Philippians 2 is a good sharp place to start. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or empty pride, but in humility consider others more important than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus. Philippians 2:4-5
Or how about the racial tensions that have boiled up again across the USA since the death of George Floyd. Listen, if you want to believe and state that there is no such thing as white privilege, and “slavery has been over since the Civil War so we need to stop talking about race,” or “racism does not exist in the USA” you need a two-edged sword. Yes, Acts 17 does say “He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth.” The “from one blood” message has been preached often, and it is true. We are all of one blood. But it is not okay to gloss over the fact that this nation for hundreds of years did not recognize the full humanity of the African slaves, and even after the Civil War an additional one hundred years of Jim Crow went by before civil rights were given to many people of color. So while it sounds nice to say “From one blood he created all men” and use that to try to silence any discussion about race, Christians cannot afford to ignore that the issues still face us in 2020. These issues are more complicated, and more real, than you may think. At least in part, some of the problems facing the black community and other POC in the USA can be traced back to poor government policy, poor choices in policing, and systems of racist ideology and practice that have unfairly treated POC for years. When a secular nation-state allows 250 years of race-profiled slavery, followed by nearly 100 years of reconstruction with racist policies and programs, it is not reasonable to expect a Civil Rights Act to just make it all disappear. Corporate responsibility is at least part of the picture; for the church, corporate prayer, corporate lament, and corporate action are part of the solution. A two-edged sword is needed.
But on the other extreme, if you think that ALL problems facing the black community and other POC are only the result of systemic racism and corporate bloc sin, and are all the direct result of white people’s sins, and there is no need for personal accountability, you need the two-edged sword as well. Burning down buildings and destroying property and beating up police officers will not do anything to heal the nation or resolve the tensions, and it will not transform your heart. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. Who can know it? Jeremiah 17:9” The heart of each person needs to be submitted to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, and through the forgiveness and cleansing brought from Christ, the submitted heart is transformed into a changed life. Sin, both my sin and the sins of others against me, is the root problem here. While you cannot change how others think or what they do, you will be judged by your responses. We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done in the body, whether good or bad. So there is a personal responsibility that needs to be assumed by individuals in this discussion. A two-edged sword is needed. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. I John 1:9”
What I find probably the most troubling in the above two issues—the mask issue and the race relations issue—is that personal rights so often end up being more important than corporate responsibility. Has anyone else noted that almost everywhere reporting is done on the USA’s handling of the Covid-19 mandates, any time a governor is mentioned and that governor’s response, what follows is “a Democrat” or “a Republican,” and then the article continues. For example, the governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf, a Democrat, said….” Or the governor of Texas, a Republican, announced…” Even in policy decisions as important as how to respond to Covid-19, much of the responses and reporting have become political in nature. People respond often out of their personal political leanings, and it doesn’t always seem to line up with any sense of corporate responsibility. Quick note here. I am unimpressed with this whole NY mandate “If you come from these 35 states you need to quarantine for 14 days.” There has definitely been over-reach and politically charged decisions made in this pandemic. Even so, Romans 13 does apply in 2020, however difficult it may seem to live it out. I mean, it says they are God’s ministers to punish those who do wrong, so we should obey them. I’m not sure how that looks when local policy does not permit punishment, but Romans 13 is still real for us today. Here in NY, it seems the local DA is not charging wrong-doers. In July, it took the Feds to arrest and detain members of the Elite Assassin Millas in Brooklyn, a sect of the Bloods who had been openly killing people but not getting charged in NYC. We do need the Word of God, more than ever.
Yes, I am more on the side of wearing masks when asked than I am on the side of the “It’s my choice and I’m not going to do it” crowd. And yes, I believe that black lives matter. I am concerned about the BLM organization and what those founders stand for (for example, the mission statement of the BLM organization is critical of the “western” notion of the nuclear family); however, I believe this is an important moment for the church to seize the opportunity to move towards people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds and different skin color in an effort to build unity. Yes, black lives matter, too. In my opinion, it is not helpful or honest to deny that significant problems still exist in America that can be directly linked to racist policies and systems that were created to push down people of color.
Just because I say black lives matter does not mean I endorse violence or burning cities or vandalism. I belong to a denomination and an alliance of 60 plus churches. Let’s just say that we are not very diverse in our ethnic makeup across our 60+ churches—I don’t have our demographics for sure, but trust me, we are not very diverse. Listen, I know that for the believer in Jesus multiculturalism is not the First Thing. The First Thing is sitting at the feet of Jesus Christ and becoming like him as we surrender to His Lordship and His teachings, walking in the Spirit. But consider this, friends. If our prayer to the Father is, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” do we really mean that? If Revelation 7:9 gives us a picture of heaven, could we pray that this picture of heaven could be lived out more here on earth? Can we at least begin to pray this way? Lord, make me an instrument of your Hand of mercy to bring people of all nations, tribes, people, and languages before your throne here on earth as it is in heaven. Does the most segregated hour in the USA still need to be the Sunday morning service held across this nation?
What shall we do then? For one thing, our conversations about Covid-19 can aim towards productive, positive themes. As much as that sounds impossible, give it a try. You will be amazed. It may even make you laugh! If it be possible, as much as lies in you, live peaceably with all men.
As for the race relations issue? Oh, I better insert something here. Some of my friends say the protests are not about race but are more about anarchy and Marxism and imposing socialist/communist policies on US citizens. We participated in a church-sponsored protest that I really was glad to be a part of, so I believe many of the protests and marches are not oriented towards violence. Yes, there is a real element of anarchy and Marxism in some of the protests, especially the violent ones. I saw the video released by the Chicago police department on July 20, 2020. That was a terrible thing for the “peaceful” protesters to provide cover for violent protesters who intentionally injured 49 police officers, 18 of whom had to go to the hospital. I wish Miracle Boyd hadn’t had her teeth knocked out, but she was a part of organizing that protest, and I hope she didn’t know about the plans of the violent protesters to infiltrate the “peaceful” march there by the Columbus statue. Anyway, back to the race relations issue. So even if some of the riots are more about anarchy and Marxism than about race, cultural humility goes a long way here. If you are a part of the dominant culture in the USA, AND if you believe that the USA is God’s answer for the world, try taking a step back to survey the historical landscape of broken promises and dehumanizing policies the USA implemented over hundreds of years. Remember, we DO NOT HAVE TO BE TRAPPED IN THE PAST, but this country is INFLUENCED BY OUR PAST. The USA has this slogan “Remember the Alamo” in its history, but so many people say “Slavery is over” or “We elected a black president” or “The Civil Rights Bill equalized everything” and they react to any discussion about the negative factors of this nation’s history. In my opinion, it is not race-baiting to take a long look at the history of racism in America and prayerfully ask God to show you and me what we can do to lovingly engage people whose skin color differs from us in meaningful, God-honoring relationship. And if there are recognized injustices, let us not love in word or in tongue, but with actions and in truth! (I John 1:3). The church can and should be the place where true, lasting change happens, and where meaningful, deep relationships develop between people of all ethnic backgrounds.
When Mom died of cancer in February of 2005, it came during a dark, cloudy period of my life. Yes, the day of the funeral had clear blue skies and white, cold snow, but Mom’s passing was tough for all of us.
That year (2005) Sandy and I decided to plant fewer vegetables and go for flowers. We may have had three 7’ x 2’ plots of soil, so 30’ to 40’ square feet of soil. A lot, by urban standards. The beauty of those irises, lilies, hydrangeas, and assorted other flowers transformed our backyard. I think Sabrina Hartlzer may have already been living there—if so she had all sorts of flowers and flower pots. Beauty opens our eyes to see more. And beauty soothes our souls. God is the source of beauty, so ultimately beauty should lead me back to God, right? Not always. If beauty alone did the leading back to God, I’d probably wear make-up, invest in better-looking teeth, and consult a cosmetic surgeon to see if anything could be done about my Miller nose.
Beauty, love, peace, joy, rest. All of these blessings can be enjoyed by Christ-followers, children of God. I noted recently something about flowers and sharing the gospel. A few people commented to me about the flowers. Was there a resistance to linking the good news of Jesus to flowers? Not sure.
Insert story here… During the Syrian siege of Samaria in II Kings 7, we listen in to a conversation between four leprous men in Samaria. They reason amongst themselves that if they stay in the city they will die of starvation. So they decide to head out to the Syrian army and hope they obtain mercy. Well, the Syrian army had “heard” the noise of an approaching army during the night and had fled, leaving horses, tents, and donkeys. These four men found beauty and bounty! They “went into one tent and ate and drank, and carried from it silver and gold and clothing, and went and hid them, and went into another tent, and carried from there also. Then they said to one another, “We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news, and we remain silent. Now therefore, let us go and tell…”
Do these lepers have anything to teach Christ-followers? Yes, walk into the presence of the Lord. Plant those flowers. Discover the extravagant goodness of God. Receive His love, peace, joy, rest. Do you know He loves you?
If I know and experience the authentic, everlasting love of the Father, it leads me to the next step “This day is a day of good news, and we remain silent. Let us go and tell!”
For Christ-followers, open-hearted recognition and experience of God’s extravagant mercy and boundless love should ALWAYS lead his people to go and tell and of the goodness of God.
If we do not tell of God’s love, do we really know His love?
What can flowers teach us? Jesus said we should consider the lilies. They do not toil or spin. Yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?
Ah, so the flowers CAN bring us back to God. Clothed in the righteousness of Christ, we go and tell.
What if the house we are building or fixing up and spending so much time on is going to burn someday anyway?
What if there is a cheaper vacation option to pursue, and we could pass the savings along to help those struggling in the Rohinga refugee camps in Bangladesh?
What if my neighbor dies without Christ this week and I realize I've spent five years planting flowers but never shared the Gospel with her?
What if warming the bench at church was not all God intended for the follower of Christ?
What if saving for retirement is a man-made construct that never shows up in the teachings of Jesus?
What would happen if I truly believed in the power of prayer? And what if I spent more time in prayer than on my phone?
What if every Christ-follower in the USA would ask God to give him/her a friend from a different ethnic and/or socio-economic background this year, and then walk through God's open doors for personal growth and change?
What if, for every believer in Jesus in the USA, denominational affiliation became secondary to radical allegiance to the Life and Teachings of King Jesus?
May our Father in heaven draw your heart and spirit to His heart, in deeper sanctification and holiness.
I noted some days back that I am an ambassador of the Kingdom of Heaven, so I am very politically involved in the Kingdom of God. It is an unshake-able kingdom. A few people said that we need to have more discussion on how that actually plays out in our everyday lives.
For one thing, the news you consume, the books you read, the people with whom you associate, and the media outlets you frequent have the capacity to shape you. Don’t bury your head in the sand, but always consider that the messaging often does not have the agenda of the Kingdom of Heaven.
“Watch out. Beware the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod.” (Mark 8:15). This was a warning of Jesus. Leaven is yeast. Once it enters dough it spreads through the whole dough.
Watch out! Let’s try something with that passage, painting in broad strokes for our day. Watch out!
Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees (the religious right). The elements of the gospel writ large are Law, Holiness, Righteousness, Truth, but they often miss Grace, Mercy, Compassion, and Love. There is not a whole gospel in their news sources. They often provide statistics, facts, clinical analyses of the “news” and circumstances involved, but there is often little heart. You can try to clean the outside of the cup, but the inside is still corrupt. Beware of the leaven of the religious right, who state that all news of any source from the “radical left” is wrong and should never be trusted because of its agenda. So they flock to their own “alternative” news sources, but who on their end have no King but Trump and no Kingdom but the USA. The Kingdom of God lies somewhere below the USA on the priority list. Beware the leaven of the Pharisees. Jesus reserved his harshest words for the Pharisees.
Beware of the leaven of Herod (the radical left). The elements of the gospel writ large are Grace, Mercy, Compassion, and Love, but they often miss Law, Holiness, Righteousness, and Truth. There is not a whole gospel in their news sources. They have preached tolerance and diversity for decades, and in the miasma of teachings have lumped “social justice” into an ever-expanding cadre of oppressed groups: feminists for “reproductive rights” (abortion); LGBTQA+ “rights,” immigration rights, rights of ethnic minorities, and on and on. If someone disagrees with the overall “tolerance” agenda, the radical left will demonize that person or group and exclude them for intolerance, ruining lives with impunity. They are tolerant of all, except for those who do not agree with them. The radical left is not content to address the white privilege in the USA—they want “reproductive rights” and LGBTQA+ rights as well. Beware of the leaven of Herod (the radical left).
If you exclude one whole source of news and information, and only rely on the other, you may become what that other represents. At a foundational level, neither side (radical left or religious right) represents the Kingdom of Heaven.
Keep in step with the Spirit. Christians are called to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. And Christians are certainly called to pray for justice, and to speak and act against injustice. At times this involves communicating with policy-makers and local leaders regarding the changes needed.
Dear friends, let us crucify the flesh with its passions and desires, and by love serve one another.
I think some more discussion could be helpful in this matter.
I am extremely political. Sometimes polarizingly so. My King said, in his first speech in office “"The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel." He has commissioned me to be an ambassador of the Kingdom of God, wherever I go and with whomever I meet. He has blessed this ambassador with the privilege to be born in the USA and live here on American soil. He has instructed me to pray for kings and all those in authority, so that we may live quiet and peaceful lives.
But he has never, ever instructed me to live exclusively for an earthly kingdom, or to die for an earthly kingdom. Respect those in authority? Yes! Honor the leaders? Yes! Pray for them? Absolutely! Give my allegiance to them and the system, heart and soul? No! I have no King but Jesus. When I take up my cross and follow King Jesus, it is for His Kingdom first, no matter where I live and no matter what ruling documents form the basis of that nation-state.
He (God) uncovers deep things out of darkness, And brings the shadow of death to light. He makes nations great, and destroys them; He enlarges nations, and guides them. (Job 12:23).
In the current chaos all across America, I am saddened and disturbed by the destruction, division, and looting. Remember when Jesus said “The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy, but I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full?” (John 10:10). Well, we are seeing the stealing, killing, and destroying and it’s devastating. But I feel no inner compulsion to defend this country, just because I was born and raised here. I have had my skin crawl by reading “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” where leaders lied and broke "treaties," colonists killed Native Americans, destroyed their villages, and stole whatever was left. I have read of the atrocities of this nation against slaves and the subsequent post-civil war policies that continued the offenses, and it hurts me. Art galleries, museums, and wealthy Americans all across the USA "own" artifacts, gold, and silver that was often taken through legalized extortion from people and groups in other regions and from other backgrounds. If it has a "legal" stamp on it, we reason it was not stolen. But art dealers and those dealing in antiquities know that this thievery has happened for decades in America. The Congo has been pillaged of its treasures for centuries in exchange for a pittance, but somehow that is okay and it not considered "looting." I am an ambassador in the Kingdom of God. I feel no inner compulsion to defend a rapacious nation-state in which I live, even if I have been a beneficiary of much of its strengths.
I wince at the language of “burn it to the ground and start over.” That does not make sense from a practical point of view. I certainly can’t put forth a candidate to suggest to lead that new start-up nation with grace and civility. And I can't imagine finding a viable representative group to draft a new constitution that would be accepted by even 60% of the populace.
But I am first a citizen of the Kingdom of God. Kingdom of God (this includes church), family, then country. I am not just a citizen in the kingdom of God; I am an ambassador, which makes me politically engaged.
May God empower His Kingdom ambassadors to be people of active prayer, witnesses for Christ, moving forward with grace, truth, and love. He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love. (Colossians 1:13).
Why are there so many godly people who disagree on Covid-19, ranging from it’s a hoax to it’s for real?
-Experiences, perspective, and conditioning shape our understanding of reality
Why do so many godly people disagree on the underlying causes and issues of ethnic division, or even on the best way forward to unity in Christ?
-Experiences, perspective, and conditioning shape our understanding of reality.
Well, Christians can at least agree that the Bible is God’s Word and is true for our time, right?
Why are you cautious there?
Because even here, the people who taught us and shared with us from the Word of God brought their experiences, perspectives, conditioning and culture into the discussion.
But here I will venture back into reality, unstained and uncluttered from “perspective.” I heard recently from a friend who advised correctly “You can’t write perspective a blank check.” True. Consider Jesus, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Your perspective will not change the reality that Christ died on the cross for the sins of the world. He gave his life as a ransom for many, whether you experienced that or not. All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God. That is also a reality, and your perspective one way or the other will not change that reality. We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due for the things done in the body, whether good or bad. This is reality.
He who knows to do good, and does it not, to him it is sin. Whatever is not of faith is sin. That is reality.
But wait, our minds try to understand what that “do good” really is, and what exactly is “not of faith?” So we are back to experiences, perception, and conditioning that influence our understanding of this reality.
Ah, check this out. A word to those who have given their lives to Jesus. (I Corinthians 2:16) We have the mind of Christ.
Yes! Now there is something solid to lay hold on.
We have the mind of Christ. We reject carnality. All that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, we reject.
Because we have the mind of Christ.
A repentant believer, giving his life to Jesus Christ, invites Christ into His heart to rule, reign, convict, and live. The Holy Spirt of God puts his finger on the areas of sin and self that need to be changed. Every Christ follower is given the opportunity to ask the Holy Spirit to “search me, and know my heart. Try me, and know my thoughts. See if there be any wicked way in me. And lead me in the way everlasting.”
Moment by moment, day by day, week by week, from glory to glory He changes us. Refining, shaping, pruning, challenging, sifting, encouraging, singing over us—all of these loving acts of the Father by His Spirit continue to make us into the image of His Son. Wow. So as we get changed, and put on the mind of Christ, even our perspective and experiences and conditioning are transformed and refined.
Thank you, Jesus.
God created and loves all colors.
Since the video surfaced a few weeks ago of the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery I have been mulling the deep-seated and long-term racial divisions that still exist in the USA. I spent some emotional days thinking through this and trying to put words to my thoughts. It’s tough work. I commented to Sandy a few days ago that entering into any kind of divisive relationship carries with it the dimensions of spiritual warfare. Now, we are reeling from this tragedy of George Floyd’s death, and subsequent rioting, vandalism, and looting. The enemy of our souls, Satan, looks to steal, kill, and destroy. He’s crafty and does this in so many ways. Sometimes it shows up as “Steal our joy, kill our hope, and destroy our unity.” In the area of racial division, especially between black and white Americans, there have been centuries of fractured relationships. Yes, by God’s grace, there have been pockets of scattered togetherness. In Christ, the middle wall of partition is broken down, and He is our peace. Thank God for healing and the breaking down of walls! That said, there is still such a deep need for healing, and there are more walls to be broken down if there is going to be genuine relationship.
Healing. What does it take for a sick nation to be made well? What does it take for a sick soul to be made well? What does it take for a sick church to be made well? Thank God for the salvation found in Christ alone! That is where healing is found. But even in the church of Christ, there is still division and disunity. We need healing, church. I think it was Martin Luther King, Jr. who said that the most segregated hour in America was the Sunday morning church service. And then we read in Revelation that John saw people from every nation, tribe, and tongue standing before the throne of God and of the Lamb. Most of what I have to say in this post is addressed to white and black Christians. But people of any shade of melanin must turn to the cross of Christ, lay down their lives to love the Lord our God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and look to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. This “love your neighbor” mandate should move us outside our comfort zones to neighbors near and far. I am not promoting multi-culturalism as a “First thing.” Jesus Christ and him crucified is our first thing. However, I do believe that a by-product of Christ-centered, Spirit-directed living should be an active desire to know and commune with brothers and sisters of other backgrounds and cultures.
I wonder how Jesus would address the “Church in America” if he decided to write a letter? For one thing, there is such a broad range of “church” that he probably would need to address each specific church. Sadly, there is more diversity of sin in the “church” in America than those 7 churches Jesus addressed in Revelation. From where I sit, it seems that the sins of Laodicea are likely the closest to American churches. Listen to how Jesus addresses the Laodiceans regarding their need for healing: "I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say, 'I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing' --and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked--I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent.”
I don’t have enough money to buy that eye salve. But thank God! He gives eye salve to all who call on the name of the Lord Jesus with repentance, and to those who ask him to open our eyes, so we can truly see. Will you ask him to open your eyes?
We need healing. In Christ, there is healing. He gives eye salve, so we can see. He opens our ears to hear. He opens our mouths, so we can speak. Look at what Jesus does in Mark 7 with the deaf man who has a speech impediment.
“Then they brought to Him one who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech, and they begged Him to put His hand on him. And He took him aside from the multitude, and put His fingers in his ears, and He spat and touched his tongue. Then, looking up to heaven, He sighed, and said to him, "Ephphatha," that is, "Be opened." Immediately his ears were opened, and the impediment of his tongue was loosed, and he spoke plainly. Then He commanded them that they should tell no one; but the more He commanded them, the more widely they proclaimed it. And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, "He has done all things well. He makes both the deaf to hear and the mute to speak."
There we go. Christ makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak. He gives voice to the voiceless, and he heals the deaf so they can hear. He counsels the blind to get eye salve to put on our eyes so we can see.
Dear Christ-followers, let us stay rooted and grounded in the love of Christ as we move to break down the dividing walls of partition. After all, Ephesians 2:14 tells us that Christ himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility. This passage refers to Jews and Greeks, but could it not be applied to blacks and whites, and any other ethnic division? By the grace of God, we need to enter more fully into the healing that comes in Christ. Consider Hebrews 10, which tells us that Jesus, “After He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God, from that time waiting till His enemies are made His footstool. For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.” In Christ, we have been given eternal life we are counted among "those who are being sanctified." He is our gentle healer.
To my dear black brothers and sisters, I thank God so much for the privilege to share in the communion of saints with you in the family of God. Although I was not around in the 1700’s and 1800’s during institutionalized slavery when there was such a dehumanizing message spoken about black people even in the church, I pray that God would forgive our nation and bring healing to your hearts of the deep wounds that still implicitly and unconsciously lie below the surface. I was not around during the bitter share-cropping years of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, and I was not present to witness the systemic oppression prior to the civil rights movements in the 1960’s, but those wounds are still a part of our nation’s history. Those wounds have sometimes made some of you put walls up to protect yourselves. And some of those wounds are often there, implicit and unconscious in your shared memory. I pray that, in Christ, we can become like those Jews and Greeks of Ephesians 2, and say together by the grace of God, with celebration that “Christ himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.”
From my church background in the Mennonite church, most of my brothers and sisters during my first twenty years of living were white, and we have done a poor job of moving into your lives and allowing you to move into ours, with love and grace. Silence has not helped us. We need Jesus to teach us how to speak. We do not listen well. We need Jesus to teach us how to hear. And we need eye salve from Christ, to help us to see. If I can be a part of the healing touch of God that brings healing to the wounds of our nation’s history, please help me to see what I can do. At this point, I have little to say, but I have much to learn. Please forgive me for my ignorance and my often unconscious insensitivity towards you and your feelings and emotions. I have sometimes focused on “truth” and “statistics” and a clinical and forensic view of what I thought was the situation, and I have often failed to hear your heart. Will you allow me to move into your life so I can listen and understand? Will you allow me to open up as well without fear of reprisal? Can we pray together, for each other?
Thank you, heavenly Father, for the gift of Jesus Christ who has entered our world and brings the eye salve to open our eyes. Thank you, Jesus, for entering our world to open our ears to hear. Thank you, Jesus, that you can touch our speech impediments and allow us to speak words of life and not death. Please do that for me and for all of your church in this area of racial division, Lord Jesus. Please open our ears to hear. And please open our mouths to speak words of Your love and truth. Only you can bring healing to the hurting. Only you can make the two groups one and destroy the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility. Please bring full healing, Jesus.
To my dear white brothers and sisters, I thank God so much for the privilege to share with you as well in the communion of saints in the family of God. Please, let us be ready to listen. It’s likely that “ears to hear” is what we need the most. Please, let us come to our Father and ask him to give us ears to hear, from His Word, by His Spirit, and from our brothers and sisters in the black community and elsewhere. May the Lamb that was slain receive the reward of His suffering! God so loved the world, that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should never perish, but have everlasting life. Church was never supposed to be a divisive place. This was never God’s will that this be an “us-them” conversation, but for hundreds of years in the USA it was so. The dehumanization of the black slaves, often perpetuated from the bully “Christian” pulpit of the 1600’s, 1700’s, and into the late 1800’s, is something that needs to be repented of and rejected by all of us. Healing is still needed in the black community from the sins done against them, even all the way forward in history here in 2020. And please understand me, I do not support or condone a victim mentality. Many have been able to move forward despite the history. Still, there is a shared identity in the black community that was repressed and dehumanized at awful levels for a long, long time. This could be a generational sin within the white community that WE, the white privileged class, need to condemn and repent of. Please, let us take the counsel of Jesus to apply eye salve so that our eyes will be opened, so we can see. And one more thing, if your knee-jerk reaction to all the past week’s news is “I’m not racist. What’s their problem? Why are they making such a big deal of this?” You are probably in need of some of an extra tube of that eye salve. And I’m not supporting vandalism or looting when I say that.
And to all my dear brothers and sisters of all shades and colors of melanin, I am forever grateful to God for giving me the opportunity to have a foretaste of heaven here on earth by having friends who have experienced the world differently than I have. We each have a story to tell, we each have a culture that has shaped who we are. If we are in Christ, he has redeemed us and brought us back to His throne room where we can approach His throne with boldness so that we can receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
We are in need, church of Jesus. Let us approach His throne of grace so that we can receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
I know for certain that the best way forward is in Christ, in humility, with the Word and the Spirit as our guide. I believe, somewhat uncertainly and with a bit of confusion, that I need to deconstruct my cultural background a bit to see what I have been bringing to the table of communion that is not of Christ. My culture can actually keep me from fully engaging with all that Christ has to offer. By the grace of God, let us move towards others who are not of our background and culture. When we do that, sometimes the fishbowl of our culture breaks and we get to understand more of the ocean of God’s mercy. It gets terrifying when we realize our fish bowl was freshwater and the ocean of God’s love is saltwater—but sometimes that just shows that self needed to die more for true life of Christ to rise up. These times of raw anger and exposed hurt are times that Christ can enter with His love and bring healing. The healing may have to begin with our repentance. When Daniel prayed in Daniel 9 “We have sinned” he was identifying with the sins of the nation as he sought the mercy of God. I confess before almighty God that I have sinned in this area of racial healing. There is much more work for God to do in my heart, and by the grace of God He is still working on me. I long to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with my God and my brothers and sisters in Christ who are black, white, and other.
Will you fast and pray with me this Wednesday, June 3, 2020? We have this pandemic that has struck the earth and all nations are still reeling from its results and the accompanying responses to it. Mass starvation is probably the next "pandemic" we will face. And now we have an opportunity to pray for healing, unity, and deeper relationship between people of color and whites in America, and within the church of Jesus Christ here in America. When we pray, we have an opportunity to fill the prayer bowls in heaven so that God pours out his answers upon His people.
Grace and peace,
Brendan, one of the brothers in our congregation, mentioned to me recently that Jesus fed 5,000 people and 4,000 people on two separate occasions (it’s actually more than that, because those numbers do not seem to reflect the women and children in attendance), and Jesus did not differentiate between those who “needed” and those who could go out and get their own food. Jesus thanked Father, distributed the food, and everyone was fed. So when we give out boxes of food or flats of eggs, we certainly want to get them in the hands of the most needy among us. But the pressure is not so much on us that we have to interview each person and make a judgment call on the needs-based information presented. This was a helpful thought, since there are many people who ask for food boxes and many people who willingly receive food boxes, but the needs vary from extremely urgent to not-so-much.
Are you hungry? You can probably go into the refrigerator or pantry or freezer and get something to eat. And if that’s not there you probably can go to the store or restaurant to buy something. I have never gone hungry in my life, except for those times when I have intentionally fasted. So I think of those right around us who are facing food insecurity and food scarcity, and I pray that we can offer physical food when possible. I also pray for spiritual re-birth for those who receive this food. I practiced some Spanish lines that speak of Jesus Christ and him crucified, and implored the Spanish-speaking day laborers at Home Depot to give their hearts to Jesus as we gave out food to them last Friday. There is a much deeper need than food here—there are souls that are resisting the call of God on their lives, and there are souls that are yearning to know more of their Creator. The food that fills the hungry with the Bread of Life is food that we need to present to those around us. This is soul-satisfying food that leads to eternal life.
Brother Stan is bringing food boxes on Tuesday to the Baychester women and children’s shelter, and to the Eden shelter. As an additional opportunity, the director has said that after this Covid-19 crisis blows over she believes we could host Bible studies at these shelters. We have prayed for the Baychester shelter for nearly a year, and this opportunity has just appeared.
I still believe that the day-laborers and those in the undocumented immigrant community have been affected the most financially here in our city. Next on the list are the small business owners who either could not apply for the small business relief or did not apply it. As the city slowly opens back up, there is still an undercurrent of food insecurity all over. A Blessings of Hope driver who delivered CAM boxes to us on Saturday told us of a food distribution ministry in Long Island to whom he had delivered food boxes. They said that, prior to Covid-19, they were serving about 85 people on the day they gave out food. Now, they are getting over 400 people showing up on those days. Life in Christ Mennonite Church in Queens handed out 800 boxes of food on Saturday, May 16th. They have over 800 contacts who have reached out to them for help, requesting food. Pastor Felix, in Mt. Vernon, has served over 400 families in the past seven weeks as they come through his line for food from the Blessings of Hope boxes. He opens the boxes and distributes food to the people into their bags, this way he can serve more people on the day he gives out food. Our distribution at Edenwald has gone from 20 boxes to 40 boxes to 60 boxes to 85 boxes. We do not do as many deliveries during the week; people are encouraged to come by our house and get a box of food if they contact us with a food need.
Today, weather permitting, we will set up outside of our church space on E. 224th Street and distribute boxes of food to the local community. I look forward to these kind of interactions. This evening at 4:00 p.m., Brother Ike and I hope to set up near his house in Mt. Vernon and offer food boxes to people in his community. May God work in his church and through his church in this time. Food pantries are considered essential services.
As the weeks pass, the intensity of the Covid-19 crisis here in NYC seems to diminish, and we look forward to going out and meeting with people a little more. Last week, the governor opened up religious gatherings to 10 people, and on Friday President Trump made that announcement stating that churches are Essential Services. I knew all along that churches are Essential Services, so that announcement did not come as a surprise. That said, here in NYC it was very wise to stop in-person meetings at churches for those weeks from late March through the end of April. Even now, when I am aching to get back to face-to-face meetings, I recognize that we are all on a journey in this season. Some people will be ready to get back to meet, and some need some more time. An interesting side note—I have talked with several of my African-American pastor friends and none of them are pushing to re-open their churches against the governor’s orders. I think they all recognize that this virus has taken an especially significant toll on the black community, and they are in no rush to try to circumvent local and state protocol. One church, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church located about 1 mile from our house, lost 21 members to Covid-19. I’m sure a church leader facing that kind of mortality rate in his congregation is going to take a wider look at this situation. This is not just about what is allowed by law, but what is safe and wise for the congregation. On that note, I’m seeing about a 60/40 percentage in terms of the law. 60% says to start meeting again (Constitution and President) but 40% (Governor and Mayor) says to hold off on religious meetings with more than 10 people. My percentages are arbitrary and based on mental gymnastics only, so don’t hold me to them. It just shows that in this case, each church is going to have to ask “What is best for us to do?”
This morning, Sandy took a walk with our friend who had a near-death experience with Covid-19 and is slowly recovering. She contacted Sandy this morning and said she has nightmares of her experiences with this sickness, and since she is back from rehab she is still not able to walk well. Pray for us as we relate with this friend. She believes (and we agree) that God saved her from this sickness. So now what would He have for her?
Are you hungry? Take of the Bread of Life, eat, and give away this Bread of Life to others who hunger. Are you thirsty? Drink of the Living Water, and you will thirst no more.
Believers in Jesus Church distributed food boxes again at the Edenwald Community Center on Tuesday. My last update had noted that our neighbor has a friend who was a part of the 90’s rock group Living Colour, and he was going to help us with crowd control. It turns out our neighbor couldn’t get any friends to commit. He sent me a text listing all the other housing projects around us and then said “but Edenwald? Everyone’s asking me if u and ur family are going over there armed with Bullet Proof clothing. " His next text went like this “I asked some of the roughest toughest thugs I know if they would mind helping giving out food with u guys and girls in Edenwald and they all said “Naw man I ain’t messin’ with Edenwald.” I have not seen the dark side of Edenwald yet, besides a few skirmishes two weeks ago. Each person is created in the image of God, so it is a privilege to extend dignity and grace even to groups who may be considered "less than." Joy, the community center’s director, spent about 1.5 hours getting all of them to sign in with their ID’s and gave them each a printed number. Some of them waited in line for over three hours. We passed out 60 boxes of food in less than 30 minutes. We have a portable speaker with a microphone, so I had the chance to preach a short gospel message while Joy was finishing up the list, and our daughter Corinne sang “Do You Know the Savior?” while Sandy and I accompanied her. It's hard to describe how rewarding these opportunities are to me.
I then was able to meet up with Silvia, the contact in Mt. Vernon who has been receiving food boxes at the Doles Center. Silvia is so excited about this food box ministry. She works at City Hall in Mt. Vernon, but she said “I have asked God for years to let me have a food pantry! I never thought I would get a chance to do something like this in this way!” Silvia has had to add two different phone lines since April 1 because of the high demand for food boxes in the senior center close to their location. Mt. Vernon is described by another of my friends who lives there as the forgotten stepchild of Westchester County. If you ever get the vision to explore the difference between Scarsdale and Mt. Vernon, it’s a fascinating study in contrasts. Two cities—two completely different socioeconomic spectrums. I met Silvia through my neighbor’s friend. When I told Silvia that the boxes will be winding down next week and after that it will be seven dollars a box, she actually seemed to get excited. “Wow, I can start fundraising for more boxes!” She was the first person in our network who actually seemed energized by the opportunity to purchase boxes to distribute.
Wednesday, we received a shipment of 1,000 boxes of food from CAM (Christian Aid Ministries). The boxes weigh 20 pounds, and include rice, beans, canned chicken, oil, flour, sugar, and Christian literature. These are good, solid staples. Some of the churches in The Bronx with whom we are partnering have already received some of those 1,000 boxes. Life in Christ in Queens and Followers of Jesus in Brooklyn have received CAM boxes as well.
Thursday, our friend in South Brooklyn received a van load of eggs from Westfield Farms in PA. He asked if we could take some. I think they had 750 dozen delivered to them. I drove down and loaded 26 boxes (390 dozen) of eggs in our van. Life in Christ Mennonite Church in Queens took 16 boxes, and we have already distributed our 150 dozen here in the Bronx. It was so good to see friends from Brooklyn and Queens, mask-to-mask (we don’t do face-to-face yet here). Food pantries are considered essential services in NY.
Friday, Brianna and I went to Home Depot at 4:00 p.m. with CAM Boxes and 37 dozen eggs. I parked the van in a kind of distant parking lot and walked over to four day laborers who were still standing there, hoping a contractor or homeowner would come by with work. “Necesita comida?” Si, si. These guys walked over, and somehow by the time we were finished we had given out boxes to 19 people, and we were done with our eggs. These guys want to work but there are no jobs for them right now. The day laborers are certainly facing tough times.
A man to whom I delivered a box yesterday used to be an Uber driver but when the customer base diminished from the lockdown his mileage went down, and his lease for his car increased. He had to return his car, so he has no vehicle at this point. He has been off work for over a month, and he has three children. He was very appreciative of the food, and he asked me questions from the Bible. It was a good interaction.
There are certainly needs all around us. If anyone is interested in donating to Blessings of Hope (www.blessingsofhope.com) for food boxes, you just put in the comments box “Food boxes for NYC” and you can specify the church to which you want the boxes to go. You can also give to Believers in Jesus Church through PayPal at firstname.lastname@example.org. Moving forward, we are hoping to have a delivery come to NYC every Thursday for the next few months. A forty pound box costs $7. It’s an amazing opportunity.
Remember the meals for healthcare workers that we began bringing in early April? I just pictured doing a few meals a week here and there. The Anabaptist Covid-19 Response team took that to a whole new level and had a team here for five weeks bringing thousands of pre-packaged box lunches to EMS workers and hospitals who were stretched thin during the Covid-19 crisis here in New York City.
Oh, and I want to give a short update on two of our friends. On Thursday, Sandy had a chance to talk for about an hour with our neighbor who had been on the ventilator with C-19 for about ten days. She has come out of this a changed woman. She’s more gentle, and she says that God saved her life. Sandy was so encouraged with the conversation. I spoke with a good friend Thursday evening who also was deathly sick with Covid. He said that on day 10 he was sure he was going to die, but he began rebuking Covid-19 and claiming the blood of Jesus, and it’s like his sickness lifted. He said that he learned a lesson in that time that we have a lot of authority in the name of Jesus. On the same day we had the chance to hear testimonies from two different persons whose C-19 sickness had actually served to strengthen their faith. Testimonies of God's goodness are better than an iced coffee in July.
My writing motivation has lagged recently. On and off over the past several weeks I have had to push back a heavy fog of bad news, face the fact that we still have no church in-person meetings, and look for the good in this season with less face-to-face interaction. Officiating at a funeral last Thursday took a toll on me. Two of my former students lost their father to COVID-19, and I was asked to share some Scriptures at the graveside service at Evergreen Cemetery in Brooklyn. It was raining that morning, but as I drove to the funeral home I thanked God that the rain had stopped. We gathered, eleven of us, at the funeral home, and talked together for a while. We then got in our cars to follow the hearse over to the cemetery. The rain poured down again, and I clenched my steering wheel and prayed and prayed: “Oh God, please hold back the rain. Please hold back the rain. Let them have a graveside service with only a drizzle or maybe no rain at all. Please hold back the rain.” The rain slowed a bit as we waited in line at the cemetery—there were at least four other small burials taking place. When the rain came down hard again, my prayers went up again “Please hold back the rain, please hold back the rain.” Thank God the rain completely stopped when we stepped out of our cars. I need to thank God for his small and big answers to prayer. The cemetery gave us 30 minutes to remember the life and death of our friend, a father of three, a husband of one, and relative to many. At the end, it seemed so cold and formal to exchange elbow bumps. No hugs. I felt helpless watching my former student, a strapping 28 year old man, hugging his girlfriend and his mother and sobbing uncontrollably. That’s when the rain came. I stepped into my car and let my eyes have their own little moment of rain. “Man, I need a drink,” I caught myself saying out loud. Thank God I have never dealt with addictions, because I’m sure that scene would have been a trigger point. I did stop by Dunkin’ Donuts to get a large coffee on the way home. I have to admit, that afternoon it was hard to focus on work.
Crowd control has never been my forte. I’m a dedicated follower of Jesus, but I do not have high marks on my resume for policing unruly groups. Yesterday the group at the community center for Edenwald Housing got kind of out of hand. We had delivered boxes there three times before with no incident, but this last time I guess the word had gotten out, because some people were already standing in line at 11:00 a.m. for the 1:30 p.m. delivery. That’s what the staff told us later. So we arrived and it went downhill rather quickly, because I started reading off names of people we had on our list from last week who did not get a box. Mistake number one. Suddenly there were maybe 10-15 other people who were convinced they were on my list of 19, but try as I might I couldn’t find their names. I gave two boxes to an elderly woman and her 90 year old mother. Mistake number two. Apparently they were in the same household, even though they said they lived across the hall from each other. The fairness doctrine got trotted out by others in line, and the mood of some darkened considerably. Eventually we were able to distribute our boxes of food but we had some emotional battle scars by the time it was over. We talked it over with the staff at the community center and hopefully we have a reasonably fair way to deal with it next week.
This afternoon my neighbor was texting me and thanking me for the two boxes he had received, one to give to a friend who is out of work and whose mother died of COVID-19, and another to give to an elderly couple. My friend told me he has friends who want to help me distribute food boxes. He then sent a photo of a Rolling Stones magazine cover with the rock group “Living Colour,” featured prominently on the front. His friend from Living Colour wants to help us distribute boxes. I jumped on that offer and asked if he can show up at the Edenwald Housing community center next Tuesday at 1:15 p.m. and help me with crowd control. This same neighbor had told me in an earlier text today that “At one time Edenwald Projects was named one of the most dangerous projects in New York. They are wild over there, there’s a lot of drugs, prostitution, violence and abuse going on over there.” But I guess we are in for an adventure next week, because it sounds like Living Colour representatives will be helping us give out some food boxes next Saturday. A historically famous local rock group helping our small church group distribute food boxes at a community center. Who knew?
The Anabaptist Covid-19 response group that has been responsible to bring the boxes up to NYC and drop them off in The Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn will be winding down their efforts towards the end of May. After that point, Believers in Jesus Church and some other churches here in the Bronx, along with a number of churches in Queens and Brooklyn, hope to continue purchasing food boxes from Blessings of Hope (based in Lancaster, PA) for $7/box and distributing them as God enables us. We need to somehow manage the requests that come in, but that management goal is a moving target. From Saturday evening to last night (3 days) I had 57 individual requests for food boxes. Today alone I had over 30 individual requests, but we are now texting people that they will need to check back in next week. So I’ll probably be sending 90 (or more) text messages in the next three days saying that they will need to try again next week because this week we have no more left. We have nine other churches and two homeless shelters here in The Bronx who are helping distribute boxes. Our Muslim friend has been getting 10 boxes a week from Sandy to distribute to her other Muslim friends. For that group, we go through the boxes to make sure there is no pork. Last week we delivered the boxes to her apartment building and she had seven boxes left in the lobby. Apparently she went up to her apartment to get something and came back down. No boxes. All gone. Sandy asked her if she got mad, and she said “Well, whoever took them must have needed them, but I was sad for my friends who were coming to get their boxes.” Was the box thief one person or seven distinctly different perps? We may never know.
I wonder what a food pantry could look like for our church here in the Bronx, moving forward. I could get excited about doing something like a food pantry if it could be a 1-2 day a week venture. If it got to be more than that, it may become the tail that wags the dog. To develop and manage a good food pantry probably takes days a week for one person, plus hours and hours of volunteer labor. Anyway, this is something to consider.
Our friend who was on the ventilator with COVID-19 has recovered and is out of the hospital, thank God. What’s strange is that she had to go to rehab. She’s about our age, but she had to relearn to walk, and her one hand could not grasp a pen the first several weeks after getting out of the hospital. This a strange new world we live in, folks. She's still at rehab in White Plains, weeks after being released from the hospital.
May God be with us all. We need to pray, praise, love God, love others, read the Word of God, and keep in step with the Spirit. It’s a strange but opportune time to be alive.
I called my Dad today for his 70th birthday. He missed my first call because he said "I was up on a ladder." My brother sent a picture later and there was Dad, standing on a plank between two ladders probably fifteen feet above the floor, finishing a high drywall ceiling. I wonder where I’ll be when I turn 70, if the Lord has not returned and my heart is still beating. I’m reasonably certain I won’t be fifteen feet up on a plank finishing a high drywall ceiling. They don’t make guys like my Dad anymore. He’s a good Pops.
Son of the Father, husband to Sandy, father of six amazing gifts, Bronx brother, active participant in Believers in Jesus Church, insurance adjuster, occasional runner