Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Gnosticism and Sleep

I came across the following in Posterity Letters by Dorie McCullough Lawson:

"Avoid the night air in sickly situations. Let you dress be rather warmer than the weather would seem to require. Carefully avoid fatigue from all causes both of body and mind (pg. 268)."

This is from a letter Benjamin and Julia Rush wrote to their son, John. This is such good sense, and such plain and practical advice that it startled me a little. What startled me even more was the realization that I have never preached a sermon with anything like similar advice.

I wonder in my heart of hearts if we are not more influenced by gnosticism than we know. Gnosticism is the heresy that only the spiritual/intellectual matters. The body is like a candy wrapper; it will soon (thankfully) be discarded. If we look at the world like this we will inevitably think it is more spiritual to, for example, stay up late preparing a sermon than to go to bed at a reasonable hour. If we are influenced by gnosticism, we will think it is more spiritual to go to a meeting than to go to the doctor.

Also, consider the pressures of our age, and the constant temptation to be a workaholic. We don't have time to even think about our physical health, much less actually attend to it. Pastors especially are tempted to neglect their physical health. One specific area of neglect is the area of sleep. Why is it we think it is more spiritual to sleep less? It probably has to do with the definition of success that we have inherited from the spirit of the age. Success is measured by hours worked.

My mom said something worthy of repeating to me today (her 33rd day in ICU). She said, "Son, why do you worry so much? If you trust God, you don't have to worry."

I believe this applies, at least to me, in the area of sleep. If I trusted God more, I'd sleep more. I'd know that he is kindly looking out for everything. He is awake when I am asleep. The work will get done, because He is the prime worker and, "He who keeps Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps." Why do we worry so much? Why do we sleep so little? If we trust God, we don't have to worry, and we will be able to sleep.

Monday, September 27, 2010

6th Avenue Hearthache... Heartache

The Wallflowers' classic "6th Avenue Heartache" is reportedly about Jakob Dylan's acquaintance with a homeless man in NY. He would often see the man in a certain spot with all his belongings. One day, suddenly, the man was gone. The song, it seems to me, is about how Dylan found himself connecting with this man.

Sirens ring, the shots ring out
A stranger cries, screams out loud
I had my world strapped against my back
I held my hands, never knew how to act

And the same black line that was drawn on you
Was drawn on me
And now it's drawn me in
6th Avenue heartache

Now, my experiences in the inner city with homeless men have taught me that 'the same black line that was drawn on you, was drawn on me.' I learned that we all have essentially the same struggles, essentially the same sins, and most important -- one, and only one hope. That is, Christ.

It was not hard for me to identify with men in the city who had spent years in prison, or years in gangs, or years in slavery to drugs. It wasn't hard -- even though I grew up in the country in a relatively sheltered environment. One of the greatest gifts God has given me over the years is a sense of need, 'what we need is need.' It was the grace of God that taught me just how much I needed grace. When I was able to see that I was literally in exactly the same position -- a needy, desperate sinner -- as the men I served, I found new avenues of genuine ministry opening up. I found, when I talked about my weaknesses, that they were willing to listen. The fact is, though, I don't have to make up weaknesses for the sake of connecting to people; I don't have to make up struggles with sin. I just had to be honest. I learned this in the inner city: every person we meet is really, really, really like us in at least this, "We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God."

The other things I learned from ministry to the homeless/ inner city youth.
 1) Blessed are the poor. A lady from a wealthier suburb of St. Louis asked me early on, "Is there any hope for these men?" I think she meant, "Any hope that they might get good jobs, live in nice houses, and achieve middle class status?" The answer to that is, "Being realistic... probably not." The real question, though, and the more important one was, and is, "Is there any hope for any of us to enter the Kingdom of God?" I answered the question I wished she'd asked, "Hope? There is more hope for these men than most of the people you live with and work with every day." I saw daily one recurring theme among the men -- they felt their own need. That is the beginning of hope.
2) It wasn't that bad -- for me. Working in the inner city gave me a new perspective on my life.I thought I had it pretty bad because my parents were divorced in college. Imagine my response when I witnessed young men who had no relationship at all with their fathers, and not much relationship with their mothers. Sure, my parents worked a lot. Sure, they had problems in their marriage. Still, they did stay together until I was in high school, and my dad was a real and enduring presence in my life. I used to think I had a rough childhood; I came to believe, after a year in the inner city, that God had been especially merciful to me in my family life.
3) Preach hard things courageously. The men in the shelter taught me to preach sermons on 'the hard sayings of Jesus.' Something about the desperation of the situation demanded this kind of preaching.
4) No, it's not always 'their fault.' One of the real hindrances to caring for suffering people is the mentality, "It's their fault." I used to think that men in a homeless shelter were invariably there because they drank too much, or didn't want to work hard. I learned that, very often, this kind of judgment was totally wrong. Certainly, there were men who had made terrible choices, and ended up homeless as a result, but this was not always the case. I will say that most men I ministered to explained their being in a homeless shelter as a combination of catastrophes AND bad choices. Some, however, were simply the recipients of a string of catastrophes that would crush anyone. One guy told me how his wife and daughters had been killed in a car accident. This sent him into a spiral that eventually left him homeless. Another man told me of how he had become disabled, lost his house, then both his parents all around the same time. This combination of disasters left him so shaken that he simply gave up. How would most of us fair if faced with similar disasters?

So, what do I take away from this season of ministry? A renewed passion for real life service of -- to borrow a phrase from R.M. McCheyne -- "God's poor."

Now walkin' home on those streets
The river winds move my feet
Subway steam, like silhouettes in dreams
They stood by me, just like moonbeams

And the same black line that was drawn on you
Was drawn on me
And now it's drawn me in
6th Avenue heartache

Sunday, September 26, 2010

St. Louis Photo Journal

My sister Trish -- she made a cake when I left for St. Louis. At the time, we all thought I was going to Afghanistan or Iraq as a Chaplain. Shortly thereafter the controversy arose about prayer in Jesus' name, and military officials began telling me -- in so many words -- that they wanted chaplains to not pray in Jesus name on certain occasions. Shortly thereafter, I said, "I can't work with you gentlemen."

Marty was one of my favorite men to work with at the Mission.
I also spent a lot of my time at the Mission working with teens. Here is our regular crowd. My co-laborer Jason is in the background.
At the teen center with Courtney. I worked with teens in St. Louis for a year and a half.

A snowy day at the Mission. I worked with homeless men, and men dealing with addiction, for a year and a half as well. It was not, as some may think, difficult ministry. The ministry itself was pure joy.

This is the view from the Mission.

Just after Mom arrived in St. Louis -- at the Zoo. A few months after mom moved to St. Louis she was diagnosed with cancer. She has fought a long and difficult battle to the glory of God. Her faith has shown brightly, and many have seen a clear Christian testimony through her trials. She remains sweet and gentle, loving and generous in her afflictions. She recently told me, "My only purpose in life is to honor the Lord."

Courtney -- one of my favorite young men -- the one time I let him win in wrestling. No matter the place or time, Courtney wanted to wrestle. Young men need christian fathers -- if for no other reason -- to wrestle with.
Doing some stunt man shots at Summer Camp. We had 6 young men, and 4 counselors. Our camp lasted 3 days. I was amazed to see what a difference it makes to have some sustained time of discipleship with these young men.
Taking a cookie break at Summer Camp.
Lunch time at Summer Camp.
Celebrating holidays as a family. Included in pic (Me, my bro Billy, Mom, and Step-Dad).This was last Thanksgiving.
Charles, Chris, and Alex at Twin Oaks Presbyterian. Maintenance men! The three of us dutifully cleaned and worked around the Church as a team for 8 months.
Me and Bro Billy at the Hospital. This was 8 days after mom was admitted to the ICU, when things were looking stern. During this time, I walked around the hospital grounds for 45 minutes and pleaded with God to deliver mom. I sent out numerous prayer requests. We had people all over America praying for mom. And, the Lord answered mightily.
A note on Billy. He is a picture of strength. He left everything (work, home) in South Carolina to come and help care for mom. Mom has now been in ICU 31 days, and has made steady improvements every day. But, we have had to fight hard with medical staff on a daily basis to make sure she gets dignifying and professional care. Mom recently asked me why all these afflictions were sent to her -- I responded by saying, "So that you will have a great story to the glory of God. These have come because of the love of God. Have you ever heard of a person who had an easy life, who sat on the couch all day and took it easy -- have you ever heard of such a person in a great story? No. In all the great stories there is hardship and trial, and by the grace of God, the person overcomes those trials. That is what makes a great story." I'm convinced my mom's trials and response will echo to the glory of God down through the generations -- indeed, through eternity.