Andrew: Letters from Prison (2)

Andrew: Letters from Prison (2)

Andrew had started to put his life together in Portsmouth. His first job was for a property manager who hired him out on a day laborer. He started to attend our church, sing in the little choir and make healthy friendships. We would meet for coffee before work and talk life. His outgoing nature and friendliness made relationships easy, but his anger and tendency to resist advice made them hard.

After a few months, I was concerned to learn that he had a girlfriend. It sounded to me as though she didn’t share his faith or goals for the future. I suggested to him that this relationship might be the wrong one at the wrong time. But she had a place to stay and that meant he had a place to stay that was warm and dry as summer turned to fall.

As I recall, it was one morning over coffee that he confided in me that she had accused him of felony assault and taken out a restraining order. His anger rising, he got into it with a couple of officers and was arrested while the assault case against him went to trial. I made arrangements to visit him but before I could I received his first letter, written in pencil from the county jail.

“Thank you and the congregation for all the love and prayers that have been given me. I’ve never felt more at home since the First Baptist Church of Newport Richey a long time ago. I’m not sure when I’m leaving. If convicted I’m looking at three to seven years.

“I’m now in the hole (solitary confinement) for not cuffing up. I go into an altercation with the detaining officers. They say I may get more charges. There comes a time I just have to keep my cool, and I only hope God will give me his mercy. I do know this: prison may be rough on me, but God does everything for a reason, and if I do go to prison, I’d like to do what my brother, Thomas did and become an ordained minister and go back to being a living example that God does change the wicked so long as we let him.”

Throughout the time of his incarceration, two things have never changed. Andrew has looked upon his past with regrets and to his future with hope. Several women from the church have written to encourage him and he has continued to stay in touch with them. They are like the women who surrounded Jesus during his ministry, sharing his hardships and supporting him in the fight.

In my first letter to him I said, “I’m guessing this may be an especially hard time as we approach the holidays. As I pray for your encouragement and even joy in Jesus, I pray that you will join other Christians throughout the world who are in similar situations, separated from friends and loved ones, but treasuring in their hearts the love of Jesus.”

It would be a winter of discontent but of surprising growth and even joy. Andrew would discover in prison what he had confessed over coffee: that God was faithful and that all things work together for the good of those who love God.

(Find out more about Andrew’s church here)


Andrew: Letters from Prison

Andrew: Letters from Prison

I met Andrew on the streets of Portsmouth. He set up shop outside the Starbucks on Market Square, selling walking sticks he crafted from fallen tree limbs. Homeless since being released from prison, he was surprisingly open and upbeat about his future.

“I’m trying to make a start, get some money together and get my life back together.”

“How much are these walking sticks?”

“I’m asking $15 but I’ll take less.” I paid $15 for mine on the condition that he would engrave the words, “Galatians 5.16,” a reference to these words in the New Testament: “Walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”

This transaction began a friendship that has lasted four years. He spent two of those years in prison following an allegation of assault that was never proven. It turns out that a reputation is a hard thing to shake.

Andrew looks and acts younger than his late thirties. Although prison has added thirty pounds to his frame, his face shines and he talks loudly and warmly to just about anyone who will listen. His affable nature has won him friends wherever he goes, and sometimes made enemies.

                                Andrew is 10th from Left

As a child Andrew bounced around the foster care system in Florida with a brother and sister in tow. until Steven and Debbie adopted them. After seeing foster children come and go, their one biological son, Justin, asked, “Why can’t they stay?” The Christian couple then made a decision to adopt whole families who were stuck in the system.Three years after adopting a family of four, they committed to Andrew and his younger brother and sister. The family of 8 would eventually grow to 17. Steven says that from the beginning, Andrew was “a trip, just fun, a never-ending source of energy.” Born with fetal alcohol syndrome, he always had problems with cause and effect – making the connection between his actions and their consequences. His driven personality and need to be in control made for a perfect storm which became his life.

Church became a surrogate family for Andrew. He made friends easily and internalized much of what he heard about the Gospel. Putting it all together, he would often tell his parents, “I’m either going to be a policeman or a preacher. I’m either going to shoot ‘em or save ‘em.” Rebellion in his teenage years put both of these goals on hold. Never one to take orders easily, he launched out on his own.

His adult years have been a patchwork of relationships with women, construction jobs, drinking, drugging and frequent encounters with the law. His most recent encounter landed him in a New Hampshire prison and forced him to reflect on twenty years where, “I haven’t gotten anywhere in life and just barely survived.” (to be continued next week)

(Learn more about Andrew’s church)

Good Friday is Called "Good" for a Reason

Good Friday is Called "Good" for a Reason

Before I ever cared about Good Friday, I valued it. We got out of school early!

Those days are gone, except for religious schools, some public schools and universities and, believe it or not, the Stock Market! A few states, Tennessee, Connecticut among them, declare Good Friday a holiday.

Years later, after embracing the Christian faith, I learned that Good Friday was a solemn observance of Jesus’ death. For years after I quietly wondered why it was “good.”My Bible taught me that sin was bad, and that Jesus died for my sins even though he was the innocent Son of God. His horrific death by crucifixion is the centerpiece of Good Friday. So how could such a day be, in any sense, good?

The cross is the universal symbol of Christianity. Before there was the cross, there was a fish, scrawled upon catacomb walls. Both stand for persecution and death.

Not good.

Good Friday grows out of the Gospel (which means “good news”). The two come together when you realize what a good and perfect God did to rescue his bad and helpless creatures. At their last supper together with his disciples, Jesus announces that one of them was a betrayer. His disciples began an awkward blame game, asking in turn, “Is it I?” I highly recommend that question if you are preparing yourself for Good Friday. The tendency to betray is in every one of us.

“Is it I?”

In the comfort of fellowship there are always the seeds of division. The things we have in common bind us together, but the things that grow out of our sin nature continually pull at the seams. We are always one decision away from becoming undone.

“Is it I?”

The moment we become lazy in our faith or take it for granted, the devil is there to lie, tempt, lure, kill and destroy. Reclining at the table with those disciples we become lambs for the slaughter.

“Is it I?”

Good question, but while the answer is, “Yes,” the true Lamb of God has been offered up on our behalf and his blood cleanses us from all sin.
His body leaves no place for ours on a cross.

The story turns its focus from the disciples to Jesus. His prayer in the garden is a mix of human desire and divine submission. “Remove this cup” was the plea of an innocent man facing an unjust sentence of death. The injustice, the shame and the pain of a cross troubled his mind and cried out for relief. The request, however, was followed immediately with submission: “Yet, not what I will, but what you will.”

The Son of God knew why he had come. He didn’t “fall” from heaven, he was sent. He was clear on his mission; he came “to seek and save the lost.” His sorrow fades to submission, and submission to resolve: “Rise, let us be going; behold my betrayer is at hand.”

As we share in Christ’s suffering, God calls us to the same path of sorrow, submission and resolve. He expects that we will ask, and invites us to ask. But he also expects us to trust in his purpose and plan.

We like Jesus have been sent, and the circumstances of our lives, while sometimes chaotic and confusing, are a lifestream flowing from the throne of God, filled with meaning and purpose.

In the end he was alone. Even his closest followers watched at a distance as the perfect, terrible plan of God unfolded; the death march along the Via Dolorosa

We were not not designed to be alone. How much more striking is it that the Son of God, the Word of creation, was alone. Evil in motion, Judas gathered a crowd of haters, wooed by 30 pieces of silver. His conspiracy climaxed with a kiss, the ultimate irony. Luke’s gospel includes Jesus’ piercing question, “Do you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?”

Peter had a very different way of opposing the plan of God. He drew his sword. Had he not fallen asleep in the Garden while Jesus prayed, he might have submitted to the plan as Jesus did. It is Luke again that adds the precious detail that Jesus touched the man’s ear – one of Jesus’ captors – and healed it. Even in the face of false accusation leading to death, Jesus loved.

Before the moment passes, Jesus asks one of those questions designed to raise more questions: “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me?” Isaiah’s words are fulfilled, “By oppression and judgment he was taken away.”
Alone. So it had to be, for the Son of God alone was sufficient as a sacrifice for our sins.

At the end of his gospel, Matthew describes two fates: that of Jesus, led “like a lamb to the slaughter,” and that of Judas, the black sheep of the disciples who would take his own life.

Death, in itself, is neither bad nor good. The death of Jesus was the highest expression of love and makes possible the forgiveness of sin. The death of Judas is the highest expression of sin and demonstrates the end of a soul tormented by his own greed. His last words, “I have sinned, for I have betrayed innocent blood.”

Easter week leads us on a path that confronts death and forces us to choose between two deaths: the death that leads to resurrection and life, and the death sentence that comes to sinners who reject a savior. Good Friday is good because God’s plan – though terrible in our eyes – was perfect in his and, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “forced open a door that has been locked since the death of the first man. Everything is different because He has done so.”

That’s good, very good.

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6 Reasons to Reject Religion

6 Reasons to Reject Religion

This is the season for religion, Palm Sunday then Good Friday, then Easter.  Let’s see how you do on this Religion Quiz (no pressure, I scored pretty low).

To redeem myself (no pun intended), I thought it would be good to reflect on this thing we call “religion.” It goes by many different names, traditions and beliefs. Its history is as old as whatever creation story you believe. It is the only fashion that never goes out-of-style.
Why do you think that is?

Blaise Pascal, the noted mathematician/theologian/physicist/inventor/author… etc. etc. etc.  took a stab at that question? “(Man’s) infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words, by God himself.”

My chosen faith, Christianity, explains it this way: “(God) has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Ecclesiastes 3.11)
But there are other explanations:

It’s a crutch (Richard Dawkins)
It’s like a childhood neurosis (Sigmund Freud)
It’s a figment of man’s imagination (Ludwig Feuerbach)
It’s the sigh of an oppressed creature (Karl Marx)
It’s the price we pay for being intelligent (Aldous Huxley)

So to prepare for World Religion Day 2018, here are 6 reasons to reject religion…

Religion is a poor excuse for war

I am anti-war, aren’t you? Is there really anyone who wants war? And yet over the centuries religion has waged war. Jesus called his disciples to live at peace with the world. “In the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer. I have overcome the world.”

Governments wage war, God wages peace.

Religion is a poor substitute for faith

Who is the despicable creature who first used the word “religion” as a synonym for “faith?” The first great world religion was toppled by God himself. The builders in Babel were determined to build a tower to heaven and to make a name for themselves. But God confused their language.

That was the end of that!

But wars in the name of religion continued and continue today. The most despicable atrocities are committed with the cry, “Allahu Akbar!” Faith seeks to understand who God is; religion celebrates self.

Religion is a poor reason to be good

Being good is a good thing, but there are bad reasons to be good. Did you get that? I mean that religion is no guarantee of goodness.

Even Jesus said, “There is no one good except God.” The rest of us try our best, but for different reasons: to please someone, to fool someone, to fit in, or to ease our guilt. The best reason to be good is to be good.

Religion is a poor path to happiness

According to the Pew Research organization, “religious” people are happiest. With all due respect to Pew, I think they’ve missed the point.
Happy people make happy churches, not the other way around. Religion can contribute to happiness, but it is the impulse to worship, the pursuit of religion that comes from a larger place inside the heart beyond the pews and stained glass windows.

Pew Researcher Besheer Mohammed puzzles, “We see the patterns but we don’t know what is causing what. Is it that regular churchgoers get something from the church practice and involvement or is it that a certain sort of person is more likely to go to worship more frequently?” he said.

Good question. The answer is that religion is the effect not the cause of happiness.

Religion is a poor answer to society’s questions 

And we have a lot of them.
Is there life after death?
Is there only one way to God?
How could a loving God allow suffering?
Which political party is doing the will of God?

Careful. If you’ve never struggled with these questions your religion will seem like an escape from reason or an excuse for not having the answers. Faith, not religion, is the best answer to society’s questions.

Religion is a poor reason to worship

 Actually, you don’t need religion to worship. The Christmas and Easter “worshipers” are missing out on the other 50 weeks of the year when God is waiting for worship. Even the perfect attenders still have six other days each week to worship. Worship is a frame of mind that makes religion worthwhile. The Christian worshiper thinks, “I will lay down my life today and every day just as my savior did for me.” Worship is payback.

Worship, even without religion, is meaningful. Religion without worship is meaningless. If you’ve decided to reject religion – and I hope you have – you probably ought to put something in its place. Maybe you’ve gathered that I have a real problem with the word, “religion.” It screams to me of suits and offering plates and budgets and programs and denominational power plays.

Not that there’s anything wrong with these. It’s just that Jesus didn’t tell us to believe in them, he told us to believe in him.

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Just Forgive and Move beyond the Roadblocks in Your Life

Just Forgive and Move beyond the Roadblocks in Your Life

“To err is human. To forgive is divine.”

Thank you Alexander Pope for reminding us that forgiveness is impossible without God’s help. Actually the famous quote comes from a really long poem that is really not a poem at all. It’s the Essay on Criticism (bet you won’t read it now!) It’s no coincidence that another famous quote comes from the same piece: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” Put the two together and it’s everything you need to know about human relationships. First, forgiveness has divine power to heal and second, we shouldn’t foolishly rush what is an important and sometimes slow process.

Wounds heal slowly. The Bible tells us, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” They still need to heal, but they are “faithful” because they are necessary hurts, intended for our good by someone who loves us. But what about those other wounds, designed to hurt and hard to heal? It is harder still to let go of the anger and resentment toward those who inflict them. If you bear such a wound today and harbor un-forgiveness toward someone, consider these five fruits that come from forgiveness…

When you forgive, it makes love possible

Keep in mind that our English word, “forgive” comes from the Greek word, “aphiemi” which means to let go or release.
Let it go! If you are nursing the wound caused by someone’s words or actions, you cannot feel or express the love that God planned for you. Instead the hurt and anger spill over into other relationships and short-circuits your ability to love. Letting go of the anger makes love possible and clears the way for God to work in you and others.

Forgiveness frees the offender

“That person doesn’t deserve to be free!”

Not the point. Forgiveness demonstrates the perfect love of God, not yours. You become like the reluctant jailor who unlocks the cell door when the governor issues a pardon. You’re just the gatekeeper. The governor issues the pardon. If you can’t bring yourself to set that person loose, then at least trust God to deal with the offender.

Just let it go.

Forgiveness sets an example

After one madman with a gun took at least fifty lives in a Christ church, New Zealand, something amazing happened.

Amidst the grief and struggle to understand such evil, were the words of Farid Ahmed, a senior leader of one of the mosques whose wife was shot dead in the attack. Paralyzed from an auto accident six years earlier, he somehow escaped in a wheel chair and survived. Asked how he felt about the person who killed his wife, Ahmed replied, “‘I love that person because he is a human, a brother of mine, I do not support what he did, but maybe he was hurt, maybe something happened to him in his life. The bottom line is, he is a brother of mine. I have forgiven him and I’m sure if my wife was alive, she would too.”

This is how you forgive.

Forgiveness opens the door to the future

Back to the Future (the title still confuses me) played upon our fascination with knowing what will happen tomorrow and beyond. At one point Dr. Emmet Brown reminds Marty McFly, “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” That may be true for a souped-up Delorean, but not in real life. Here we need roads, and forgiveness opens the road to the future by allowing you and the other to get on with your lives.

Not forgiving condemns us to the past and locks the door to the future.
It throws away the keys
It says, “Never more”
It forbids do-overs
It lives in denial
It grasps guilt
It lays still
It kills

Forgiveness makes everything possible because it makes everything new. It leaves the past behind.

Forgiveness forces humility

The only words harder to say than, “I am sorry,” are the words, “I forgive you.” We are shamed into repentance and humbled into forgiveness.

So many easier responses than to forgive…

The words, “I forgive you,” are the divine response that echoes the words of Jesus from the Cross: “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” That’s a high bar, only within reach of those who lower themselves as Jesus did.

“To err is human; to forgive is divine.”

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3 Reasons Why Parenting and Pizza Are Exactly the Same

3 Reasons Why Parenting and Pizza Are Exactly the Same

Sometimes you realize that two very different things aren’t really different at all. Like parenting and pizza.

While sitting in my living room feasting on a slice from a shop we’d never tried before, I received this little video from my daughter.

Bam! They just seemed to fit, can’t you see it too? Holding that slice of pizza in my hand, I began to see the connection between two timeless treats. Here are three reasons why parenting is just like pizza…

Parenting & Pizza:  The Best Things Ever!

Pizza was largely responsible for bringing me and my wife together. Our most frequent date place was an A&W Root Beer restaurant that served slices. Did we love the pizza or each other? So hard to separate the two! It still is.

I know our story is not unique. I just interviewed a Treasury of Marriage couple whose first date was at a bowling alley eating, you guessed it, pizza. The rest is history.

Talk to most parents and they will tell you that children changed their lives for the better. Beyond the dirty diapers, sleepless nights and enormous expense is the hard-to-describe love and fulfillment that makes it all worthwhile.

It Comes in a Variety of Shapes and Sizes

Now I can tell you exactly what makes a great pizza. It’s all about the crust which must be crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside. It can’t be one or the other, it must be both. The sauce should be fresh, not overly spiced with oregano or garlic. The cheese should have a bite to it… that’s about it.

So the new pizza we tried that night got two reviews. I gave it a 4.1 – barely. My wife just kept saying, “I like it. I like it a lot!” We seldom agree on pizza, but we always eat it together.

I remember a panel discussion we had at a church one time. The panelists were parents who were committed to different kinds of education (home school, Christian school, public school) for different reasons. It did not go well. But we parted friends, parents with different philosophies who were all in love with their children.

While parenting styles may differ, it has and always will be in style, just like pizza.

It Never Changes

Fast food places are always looking for the next big thing.

Remember McDonald’s Hula Burger, a beef patty topped with a pineapple slice and melted cheese?

Remember Burger King’s Cupcake Milkshake, a dreamy combination of the two topped with sprinkles?

Remember Taco Bell’s Mountain Dew A.M., a wake-up treat, non-alcoholic mixed drink of orange juice and Mountain Dew?

I bet you don’t!

Pizza, on the other hand, continues to be the (second) most popular food in America, bested only by the hamburger. Pizza will always bring lovers together and children will always be love story part 2, the extension of a husband and wife that achieve the purpose for which they were created.

Order pizza tonight! It’s a teachable moment.

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