Archive for the 'servant' Category

Doing Jesus’ Laundry

“…that was me—you did it to me.” Jesus,Matthew 25:40 MSG

“…Let all the brothers [and sisters] preach by their deeds.” Francis of Assisi

Fifteen-year-old Caroline Gowan had completed all the requirements for her Girl Scout Gold Award except her community service project. (The Girl Scout Gold award is roughly equivalent to a Boy Scout Eagle badge). Community service came naturally to Caroline and her mother Michelle. For example, they regularly donated some of their home-made laundry detergent to their church’s food pantry. Clients welcomed the detergent because doing laundry at a laundromat was often the only available option–and an expensive one. (Take a moment to go stand by your washer and dryer and thank God for the resources to have your own laundry facilities.)

Caroline thought and prayed about those folks and their struggle just to have clean clothes. Soon an idea took shape. She arranged to use Chuck Mollenkopf’s “Git R Dun” laundromat the second Friday afternoon of each month. She put flyers announcing “Loads of Love” in local convenience stores and in every bag of food from the food bank. Her church, Bonaire United Methodist Church, began supporting “Loads of Love” with donations, volunteers, and additional publicity. On the second Friday in June Caroline and her crew used $115 in quarters to do 30 “Loads of Love”. In July they did 88 loads for $266.50.

Shakika Sneed is a single parent who’s discovered this ministry. “I spend anywhere from $20 to $30 washing clothes,” she says, “and for it to be free is a tremendous blessing to me because it means that money can go on to another bill that I have.”Jesus Laundry Each month church and community volunteers come to visit with those who are doing laundry. Some bring refreshments. Musicians play and sing.  Often a spontaneous singalong erupts. Members of Caroline’s scout troop and the church youth group entertain children with games, bubbles, and sidewalk chalk. “I was just expecting (clients) to be playing on their phone,” Caroline says, “but they really do get into the music. They come in with dirty laundry and leave with a renewed spirit and clean clothes…I feel like not only am I doing something for the people around me and that I am doing something for people I don’t even know, but that I’m doing something for the Lord. I am doing Jesus’ laundry!”

Caroline had heard the story in Matthew 25:31-46 dozens of times at church. But Loads of Love brought it to life! In this story Jesus describes a Final Judgment. People are separated into two groups. The difference is their treatment of the Son of Man (Jesus) whom none of them recognized,“When did we see you…?” “I was hungry…thirsty…sick…in prison…”  “…as you did it [or failed to do it] to the least of these…you did it to me.”

OMG Caroline! You aren’t serving Shakika, John, or Betty on laundry day. You’re serving Jesus! You’ve followed him far enough to have your eyes opened wide. Now you see him clearly in “the least of these”. You and all the folks at “Loads of Love” join a long line of servant disciples with “eyes to see” the image of God in unexpected places and faces. Mother Teresa ministered to the poorest of the poor in India. She described her experience as meeting Jesus in his “most distressing disguise”. As Caroline and others serve in “Loads of Love”, their spiritual vision grows sharper. With increasing clarity they see Jesus in his sometmes “distressing” disguise as an ordinary human being.

Caroline and all who serve alongside her stand in the tradition of St. Francis. He was a spoiled rich kid who finally got over himself and decided to follow Jesus wholeheartedly. He chose a life of simplicity, humility, and poverty. Priests who join the Franciscan Order, from the 14th century to the 21st, embrace that same lifestyle. You’ve probably heard that Francis said, “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.“ Scholars today doubt that those are his exact words, but they express the spirit of his ministry. Most agree that Francis told the Franciscan brothers “…Let all the brothers [and sisters] preach by their deeds.”

A couple of years ago the newly-elected pope chose Francis as his official name. This new pope was a Franciscan who took his simple lifestyle seriously no matter how high he rose in the church hierarchy. Pope Francis continues to stay true to his Franciscan vows of poverty and simplicity and to stay in touch with “the least of these”. He knows they help us see Jesus in his “most distressing disguise”. You’d think a guy who’d been chosen for the highest office in the Christian world wouldn’t be doing anybody’s laundry. But whenever he gets the chance, Francis grabs his box of detergent and his roll of quarters, heads for the nearest laundromat, and starts doing Jesus’ laundry.

Pope Francis has been consistent, insistent, persistent, some would even say obnoxious as he advocates for the poor. We more affluent folks don’t always welcome that message. Nevertheless, more and more of us are listening. Francis earns the right to be heard one day at a time.He’s not perfect any more than you and I are. But his Christian life is more consistent than most folks I know, including me. His wordless preaching  and his  words carry the same message.

I could make a good old-fashioned three-point sermon out of Francis’ “wordless preaching”:

  1. If nobody seems to be listening or paying attention to our Christian talk, try talking less (even about Jesus) and more action to recognize and serving Jesus in his various “disguises” within our reach.
  2. Care less about being “relevant” and “trendy”.  Care much more about being as faithfully countercultural as Francis, Jesus, and countless others!
  3. Resist the seduction of church busy work and “good deeds”. They make us feel better but don’t really change the world. Spend the time and energy you used to waste on busy work doing Jesus’ laundry!

 

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“’Unique Humility’–In the NBA???”

We often perceive top-tier professional athletes as overpaid, over-adored hyper-inflated egos. But during the broadcast of Game 3 in the LA Clippers-San Antonio Spurs playoff series, commentator Jeff Van Gundy began preaching about the “unique humility of the San Antonio Spurs”. The commentary that followed opened a window through which deeper truth could enter. That’s a function of preaching, especially in a secular context. If you aren’t a fan, bear with me a moment. Maybe you’ll see the surprising Light I saw shining where I hadn’t looked before. Maybe you’ll sense the fresh Spirit-breeze blowing from a welcome but unexpected direction!

The San Antonio Spurs are the National Basketball Association’s defending champions. They’ve become a sports dynasty. Late in 1996 Coach Greg Popovich took over a team that had won only 3 of its first 18 games. That injury-riddled team finished 20-62 and failed to make the playoffs.  The Spurs have made the playoffs every season since and won 5 NBA championships. In February 2015, Popovich became only the second NBA coach ever to win 1000 games with the same team. The Spurs’ opponents, the LA Clippers, are a strong young team. Under coach Doc Rivers they finished one game ahead of San Antonio in the regular season. Clippers faithful think/hope/pray their team might be at the start of a run like the Spurs have enjoyed for eighteen years.

The Spurs and Clippers began their best-of-seven-games series last Monday night in LA. LA won 107-92. San Antonio was clearly outplayed. They played again in LA Wednesday night. San Antonio led by five points at halftime. The score was tied at the end of regulation play. San Antonio won in overtime 111-107. Friday night the series moved to San Antonio for two games. The Spurs led 46-38 at halftime, by 21 points after three quarters, and eventually won 100-73. Night-and-day difference from that first-game defeat in LA.

In a very one-sided game broadcasters scramble to find something besides the game itself to hold our attention (and theirs!). Late in the third quarter Van Gundy realized the game had reached that point. He commented that folks would say the Spurs’ experience was asserting itself. That’s true as far as it goes, he said. But the key is not the amount of experience. It’s the way players use and learn from experience. Van Gundy said the Spurs display a “unique humility”. If something’s not working, it gets changed. If a player’s not performing, he’ll be coached through it. If a coach (including Popovich) lets the team down, they’ll own up and make a change. The Spurs have minimal ego investment in personal success and absolute commitment to maximizing the contribution of every member of the organization and focusing all available resources on the ultimate goal of becoming the best possible basketball team. According to Van Gundy,  San Antonio’s “unique humility” had helped them move beyond that Game 1 defeat to a hard-fought victory in Game 2 and a one-sided victory in Game 3.

Can you see the Light (John 8:12 ) yet? Can you feel the Breeze (Acts 2:1-11)? Can you hear God speak softly (1 Kings 19)over the roar of the crowd? Yes, history matters—because whoever doesn’t learn from it is doomed to repeat it. So the point isn’t merely our two thousand years of  Christian tradition. (That number’s too small, incidentally. It omits more than a thousand years of heritage we share with our Jewish and Muslim neighbors.) The point isn’t our years and even centuries of history as a congregation or a denomination. It’s the difference we’ve made. It’s the mid-course corrections that have kept us vitally connected to our changing world. The point isn’t my 40+ years of experience as a local church pastor. It’s the constant adjustments and learning along the way. The world in which I began in 1968 looked very little like the world of 2011 in which I retired from active service.

As I listened to Van Gundy talk about the Spurs’ “unique humility”, I thought: Popular Christianity loves to tell stories of “growth”, “success”, “happiness”, and “vitality”. But I hear far fewer stories of the “unique humility” of followers of Jesus. Here are a few:

  • Dr. Kent Brantly and nurse Nancy Writebol are just two of hundreds, perhaps thousands whose “unique humility” kept last year’s Ebola disaster in Africa from becoming far worse than it was.
  • The recent renewed interest in this country’s Civil Rights movement highlighted many people’s “unique humility” as followers of Jesus. We know only a fraction of these people’s names. That’s how “unique humility” wants it.
  • In the late 1970’s-‘80’s, a gifted theologian named Dr. Henri Nouwen taught at both Yale and Harvard Divinity Schools. Then he moved to Toronto, Canada, to spend the last ten years of his life as pastor to L’Arche. In this unique residential community, …people with and without disabilities…share their lives in communities of faith and friendship. Community members are transformed through relationships of mutuality, respect, and companionship as they live, work, pray, and play together.”
  • In the early and middle-20th century, Dr. Albert Schweitzer focused his skills as a physician, world-class organist, and world-class New Testament scholar on improving the lives of some of the poorest people on the planet through the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Lambarene, French Equatorial Africa (now Gabon).

The renewal of the church doesn’t lie in the right music, the right organizational paradigm, the right beliefs, the right way of interpreting the Bible, or any other “magic bullet” fix that’s sold more books than it’s changed lives. Renewal (resurrection!) lies in a resurgence of “unique humility” in the individual and collective life of followers of Jesus. “Unique humility” means “It’s not about me” is our starting point for every plan, every prayer, every event–everything . “Unique humility”affirms the church exists more for its neighborhood than its members. It exists for those who hear and see Jesus more clearly through different language, music, and ways of praying and sharing than my friends and I prefer. “Unique humility” is “church people” embracing the most unlikely folks as brothers and sisters in Christ. “Unique humility” looks like Jesus’ followers embodying his definition of true greatness: “Whoever wants to become great must become a servant.” (Mark 10:43 MSG) 

Have you seen the “unique humility” of followers of Jesus alive where you live? How about sharing  some of those stories in your comments?

Jesus and March Madness

For you non-basketball fans, “March Madness” is the media-created frenzy surrounding the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Our enlightened age has also seen the Women’s Tournament grow in popularity. It now generates some “madness” of its own. I became a serious rabid March Madness fan when I entered UCLA as a freshman. Legendary coach John Wooden‘s teams were just beginning their incredible tournament run through the ’60’s and ’70’s. Lately we’ve experienced some lean years. But this year’s Bruins showed signs of returning to their former glory as they reached the Sweet 16 and lost (respectably) to overall No. 1 seed Florida–who will also experience Monday night’s championship game as spectators rather than participants.

What does Jesus have to do with March Madness? A few weeks ago my wife and I were digging through some too-long-unopened boxes in the garage. We unearthed some children’s books that had belonged to her and her brothers. One was called “How to Star in Basketball”. This 1958 publication taught the fundamentals of the game for elementary-age students (boys, according to the illustrations).  The one-hand push shot, two-hand chest shot, and underhand free throws have ridden off into the basketball sunset as the game has evolved. But most of the book’s fundamentals still apply-including the importance of team play, which comes in toward the end of the book.How to Star in Basketball

That title–“How to STAR…”–grates on me. It appeals to every entitlement-believing, under-performing wannabe who loves the spotlight, hates hard work, and can’t imagine why he (or she) still doesn’t have his(her) own private suite in the locker room.  I’m sure that title would have sent Coach Wooden over the edge. One of his bedrock principles was that the team mattered more than any individual player. Players pursuing individual stardom at the expense of team play were guaranteed to wind up on the bench, if not off the team altogether. Wooden’s players took the court every day with the goal of helping their teammates become stars.

Now about Jesus. One day two of his disciples approached him: “’Teacher, we have something we want you to do for us…Arrange it so that we will be awarded the highest places of honor in your glory—one of us at your right, the other at your left.’  [In other words, they wanted to be Kingdom SuperStars.] Jesus didn’t grant their request. In fact, he slam-dunked their hopes for an easy title run. When the rest of The Twelve heard about it, they were furious with James and John. Jesus let them feel the heat for a while. Then he silenced all twelve wannabe Kingdom Stars: “It’s not going to be that way with you,” he told them. “Whoever wants to be great [among my disciple] must become a servant.” (from Mark 10:35-45 The Message) Want to be a great disciple? Make it your mission each day to help your brother and sister disciples grow into their Christlike greatness. Want to be a “star” in church? Start helping others, especially “non-stars”, discover and use their giftedness. Want to be a star in life? Start praying for eyes to see the image of God in in the ordinary folks who share your life. Start asking God’s Spirit to bring forth the “star qualities” (spiritual gifts in church-talk) in them–and offer yourself as an instrument in the process. That’ s how Jesus got The Twelve going.

A basketball player is credited with an “assist” when his pass to another player directly results in that player scoring a field goal. Very few assists relative to field goals indicates that a team isn’t working together.  A high ratio of assists to field goals indicates that a team is working together to get the ball to the player with the  best opportunity to score. In their last game before the Florida loss UCLA’s opponent had about half as many assists as field goals. The Bruins scored 29 field goals and had 22 assists–76%. They didn’t care about “How to Star in Basketball”. They were laser-focused on creating an environment where every player plays at his highest level.

John Wooden used his basketball platform to teach his players significant life lessons. His faith informed his whole approach to the game and to life. Imagine if that life lesson about stardom and servanthood got down deep into our bones. Imagine if it infused our churches, our families, our politics, our sports, our music, movies, media,  every aspect of our culture. “How to Star…” describes the way self-centeredness poisons life and relationships. It’s the polar opposite of the way to which Jesus calls us:
His friends at their best (and admittedly that’s not all the time) embody the power of that servant life. Let us become as serious about our discipleship as those March Madness teams are about their team-focused basketball? Let us move now to shift the focus away from our own “stardom” as individuals and congregations. Let’s redefine “success” as helping one another and all within our reach to become true Kingdom Stars as Jesus defines it.  To me, that sounds a lot like “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”.

We Can’t…But We Can–Part 2

As I was writing Part 1, I thought I knew just how Part 2 would go. I’d briefly recap the five qualities I’d identified from my childhood church experience—1) Church-family partnership; 2) Sense of genuinely being cared for by church people; 3) Children and youth involved in meaningful ministry; 4) Exposure to different and challenging ideas: 5) Clear, consistent values taught and modeled. Then I’d address each point and suggest ways to bring it into our very different 21st-century context.

But you know the saying—“We plan. God (and the Blogosphere) laugh.” Your comments led me toward a more holistic approach. My childhood experience didn’t happen because church leaders consciously focused on those five qualities. It happened because pastors and lay leaders built a culture of discipleship over many years. While far from perfect, that Maynard Memorial Methodist Church culture shaped us in profound ways that I’m still discovering. The question isn’t, “How do we put these pieces together the right way?” It’s “How do we build a church culture that forms committed, effective disciples of Jesus Christ?” If I had all the answers, I’d be on a book tour right now. But I don’t, so I’m writing in my basement study.

One commenter said, I do wish families today had the love of a church family. But they have to go to church first!” Once upon a time mainline churches could open their doors and watch the building fill up. Fifty years later, the church’s role in many communities has become peripheral at best. We’ve lost our place at the center of community life. The church is no longer the “go-to” place for families.

What if we turned that statement around? “I do wish churches today shared God’s love effectively with families in their communities. But first they have to go where families are!” [Please remember that today’s families come in many configurations besides the stereotypical working dad, stay-at-home mom, 2+ kids, a minivan, and a dog.]  Hard as it may be for life-long church folks to comprehend, a growing number of people today have either no significant church experience or significant negative experience. They aren’t likely to get up and pop into our church some Sunday. Reaching them starts with meeting them on their turf. After we’ve established a genuine relationship and let our deeds and presence do the talking, our new friends are more likely to be receptive to hearing about our faith and eventually venturing onto “our turf”. [NOTE: If “making friends” is merely your “strategy” to get folks in the door and on the roll so the church can survive, don’t bother. Folks know when they’re being used. If genuine Christlike love isn’t motivating you, you’re hurting the cause of Christ, not helping it.]

What would it mean for you and some friends to go “where families are” in your community? ASK SOME FAMILIES YOU KNOW! Ask church families. Ask your neighbors. Ask families who live near the church. Ask folks where you work. If you dare, ask families who have left your church. WHEN YOU ASK, LISTEN CAREFULLY! “School” and “sports” are two common responses. You’ll discover others in your particular context—4H, the homeless shelter, Children’s Hospital. Ask yourself and your friends: How can we go where families in our community are as the presence of Jesus who was Love-in-the-flesh? The Jesus who told his disciples, “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27)? Ask the school principal or the soccer league president how you can be of service. Expect some suspicion about just being there to proselytize. Expect to have to prove yourself. Do the jobs nobody else wants to do better than they’ve ever been done. Focus on building relationships and being yourselves. Over time your church will become known as a faith community that genuinely cares about children and their families.

“First we have to go where families are.” One Sunday afternoon Rev. Adam Hamilton visited a first-time visitor to that morning’s worship service. She told him she’d enjoyed the service but she wouldn’t be back. She explained that her son (who had stayed home with her husband) needed constant one-to-one care. She couldn’t participate in worship and also care for him. She didn’t expect to find a church that could provide that care. “If we can provide the care Matthew needs,” Adam asked, “will you come back?” She said she would. Adam Hamilton very quickly found folks willing to be trained to care for Matthew on Sunday mornings.  His mother was able to come to worship and know he was being cared for. Adam Hamilton led his church to stand beside Matthew’s family (and others) where they were—“staying home with our child whose special needs make it nearly impossible for us to take him/her anyplace that’s not absolutely essential.” Today “Matthew’s Ministry” shares God’s love with hundreds of families whose children have a variety of special needs.

Nearly every church I know says it wants to reach children and families. But few actually “…go where families are.” You can hardly blame them. It’s a missionary journey likely to trigger a seismic shift in the life of the church. It requires substantial investments of time, energy, study, prayer, and faith. It demands that we set aside “the way we’ve always done it” in order to discover “the way to share God’s love with today’s families in today’s world”.

On the other hand—the journey transforms us. We grow together into a community of “effective, committed disciples of Jesus Christ.” We claim the possibility of changing lives and whole communities. We are faithful to the One who says, “Let the little children come to me…” (Mark 10:14). I’m ready to go. Are you?


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