Monday, December 31, 2007

To Know and Be Known

To Know and Be Known

It seems that every few years the “in” Christian counseling model shifts. The current “in” thing is spirituality: spiritual direction, soul care, spiritual friendship.

Those who know me know that I’ve been in on this “in” craze of spirituality (soul care and spiritual direction) for over a quarter century. So, I’m not bolting from it now—especially since it has a lengthy history (try since creation).

And I’m not bolting even though some in the so-called “discernment movement” discern evil new age ideology every time someone says the word “spiritual.” More on that topic in a later blog.

The Key to Truly Biblical Counseling

Here’s the point. Models of counseling come and go. But the key to truly biblical counseling is relationship.

Again, even here there are those who quickly jump on the psycho-heresy bandwagon and claim that any talk about human relationships makes an approach secular and humanistic. As if God never said, “It is not good for Adam to be alone.”

How does one Christian help another Christian in the Christian life to exalt God by enjoying God? It is done via relationships in which we live the truth in love.

This is not secular hooey. This is biblical foundations.

The High Priestly Prayer of Christ

In Christ’s great high priestly prayer in John 17 (the true “Lord’s Prayer”), Jesus lays out His plan for Christianity. Seems we might want to listen to what Christ says about how Christians live out Christianity!

Jesus prays that Christians might be one just as the Son and Father are one. “Just as You, Father, are in me and I am in You” (John 17:20-21).

In the context of John’s Gospel and of John 17, Jesus’ prescription for oneness is clear. God calls us to know each other intimately and to love each other deeply. To know and be known.

Honest Relational Questions

So, whatever title we give to our models of counseling, we should be asking ourselves questions that undergird our counseling. Counseling is nothing more and nothing less than how we relate to one another in the body of Christ to encourage one another to be more like Christ; more one with Christ, so Christ is glorified.

So, whether pastor, professional Christian counselor, spiritual director, or lay spiritual friend, how are we answering these questions?

“Do I really know my spouse? Does my spouse know me intimately?”

“Do I know my children deeply? Do my children know me openly?”

“Do I know my co-workers and fellow-laborers? Do they know me?”

“Do I really know the people in my church; in my small group? Do they know me?”

“Do I know my parishioners, my counselees, and my spiritual friends? Do they know me?"

Christian counseling, by whatever branding, should be branded with the high priestly prayer of Jesus—to know and be known. To be one as the Trinity is one—a mutual relationship of intimacy.

Who really knows you? Who do you let in? Open up to? Are real and raw with? And who do you really know in a deep, intimate, honest, open way?

Forget, “Where’s the beef?” (You have to be my age to even remember that in the first place.)

Ask, “Where’s the relationship?” Where is the biblical relationship in my “counseling,” “pastoral ministry,” and “lay spiritual friendship?” Yes, where’s the relationship? Who knows us? Who do we know? To know and be known—the essence of true ministry.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Richard Allen and Absalom Jones: The Martin Luther King of Their Day

Richard Allen and Absalom Jones:
The Martin Luther King of Their Day

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) was, of course, one of the main leaders of the American Civil Rights movement. What is lesser known today is King’s training and ministry as a Baptist pastor. Even fewer people know the long history of African American ministers promoting civil rights.

That history begins with the Reverends Richard Allen (1760-1831) and Absalom Jones (1746-1818). Allen and Jones were foremost founding fathers of the African American independent churches and of the American Civil Rights movement.

Allen's Ministry

Allen traveled extensively, preaching in Delaware and Pennsylvania. In February, 1786, he preached at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. Thinking that he would be there one or two weeks, ministry needs led Allen to a settled place of service in Philadelphia.

Concerned for the wellbeing of African Americans in this parish, he established prayer meetings. “I raised a society in 1786 of forty-two members. I saw the necessity of erecting a place of worship for the coloured people.”

Jones' Convictions

It was at this time that the Rev. Jones united with Rev. Allen. Their little band met great opposition, including “very degrading and insulting language to us, to try and prevent us from going on.”

Notwithstanding, they established prayer meetings and meetings of exhortation, with many people becoming Christians. Their growing congregation, still without a building, often attended services at St. George’s Church. When the black worshippers became more numerous, the white leaders “moved us from the seats we usually sat on, and placed us around the wall.”

African American Civil Rights

It was at this juncture that one of the most noteworthy events in the American Civil Rights movement occurred. Taking seats that they thought were appropriate, prayer began. Allen describes the scene. “We had not long been upon our knees before I heard considerable scuffling and low talking. I raised my head up and saw one of the trustees, H. M., having hold of the Rev. Absalom Jones, pulling him up off of his knees, and saying, ‘You must get up—you must not kneel here.’ Mr. Jones replied, ‘Wait until prayer is over.’ Mr. H. M. said ‘No, you must get up now, or I will call for aid and I will force you away.’ Mr. Jones said, ‘Wait until prayer is over, and I will get up and trouble you no more.’”

By the time the second usher arrived, prayer was over, and, according to Allen, “We all went out of the church in a body, and they were no more plagued with us in the church. This raised a great excitement and inquiry among the citizens, in so much that I believe they were ashamed of their conduct.”

As a result, Allen and Jones birthed the first independent Black Church in the North when they hired a store room and held worship by themselves. Facing excommunication from the “mother church,” they remained united and strong.

Allen stirringly recounts the situation. “Here we were pursued with threats of being disowned, and read publicly out of meeting if we did continue to worship in the place we had hired; but we believed the Lord would be our friend. . . . Here was the beginning and rise of the first African church in America.”

African American Church History

Some twenty years later, when increasing numbers of African Americans could not worship without harassment in the Methodist Church, Allen and others called a conference which established the first African denomination in America. It was resolved, “That the people of Philadelphia, Baltimore, etc., should become one body, under the name of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.”

While Americans rightfully pause to remember the historic work of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is equally important to reflect on precursors to his work. The Revs. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones paved the way for heroic African American ministers to pursue civil rights, equality, and religious freedom for all Americans.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Who Is Saint Nicholas?

Who Is Saint Nicholas?*

Note: So many people enjoyed this Christmas blog post last year, that I plan to re-post it every Christmas season. Enjoy and Merry Christmas!

The origin of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, who was born during the third century in the village of Patara. At the time, the area was part of Greece and is now on the southern coast of Turkey.

His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus' words to "sell what you own and give the money to the poor," Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man.

Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships. Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Bishop Nicholas suffered for his faith, was exiled, and imprisoned. The prisons were so full of bishops, priests, and deacons, that there was no room for the real criminals—murderers, thieves, and robbers.

After his release, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. He died December 6, AD 343 in Myra and was buried in his cathedral church. The anniversary of his death became a day of celebration, St. Nicholas Day.

Through the centuries many stories and legends have been told of St. Nicholas' life and deeds. These accounts help us understand his extraordinary character and why he is so beloved and revered as protector and helper of those in need. They also help us to understand something of the “Santa myths.”

One story tells of a poor man with three daughters. In those days a young woman's father had to offer prospective husbands something of value—a dowry. The larger the dowry, the better the chance that a young woman would find a good husband. Without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry. This poor man's daughters, without dowries, were therefore destined to be sold into slavery.

Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home-providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas.

Sometimes the story is told with gold balls instead of bags of gold. That is why three gold balls, sometimes represented as oranges, are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas. And so St. Nicholas is a gift-giver.

One of the oldest stories showing St. Nicholas as a protector of children takes place long after his death. The townspeople of Myra were celebrating the good saint on the eve of his feast day when a band of Arab pirates from Crete came into the district. They stole treasures from the Church of Saint Nicholas to take away as booty. As they were leaving town, they snatched a young boy, Basilios, to make into a slave. The emir, or ruler, selected Basilios to be his personal cupbearer, as not knowing the language, Basilios would not understand what the king said to those around him.

So, for the next year Basilios waited on the king, bringing his wine in a beautiful golden cup. For Basilios' parents, devastated at the loss of their only child, the year passed slowly, filled with grief. As the next St. Nicholas' feast day approached, Basilios' mother would not join in the festivity, as it was now a day of tragedy.

However, she was persuaded to have a simple observance at home—with quiet prayers for Basilios' safekeeping. Meanwhile, as Basilios was fulfilling his tasks serving the emir, he was suddenly whisked up and away. St. Nicholas appeared to the terrified boy, blessed him, and set him down at his home back in Myra. Imagine the joy and wonderment when Basilios amazingly appeared before his parents, still holding the king's golden cup. This is the first story told of St. Nicholas protecting children—which became his primary role in the West.

Through the centuries St. Nicholas has continued to be venerated by Catholics and Orthodox and honored by Protestants. By his example of generosity to those in need, especially children, St. Nicholas continues to be a model for the compassionate life.

Widely celebrated in Europe, St. Nicholas' feast day, December 6th, kept alive the stories of his goodness and generosity. In Germany and Poland, boys dressed as bishops begged alms for the poor—and sometimes for themselves! In the Netherlands and Belgium, St. Nicholas arrived on a steamship from Spain to ride a white horse on his gift-giving rounds. December 6th is still the main day for gift giving and merrymaking in much of Europe.

For example, in the Netherlands St. Nicholas is celebrated on the 5th, the eve of the day, by sharing candies (thrown in the door), chocolate initial letters, small gifts, and riddles. Dutch children leave carrots and hay in their shoes for the saint's horse, hoping St. Nicholas will exchange them for small gifts. Simple gift-giving in early Advent helps preserve a Christmas Day focus on the Christ Child.

*Developed from the web site:

Friday, December 21, 2007

How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind

How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind

I just learned about a new book that sounds fascinating for everyone interested in African American ministry. It will be released in January 2008 and is by church historian Thomas Oden. The title is: How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind.

Here's a recommendation from a man I highly respect, Dr. Tite Tienou.

Tite Tiénou, Dean and Professor of Theology of Mission Trinity Evangelical Divinity School"How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind is a bold call to rehabilitate the earliest African contributions to the shaping of world Christianity. As such, it is a major resource for all people interested in the history of the Christian movement. Oden's focus on the intellectual dimension of Africans' role in the formation of Christian culture may surprise some, but it is a much-needed welcome corrective to the assumptions held by many. In my opinion, this book is one of the most significant contributions to the literature on world Christianity. Must reading!"

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Willow Creek Repents

Willow Creek Repents

All those concerned about how churches produce spiritually mature believers should find the following link fascinating:

Bottom line: spiritually mature people grow as they are equipped for:

1. Scriptural study/application

2. Spiritual disciplines: how to practice the biblical/historical disciplines of the spiritual life

3. Spiritual friendships: how to engage one another in biblical relationships.

And it took 30 years, 100s of programs, and millions of dollars to figure this out?

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Core Equipping Course Goes Online

Be Equipped by the Book Online
I am excited to announce the first ever Capital Bible Seminary (CBS) online distance education (ODE) course.

I will be teaching Discipleship Counseling I (DC I) as an ODE course from February 4 to May 2, 2008. DC I is our core course which equips pastors, counselors, and lay people to think biblically about soul care, spiritual direction, and biblical counseling.

The online edition of DC I enables students to take the course from the comfort of their homes, on their own schedule, while actively engaging other course members and the professor through the course web site. Enrollment is strictly limited to the first fifteen qualified students. Because of pre-class assignments, the last day to enroll in this course is January 18, 2008.

To receive a copy of the DC I ODE syllabus please email me at For more information, or if you have questions, please feel free to contact me.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Tin Man, Part II, Guest Blog by Pastor Aaron Tolson

Tin Man, Part II
Guest Blog by Pastor Aaron Tolson[1]

My wife and I (Aaron Tolson) watched the recent mini-series Tin Man on the Sci-Fi channel over the past couple of nights. I’m not much for sci-fi movies, but I did enjoy the humorous connections between The Wizard of Oz and this version which takes place several generations later…

As with any show, film, or movie, I tend to watch with spiritual-eyes to see what truth is being communicated or happens to lay hidden in the overall story. Someone wise once told me that “every great story has the true story in it.” Here are just a couple of the observations I took away from watching this particular series.

1. Strength Together: So much of the movie kept emphasizing this point. From sisters holding hands and able to face anything, to the unlikely band of misfit heroes who constantly came to each others’ rescue. The divide and conquer military tactic has been around since the beginning of time. The best defense: building strong relationships that will not be broken. Relationships are so important—whether holding tightly to the Hand of God or holding tightly to a spiritual friend.

2. Parental Calling: DG’s (Dorothy) “parents” loved her because they were programmed to do so—to teach her, guide her, and speak truth to her—knowing that one day it would benefit her at just the right time. While we are NOT robots, with the Holy Spirit dwelling inside us we have the ability to love our children in this way and God desires us to do so. Working with teens and their parents, I am too aware of the many excuses parents have for staying out of their children’s lives and how many teens feel a lack of love from their parents. Parents don’t have to be perfect, nor do they need to think that their kid has to “get it” right away. Instead, parents speak truth with the hope that God will bring it to mind exactly when He needs to.

3. Understanding the Heart of God: “If you don't have heart, you don’t have anything” (Tim Man). I would re-word it. “If you don’t have God’s heart, you don’t have anything.” Understanding the heart of God and keeping His perspective central is the key to dealing with the ups-and-downs of life. Living out of our flesh-patterns is easy, but making the choice to seek God’s heart and respond to our circumstances in tune with His heartbeat is powerful! Without that, what do we have differently than anyone else in the world?

4. Our Secret Weapon—Repentance and Forgiveness: I wish I would have counted the number of times some character said “I’m sorry” and other characters offered forgiveness, either verbally or in action, and how each time that response contributed to the momentum of the Light. Contrast that with Azkadellia (the Wicked Witch) who never forgave. Ultimately victory came through DG apologizing to her own sister for the hurt she had caused and risking rejection, failure, and even death to reach back out to her sister. This took DG seeing past the evil appearance and looking to the “good heart” inside. There is so much wrapped up in that 30-second interchange...

5. Truth is Truth: No matter the opinions, perspectives, thoughts, feelings, and accusations, Truth in this movie never changed. The Tin Man had the ability to feel deeply... Raw (the cowardly lion) had the ability to stand strong... Glitch (the Scarecrow) had the ability to think wisely... Tutor (Toto) had the ability to choose rightly... DG had power and authority (even though she didn’t realize it). The Truth was that DG’s mom and dad loved her deeply. The Truth was that there was more going on than DG could understand.

6. The Power of His Presence: This is actually the title of devotionals by Ray Stedman, but it fits perfectly in this story... DG had the power of the Light within her. Once that tidbit of information had been revealed, there were so many times my wife and I hollered at her (via the TV), “Why don’t you use your power!” Hmmm... and why don’t we?! We have the greatest Light of all within us, so why then do we stumble around life feeling worried, confused, and defeated? Why do we submit to the powers of the darkness? Why? Is it that we don’t really know what we possess? Is it that we too often just forget? Or could it be that we just don’t believe it? Christ in you – the hope of glory! (Colossians 1:27)

7. Used for Good or Evil: The whole plot of this mini-series is based on who will get the green emerald and how it will be used. Just like anything else in life, objects are neither good nor evil in and of themselves. It comes down to the choices we make in how we use them. This applies to the Internet, MySpace, Facebook, movies, TV, music, texting on cell phones, social activities, churches, athletics, relationships, clothing, everything! We can choose to use them for evil or for good. We confuse seekers, frustrate believers, and totally miss the point when we make “things” the point. Listening to Father’s voice and conforming my will to His in each situation IS the point!

[1]Aaron Tolson, Youth Pastor, ODBC Student Ministry,,,

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Tin Man and Evangelical Christianity

Tin Man and Evangelical Christianity

The Sci-Fi channel recently aired a six-hour mini-series, Tin Man, updating The Wizard of Oz. This was not your Auntie Em’s yellow brick road!

In the original movie version, no one could confuse the good guys (and girls) with the bad guys (and girls). Evil was evil and good was good.

In Tin Man, such was not the case. The good guys and girls were tortured souls with glaring weaknesses. Even the wonderful Dorothy (DG in this version) ended up being part of the cause of fifteen years of suffering due to her failure to heed her parents, her over-adventurous spirit, her paralyzing fear, and her abandonment of her sister.

Azkadellia, aka, the Wicked Witch of the West, seemed thoroughly, completely, unredeemable evil. Until . . . the end. In the end we learn that she, too, was a tortured soul, with a once-good heart, who longed to be free.

Of course, I’m not endorsing everything about Tin Man. My point in this blog is not to critique every un-Christian aspect.

Rather, I’m making a case for Tin Man, in one way, emulating the way the Bible depicts human beings—even its lead characters. Other than the God-man, our Lord Jesus Christ, every other man and woman in the Bible is flawed. Horribly flawed.

Think David. A man after God’s own heart. Yes, David the murderer, adulterer, and liar. The list of imperfect Bible characters continues endlessly.

Unfortunately, that’s not how modern Christians tend to read the Bible. Nor is it how modern Christians tend to write novels or enjoy movies. Far too many so-called Christian novels, and all-too many movies endorsed by Christian leaders, are drivel. Their characters are flat, one-dimensional. Picture perfect.

And there’s the rub. Other than Christ, no character is a picture of perfection.

And here’s the point. Our Pollyanna perspective on life leads us toward an arrogant, judgmental, unforgiving spirit toward one another, toward unbelievers, and even toward our own selves.

And frankly, it leads most of us to live boring, flat, one-dimensional lives, while often hiding the multi-dimensions competing every second in our souls.

Honestly, I prefer DG to Dorothy. I prefer Azkadellia to the Wicked Witch. At least they are fully human and fully struggling to be more fully human.

Until heaven, isn’t that the honest truth about all of us?

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Web 2.0 and Relationships 2.0

Web 2.0 and Relationships 2.0

In the Internet world, the term Web 2.0 gained prominence in a piece Tim O’Reilly wrote on September 30, 2005. Though some argue that the term lacks precision and that the technology has been in place since at least 1995, Web 2.0 people frequently use the term to mean a new, more connected way the web is being used. It especially highlights applications that focus on web-based communities and social networking.

Web 2.0

Web 2.0 includes things such as blogs and vlogs (video blogs) linked together via sites such as Google Blogs or My Space or YouTube. Note here the 2.0 aspect—people have been writing web logs or online journals for some time. But now they are linked, interconnected. The same with YouTube for connecting videos. In a similar way, individual, isolated articles now are linked together through RSS feeds so that if you want to know about, for instance, John McCain’s campaign, you can automatically receive a plethora of diverse articles from around the county—getting a community view of him rather than a one-sided, slanted view.

Another Web 2.0 innovation includes sites such as Facebook which is an online community that proves the old adage of six degrees of separation. In other words, everyone is connected to everyone else via the friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend.

In fact, I joined Facebook three days ago when my nineteen-year-old daughter urged me to move into the 21st century. In less than 72 hours, I now have over 175 Facebook friends—these are people I actually know—who still want to be my friends! But that’s another story.

Relationships 2.0

My point is to help us “old folks” to understand not only Web 2.0 but what I call Relationships 2.0. Consistently I hear folks from my generation making comments that indicate cluelessness about how relationships work for the 2.0 generation.

For instance, a friend said, “I was on a college campus and people were alone on their cell phones talking, text messaging, and all that. Doesn’t anyone relate anymore?” Whose definition of relating was my friend using?

Other friends have said, “Kids are on the computer all alone all day. They never build any relationships.” Of course, those kids on the computer are likely playing online role-playing video games with friends across the street and across the country, or world. They are likely simultaneously chatting via any number of Web 2.0 social networking sites. And at the same time they are probably leaving “Wall” messages on Facebook profile pages of their friends.

Even when people hear this explanation, they still often say, “But that’s not relating. In the old day, you related face-to-face.”

Well, let’s talk about that. In the old day, you related face-to-face with a few people who lived close to you. Depending how many days you go back, like 100 years or so, travel issues meant that you had few opportunities for face-to-face interaction beyond your family or a few close neighbors. Now some people will jump on that and say, “Well see, at least they did have a few close relationships. As I’ll mention in a moment, that’s possible in the Web 2.0 world also. Additionally, let’s not kid ourselves. Not every person 100 years ago had idyllic relationships. There were lonely, hurting, hurtful, and mean people “back in the day” also.

Post-Modern or Pre-Modern?

People act like Relationships 2.0 are a post-modern invention. In reality, they are more pre-modern. Think about Martin Luther. I did my dissertation on his letters of spiritual counsel. He wrote over 3,000 letters of pastoral care, and received 1,000s back. This was not “face-to-face” relating, but it was deep, intimate, caring relating, nonetheless.

People today assume that you can’t relate via email, text messaging, or online chat. I disagree. Just as Luther could intimately connect with 100s of people through letter writing in his day, so it is possible that we can deeply connect with scores of people today through chat, email, text messaging, linked blogs, social networking sites, and the like.

Now, I’m not saying that every young person today has a network of healthy relationships. Of course, neither did every young person 100 years ago. Neither does every “old person” now.

My point is not to talk about bad, good, better, or best forms of relating. My point is to help my fellow “old folks” to lighten up. We’re never going to connect with the Web 2.0 Generation if we criticize and avoid their ways of relating.

Connecting with the Connected Generation: High Tech and High Touch

For me, rather than rip on it, I’m joining it. I’m a diehard Web 2.0 and Relationship 2.0 person. That doesn’t mean I’ve given up attending my small group in person, doesn’t mean I’ve given up attending church, doesn’t mean we’ve quit hosting parties at our house. I/we continue to do all of those face-to-face relationships.

But, I certainly email endlessly (still working on the text messaging, but I’ll get there). I do some free online chat counseling. I have my fair share of RSS feeds. Obviously, I post blogs on Google and link to hundreds of sites on my web site. As of this week, I’m on Facebook and loving it. I visit YouTube frequently. You get the idea.

The former ways of community building can remain. To them we can add new ways—Web 2.0 and Relationships 2.0 community building. Let’s be high tech and high touch.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Shrek the Halls?

Shrek the Halls?

I’m normally not one to expect TV Christmas specials to uphold the true meaning of Christmas. A secular program is going to be secular. However, when a secular program subtly and not-so-subtly moves from secular to sacrilegious, that’s going too far.

So, it was with a desire to relax a little and with low expectations that my wife and I sat down the other night to watch the premier showing of Shrek the Halls. We watched half of it before we had to turn it off.

From an artistic perspective, the show left much to be desired. It seemed to have been given little entertainment thought other than making a boatload of money off of the legion of fans of the three Shrek movies. But, I’m not a Hollywood critic, so that’s not the true focus of my thoughts.

Boring is one thing, supplementing the true meaning of Christmas with secular additions is another, but supplanting the Christ Child entirely is an entirely different matter. Two examples stand out.

When Santa comes to town, everyone erupts into the singing of “Hosanta!” That’s right. Instead of “Hosanna!” sung in worship of Christ, it was “Hosanta!” sung in worship to Santa.

Then, after several minutes of build-up, Shrek finally agrees to read The Christmas Story. Here I thought we might actually have a scene like the memorable one from A Charlie Brown Christmas. You remember. Linus shares the true meaning of Christmas by reading the Christmas story from Luke’s Gospel. I guess times really have changed in these past 42 years.

What does Shrek read when he reads The Christmas Story? He reads “Twas the night before Christmas.”

Ah. So now we know the rest of the story. The Christmas story is about worshiping Santa with “Hosantas!” and it is telling the narrative of Santa coming to town, instead of worshipping the Christ Child and telling the narrative of God coming to earth.

That’s the last time I will watch Shrek the Halls. Sucker that I am for a good Christmas special, I’m not a sucker for supplanting the Savior with Santa.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Venture Smith: Pulling the Rope in Unison

Venture Smith: Pulling the Rope in Unison[i]

It has become something of a cliché to imagine that Black families today find it difficult to experience stability because of a long history of instability caused by slavery and racism. While not at all minimizing the obstacles that enslaved African American families have faced, history paints a truer and more optimistic picture of their response. Though everything fought against them, enslaved African Americans battled gallantly to maintain family cohesion—a cohesion that provided a sturdy platform from which to handle life courageously.

Enslaved African American couples sustained strong marital relationships. Venture Smith was born in Dukandarra, in Guinea, about 1729. Kidnapped at age eight, Robertson Mumford purchased him a year later. After living with Mumford for thirteen years, Venture married Meg at age twenty-two. They remained together for over forty-seven years, through many trials and tribulations, until parted by death.

Venture’s narrative contains an explanation for their marital faithfulness. On the occasion of their marriage, Venture threw a rope over his cabin and asked his wife to go to the opposite side and pull on the rope hanging there while he remained and pulled on his end. After they both had tugged at it awhile in vain, he called her to his side of the cabin and by their united effort they drew the rope to themselves with ease.

He then explained the object lesson to his young bride. “If we pull in life against each other we shall fail, but if we pull together we shall succeed.”

Jennie Hill was born and enslaved in 1837 in Missouri. Florence Patton interviewed the ninety-six-year-old Hill in 1933. During her interview, Hill adamantly resisted the notion that enslaved families lacked closeness. “Some people think that the slaves had no feeling—that they bore their children as animals bear their young and that there was no heartbreak when the children were torn from their parents or the mother taken from her brood to toil for a master in another state. But that isn’t so. The slaves loved their families even as African Americans love their own today.”

Communicating the message of African American family love was so important to Reverend Thomas Jones that he bore witness to it on the very first page of his narrative. “I can testify, from my own painful experience, to the deep and fond affection which the slave cherishes in his heart for his home and its dear ones. We have no other tie to link us to the human family, but our fervent love for those who are with us and of us in relations of sympathy and devotedness, in wrongs and wretchedness.”

African Americans have a great legacy of family love. That legacy, modeled by Smith’s family, Hill’s family, and Jones’ family, teaches that hardships do no make it too hard to love.

[i]Excerpted with permission of Baker Books from Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

African American Spirituals

African American Spirituals: Telling the Rest of the Story[i]

To appreciate the meaning, message, and mutual ministry of the slave spirituals, it is vital to understand how and why they were composed. Carey Davenport, a retired Black Methodist minister from Texas, had been born enslaved in 1855. He vividly depicts the spontaneous nature of slave spirituals. Sometimes the Colored folks would go down in dugouts and hollows and hold their own service, and they used to sing songs that come a-gushing up from the heart.”

These were not polished, practiced anthems designed to entertain. They were personal, powerful psalms designed to sustain. “Songs were not carefully composed and copyrighted as they are today; they were ‘raised’ by anyone who had a song in their hearts.”

Slave spirituals were shared songs composed on the spot to empathize with and encourage real people in real trouble. Anderson Edwards, a slave preacher, remembers, “We didn’t have any song books and the Lord gave us our songs and when we sang them at night it just whispering so nobody would hear us.”

The creation of individual slave spirituals poignantly portrays care-giving at its best. When James McKim asked a slave the origin of a particular spiritual, the slave explained, “I’ll tell you; it’s this way. My master called me up and ordered me a hundred lashes. My friends saw it and are sorry for me. When they come to the praise meeting that night they sing about it. Some are very good singers and know how; and they work it in, work it in, you know; till they get it right; and that’s the way.” Spirituals were born from slaves observing and empathizing with the suffering of their fellow slaves as a way of demonstrating identification and solidarity with the wronged slave.

Creating and singing spirituals in the middle of their predicament became a means for reciprocal bonding. Slaves wove the words into the fabric of their worship and into the tapestry of their everyday life together. This resulted in communal empathy. The flexible, improvisational structure of the spirituals gave them the capacity to fit an individual slave’s specific experience into the group’s experience. One person’s sorrow or joy became everyone’s through song. Singing the spirituals was therefore both an intensely personal and vividly communal experience in which an individual received consolation for sorrow and gained a heightening of joy because his experience was shared. It was a lasting portrait of the truth that shared sorrow is endurable sorrow.

In the very structure of the spirituals, we see articulated the idea of communal support. Frequently the spirituals mentioned individual members present, either by name—“Sister Tilda, Brother Tony,”—or by description—“the stranger over there in the corner.” This co-creation included everyone in the experience of mutual exhortation and communal support. Drawing from the Bible, Protestant hymns, and sermons, the slaves fashioned spiritual music which expressed their faith in moving, immediate, and dramatic terms.

The spontaneous creation of the spirituals exemplifies what people-helpers call “staying in the moment,” “being present,” and “immediacy.” The African American spirituals demonstrate that caring for people is not so much about skills, but about artful connecting through real and raw relating.

[i]Excerpted with permission of Baker Books from Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Maria Stewart: A Voice for the Voiceless

Maria Stewart: A Voice for the Voiceless[i]

In September 1832, in Boston, Massachusetts, Maria Stewart (1803-1879) did something that no American-born woman of any race before her undertook. She mounted a lecture platform and raised a political argument before an audience composed of both men and women.

According to her personal testimony, she was a woman of profound Christian faith, moved by the Spirit to “willingly sacrifice my life for the cause of God and my brethren.” In the climate of that day, she did indeed take her life in her hands. In her characteristic fiery style, familiar to readers of her articles in The Liberator, she argued against the colonization movement to ship African Americans to West Africa. Using biblical imagery she challenged her racially mixed audience asking, “Why sit ye here and die?”

She called Blacks and Whites to action, in particular urging Black Americans to demand their God-given rights. Her message was unsparing and controversial, intended as a goad to her people to organize against the tyranny of slavery in the South and to resist and defy the restrictions of bigotry in the North.

To fully comprehend Stewart’s staggering accomplishments, we have to backtrack to her less than advantageous upbringing. As she tells her story:

I was born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1803; was left an orphan at five years of age; was bound out in a clergyman’s family; had the seeds of piety and virtue early sown in my mind, but was deprived of the advantages of education, though my soul thirsted for knowledge. Left them at fifteen years of age; attended Sabbath schools until I was twenty; in 1826 was married to James W. Stewart; was left a widow in 1829; was, as I humbly hope and trust, brought to the knowledge of the truth, as it is in Jesus, in 1830; in 1831 I made a public profession of my faith in Christ.

Married at 23, widowed at 26, converted at 27; she challenged a nation at 28. In the fall of 1831, she entered the offices of William Lloyd Garrison, the editor of the newly established abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. Stewart handed Garrison the manuscript of her challenge to African Americans to sue for their rights. Relegated to the paper’s “Ladies Department,” both ladies and gentlemen received her confrontation.

Stewart entitled her work Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality: The Sure Foundation on Which We Must Build. She told her readers that she “presented them before you in order to arouse you to exertion, and to enforce upon your minds the great necessity of turning your attention to knowledge and improvement.” Here we have a young, female, African American widow writing in a White male abolitionist tabloid as a spiritual director to motivate her people to learning and action.

Stewart adeptly inspires her audience by helping them to envision and unearth their buried talents and abilities. “All the nations of the earth are crying out for liberty and equality. Away, away with tyranny and oppression! And shall Afric’s sons be silent any longer? Far be it from me to recommend to you either to kill, burn, or destroy. But I would strongly recommend to you to improve your talents; let not one lie buried in the earth. Show forth your powers of mind. Prove to the world that though black your skins as shades of night, your hearts are pure, your souls are white.”

Stewart grounds her exhortations in her understanding of racial equality. “Many think, because your skins are tinged with a sable hue, that you are an inferior race of beings; but God does not consider you as such. He hath formed and fashioned you in his own glorious image, and hath bestowed upon you reason and strong powers of intellect. He hath made you to have dominion over the beasts of the field, the fowls of the air, and the fish of the sea (Genesis 1:26). He hath crowned you with glory and honor; hath made you but a little lower than the angels (Psalms 8:5) . . .” Using the biblical truth of the imago Dei (image of God), Stewart guides her readers toward the counter-cultural but scriptural truth that, “It is not the color of the skin that makes the man, but it is the principles formed within the soul.”

Stewart also confronts past failures and challenges toward future exploits. “O, ye daughters of Africa, awake! Awake! Arise! No longer sleep nor slumber, but distinguish yourselves. Show forth to the world that ye are endowed with noble and exalted faculties. O, ye daughters of Africa! What have you done to immortalize your names beyond the grave? What examples have ye set before the rising generation? What foundation have ye laid for generations yet unborn?”

In perhaps her most frank comments, Stewart challenges Black women not to “bury their minds and talents beneath a load of iron pots and kettles.” She explains that Whites “have practiced nothing but head-work these 200 years, and we have done their drudgery. And is it not high time for us to imitate their examples, and practice head-work too, and keep what we have got, and get what we can?”

How prescient. How far ahead of her time.

And she’s just warming up. Stewart also exhorts to a spirit not of aggressive anger, nor of passive resignation, but of assertive courage. “And we have possessed by far too mean and cowardly a disposition, though I highly disapprove of an insolent or impertinent one. Do you ask the disposition I would have you possess? Possess the spirit of independence. The Americans do, and why should not you? Possess the spirit of men, bold and enterprising, fearless and undaunted.”

What an inspiring challenge. Stewart is reminding African American women that God endowed them with an equal measure of spiritual power, love, and wisdom. They do not have to take a backseat to anyone. Her message rings true still today.

[i]Excerpted with permission of Baker Books from Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Daniel Alexander Payne: The Rosa Parks of His Day

Daniel Alexander Payne: The Rosa Parks of His Day

Rosa Parks (1913-2005) was the “Mother of the Modern-Day Civil Rights Movement” according to the U.S. Congress. On December 1, 1955, Parks became famous for refusing to obey bus driver James Blake’s order that she give up her seat to make room for a White passenger.

Her actions started the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which was one of our nation’s largest movements against racial segregation. In addition, it helped to launch Martin Luther King, Jr., who was involved with the boycott, to prominence in the Civil Rights movement. Rosa Parks has had a lasting worldwide legacy.

Seventy years earlier, Daniel Alexander Payne (1811-1893) engaged in a similar, but lesser-known act of civil disobedience. Had his actions been more widely reported, Payne might today be known as the “Father of the Former-Day Civil Rights Movement.”

Born to free Black parents in Charleston, South Carolina, Payne was an early leader in and the official historian for the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC). Leaving the South in 1834, Payne studied at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, PA, and then ministered for over fifty years as a pastor, educator, and influential bishop.

Payne’s ministry returned him to the South in the twilight years of his life. When he was in his seventies, he refused to stay on a train where he would have been seated in Jim Crow conditions. Standing his ground and confronting the White authorities on the train, he said to them, “Before I’ll dishonor my manhood by going into that car, stop your train and put me off.”

Payne describes the scene after he left the train. “The guilty conductor looked out and said, ‘Old man, you can get on the platform at the back of the car.’ I replied only by contemptuous silence.”

Payne then carried his own luggage, walking a great distance over “a heavy bed of sand” to his next speaking engagement in the deep South. Payne literally walked the talk. By doing so, he was the predecessor of later-day Civil Rights leaders such as Parks.

How did such courage develop in Payne’s life? Where did such conviction emanate from in his background?

Payne himself credits two men in his life, the one his biological father and the other his spiritual mentor. Payne’s father started him on his purposeful life. “I was the child of many prayers. My father dedicated me to the service of God before I was born, declaring that if the Lord would give him a son that son should be consecrated to him, and named after the Prophet Daniel.” Payne marveled at the sense of self, the sense of masculinity, that his father conveyed to him.

His father did so not only by naming, but also by modeling. Of his father, Payne testifies, “He was an earnest Christian and a class leader, having two classes under him—what used to be called the Seekers’ Class and the Members’ Class. He was a faithful observer of family worship; and often his morning prayers and hymns aroused me, breaking my infant sleep and slumbers.”

Though empowered by such spiritual fatherly nurture, Payne felt the wound of fatherlessness when his father died when Payne was four. After his mother passed away when he was nine, Payne’s great aunt raised him. Seeing his need for a father figure, he joined a church and was “assigned to the class of Mr. Samuel Weston, who from that time became the chief religious guide of my youth.”

As valuable as these two male mentors were in Payne’s life, he credited another Male (the God-Man) with being his essential model. “The glorious manhood of Jesus Christ is the only true type of real manhood. . . . Study him, study him as your model; study the perfect model of manhood until he shall be conformed in you.” Payne copied the Apostle Paul’s male mentoring model. “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).

Similarly, Rosa Parks’ courage was embedded in her through her upbringing in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, where she was mentored during her lifelong active membership. Here she heard of the inspiring exploits of AMEC Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne. In 1995, she published her memoirs, Quiet Strength, which focused on the role that her faith played in her life. Parks also noted the impact on her life of her mother, a teacher, who home-schooled her until she was eleven.

Rosa Parks and Daniel Alexander Payne—both lived courageous, exemplary lives of racial reconciliation. Both were inspired by empowering spiritual mentors. Both are African American heroes of the faith whose lives are worthy of emulation. Both deserve their place among that “great cloud of witnesses” in God’s hall of faith.

[1]Excerpted with permission of Baker Books from Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

African Americans and Biblical Counseling

African Americans and Biblical Counseling

I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on African Americans and biblical counseling. Leaders in various biblical counseling movements lament the low percentage of African Americans attending their conferences.

Why? I think my study of Black Church history provides a convincing answer. Working on my book Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction, my co-author and I were looking for any and all instances of what today we call biblical counseling—whether by pastors or lay people.

We looked for examples of:

*Soul Care for Suffering and Sanctification: Sustaining and Healing—Comforting those sinned against in a fallen world.

*Spiritual Direction for Sinning and Sanctification: Reconciling and Guiding—Confronting those sinning.

We certainly found reconciling and guiding.

However, we found a greater preponderance of sustaining and healing.

Here’s the issue. Some current models of biblical counseling focus almost exclusively on confronting sin. In fact, some leaders in some of these movements will tell you that people simply don’t come to them for issues related to suffering. Of course, this may have much to do with the message being communicated that biblical counseling is about sin and not about suffering (a false message, by the way).

African Americans, given their history of suffering, have grave concerns with any model of biblical counseling that spends the bulk of its time confronting sin while ignoring suffering. For African Americans, progressive sanctification is just as vitally related to suffering as to sinning.

For African Americans, pastoral counseling and pastoral care is equated at least as much with sustaining and healing sufferers who have been sinned against as it is with confronting Christians who are sinning against God and others. This in no way minimizes their hatred of sin, their view of depravity, or their focus on God’s glory. African Americans, however, understand from the Bible, Church history, and their national history, that true pastoral counseling, lay counseling, biblical counseling, and pastoral care must deal both with the sins we have committed and with the evils we have suffered.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

"Rule Over!"

“Rule Over!”

In my previous blog, I asked and answered the question, “What are the first words spoken by God to a human being?”

The answer? Not Genesis 1:28, but Genesis 2:16.

Genesis 1:28 was spoken to Adam and Eve, and thus chronologically had to occur in the context of Genesis 2:21-25.

Think about the implications of this.

Immediately before the Serpent tempts Eve and Adam, God tells Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and multiple: fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Many have wondered how Eve heard the words God told Adam in Genesis 2:16-17 about all the free-to-eat trees and the one forbidden-to-eat tree. Obviously she had heard, since she (mis-quotes) God. So, either God told her but it is not recorded, or Adam told her. Either way, she was told.

But more pertinent to this discussion is that we do know what she was told by God before the Serpent tempted her. “Fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Ringing in Eve’s ears, and Adam’s, should have been the words "Rule over!”

Subtly tempted by he Serpent who was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made, Adam and Eve should have continuously reminded themselves, "Rule over!”

And what about us?

Ringing in our ears do we hear the empowering words “Rule over!”

When we feel like life is too much, when we are overwhelmed, when we are tempted, do we give in and give up, or do we rule over?

"You Are Free!"

"You Are Free"

What are the first words spoken by God to a human being?

Most of us would immediately say they are the words spoken in Genesis 1:28, “Be fruitful and increase in number.”

However, those words were spoken to Adam and Eve. “God blessed them and said to them. Likely those words were said right after the creation of Eve in Genesis 2:21-25.

So, what was spoken first?

“You are free” (Genesis 2:16).

Think about that!

The very first words God said to a human being: “You are free!”

We have bought Satan’s lie that God is a shalt-not God. Yet God’s first communication with us shouts, “I am a shalt Got!”

“You are free!”

We are choice-makers. We are choosers. We are free.

How powerfully that message should ring in our ears when tempted to sin. How powerfully that message should have rung in our ancestral parents’ (Adam and Eve) ears when the Serpent tempted them.

When you think of God, do you think of the Freedom-Giver?

When you think of yourself, do you think of the Free-one?

When faced with choices toward good or evil, do you hear the words, “You are free!” Free to choose good over evil.

When you are in an intense conversation and words are about to spill out of your mouth--death words, cruel words, harmful words, critical words--do you remember that "you are free" to stop; free to choose life words, constructive words.

We are not controlled by our "personalities," by our circumstances, by others. We are free.

One message pounded into my head again and again when researching Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction, is the glaring truth, practiced daily by Christian slaves that "You may control my body, but you cannot control my soul! My body may be enslaved, but my mind is free. I am free!"

If enslaved African American Christians could remember this foundational truth, then why can't we?

“You are free!”

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Beyond the Suffering Seminar

On Saturday, February 23, from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., on the Main Lanham Campus of Washington Bible College/Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD, I will present a seminar based on my latest book, Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction.

Interactive Seminar

This interactive seminar will discuss ways lay people, pastors, and Christian counselors of all races can learn from the history of African American soul care to grow in Christ and to minister to those who are suffering pain or loss.

Lay people, pastors, counselors, and students of all races will:

• Be empowered to apply proven ways to help people find healing hope in the midst of deep pain and sorrow.

• Be equipped to minister more effectively in cross-cultural settings.

• Be enabled to skillfully practice historic soul care.

• Be enlightened about how to be a godly male leader by the founding fathers of the African American church.

• Be enthused about how to be a powerful female spiritual friend by the heroic sisters of the spirit of the African American church.

• Be enriched by past African American husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers concerning how to nurture and enjoy godly living in the home.

Beyond the Suffering Seminar Schedule

8:00–8:45 a.m. Registration and Continental Breakfast
8:45–9:00 a.m. Worship with WBC OneVoice
9:00–9:10 a.m. Greetings and Prayer: WBC/CBS President Larry Mercer
9:10–10:30 a.m. Session One: So Great a Cloud of Witnesses: Following the Ancient Paths
10:30–10:45 a.m. Break
10:45–12:00 p.m. Session Two: Watered with Our Tears: Redeeming Pain and Suffering
12:00–1:05 p.m. Lunch Provided
1:05–1:15 p.m. Worship: WBC OneVoice
1:15–2:30 p.m. Session Three: The Old Ship of Zion: Uniting in Christ
2:30–2:45 p.m. Break
2:45–3:55 p.m. Session Four: This Far by Faith: Living the Drama of Deliverance
3:55–4:00 p.m. Closing Comments
4:00–5:00 p.m. Optional Campus Tour and Book Signing

Seminar Registration Fee:

$50.00 ($80.00 for two): Breakfast, Lunch, Copy of Beyond the Suffering, Seminar Notes, and Seminar Sessions are included.

Register Now!

Brief Synopsis of Beyond the Suffering:

The African American Church has always helped hurting and hardened people through the personal and corporate ministries of sustaining, healing, reconciling, and guiding. This four-dimensional model is the traditional and widely recognized pattern for understanding lay spiritual friendship, pastoral care, and professional Christian counseling. Beyond the Suffering uncovers the buried treasure of wisdom about soul care and spiritual direction contained in the history of African American Christianity. Written with the blended perspectives of an African American woman and a Caucasian man, Beyond the Suffering offers an in-depth exploration of this rich tradition, showing Christians proven ways to help people find hope in the midst of deep pain and sorrow. Pastors, counselors, and lay people, as well as African Americans hungry for the legacy of their ancestors, will appreciate both the history and the practical applications found in this book.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Measure Twice, Cut Once

Measure Twice, Cut Once

Consider today’s blog “Part II” in “What I Learned about Life from My Basement!” In “Part I,” I discussed how my basement refinishing project reminded me of the principle of Sharpening the Saw.

Measure Twice, Cut Once in Home Improvements

Here in “Part II,” my basement work has caused me to reflect on the principle of Measure Twice, Cut Once. If you’ve done any home repairs or remodeling, or any woodworking, then you are familiar with this principle.

If you have a piece of lumber to cut to fit a certain space, you measure carefully—twice. Because, it is much better to measure twice and get it right, then to measure once, get it wrong, and have to cut a second piece of wood. Measuring twice saves time, material, and aggravation.

Measure Twice, Cut Once in Ministry Leadership

As I consult with various ministries, as I work on Boards of various companies, and as I reflect on my own leadership of various ministries now and over the years, this principle shows up—for good or for ill—all the time. It seems that in Christian ministry in particular, and with visionary leaders specifically, there is a tendency to measure once, cut twice.

That is, there seems to be an impatience to get things done, to keep things moving. This impatience then can lead to executive decisions that have never been “measured” via what I call “change management.”

Change Management

Change management, as the label suggests, is the simple process of managing change (duh!). Early in my ministry leadership, being too young, too impatient, and not trained well enough in leadership dynamics, I assumed that managing change meant communicating that change was coming. Of course, this “communication” dropped the “co” off the word co-mmunication!

It was a monologue. “I want you to be prepared because change is coming.”

Well, as I consult with other ministry leaders today, I recognized that at least I was saying something, and at least I was giving a “heads up!” Some ministry leaders don’t even do that much.

However, when they do “communicate,” they assume, as I mistakenly used to, that one-way monologue is communication and equals change management. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Organizing the Organism

True management of change is true co-mmunication. It is true dialogue. A visionary leader gets an idea (and if he/she is a good visionary leader, that idea comes from interaction with his/her team to begin with), and then bounces that ideas off of others in the organization. For after all, the “organ” in organization means that ministry teams are people—living, breathing organisms. In fact, that’s another phrase I use when consulting with ministries: organize the organism.

When visionary leaders recognize that the ministry God called them to lead is a living organism, part of the Body of Christ, then those leaders can “chill.” They stop. They choose the patient route. They decide to measure twice, cut once. They take the extra time to do due diligence in dialogical communication.

Not only does this make good people sense, it makes good practical sense. How many times I have seen visionary leaders try to quickly force change rather than relationally manage change, only to have to spend scores of hours cleaning up the mess. The time spent measuring twice (change management through relational dialogue) is so much shorter than the time spent cutting twice (cleaning up the mess of poorly managed, non-relational change).

Boatloads, Battleship Loads, Sinking Ships, and One Crew in Christ

Ah. Basement projects. I learn so much from them.

Hopefully we can all learn from them.

Remember, in the basement, and when building up the foundation of any ministry, measure twice, cut once. If we spend boatloads of time dialoguing within the organization about change, then we won’t have to spend battleship-loads of time fixing the sinking organizational ship. Instead, we can sail together as one crew in Christ.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Sharpening the Saw

Sharpening the Saw

I’ve picked up a new “hobby” the past year in a new home—woodworking. As in working with wood to finish my basement, including framing, building ceiling soffetts, putting in a wood floor, and putting in the floor trim and shoe.

Of course, all of this takes a sharp saw. Working with my circular saw for several projects, I finally decided to replace the blade. But I did something first. I timed how long it took to cut a piece of wood with the old blade. I then timed how long it took to cut the same length piece of wood with the new blade.

The old blade? Fifty-five seconds.

The new blade? Twelve seconds.

Not only was the time incredibly less; the work and effort were much less. It was like the proverbial hot knife through warm butter when I used the new blade.

There was something else about this little experiment that intrigued me. Since the saw blade only slowly became duller, I had not detected the extra time and effort necessary to use my saw. This was like another proverbial image: the frog in the kettle of slowly heating water who never detects that he is being cooked! I was clueless to the huge amount of wasted time and effort that I was indulging in by using a warn out saw blade.

Readers of Steve Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People will be familiar with the principle of sharpening the saw in one’s personal and professional life. The concept highlights our need to take care of the tool of the soul—the self. To perform at the highest level, to function well emotionally, volitionally, mentally, relationally, spiritually, and physically, we must keep our saw sharp.

What is the “saw” personally? It’s our inner character—our spiritual maturity through spiritual connection to Christ.

How’s your character saw? If it were dull, would you even detect it since you’ve not checked your blade in ages?

We can try to “do” ministry minus the sharp ministry tool of a soul fine-tuned by spiritual formation. Try as we might, we’ll eventually fail—hurting others with our dull blade.

Here’s to keeping our spiritual saw sharp.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Bill Cosby's Latest Book

Come on People!

Dr. Bill Cosby and Dr. Alvin Poussaint have penned an instant classic that every American, regardless of race should race out to purchase, read, and apply. As a middle-age white male, I fondly remember listening to the wit, wisdom, and humor of Bill Cosby on a 78 (a record for those too young to know). The joy he brought me as a youth is nothing compared to the joy he is bringing a race and a nation today as he and his co-author definitively address the "Path from Victims to Victors."

In 288 pages of tightly-written, well-crafted material, Cosby and Poussaint address, in turn, the topics of: "What's Going on with Black Men," "It Takes a Community," "We All Start Out As Children," The Media You Deserve," "Healthy Hearts and Minds," "The High Price of Violence," and "From Poverty to Prosperity." Simply reading these chapter titles demonstrates that "Come on People" holistically addresses the social ills of a people, wisely looking both at individual responsibility and societal/cultural influences.

From the very beginning, their words are riveting. "For the last generation or two, as our communities dissolved and our parenting skills broke down, no one has suffered more than our young black men. Your authors have been around long enough and traveled widely enough to, to think we understand something about the problem. And we're hopeful enough--or desperate enough--to think that with all of us working together we might find a solution" (p. 1).

Indeed, "Come on People: On the Path from Victims to Victors" is the single best modern book providing a solution to the problems facing a race and a nation. While an honest book, it is not a negative book. That is, it looks honestly at the negative factors influencing people today, while looking beyond the negative to positive answers and practical solutions.

Friday, October 12, 2007

My Grandfather's Son: A Memoir

My Grandfather's Son: A Memoir

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is normally so quiet--on the bench and about his public life--that he almost has been perceived as reclusive. Finally, thoroughly, and happily, he has spoken (written) with "My Grandfather's Son: A Memoir." Thomas chronicles his rise from poverty, his upbringing by his grandfather who taught him lessons of personal responsibility, and his up-and-down road to the Supreme Court.

All the while Thomas honestly depicts the barriers he faced and the hurdles he had to overcome. Of course, Thomas also finally speaks about the Anita Hill charges. With candor about the pain and with substantiating evidence about the facts, his side of the story is finally told. But the greater message of the book is the story of how Thomas moved beyond suffering and prejudice and bias to live the America dream. It is a story filled with hope and dignity. It is a story worth telling and worth reading.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The "Jena Six" Case Requires the Wisdom of Solomon

The “Jena Six” Case Requires the Wisdom of Solomon

Jena, Louisiana has become a national hotspot after over a year’s worth of racial tension. In September 2006, latent animosity boiled over when a black high school freshmen asked if he could sit under what had become known as the “White Tree.” The next day, three white students hung nooses from the tree. When the principles’ attempt to expel the students was shot down by the Board, more racial friction erupted.

A little more than three months after the unconscionable noose incident, six Black students beat up a white student until he was knocked unconscious. After a three-hour hospital visit, he was released. When the town prosecutor initially charged the “Jena Six” with attempted murder, charges of racism rose again.

It would take the proverbial wisdom of Solomon to dissect the truth in this difficult situation. Clearly, a more strident response against the initial hate crime of hanging the nooses should have occurred. Shame on the school board for backing down. And while charges of attempted murder never were judicially appropriate in this case, those who minimized the attack also have some explaining to do. What would people call it if six white students punched, stomped, and beat one black student until he was unconscious?

But I don’t have the wisdom of Solomon to sort through all the claims and counterclaims to uncover the facts. What is needed is a modern-day Solomon, and not even the Solomon of the Bible, but a black man named Solomon Northrup who spent twelve years enslaved in Louisiana.

This Solomon had the ability to look at life without having the color of one’s skin color his perspective. He could objectively evaluate situations based upon foundational principles of justice.

Born a free black man in 1808 in Maine, at age 33 Northrop was kidnapped and spent twelve years enslaved near the Red River in Louisiana. A learned man and a successful businessman, he penned his own story in 1853. In his narrative, Northrup had no problem condemning cruel slave owners such as John M. Tibeats, describing his repeated brutality and malice.

However, Northrup could see beyond the color of one’s skin and even beyond religious hypocrisy and social injustice. Though recognizing the inconsistency of his white master, William Ford, a slave-owning Baptist preacher, Northrup still could note, “It is but simple justice to him when I say, in my opinion, there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford.” Northrup detailed page after page of Ford’s encouraging preaching and caring personal ministry to him and to other black men and women.

Solomon Northrup displayed the wisdom of Solomon that the people of Jena, Louisiana, and of all America, could use today. He had the discernment to recognize evil and call it such unashamedly. But he also demonstrated the ability to recognize good in others—even in others who were imperfect, even in others who were of a different hue, even in others who were treating him unjustly.

Nationally, pundits, people, pastors, and politicians are taking sides, pitting themselves against each another, claiming to have cornered the market on the truth of the “Jena Six” case. Yet, everyone seems to see the truth through colored lenses filled with preconceived notions, personal ideologies, and cultural baggage. Can’t someone step back, and see the big picture with the eyes of Solomon—of Solomon Northrup?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Reasons to Believe

Reasons to Believe

If you’ve visited or a major bookstore lately, then you know that all the rage in publishing is raging atheists raging against God.

Fortunately, Christians are not silent. Nor are the Scriptures.

Consider some of the following books to help you share and defend your faith.

Lay Level Books

1. The Twilight of Atheism, Alister McGrath.

2. The Case for Christ, Lee Strobel.

3. The Case for Faith, Lee Strobel.

4. The Case for a Creator, Lee Strobel.

5. The Case for Easter, Lee Strobel.

6. Reason to Believe, R. C. Sproul.

7. Christ Among Other Gods, Erwin Lutzer.

8. Jesus Among Other Gods, Ravi Zacharias.

9. The Return of the Village Atheist, Joel McDurmon.

10. Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis.

11. The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, Josh McDowell.

12. More Than a Carpenter, Josh McDowell.

13. Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton.

14. Who Made God, Ravi Zacharias.

15. Letter to an Atheist, Michael Leahy.

16. The Real Face of Atheism, Ravi Zacharias.

17. Atheism Versus Christianity, Willow Creek.

18. Twenty Compelling Evidences That God Exists, Kenneth Boa.

19. The Dawkins' Delusion, Alister McGrath.

Going Deeper

1. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, J. P. Moreland.

2. Scaling the Secular City, J. P. Moreland.

3. Reasonable Faith, W. L. Craig.

4. There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind About God, Antony Flew.

5. What's So Great About God, Dinesh D'Souza.

6. The Dawkins Letter: Challenging Atheist Myths, David Robertson.

7. Faith of the Fatherless, Paul Vitz.

8. Letter from a Christian Citizen, Douglas Wilson.

9. Atheism Is False, David Stone.

10. God the Evidence, Patrick Glynn.

11. The Creator and the Cosmos, Hugh Ross.

12. The Fingerprint of God, Hugh Ross.

13. I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, Norman Geisler.

14. Darwin on Trial, P. E. Johnson.

15. Hard Questions, Real Answers, W. L. Craig.

16. The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, F. S. Collins.

17. The Hidden Face of God, G. L. Schroeder.

18. Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, N. T. Wright.

19. Intelligent Design, William Dembski.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

A Clay Pot Named Paul Potts

A Clay Pot Named Paul Potts: To Dream the Impossible Dream

Paul Potts' mania has swept over Britain and most of the world. In case you’ve been sleeping this summer and are asking, “Who in the world is Paul Potts,” here’s an overview.

Simon Cowell, famous for his biting criticisms of contestants on American Idol, launched a British version this past year called Britain’s Got Talent. One of the first contestants was a gapped-tooth, portly, shy, unassuming middle-aged man dressed in a cheap suit named Paul Potts who works as a car phone salesman.

The Nervous Man in the Cheap Suit

In the video (view it at of his initial performance, the audience sees a nervous, shuffling, under-confident Mr. Potts waiting his turn. As he arrives on stage and nervously announces that he is there to sing opera, Cowell’s raised eyebrows and look of dismay advertise the fact that he and his fellow judges expect Paul to bomb big time.

Then . . . then Paul Potts opens his gap-toothed mouth and the sounds that flow out are unbelievable. Passion, melody, beauty—they all come tumbling out of this “jar of clay, this clay pot” named Paul Potts.

As the camera pans the audience, disbelief, shock, and awe can be seen on their faces. Similarly, as the camera shows Cowell and his two fellow judges, one begins to sense that something unexpected is budding.

Potts’ brief performance is marked by gasps and clasps from the crowd and highlighted by a lengthy and enthusiastic standing ovation as he concludes with a killer-wonderful hitting of the final note.

The Clay Pot Blossoms

A UK newscaster had this to say. “The audience saw a chubby little man in a cheap suit. Then he started to sing.”

The usually vicious Simon Cowell said it simply. “I wasn’t expecting that. I thought you were absolutely fabulous. And you’re selling car phones?”

Cowell’s sidekick noted, “What we have here is a lump of coal that is about to turn into a diamond.”

Potts moved swiftly through subsequent rounds of the competition and with a rousing, full-length operatic singing of Nessun Dorma he was crowned Britain’s best amateur talent. However, he’s an amateur no more. Cowell himself fronted the money to produce Potts’s first album, appropriately named One Chance.

And Potts himself, what’s his take? His back story includes being mercilessly bullied throughout his school years as the shy, fat kid, working dead-end jobs, and a serious accident four years ago. Then, in early 2007, he flipped a coin to decide if he should compete in Britain’s Got Talent. That one coin flip, that one chance, catapulted Potts to the top.

As Potts’ noted, “Before this, I felt so insignificant. After that first night I realized I am somebody. I am Paul Potts!”

And Who Are You?

What’s your impossible dream? What did God design you to be, to do?

What are you waiting for? A flip of a coin?

According to another Paul, this one the famous Apostle Paul, we are all cracked pots. But we have the treasure of the image of God in earthen vessels—and that treasure is waiting inside you ready to be unleashed.

Unleashed the hidden opera singer. Unleashed the hidden Sunday school teacher. Unleash the hidden poet, the hidden writer, the hidden . . .

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Unbelieving Atheists

Unbelieving Atheists

Mother Teresa, a decade after her death, is all the rage now. Where? None other than with atheists of all people.

What’s All the Buzz About?

And why? Because of the publication of an innocuously titled new book Mother Teresa: Come to My Light (Doubleday, September 2007).

Consisting primarily of correspondence between Mother Teresa and her confessors and superiors over a period of 66 years, the book offers insight into the inner life of a believer known mostly through her external works of mercy. The letters, many of them preserved against her wishes (she had requested that they be destroyed but was overruled by the Catholic Church), reveal that for the last nearly half-century of her life she experienced the absence of the presence of God. As the book’s compiler and editor, the Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, writes, she experienced Christ’s presence “neither in her heart or in the Eucharist.”

Extravagant Dissonance of Supernatural Candor

Time Magazine labeled these new revelations, in contrast to what previously we knew of Mother Teresa, “extravagant dissonance.” The new breed of missionary atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens, is even crueler and more mistaken than Time.

Hitchens, author of the atheist manifesto God Is Not Great, recently sought to do the work of a soul physician on the soul of a believer now dead a decade. His scathing polemic claims “she was no more exempt from the realization that religion is a human fabrication than any other person, and that her attempted cure was more and more professions of faith could only have deepened the pit that she had dug for herself.”

Hitchens and his ilk make for poor psychologists, destitute historians, and bankrupt soul physicians.

Stages of Faith

From a psychological perspective, research into the nature of faith, such as that done by James Fowler in Stages of Faith suggest the opposite about Mother Teresa than what Hitchens summarily proposes. Rather than exhibiting hypocrisy or being bereft of faith, Mother Teresa, in continuing to serve Christ by serving others while experiencing the absence of the presence of God was revealing the highest level of faith. Hers was not the trust of a child, nor the blind faith of those at lower levels of belief, but the highest, deepest, and most dependent reliance.

Historical Precedence

From a historical perspective, Mother Teresa’s experience has been so common for so long that it has its own name: “the dark night of the soul.” Great believers of the past, of all shapes and sizes, types and denominations, have experienced lengthy bouts of agonizing doubts.

Amongst Catholics, to name a few, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Teresa of Avila, and Saint Teresa of Lisieux (from whom Mother Teresa took her religious name) all endured the absence of God’s presence.

Of many representative Protestant believers, Martin Luther is a primary case study. So intangible was Luther’s Christ, that Luther developed an entire “theology of the Cross” to explain the paradox of a God who is most present in His very absence.

Thus, if unbelieving atheists wanted to harp on believing doubters, they’ve missed the boat for the past 2,000 years. If they think Mother Teresa is the first test case, then perhaps they should read not only Church history, but, heaven forbid, the Bible. Talk about candor! Historical biblical characters (think Abraham, Moses, Solomon, Thomas—the Patron Saint of Doubters—among many others) all lived lives of faith even while doubting.

Soul Physicians’ Diagnosis

So what diagnosis would or should a physician of the soul offer concerning Mother Teresa? First, it is important to recall that she did have soul physicians—her Confessors and Spiritual Directors to whom she wrote this now debated letters. Funny that they did not expose her as a hypocritical heretic.

Funnier too, that her own biographer/complier (Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, a Senior Missionaries of Charity member responsible for petitioning for her sainthood and collecting the supporting materials) gathered these letters in support of her case for sainthood.

Time Magazine put it like this. “Kolodiejchuk sees it (the characteristic stage of faith known as the ‘dark night’) in St. John's (of the Cross) context, as darkness within faith. Teresa found ways, starting in the early 1960s, to live with it and abandoned neither her belief nor her work. Kolodiejchuk produced the book as proof of the faith-filled perseverance that he sees as her most spiritually heroic act.”

Funniest of all, that the Catholic Church, attacked by Hitchens and his crowd of hateful doubters of those who doubt, did not seek to hide these letters. In fact, against her dying wishes, the Church chose to preserve these testimonies of doubt as evidence of faith.

Clinging to Christ

One need not be a Catholic, nor a Catholic apologist, nor even a Mother Teresa backer to acknowledge the psychological, historical, and spiritual realities behind the inner spiritual life of the former Agnes Bojaxhiu (Mother Teresa’s birth name).

Personally, rather than taunt her for her torment, I applaud her. More than that, I identify with her. Her candor combined with her tenacious clinging to Christ gives me hope that my doubts are a severe mercy of God designed to harpoon me to His Spirit while the irrepressible tsunami of God’s absence batters my soul.

African American Christian Faith

Her clinging faith reminds me once again of the clinging faith of enslaved African American Christians. Nellie, a former slave from Savannah, Georgia sounds like a modern-day Mother Teresa with her startling candor.

“It has been a terrible mystery, to know why the good Lord should so long afflict my people, and keep them in bondage—to be abused, and trampled down, without any rights of their own—with no ray of light in the future. Some of my folks said there wasn’t any God, for if there was He wouldn’t let white folks do as they have done for so many years”.

When her mistress questions her about her faith, a slave known to us only as Polly explains her hope.
“We poor creatures have need to believe in God, for if God Almighty will not be good to us some day, why were we born? When I heard of his delivering his people from bondage I know it means the poor Africans.”

Integrative Faith

Mother Teresa’s faith was not a case study in self-contradiction. Instead, she placed her faith in Christ rather than placing her faith in her faith. Entrusting her soul to an invisible Savior, the world saw Christ in her even when she could not see Christ in the world.