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I am still coming down from my time spent on Death Row at Angola during our recent Kairos. I’ve had some time to reflect and analyze. I guess what really blew me away was the joy and peace the ten inmates we dealt with enjoyed. There were clearly ten distinct personalities, but the joy and peace were common certainly by the end of the retreat and was still alive when I went back for a training session a week later. 

Consider the things that tend to rob us of joy and peace. 

History. Sometimes we just can’t get past our past. No matter how awful your past was it’s unlikely that it involved taking a life. These ten have this in common. Not just the death or deaths but all that comes with a trip through the legal system ending up with a death sentence. Top that.

Circumstance.  We are often drugged down by the world around us. These guys spend most of their lives in a tiny cell coming out only briefly each day. The food isn’t great. There is little family contact. In the summer, the cells stay around 100 degrees until late into the night. Can you really say your circumstances are worse? 

Future.  I think most of us spend lots of time worrying about the future. I worry endlessly about things that never happen. Often when the dreaded event occurs, it’s not nearly as bad as I imagined. Nevertheless, I don’t lose sleep over being put to death in a public execution. 

So why the peace and joy on death row. We know our joy is in the Lord. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”  Philippians 4:4 Paul wrote these words from a prison cell. As Christians in the “free” world, we know this truth. It just keeps slipping away from us. There are so many distractions that seem to offer joy and peace. Like bubbles, they pop as soon as we grasp them in our hands. 

There are many joy and peace robbers about. Violence and death seem more common than ever before. There is no safety or sanctuary even in schools or churches. True Christians are an ever-shrinking minority. Even those who “claim” to be Christian have fallen by nearly ten percent in the last few years.  Hearing from Jesus is considered a mental illness. Billy Graham went home today. There doesn’t seem to be many stepping up to take his place. 

When Jesus sent his disciples out two-by-two they were overjoyed by the success of their ministry. Jesus warned, “However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Luke 10:20 In times like these, when the spirits don’t seem submissive, it’s important to know what’s important, that our names are written in heaven.

Even that source of joy is under attack, as the church seems to be more legalistic and unwilling to offer assurance that our names are on the heavenly list. 

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that for those sitting for decades in a cell the hope that Jesus offers can be the most real thing in the world. 

When the shadows of this life have gone,
I’ll fly away;
Like a bird from prison bars has flown,
I’ll fly away (I’ll fly away)

Flying away is sure sounding pretty good; whether from a prison cell or a world that doesn’t seem to know or care about Jesus anymore. 

 

 

NIghtmare at IHOP

I believe that certain holidays, Halloween and Mardi Gras in particular, bring out the evil spirits. You can’t wear masks or pay homage to demons without consequences. Case in point: our night at IHOP.

My wife and I went to IHOP on Ambassador Caffery tonight for supper. It wasn’t crowded. In fact, there seem to be more employees than customers. During the entire time, the employees were exchanging jokes and laughing, probably at the customers. Someone brought us menus and then we disappeared from the face of the earth. Finally, my wife told someone cleaning the floors that no one had taken our order and our waitress who had been headed to the back made an about-face and came and took our order. She announced, “I was on my way to take your order.” A lie for sure but when you’re hungry, you make allowances. 

After giving our order, the cloak of invisibility came upon us again and we went unnoticed for some time. I felt a tap on my shoulder and a lady stuck a note in my face and advised me that she needed money for her kids. I gave her some and she moved on. I thought perhaps a little generosity on my part might gain us better service. Alas. We still seemed invisible to employees. 

Our food finally arrived. The omelet was horrible but the blueberry pancakes were awesome. I noticed that my small milk meant half a glass and my wife’s large meant a whole glass. Interesting.

Again we became invisible. My wife left for a while and finally, sitting there alone with hands folded, I was asked if I was ready for my check. I guess my expression said it all and eventually a check arrived. We went to pay.

We waited so long for someone to check us out that I had a chance to warn a family waiting for someone to check them in to run for their lives. They did, thanking me and we exchanged best wishes for the evening. I feel a little like a hero for this courageous act. 

“How was everything?” I was asked when the waitress, now apparently the checkout person, arrived. This is where I usually lie, but tonight I said, “Terrible.” The waitress began to denigrate me for being a complainer. I picked up a pen from the checkout counter to sign my check and make my escape. The pen was broken and ink spilled over my hands and the check. The waitress then said, “You are going to blame me for the pen now. I didn’t give you that pen.” Apparently, the Mardi Gras demons were having some fun with pens. I signed the check and as I headed out the door, I could still hear the waitress/check-out person ranting and raving. I am embarrassed to say that by habit I left a 20 percent tip. I should know better than trying to pay off the dark side. 

Tomorrow when I pass by IHOP, I’m going to do some serious binding and casting. I hope I have enough faith to counter the Mardi Gras demons.

 

Angola Death Row Kairos

Last week I spent three and a half days on Death Row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola and it was awesome. It was Kairos number 64 at Angola. Kairos has been ministering at the prison for 25 years, but never on death row. That made this one a bit special and a bit different. We only had 10 inmates. We have had as many as 42 in the past. We were in a very small room. Normally we have one room for the general gatherings and a separate room for a chapel. We had to be out of the building by 5 p.m. each day, normally we don’t get back to the hotel until late. It was different, but it was most awesome in how it wasn’t really different.

In many ways, the ten men we met were not different from the many we have ministered to before. They were attentive, appreciative, well-read and eager to interact and learn. I had the honor of praying with one of the men as he accepted Jesus as Savior. 

If your experience of Christianity is “church,” you are completely missing out. If you have never experienced the blessing of “doing to the least of these” please give it a try. We don’t have enough volunteers to hold as many retreats as the prison administration would like. If you think you might be called to this ministry, check with me or go to the website: https://listenlistenlovelove.com/

You might not be called to prison ministry, but there are many who need a touch, someone to listen, a friend. It’s great to go to church, but that’s a passive activity. Jesus commands us to “go” not sit around and soak it in. 

 

Kairos at Angola

Beginning on Sunday I will be participating in a Kairos weekend at Angola. You can learn about the ministry here.  We could use some prayer partners. We try to have someone praying for the ministry in ten-minute increments throughout the retreat. You can learn about that here

If you would like to sign up to pray in one or more time slots, you can do that here.

Your support is greatly appreciated.

Nick

Minimizing Grace

I recently saw a post on Facebook in which the writer identified himself as Christian and Gay. I was saddened by the brutal comments which in essence claimed inconsistency in those labels. Some folks could use a refresher course on identifying as His by our love and being without sin before casting stones. They are minimizing grace.

Lots of sins are identified in scripture. Jesus summarized it positively: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. Anything else is sin. Loving is a full-time job leaving us little time for sin or judgment. 

Sin is failing to mirror the perfection of Jesus.  As I’ve aged, I discovered things I never considered sin, really are. My sadness with the post arises from my experience of grace. Others may have come to this point in their spiritual lives by different paths. This is mine.

Grace convicts. At some point, I became convicted that I was a sinner in need of salvation. My first contact with grace. The encounter with the reality of my depravity is fundamental to what comes next.

Grace saves. God provided an opportunity to respond to his loving offer of salvation. Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound. His love motivated me to respond in love. He put into my life folks whose capacity for love was unnatural and attractive. I had to have what they did. 

Grace renews. Grace was there when I became a new creature. I experienced a real change, not perfection, but a new direction, a new motivation, a new model, Jesus and a new love for Him and his creation.

Grace empowers. In my experience, God didn’t hit me with every way in which I fail to model Christ all at once. A complete picture of my total depravity would have killed all hope. Over these many years, He has pointed out my shortfalls and has encouraged and more importantly, empowered me to correct them. At every stage there have been sins I have overcome, sins I struggle with, and sins I’m not even aware of. I have learned to love better, but far from perfectly.

Grace Blesses. Grace is unmerited favor. It means gifts I don’t deserve. As his child, not only am I blessed with forgiveness. He gives me eyes to see the beauty of the world.  He graciously guides wonderful loving and loveable people into my life. He provides opportunities to serve so that I might learn the blessing and honor of mission.  He turns challenges into opportunities.He heals me when others die. He opens doors when there seems no way. He provides when provision seems impossible. His presence becomes more real and more precious as I turn to Him and learn of Him. There is always more with Jesus.

Grace keeps forgiving. I believe this process will continue until I am called home. I will never be a mirror of Jesus and his great love, at least not in this life.  As I approach 70 years, I still fall woefully short of my Jesus. For some sins, I make excuse or ignore. For others, the Lord hasn’t shown them to me, knowing I am not ready. Some folks are still hard to love. Often I am…hard to love.

Sometimes my eyes slip from Him to circumstances. Sometimes I measure my blessings and conclude I am more deserving than others rather than more blessed. I measure my sins on a scale of relativity instead of focusing on Him as the model. 

Grace loves. I don’t have the time or energy or right to cast stones at others whose sins are different or more visible or more unacceptable. I often hear of  Romans Chapter 1 which lists the many ways we can fall short. I don’t get reminded of Chapter 2: “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” The purpose of the Romans 1 list is self-examination, not cross-examination.

Sins may seem very different in terms of their nature, severity or harmfulness. In fact, in God’s eyes, they are the “same things,” falling short of our model. I plan to respond to God’s grace, by doing a better job of loving God and others. To do that I need to know Him and others better. 

I hope to focus on love rather than stones, my sins and not the sins of others, my blessings instead of others’ challenges. I hope to live a life of grace, maximizing the fullness of the favor of God.

Be It Resolved

Be It Resolved

Hard to believe that 2017 is nearly over. It’s about time to refocus and renew with resolutions. I don’t have a great history with resolutions, but I have learned what it makes a great resolution.

Revolutionary.  There is no use making a resolution if it’s not going to change life for the better. Even better if it is of eternal significance.

Specific. In the past, I have erred by being too general with my resolutions. Losing weight, getting more exercise, spending more time with family are all great ideas. They are just too general to guide us to life changes.

Doable.  It’s hard enough to stick to resolutions. We set ourselves up for failure if we are unrealistic.

Here are three simple resolutions I am considering for 2018.

Kiss or hug each day.  A kid once pointed out to me that the unique thing about shrimp is that they “got no lips.” Lips have only one function, to allow us to kiss. They may serve some small function in speech or eating, but they are the reason we can kiss. Same thing with arms. They are as long as they are so that we can effectively hug. Jesus told us that the world would know we are his by our love. Let’s get physical and kiss or hug every day.

Say “Thank You.” Thanksgiving to God and to each other is becoming a lost art. These two words are life-changing because they are attitude changing for the speaker and day-brightening for the hearer.

Say “Jesus.” We know we are supposed to tell the world about Jesus, but we don’t. Let’s take the first step. Let’s say his name every day, out loud and in front of someone. Don’t cop out and say, “God.” Say the name that’s above every name. It’s a conversation starter that might just get us moving on the great commission. Just say the name and be ready to tell our story in the conversation that ensues.

Revolutionary, specific and doable. Let’s do it.

This article appeared in the December 2017 issue of Covenant Spotlight. Pick it up at the usual spots.

 

Blue Christmas

It’s a Blue Christmas this year. My wife was disabled for a while from hip pain. That made Christmas prep tough. We decided not to have Christmas at our house this year, so the tree and trimmings stayed in storage. I never seemed to find the time or spirit to do Christmas cards. I passed on our yearly family reunion on the weakest of excuses. We used to enjoy shopping trips for presents, now we just park ourselves in front of our laptops and explore Amazon. That doesn’t stir up a lot of nostalgia.  Pretty blue. Not as blue as years in which we lost family members. The first Christmas after a death in the family is deeply blue. Some churches have Blue Christmas services aimed at those mourning and suffering during the holidays. 

It’s not that our lives haven’t been good there’s just something about Christmas this year. The red, green and gold and snowy white doesn’t seem right. It’s a Blue Christmas.

Upon further thought, perhaps Blue is the proper color of Christmas. Red and green are colors of celebration and partying. You celebrate the completion of a thing. That’s not Christmas. Christmas is more a promise and hope of a thing. Christmas means God is there and has love for man, but there is the shadow of a cross over the manager. There is still suffering and death to come. There is the possibility of relationship with God but the perfection of that relationship remains a future event.

Blue is the proper Christmas color. It can be the sky blue color of the underside of heaven our proper home. It can be the deep ocean blue reminding us of the depth and beauty of his love and grace. It can be the royal blue of the coming king or the baby blue of the child in the manager. Blue may not be the brightest and cheeriest of colors, but it is a beautiful hue. 

I think this is a Blue Christmas and maybe that’s a right and proper thing.

What Are We Waiting For?

 29 Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Acts 4

Seems to me that the church spends lots of time “waiting on the Lord.” What are we waiting for? We are waiting for a healing, improvement in our finances, retirement, blessings. In the early church, the disciples were thrown in jail for speaking the word. They didn’t retreat to the upper room to “wait.” Instead, they prayed for enablement to “speak your word with great boldness.” They had been bold enough to end up in jail, yet they sought more boldness. They couldn’t shut up about their experience with Jesus. 

We complain about the marginalization of Christians, “persecution,” the commercialization of Christmas, the secularizing of society. We are impatient with God for not doing something, when we are failing to do what we were commanded to: speak the word with boldness. The problems we are experiencing in this world are a direct result of our failure to carry out the great commission. As Christians, we are “marginalized” because we fail to speak and act with conviction. We don’t live lives of love, that will make it clear to the world that we are His and that being His is the only thing that is worthwhile. 

Our silence and our impatient waiting arise from our failure to know Him. We don’t speak of what we have seen and heard because what we have seen and heard isn’t enough to compel us to speak. Our personal experience isn’t sufficient motivation. We don’t know HIm or spend the time with Him, to be so influenced that we can’t keep quiet. 

Our lack of experience with Him makes us unsure and timid. We are controlled by thoughts in the back of our minds that maybe our belief is something that isn’t real. What we are “waiting for” isn’t a bigger blessing or a relief from illness or financial struggle or perceived persecution. We are waiting for a life-changing experience with Him. That is there for the taking. What are we waiting for? We are waiting for more of Jesus.