Think about these things

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Philippians 4:8

Can hatred produce love? Can contempt and condemnation produce reconciliation and understanding? Can name calling produce unity?

I started contemplating Philippians 4:8 simply in terms of my own thought life, but it has been impossible not to think about what happened in Charlottesville last weekend. The New York Times reports that neo-Nazi, white supremacy groups gathered Saturday, ostensibly to protest the removal of the Robert E. Lee memorial statue in Charlottesville. Counter-protesters also gathered to challenge the validity of the white supremacy message. The Times describes how “taunting led to shoving, which escalated into brawling.” As this continued, around 1:45pm a car, allegedly driven by white supremacy supporter James Alex Fields, Jr., crashed into a group of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and wounding 34 others.

How does the mindset Paul is describing in Philippians 4:8 lead us to approach this hate-filled situation?

Is it too simplistic to say that on Saturday hatred was answered with hatred? Certainly in a crowd like the one gathered in Charlottesville there were people across a spectrum of mindsets. Yet, in the end, hatred escalated to violence and death. Who was it that was killed? Not ugly neo-Nazi rheroric. Not division in our country. A 32 year-old paralegal who, as the Times reports, “was a passionate advocate for the disenfranchised and was often moved to tears by the world’s injustices.”

In Philippians 4:8, Paul brings us to the intersection of our Christian piety and our community engagement. Picture one road as our own personal holiness as the gospel transforms our minds. Picture the other road as the mindset with which we engage the world around us. There is inevitably an intersection between our thought life and the way in which we relate to the people we meet in the circumstances of our lives. Whatever we think about prepares us for that inevitable meeting. There is a car is speeding toward that intersection.

It is worth noting that Paul, who is so centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ, does not frame verse 8 as “whatever truth you see in Christ, whatever honor you see in Christ, etc.” Instead he exhorts us to think about “whatever” and “anything” that is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable. If we follow this exhortation, it will create in us an expectation to be on the lookout for truth, honor, justice, etc., wherever it may be found.

This is not a Pollyanna type optimism: downplaying or ignoring the unpleasant things in this world in favor of focusing on the nice things. Instead, wherever we discover justice, we are reminded that there is a just God who is reflected in any evidence of common grace we discover in the world. And this is reason to value justice generally, treasuring it and searching it out.

Wherever we discover injustice, we also discover a longing for God’s character to be reflected in this world that falls short of thoroughly and consistently pointing us toward him.

Christ is present with us both in the evidence and the lack of justice. As followers of Christ we find ourselves,then, either in praise or intercession. We worship the Lord and give thanks for the true and pure and honorable things that we uncover. We lift our eyes toward heaven and ask for truth and loveliness where we uncover lies and ugliness. It is the worshiping intercessor, then, who can lift his or her voice in prophetic truth and love to establish peace.

And we need voices, and we need truth, and we need love. We don’t need more taunting and shoving and murder. So we need to think about whatever is true, and honorable, and just, and pure, and lovely, and commendable, even this week.

 

 

Posted in Gospel, Thoughts and Reflections

Mission It’s Possible: Redeemer Church Picnic 2017

On Sunday, May 7th, immediately following the church service, members and visitors of all ages at Redeemer Church came together for a fun time of games, music, food, and fellowship. Some of the activities included the annual cornhole competition, a basketball tournament, jumping houses, face painting for the children, and live music performances from a variety of Redeemer’s members.

unnamed-4In spite of some unexpected setbacks, which included one food truck company experiencing transportation issues that delayed them over an hour and another food truck breaking down completely and never arriving at all, a team of expert hot dog grillers rushed to the aid of all the hungry people and still happened to feed the five thousand, or more like the five hundred in our case. One of Redeemer’s greeters, Will Wittenbrook, and his wife, Natalie, went as far as to give out hotdog buns from their personal stash until they ran out. In addition to the hotdogs, the True Friend Connection care group strode in like knights in shining armor with their delicious chicken skewers that seemed to multiply by the minute! All in all, the people of Redeemer succeeded in combating hunger until a food truck arrived.

unnamed-6While hotdogs and skewers provide incentive for attendance, the people of Redeemer look forward to more than just the food at this annual event. Having arrived merely as cornhole contestants, brothers Jonathan and Justin Hunt left the picnic as the Redeemer Church cornhole champions of 2017. Other contestants, however, did not have the privilege of such a victory. In fact, in spite of my efforts and endeavors to at least make it past the first round, my determination served to no avail as I inevitably fell into the category of first-round eliminations. Nevertheless, the support I received from my gracious church family made the attempt worthwhile and even fun.

Overall, the picnic reminded me of the ultimate purpose we carry as the Body of Christ. Where plans may fail and food trucks may break down, the Church plays a vital role in remaining attentive to the opportunities in which we can come together and fill in the gaps for one another. The picnic reminded me of our call to operate as a family. Above all, it reminded me that in the midst of love, fellowship, and joy, any event can morph into an opportunity for us to treasure Christ, love one another, and reach our world – yes, even at a church picnic! Christ already made it possible, so let’s make it our mission.  

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized

The Story of Chris Blount

By Chris Blount

I grew up in an interracial family in Maryland with my parents and two younger sisters. As a child, I didn’t notice much about my family being any different. I didn’t understand the challenges my parents faced in the decision to pursue a relationship. They did a good job hiding the external pressures that worked against them, and the love they shared provided a feeling of security. My parents did the best they could to provide a stable environment. Money was tight since we lived beyond our means in order to stay in a top school district. Opportunity in education was a priority they were willing to sacrifice a great deal for. Despite the financial struggles, I remember being happy – we valued good friendships, good food, and laughter.

We had been invested in several churches over the course of my childhood. I was familiar with God, had a basic understanding of the gospel message, and even asked Jesus into my heart on several occasions. I never fully connected with a group of believers, nor did I seek wholeheartedly to follow Christ. It just seemed to be something I was supposed to be aware of.

Things started to get difficult for us when I got to 7th grade. We were losing our house and my parents were faced with the dilemma of pulling us out of the schools they fought so hard to keep us in. Ultimately we moved to Baltimore County, and although the home was much more affordable, the area was rough. As mixed children, we were outcasts. Unable to fit in with the white kids and not finding acceptance in black circles, we had very few acquaintances to consider friends. In our middle school we were surrounded by profanity, violence, gang activity, and drugs. My mother was pushed to the breaking point when my youngest sister was taken captive by an older girl right from her school bus. Fortunately, she escaped and found her way home before any horrible thing could happen.

Private school was talked about until my sisters’ bikes were stolen from our driveway as they stood there. We’d end up moving nine times in eight years. My parents couldn’t outright afford to live in the school district they wanted, so we’d move into a house, renovate it, and move on. It wasn’t the intention, but it kept happening this way, and it kept us out of Baltimore. For me, it didn’t make a difference. I was introduced to marijuana at 14 years old. A lacrosse player from the local high school was my neighbor, and I looked up to him a great deal. An opportunity to make friends with older kids was a plus considering I would start school there soon. I wanted to be accepted.

My best friend since 2nd grade was the first to find out. He had been stealing packs of cigarettes from his Dad’s work truck and splitting them with me.  His name was Dave, an outcast too, mainly for his taste in music and going against the grain. He wanted to experience what I talked about and ended up finding a way to get his hands on it. We looked for any opportunity to get high. It didn’t matter what people thought about us, we were content to forget our troubles and find our own path. A small band of misfits formed up who felt the same as we did.

By my sophomore year, I had developed a taste for alcohol. I prided myself on being an athlete for most of the year, but if I wasn’t actively training, I would be drinking or smoking on the weekends.  I still made every attempt to hide it, and I thought I was doing a good job. I was good at being average. My grades, my community involvement, even occasionally going to some church event. From the outside, most people had no idea what I was really like. All that would change in the summer.

When I was away at the beach for an annual trip with Dave’s family, things at home spiraled out of control. I came home to find a restraining order against my Dad, and my Mom was hardly speaking about what was happening. My sisters were a mess. No one knew what was going on. My mom was clear about her decision to separate from my Dad. They were getting a divorce. Initially, I was scared to see my Dad, thinking he had hit my mom or something. I met with him at a food court, expecting to see an angry man. Instead, he was broken, weeping uncontrollably while trying to explain his version of what was happening.

There had been an argument. My mom was still hurting from things in the past. There was a lot I never knew about them, and at the time I didn’t understand any of it. All I knew was my world was crashing down. My parents were the type of people who counseled other couples. We had an open home, a place of fellowship. People received the news with shock, just as unable to comprehend it as I was. They agreed to host a bible study at our house weeks before, which despite my lack of involvement had started to excite me.  Now, they were getting a divorce? I developed some bitterness toward God, ready to blame Him for the failed state of my parent’s marriage.

My sisters and I were faced with the tragic process of deciding who to live with. It was incalculable. I ended up living with another family trying to work through issues brought out during intense counseling sessions. I was consumed with rage. My only escape was to get high enough to avoid dealing with anything. If I was stoned I didn’t have to suffer. I had become a hollow, empty person. My Mom moved to another county with the girls. I chose to live with my Dad, so my senior year I had to start all over at a new high school. It was devastating.

I tried to care. My grades weren’t good enough to play sports, so I didn’t have much motivation. I did the bare minimum to keep myself eligible for graduation. I didn’t have much money, and transportation to and from work was near impossible with my Dad’s schedule. I started stealing, and I got really good at it. All my clothes, shirts, jeans, even nice jackets… were stolen. I started dressing better and people noticed. I had some confidence back. I even pulled my grades up enough to run track and play lacrosse. I would eventually go on to get “best dressed” in my yearbook.

Stealing came so easy I was getting bored, and I needed money. I figured I would try selling a little marijuana with all these new-found contacts. My best friend had a sizable amount, and in exchange for stashing it at my place, I would split the profit. Now I had money, I was smoking for free, and I had a status that I enjoyed. I got invited to all the parties, I had a good amount of friends, and since my Dad had to work so much, I had all the freedom I desired.

Eventually I was caught up in a deal gone bad. Three guys jumped me at an Exxon station and robbed me. One of them I recognized from school. I could tell he was wrapped up in a dangerous group that came from the section 8 housing outside my neighborhood. A week later, a federal agent showed up at my house saying they had me on video at a gas station. I must have turned white as a ghost. I thought they were there to investigate me, but it turned out one of the guys who robbed me was wanted in connection with a shooting.

I realized that I could have easily been shot during the scuffle a week prior. With senior year drawing to a close I still had no idea what I was doing. Most people I went to school with already applied to several colleges and knew by now where they were headed in a few short months. I decided to get a handle on my life and make one attempt at a college application. Dave and I agreed to apply to the same school. He ended up with an acceptance letter nearly right away. I tried to keep the hope that mine would come.

I fell into a depression that summer. Nothing prepared me for how disconnected you feel when you finally get out of school. My whole life, I couldn’t wait to be done. Now I was realizing things would never be the same. When we got our diplomas and walked across the stage, it hadn’t dawned on me I wouldn’t see most of them ever again. At a summer party, I was introduced to cocaine. It was a different kind of high and snapped me right out of my depressed state. I felt so empowered, like I could do anything. It was exhilarating. But the crash would always leave me empty and bitter. I kept going in this cycle of uppers and downers, feeling like black clouds constantly followed me around.

At what seemed to be the last possible moment, I got an envelope in the mail. It was my acceptance letter to college. All of a sudden, I had a reason to shape up. I was going to school with my best friend, we had big plans for getting set up to enter the college experience, and for the first time in years I had some hope I would make something of myself. 

……

I went to a small college in Western Maryland about 45 minutes from WVU. Frostburg State was a three-hour drive from Baltimore, nestled in the mountains. It wasn’t known for academic prestige, but it had a reputation for bad weather and big parties. It was a godless place. Within the first few weeks, one of the freshmen in my dorm was sexually assaulted, an individual was put in a coma from alcohol poisoning, and a marijuana growing operation was discovered right on campus. Dave and I weren’t roommates to start, but it was probably for the best since studying would be hard enough already.

Dave’s roommate, Zach, was a troubled kid who lived without boundaries. He was wild and seemed to have an unlimited capacity for bad ideas. I would usually go over Dave’s room after dinner and hang out with them on my way back to my dorm. One particular evening, I was headed to an RA meeting for freshmen in my building. I stopped for a cigarette and to make some weekend plans. Zach handed me 8 tiny pills that would dramatically change the course of my life.

It was an over-the-counter medication, widely available at any supermarket or convenience store. Kids had figured out that by washing pills – or draining caps – harvesting a main ingredient could produce intense euphoric effects. I took them without much regard and carried on to my meeting. I didn’t feel much at first, but towards the end of the gathering my head was spinning. I was feeling drunk, but strangely coherent. There was a hyper awareness, and everything was overpowering my senses. I remember laughing loudly at something and the RA looked up to see the reason for the disturbance. I quickly snapped back to reality and excused myself from the room.

When I got back with my friends that night, they were all curious. Zach told them what he gave me and warned them I would be “tripping” by the time I returned. I shared my experience and onlookers surveyed my dilated pupils. The giddy intoxication lasted for a few hours. I heard Zach’s challenge “you should see what happens when you pop more.” I enjoyed how it made me feel and had every intention of upping the ante the next time.

Once school hit full swing, I started out really trying to focus. I wanted to apply myself. I managed to hold a decent GPA through most of the first semester. During the week, I was mostly business, but I was still drinking and smoking with reckless abandon on the weekend. Here I was exposed to prescription drugs, which other students would sell to the highest bidder. Things like acid, cocaine, and certainly marijuana were readily available in any desired quantity. With all the options at hand, nothing was as intriguing as the mystery pills Zach introduced.

I wanted more. With a long weekend coming up my small group of friends turned to Zach for the scoop on this new high. He told us what medicines to buy, where to go, how to “rinse the pills” for the highest concentrations of the main ingredient, and how to take it so it would hit the hardest. We stocked up and split everything, following his instructions. I decided to go with 10 this time. I wanted to recapture the past experience.

It affected everyone differently. Some people threw up after 30 minutes and then faded into a relaxed state of mindlessness. Other people were hyper, excited by the rush of intoxication – dancing or clowning around. We laughed at our inability to balance, slurred speech, and unpredictable conversations. I felt disconnected, and I liked it. Nothing mattered. I was deeply engaged in music and under a false sense of enlightenment. The effects lasted well into the night.

It became a weekend highlight. Each time I was pushing the dose to enhance the experience. On and on, 11, 12, 13… The high was more intense. I was entering a zen-like state. I felt like I was invincible. We’d show up to parties, and people would just look at us like, “what are they on… and where can I get some?” They would think we were hammered drunk. But after hearing us talk, or watching us look around with big dilated eyes, they would know it was something else. For the most part, the 5 or 6 of us regularly doing this kept to ourselves, but occasionally someone would want in. Desperate to know what we were up to, one guy jumped in, popped 12 pills and threw up. For the next 6 hours, he laid on the floor insisting he was on the trip of a lifetime.

Things carried on this way until, one night, a chick I knew from high school broke her ankle. We were all in a panic, our minds too cloudy to process what needed to happen. She eventually got treatment but it was enough to scare everyone. The consensus was “I’m going to stick to beer for a while…” or “I don’t like the way this stuff makes me feel anymore.” I remember becoming very disappointed. I knew of nothing else that made me feel like this, and I wasn’t ready to stop. I was angry at people for changing their minds.

I had no major. I wasn’t pursuing any goals. I was in college because that’s what kids are supposed to do.  I was told 100 times before I couldn’t have a career without a degree, but I was failing to see a point. In my philosophy class, the instructor told us, “There is no God, only knowledge. Reality is an illusion.” We were presented with strange concepts of self and consciousness; these ways of thinking were confusing. I couldn’t figure out why, but I felt sick in there. Some days I would go to the music room and play the piano instead. I started avoiding classes I didn’t like. I would turn in enough work to pass, and show up on test days to make up a few answers.

Zach was eventually kicked out of college for his repeated offenses. I moved in as Dave’s roommate and thought it would make life simpler. Instead, an anonymous tip from an RA lead to a police raid in our room. We were both charged with possession of marijuana and subjected to regular drug testing. With my grades in a steady decline, and for low attendance, I was placed on academic probation. The following month, we both were caught stealing from a department store near campus. As an adept thief, I had grown careless. It was getting colder, and having spent all my money on drugs and parties, I decided to get some winter clothes. We were marked from the moment we entered the store, and by the time we left, a state trooper was already on the way.

I was frustrated, and although I only had myself to blame, I didn’t see it that way. Since I was being tested, I couldn’t smoke weed anymore, so I turned to the one thing I could get my hands on. I was back to the pills. I was taking more now, and the weekends blended into weekdays. I wasn’t caring much about anything. All strung out at a frat party, I became enraged during an argument and lashed out at Dave. I pushed him and he fell into a set of concrete stairs breaking his nose. He went to the hospital, and two friends escorted me home. In anguish over what I had done, I punched a car window and broke my hand. This was the beginning of a sharp decline. I started to collapse into darkness.

After Dave came back from the hospital, we hardly spoke. I knew I was wrong. I felt uncomfortable in my room, sitting in silence. I yearned for the numb state of mindlessness that made my problems disappear. After 8-12 hours of deserting my surroundings, the lonely reality I’d escaped from would be waiting for me. I lost a lot of weight. My gaunt appearance would be enough to scare the few friends I had. I started to realize people were looking at me with concern as if to say, “I need to keep an eye on him.”

I felt so ashamed. There were times I could hardly walk or speak… I could hear laughing, and I would smirk as people took videos of my feeble attempts to get around.  

I ended up clearing my drug screening since they were only looking for THC, which was absent from my system. The administrator declared the sample as inhuman, but for all intents I was free from future tests. Around this time, my friendship with Dave made a turnaround. We resolved to set aside our differences and celebrate freedom from scrutiny. He was going to smoke, but the pills were my drug of choice. I told him I was taking 16, and for whatever reason, he agreed to do the same. Before we even felt the effects, we were outside having a cigarette when it hit us. I don’t remember much, it was like a time warp. We were walking, and all of a sudden, we’d be at the end of the hallway with no idea how. There was no concept of time. At one point, I lit a cigarette, and before I even smoked it, my fingers were burned with a 3 inch ash hanging.

It was overkill, lasting well into the next day. I promised myself I would never exceed that number. Dave was shocked about how strong it was. He ended up seeing why I enjoyed it but was wary of doing that again. I just couldn’t stop. Week after week… I started to worry about myself, and my mom did too. Apparently, I called her one night to say goodbye after thinking I was going to die. She knew I was probably partying and experimenting a little in college, she just had no idea how far it had gone. I was still angry over my parents’ divorce and avoided going home as much as possible. Both of them had new lives and were remarried with other kids to worry about. I didn’t have a room to call my own. Regardless, with the holiday break on the horizon, I would inevitably have to spend a few weeks with family.

……

After my money ran out, I had been stealing from pharmacies and drug stores to support my habit. It   didn’t matter that I was already on probation, I did whatever I needed to have a constant supply. Being home made no difference. I was determined to block myself off from the world, I didn’t want to see the new lifestyles around me. I was happy to see my sisters, but it made me sad to see them trapped in different worlds. With no assignments to worry about, I made it a mission to be high all the time.

At some point, I met up with Dave. Both of us had had enough of the break already, and it wasn’t even half over. His mom was giving him a hard time about how much weight he lost, somewhere around 40lbs. I hadn’t realized if our choices affected him so much; I didn’t notice a difference. We rolled a joint and ended up in a deep philosophical conversation. As the topic turned to God, I grew hostile and indignant. “There is no God!” I rattled off a bunch of stuff I heard in my classes, and ended with my proclamation of being atheist. This was strange considering most of my friendship with Dave, I was the one trying to convince him God was real. I felt like I grew up a little bit, like I was finally thinking for myself.

I agreed to go to the Christmas Eve service at my mom’s church, partly so I could appease her good side. A smug-faced kid with messy dreadlocked hair, I waited for people to judge me. They didn’t. They were actually nice people, but the whole time, I kept thinking, “You fools… why are you wasting your time in here?” As the message drew to a close, I asked myself how I could have been so stupid to believe this stuff before. I didn’t know my mom had commissioned half of these people to pray for me while I was away in school.

With the break wrapping up, the word was out for a big party in the old stomping grounds. A lot of people I knew from both high schools I went to were due to appear. I wasn’t going to miss it, I had plans to get in the zone. Rumors had already spread that I was a loose cannon these days, and I didn’t care if people thought I needed to slow down. I went “shopping” for my drug of choice and made sure to carry enough for anyone else looking to ride the wave. I got everything ready and bagged it up, making sure I had 16 hits lined up for myself.

I got to the party early. There wasn’t much going on at first. I took my pills and passed out bags. One person refused – opting to see what else came through that night, so I put the rest back in my pocket. We passed time with jokes and old stories, a few more people started to show up. After an hour or so, I wasn’t feeling the effects like I expected to. I grabbed the bag from my pocket. Without thinking I just took a few more. Still time passed, nothing. I was unsure if I had prepared everything right, if I had the right stuff, or if maybe my tolerance was up.

One of the new faces in the room tossed me a beer. I drank it, sitting around feeling disappointment with my current lack of excitement. By now, more people were showing up. Some weed was in rotation. I didn’t let it get past me. I smoked with the rest of them. In a moment of complete disregard, I pulled the bag out of my pocket and swallowed the rest. I didn’t care how irresponsible I’d become. It didn’t matter what happened to me anymore. I remember thinking that. I had taken over 30 pills.

The last thing I remember is sitting on the sofa. I was doing impersonations of someone we knew, and we were all laughing. It was hilarious. Dave was sitting across to my left. He had his phone out, recording me as I laughed through some ridiculous account. That was it. I don’t know what else took place then. I have no recollection of time passing, or how long I had been sitting on the sofa. There was nothing.

Unaware of time, I came to. Things had obviously changed. The house was packed. Everything seemed to move in flashes. I saw people I recognized all around me. Strangely, I couldn’t move. I was still sitting in the same spot on the sofa. I felt hot, like I was burning up. It was uncomfortable. I wanted to move around and get some air. I just couldn’t stand up. The heat was becoming unbearable. Suddenly, like some kind of living nightmare, I saw flames come lapping up around my neck. It was around me in an instant; I was burning alive.

The heat intensified, like a raging fire. It wasn’t just my skin. I felt it inside my body, like every part of me was pressed against a hot iron. I started screaming “HELP ME!” franticly trying to get free. I was locked in, writhing in awful pain. I’m shouting over and over for help. No one is looking at me. I thought I would pass out from the excruciating agony. As it started to subside, for a moment, I felt like it would stop. Then it came back with full intensity. I was yelling at the top of my lungs. Repeatedly begging for someone in the room to stop this.

I saw people in the room still drinking beer. Still laughing and talking. The pain just continued. I felt this overwhelming sense that I had been imprisoned in this living room, like I was going to sit here in this moment, unable to move. There was a weight on me so heavy; it was crushing me. The pain began to stop, I was bracing myself for it, and to my horror, it returned once again. Unbearable, unimaginable heat. “This is it,” I thought. “I’m going to sit here forever.” I was coming undone in the realization that I would not leave this place. I thought it was over. I realized that MY decisions had led to this… I couldn’t change anything. I couldn’t go back.

I started crying. I felt overcome with a sorrow that was pouring out of me in the fire. I was sobbing uncontrollably, but there were no tears. I started calling out to God, “Help me! Please!” I was pleading with Him to stop what was happening to me. Over and over, just begging. I can’t even remember what all I was saying. I had no hope this was going to stop. I was completely convinced it never would. It felt like hours. It began to subside again, and finally, it stopped. I just sat there. I was so afraid to move.

I was absolutely terrified it was coming back. “What happened to me?” I was repeating in my head, “what happened?.” I don’t know how long I waited there. Still on the sofa, I remember asking myself, “am I dead?” I scanned the room. There were still people everywhere. I was surprised I was thinking somewhat clearly considering the choices I had made earlier. I found Dave across the room. He was pale, like he’d seen a ghost. I asked him to take me home. He agreed. I stood up, under my own power, feeling more sober than what should have been possible. I walked right out the front door of the house.

Dave refused to talk about anything on the way home. He stopped in front of my Dad’s townhouse, let me out, and drove off without saying a word. In our 12 years of friendship, it was the only time I’d ever seen him like that. I didn’t know what to think. I walked in the house and laid on the sofa just churning the events of the night in my head. I don’t remember how late it was, I never did look at the time. I felt so confused. I honestly didn’t know if I was alive or dead.

The next morning, I checked myself in a mirror. “Am I a ghost?” I seriously asked myself that. I was unsure what to make of it. It was a dull grey morning. I looked out the back window of my Dad’s place. I saw a rope coiled up on the deck. The thought of whether or not the rope could hold my weight crossed my mind. I didn’t know how to process what had taken place. I couldn’t see any way to deal with this mess my life had become.

My Dad came walking in from outside, “Chris, I have something for you.” It was a bible, and my name was printed on the cover. Inside, there was an inscription congratulating all the seniors for graduating high school and some well wishes for future endeavors. The church where he worked made this for me. “I forgot to give it to you,” he explained. I thanked him, but waited till he left to start frantically ripping through the pages. I was looking for some explanation of what had happened the previous night. I wanted to know where it said that something like that can happen to someone.

I never found an answer. I read through some random parts, and I kept it with me. I spent the next day or two reliving the events, I was having flashbacks. The real surprise to me was walking out of that house. Typically, that drug was so powerful, I wouldn’t be able to walk straight. Once it took hold, I usually couldn’t talk without slurring my speech, drink water, read, or even play video games. Things weren’t usually back to normal until the following night. Yet there I was experiencing a level of sobriety that defied my understanding. My throat hurt, like I had swallowed a cup of boiling water. It was really painful, but… I was alive. I was starting to be more convinced that this was real life. I’m still here.

The time came for me to go back to college. With the break over, instead of being excited to leave, I was really nervous. I had no way to avoid seeing Dave, we were going to have to talk about what had happened. Back in the dorm, he seemed to be afraid of me. I can’t remember when we discussed it, but he revealed the source of his fear. He recalled the laughing and joking around, but when he looked closer, something changed in me. My face was flushed red and discolored, so much so – he could see the outlines of my skull through my skin. My voice had changed, and he claimed I was speaking to him in another language. I had no recollection of speaking to him that way… he was so freaked out he didn’t want to talk about it anymore. We never spoke of it again to this day.

I tried to continue on as if life was normal. I wanted to party. I wanted to forget all the craziness. The flashbacks wouldn’t go away.  I started to get these tremors when I was anywhere near drugs and alcohol. I remember someone bringing stuff to our room. I would just start shaking. When I started to refuse weed or cocaine and turn down beer, I began receiving so much criticism. I had people share concern for me, saying things like, “What’s wrong with you bro? Talk to us.” I started to read that bible. I felt like I needed answers, and I couldn’t be around these things that were clouding my mind. This sent shockwaves through my circle of friends – in their eyes, it had finally happened – I was losing my way.

The more I tried to distance myself from drugs, the more isolated I had become. I think they thought I was suicidal. In my classes, I was hearing things about God or the lack of His existence. Yet I had had this experience with no explanation… nothing was adding up. I tried to tell Dave about that night from my perspective. It didn’t go well. He showed me a video from the party. In the background I saw myself sitting on that sofa. I was looking down, and my pupils were like black saucers… I was just saying “help me, help me, help me..” over and over. It was barely audible with everything else going on. I was heartbroken to see this. I looked like a soulless, empty person – I wondered if that was how people had seen me over those past few months.

With me trying to explain how God might be involved, I may as well should have admitted myself to the hospital. Everyone I knew turned away from me. I overhead friends make fun of me, some took pity on me like I had gone off the deep end as a result of my behavior. Around the same time, an on-and-off long distance relationship came to an end. I had never felt more alone than I did now. I took to reading my bible in hopes of finding answers.

….

For the first time in years, I was really intentional about calling my Mom. I gave her a rundown of what was happening. She let me know there had been a lot of people praying for me. She was passing scripture to me and offering some support. She didn’t even seem to care I was failing classes. After so much contradiction, I made the choice to ignore many of my studies. I had a desire to understand more about God, and I was closing myself off from the world. I used to feel embarrassed when Dave came back from classes to see me still reading at my desk, but after a while, I didn’t mind.

One sleepless night, I took stock of my life. It was so empty. I had destroyed myself. I had wasted thousands of dollars in tuition, grants, and loans. I was due to appear in court soon for two separate charges. I had no idea what I was doing. I felt a desire to know God, but I didn’t know if He existed. My life was a mess and I wanted to believe God could fix it. Inside I knew I would have to give up the lifestyle I had grown accustomed to, and I didn’t feel capable of doing that. I cried for a long time. I said my first real prayer, not even sure if God was listening. “Show me faith.” That’s all I could think to ask, and I had certainly needed more than I had.

An old gospel album of my Dad’s became my only comfort. This lead to a replacement of all the music I had. I put some form of Christian music on at all hours of the day. The moment I asked for God to show me something, I was facing temptation from everywhere. Invitations to parties, free drugs… people literally showed up at our room like, “hey come smoke with us, its on me.” Girls I never spoke to were all of a sudden trying to talk to me. I started to feel trapped.

Court documents were coming in the mail. It had occurred to me with two cases so close together, I may end up with a few months in jail. I went to the few teachers I cared about to let them know I may not finish the semester depending on what happens. One of them warned me, “Don’t throw your life away.”  Out of the blue, I got a call from my Mom. She had my Dad on the line. It was the first time since the divorce that I heard their voices at the same time. They were praying for me. Somehow, they could set aside their differences to care for me, and it was powerful. I started to think if God was able to get them on the same call, He could do something to protect me from all this.

I had a dream I was walking late at night. The moonlight was bright enough to find my way along a path, which split in two at a fork in the road. On the right, a long path went out wide before meeting the horizon in the distance. On the left was a short path, with a construction site in the middle, which lead out to the same point on the horizon. I walked down to the construction site, climbed through a hole in the fence and continued on. It was much darker inside. As I neared the end, something grabbed my leg and was pulling me down to the ground. I couldn’t escape, in my terror I called out Jesus’ name. Immediately, I woke up, safe in my bed. I felt like God was telling me I could call on Him and He would deliver me.

It was now March. I had grown fond of reading the Bible. I was hungry for whatever I could learn about God. I still didn’t have the answers I had set out to find, but I was content to look. I enjoyed writing songs or poems, I had enveloped myself in music as a way of escaping the atmosphere around me. My Mom called one week and told me about a program her church was doing called Alpha. It was a ten-week introduction to Christianity, mainly covering topics like, Who is Jesus? Why did Jesus die on the cross? It was going to be on Wednesdays, with dinner, a short message, and small group discussions.

She was making the offer to drive three hours both ways to get me there and back each week. I felt a surge of excitement. This was exactly what I had been looking for. With all the chaos around me, I had a desire to leave for good.  I posed the question to my Mom, “what would you think if I don’t come back?” I thought she would be disappointed considering how I wasted opportunities and fell so short of expectations. Instead she was thrilled. She had wanted me out of there all along. In my heart I knew this was for the best, I couldn’t possibly withstand the temptations around me indefinitely. I decided to gather a few things. I didn’t tell a soul I was leaving – I couldn’t afford people trying to change my mind.

My Mom showed up that Wednesday. I didn’t have much. I had left almost everything right where it was, clothes, books, everything. I hopped in the car, and we began the trip back. Almost like a sign from above, the sun came out and the weight lifted right off my shoulders. I was feeling more peace than I ever had. We made it back with enough time for me to shower and change. She explained how Alpha was supposed to start the previous week, but was cancelled from the snow. I was going to get there for the very beginning.

We got to the church, I was ready to be there. I felt like I needed this. I was still searching for answers about what all this meant. A pretty young woman opened the door and welcomed me inside. I didn’t know at the time, but I was staring at my future wife, and the mother of my wonderful children. Fortunately, God was leading me there to do His work, and I was blind to the natural desires… I was thirsty for truth. I went every week. I got involved with a care group full of people my age. For the first time in years, I had fun with people being sober, no drugs, no alcohol required. Playing board games, going to movies, getting to know people. I didn’t have to earn anything, they just accepted me.

By the conclusion of the Alpha course, I was sold. Jesus is Lord. I never got the answers I set out for, or the explanation for what I’d experienced. I got the only answer that mattered. The Bible is true. Not only did I believe God existed, but I experienced Him in new ways… through the body of Christ. Only months earlier, I had been there for the Christmas service full of anger and bitterness… yet there I was, worshiping alongside the same people. It was I who had been the fool. I went to the Holy Spirit retreat that concludes every Alpha course. The time of seclusion, aloneness in His word, prayer, reflection, and worship was so healing. Not long after, I gave my life to Christ and was baptized.

I still struggled for a while with my salvation. With all the rotten things I had done in my life, I kept finding it hard to grasp the depth of God’s mercy. In His kindness, God brought that swiftly to an end. In 2007 at the annual Sovereign Grace conference, New Attitude, I was given tools to battle my problem with assurance. Through prayer, teaching, and counseling, I was seeing how Jesus paid it all. At the close of the conference, I received a prophetic word.

“For as long as you have been drowning, I have sustained you. I have brought you onto dry land, and yet you refuse to breathe.”

I had been delivered and redeemed. All I had to do was accept it… just to breathe. It was a huge relief and marked the end of the doubts that sought to steal this new joy from me. And now, 10 years later, the love of God still amazes me. I am ever grateful for the sacrifice of Christ and His heart to bring salvation, even to those who rejected Him.

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Our Vision: The Gospel Creates Community

As a church for all people, our vision is to engage our city with the gospel of Jesus Christ that transforms lives, creates community, promotes justice, and renews culture both locally and globally.

If the Gospel of Jesus Christ creates community, how can we engage this practically?

First, we can recognize our human longing for community. We find community in and around so many things. Even when we find ourselves sitting in a room with ten other people, and all of us are on our phones, we can see that in one way or another we are driven to connect. We don’t want to be left out.

Second, look at what God has done in the Gospel. Christianity offers community that is stronger and more enduring than community that is built around education, geography, ethnic background, family, or interests because it finds its origin in the eternal community of the being of God. God sent his Son into the world, to manifest the community of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in human community. The Holy Spirit continues to mediate God’s presence to us.

To be a Christian is to be a person who has, because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, entered this community. And that means that we have the opportunity to enter into community with other Christians. In fact, all the fellowship we experience as believers is an extension of the fellowship between the Father and the Son, as John notes in 1 John 1:3. Additionally, all our fellowship is a dramatization of the fellowship between the Father and the Son. In other words, the Holy Spirit is working in our relationships so that our Christian fellowship is a reflection and a display of the fellowship within the Trinity. Every time you get together with your community group you are acting out a human representation of the being and love of God.

To be on Christian mission, either locally or globally, is to look for ways to extend that fellowship and love to other people. This might happen by inviting someone into your community group, because of what Jesus has done for them. This might look like you, as someone who enjoys the fellowship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, entering another community, like a group of refugee families who have just moved into the area.

Remember that when you enter any community, whether that is a business community, or a group of soccer moms, or a support group for people who are fighting cancer, don’t get paralyzed thinking about strategy. I believe God’s main strategy is found in the promise, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” God is with us, because he has made a way for us to enter into fellowship with him.

Because of Jesus, the fellowship of the Father, Son, and Spirit go with you into every room and community you enter. Let’s engage our city, and trust God to create community.

Posted in Apply, Gospel | Tagged

Access Goes to Passion: A True Love Encounter

On January 2, 2017, at 6AM, 16 singles ages 18 years old and above, four leaders, and three vehicles met at Redeemer church in Chesapeake, Virginia with one mission – to experience a true love encounter with God. Access, Redeemer Church’s singles ministry, was en route to the “Passion Conference” in Atlanta, Georgia. Most of the group had never attended a Passion Conference. After everyone separated into three vehicles, thus commenced the nine-hour voyage to the Georgia Dome where more than 50,000 young adults gathered to worship the Lord.

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The Access group got to hear from a variety of renowned speakers, which included Francis Chan, John Piper, Beth Moore, Christine Caine, Levi Lusko, Katherine and Jay Wolf, and the Passion founder, Louie Giglio.

The worship team varied from session to session. The worship bands included the Passion band, David Crowder, Chris Tomlin, Kristian Stanfill, Housefires, a riveting appearance from Hillsong United, and more.

20-year-old Access member Alaina Orth elaborated on the extent to which a message by Christine Caine moved her.

“So often my thoughts are driven to the there, the future,” said Alaina- “God reminded me that he has put me in every place I’m in now for a reason and purpose. He has appointed me for this season. And everything now is perfectly preparing me for what is to come. He has not called me to be passive about the present, but to be present in the now, fully committed in every area of my life.”

While many from the Access group felt that the sermons truly resonated with them and prompted a profound, heart transformation, some said that the worship in which they engaged served as the true highlight of the event, especially for Jordan Hunt, a 22-year-old member of Access.

“… If there was a moment that I had to pick as my favorite part about Passion, it would most definitely be the hours we spent in worship,” he said. “To just be free in my expression to God in thankfulness through worship was by far my favorite moment.”

Another Access member, 23-year-old Laura Cagle, reflected on these lyrics from the song, Heart Abandoned, by the Passion Band.

“God give me a heart abandoned

Ever after you alone

Gold and silver, You can take it

All I want is You my Lord”

For Laura, the lyrics directly related to the work of God in her heart.

Following the opening night, the mornings began with small group break-out sessions at 8:30AM, and then a series of main sessions took place until another break-out session, ending around 11:30PM. The schedule allowed for a brief lunch break, consisting of various group members searching for restaurants not filled to their capacity or requiring two hours of wait in line. Nevertheless, even after sacrificing a great deal of sleep and a normal eating routine (which quickly morphed into something resembling a “dog-eats-dog/every-man-for-himself” starvation mentality), and surviving more than 18 hours on the road, the Access group concluded that the trip was well worth it all.

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Justin Hunt, age 20, enthusiastically affirmed: “I would definitely go back!”

So what exactly is Passion? What makes the annual event so impactful and deeply meaningful for so many?

The founders of Passion define the conference as “more than a conference” as it “exists to see a generation leverage their lives for what matters most… Jesus…”

Google defines the word “passion” as a “strong and barely controllable emotion.” Such an emotion entails a desire to unload the contents of one’s heart with utter abandon, like true love. Many Christians attest to having experienced this emotion early on in their Christian walk, but as time goes by, many find that the emotion weakens and becomes more controllable, the flame more quenchable, the gospel less awe-encompassing, the Christian lifestyle more routine, and the true love less true.

However, several Access members expressed that the Passion Conference played a significant role in resurfacing the passion of expressing their love to God that had slowly dissipated over time. Moreover, in various ways, the conference served to remind them of God’s passionate love as He exposed weaknesses in their hearts and expressed His grace as He prompted them to yield those areas to Him in different ways.

Laura shared that from the beginning of the conference, the Lord began exposing areas of herself that were not wholly committed to Him—areas of money, comfort, and self-centeredness. As Passion unfolded, the messages and challenges from each speaker shed more light on how the past year had found her pursuing her own happiness rather than pursuing higher priorities in her walk with God. She experienced a powerful moment on the final day of the conference:

“The last morning, I stood in prayer asking God to change the sinful desires in my heart and to create a clean heart within. A friend was impressed with the word ‘hope’ as she prayed for me.”

image-2As Laura considered the word, she was reminded of the hope in Scripture, that He who “began a good work” in her would bring it to completion. “There is hope for change in my heart because of Christ’s blameless walk, sacrificial death, victory over death, and the Holy Spirit that lives within me!”

Jordan added that his Passion 2017 experience resulted in a feeling of increased intimacy with the Lord, and upon leaving, he felt more grounded and emboldened in both his personal faith and ability to receive the love of Jesus in his life: “I believe that God opened my eyes to a lot of things… through my time spent at Passion.”

When Alaina reflects on the conference, she recalls the simple, powerful presence of God as one of the most outstanding features of the event. She felt her heart stir with “fresh, new focus” and “excited for all that the LORD is doing now in my life and how it is going to prepare me for all that he has in-store for my future.”

Ultimately, the Passion Conference resulted in more than just a gathering of Christian singles, more than just an experience, and more than just another memory. Rather, it served as a catalyst for transformation and reignited a flame of passion within many hearts. If asked how I would describe Passion 2017, I would call it a passion encounter, a passion renewal, a passion awakening, but overall, I agree that it meant so much more than just a passion conference. With a mission to encounter true love, true Love had encountered us.

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Posted in News and Events, Thoughts and Reflections, Uncategorized | Tagged , ,

Of Sermons and Mom’s Home Cooking

It’s a weekly routine for me: I transfer the sermon I preached on Sunday out of my preaching notebook and into the notebook that contains all the printed sermons for the year. Because of the holidays, I just finished transferring the final sermon I preached in 2016 and closed yet another folder full of the year’s sermons. It’s always a bit surreal to look at this folder: it’s full of sermons that represent so many hours of my work life, so much struggle with the Lord and with the text, and so much crafting, prayer, and even disappointment when I wish the preaching of the material would have been better.

img_1982But here’s my point: Do you know that a preaching notebook is more like your mom’s cooking than you know?

Here’s what I mean. I would venture to bet that, if pressed, most of you wouldn’t be able to remember any of the sermons from this past year! Go ahead, try! And I don’t blame you. I typically preach a sermon and rarely can remember half of what I said by Wednesday of the same week! Now maybe you remember parts of some of the sermons, moments that God used to really encourage you through His word, or times when you felt He opened your eyes to see something you hadn’t seen before. I hope you saw Christ and were stirred to love Him, trust Him, rest in Him and obey Him more. But by and large, not many sermons were especially memorable, if at all!

And that is OK –why?

Because neither were the vast majority of the meals your mother cooked (and I mean no offense to your mom)!

Sure, you might have a few favorites; everyone does! Maybe you can taste her signature meal even now (I feel like I can taste my mom’s green chili chicken enchiladas as I sit here typing this). But the vast majority of the meals your mom prepared, slaved over, tirelessly shopped for, prepped and put together for you and your family to enjoy is relegated to the category of utterly forgettable. Three meals a day times 365 days is over 1000 meals. One-third of those were probably cereal or oatmeal or the occasional eggs and bacon and pancakes. Another one-third were most likely bagged lunches with your favorite chips or Hostess treats. And the final third were home-cooked labors of love.

And all that these meals did for you, though utterly forgettable, was provide nutrition to you that allowed you to grow healthy and strong in mind and body. That’s how food works. Sometimes a meal is memorable, but mostly three squares a day simply contribute to growth and strength in 1000 ways we’ll never see as our food is digested and then nourishes our cells. The benefit is mostly unseen. The benefit is certainly cumulative. And above all, memorable or not, if you don’t eat – you die.

It’s a lot like God’s word, isn’t it? Every time you read God’s word, or listen to God’s word spoken or preached, the believing soul is nourished. It’s no surprise that God’s word is often equated with food (Deut. 8:3), and the job of shepherding involves the task of feeding the people of God with the Word of God (John 21:15-17). And how much comfort do you think every preacher derives from this promise:

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11).

Your mother’s cooking and every pastor’s now-closed 2016 Sermon notebook are pretty similar. You’ve heard another year of preaching and as His word was digested, it nourished your spiritual cells in 1000 ways you’ll never see. The benefit to your soul is mostly unseen. And the benefit is certainly cumulative. Pastors want to preach memorable sermons, mom’s love to cook favorite meals, but both know the deeper joy and responsibility of seeing health, growth, and strength come through faithfully feeding those we love.

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Two Lost Sons

rembrandtThe painting on the right is a Rembrandt inspired by the parable of the Prodigal Son.  This painting reflects both the glory and the problem of this famous parable as we know it.

The glory captured in this picture is the reality that God, because of Jesus will welcome all who return to Him no matter who you are, what you’ve done, or how far you’ve run. Because of what Jesus has done for us the Father will not let us define ourselves by our sin, nor require us to work our sin off before we receive His full welcome and eternal joy. The gospel opens up a new way to relate to God, by His grace! Though we have run and rebelled, the gospel is the good news of what Jesus has done for sinners like us to bring us back to God. That’s the glory of the gospel that shines through this painting.

The problem is their were two sons! I don’t think Rembrandt ever painted a picture of the Father entreating his obedient yet self-rigteous and angry older son, did he?  However, the older son according to Jesus was just as lost.  Why?  Because he used the Father to get what he wanted as well.  The difference is he saw his obedience as the way to get what he wanted from the Father. His obedience didn’t come from a place of love and gratitude and relationship; but as leverage. He didn’t see his Father as gracious and generous, but as a slave-master, so he would bide his time till he could get all that he wanted and deserved. His didn’t understand that as he despise a kind of grace that allowed the “outside” to become an “insider”; he the “insider” was on the outside of this party of grace and love.   So, the Father went out to him as well. And his welcome would include laying aside his self-rightreousness and outward obedience and recognize and receive the full grace of the Father that he needed just as badly.

There are two ways to be lost. You can be far from God by your running and active rebellion and sin, of course. But did you realize that you can be far from God even in your obedience, rule keeping and outward morality? Because Jesus was addressing the Pharisees in Luke 15, we must realize the danger of using our obedience as a form of self-salvation.  We already know that Jesus is our hope, is our Savior when we sin and repent and turn to him for forgiveness.  But we also need the constant reminder that our obedience doesn’t save us when we are not sinning!   In both, Jesus is your only hope. Salvation is a welcome into the Father’s grace and eternal joy only through faith in Jesus alone. Older sons (like me) and younger sons must renounce both our sin against God and any outward obedience we believe earns our reward and instead must cling to Jesus alone.

The Father’s welcome is a welcome into an eternal reward, an eternal party, an eternal celebration not because of what we have done or not done; but because of Jesus alone.

If you are interested, there are several outstanding treatments of this story:

1.  Dr. Ed Clowney preached a sermon called Sharing the Father’s Welcome.  A transcript is available if you click the title.

2.  Dr. Clowney’s sermon deeply impacted another preacher named Tim Keller, who wrote a book called The Prodigal God; which is one of the finest books on the true nature of the gospel I’ve read.

3.  You can also listen to last Sunday’s sermon, where standing on the shoulders of these two men, I preached about how the gospel results in Shattered Categories.

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