Spending Well At Christmas

Picture yourself: hunkered down with a  watchful eye trained in all directions, scanning for any sign of enemy movement. Ears straining, listening intently for any foreign sound. The tension is mounting; attack is inevitable— it’s about that time.

Spending Well

Almost out of nowhere, the buzz of aircraft fills the skies seeming to come from every direction. Hundreds of chutes deploy sailing through the air and firing in your direction. The noise is deafening, sulphuric smoke fills the air, clouding your senses; blocking your view. But you’re prepared; unloading round after round you and your team take out every. single. one. The ammunition is gone but with no movement from enemy territory, you’re feeling  it: victory.

As the madness gives way to silence, the signal comes to take stock of the casualties. Parachutes and their fallen lay in heaps around the field, hung up in trees, swaying in the breeze. Cautiously you edge forward, prepared for any sudden movement— except there is none.

Not a sound.
Not even blood.
Something isn’t right.

One by one, the reports come in that every “casualty” is a rubber dummy. Strapped with explosives, made to look like enemy paratroopers, you and your team have just spent all your energy and ammunition on decoys.

Worse, some of your own team got caught in the crossfire and now lay wounded. Worse still, the enemy…the REAL enemy is still coming and you’ve got nothing left to give. There’s no other choice but to regroup, retreat and give up this piece of territory.

Or be captured.

I first heard the basics of this story (which I’ve obviously laced with a divine bit of “holy imagination) in a Let My People Think broadcast entitled “Lessons from War in a Battle for Ideas ” by Apologist Ravi Zacharius. He’d been visiting a museum in France on the recent anniversary of the Normandy invasion and this story, along with a few others, gave him much to think about and share.

Because I have the American perspective of history and of living on the victorious side of the record books, I can smile a bit at the ingenuity of the soldiers and strategists who pulled off such a daring stunt. I mean,  HA! Rubber dummies! A purely genius moment of classic Psyops warfare. I suppose I do feel a little badly for how stupid those other guys must have felt but seriously?! Who’d fall for that?

Of course, there’s a valuable takeaway, which is the reason the story was told by a Christian for Christians. The point made is intended to help us recognize how each of us is also, at some level, engaging daily in a very real battle with a very real enemy. This enemy, satan, has most of his (temporary) successes bound up in moments like these.

Rather than attack us directly, satan can find better ways to make us think we’re being attacked. Before we know it, he’s drawn our fire and we’re giving it all we’ve got; wiping out our energy and reserves, our kindness and compassion and ultimately, our precious minutes and gospel witness.  All of it spent… on rubber dummies. Often then discovering that others— some we love or ought to love— were wounded in the skirmish and we’re the ones holding a smoking gun.

But they looked so real!

Rubber dummies take on many forms and they have their seasonal attire as well. Currently, there’s red cups, Starbucks and a variety of other holiday expressions. In today’s world they’re couched and cloaked in hashtags, sometimes wearing a particular skin color, creed or a badge. Sometimes they just don’t “do Jesus” and worship the right way any day of the week.  There are many others.

Each scenario holds just enough truth blended with a basket full of lies so that at first glance we’re deceived and go full throttle.  When the wreckage clears we’re left wondering how did we get so distracted AGAIN? How did we lose so much territory and waste so much time over something like THIS? It’s hard— because on the surface many of these things matter but I feel pretty confident in saying that Jesus hasn’t intended for us to stay and engage life at surface levels where most of these things take place.

Reading this morning from A Slice of Infinity, I was reminded again how the call of the Christian is to live as He did, counter-culturally, which is NOT the same thing as living anti-culturally. To be sure, it’s a life of constant tension, as we seek to engage the lost and model Christ to a rapidly disintegrating culture, often while having to simultaneously represent our faith and turn the other cheek.  A lot.

However, it’s our ability to embrace Christ and engage others in the midst of this tension while guarding our reactions that will— and must— look so dramatically different from the culture around us. It’s seldom a public, showy show-down.. it’s more often the humble and quiet, salt and light business of just doing the right things in the right ways for the right reasons that point others to Him.

The Weight of Glory2

It’s the willingness to live a life of surrender and standing, with God’s help, in the ever-widening cultural chasm that threatens to swallow us whole. Standing with our eyes so fixed on Jesus that when those rubber dummies descend from the skies and the pandemonium swirls all around, we are able to hear Him whisper, “Steady. Steady.” and instead of “unloading” we use our witness well.

At Christmastime …yes, please for the love of all that is holy…especially now when people all around are so confused about the meaning of Christmas or have divorced it from any meaning altogether.  So that maybe.. just maybe this would be the year that others might begin to see the meaning behind how we live because of the Hopeful Reason we have to truly celebrate and then… just maybe, like the shepherds keeping watch, they also might say, Wow…

“Let us go and see this thing made known to us by the Lord.”

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Feeding the Deepest Hungers

Seriously, there’s nothing like the good gift of perspective to soften up the hard spots in your soul or to shine just the right amount of light in it’s darkest corners. Inevitably, that “lost coin” turns up again illuminating the fact of how rich you truly are.

I was reminded of this recently as I had the privilege to listen to a man of God tell his story of a hungry childhood filled with mayonnaise sandwiches and cold sugar water— a life marinated in a praying mother’s faith and love. He said they were “Po”; too economically challenged to merit to full word “poor”.  We all laughed.  I imagine there were others in that room who had memories of this place too.

Feeding the Deepest Hungers

I know pieces of that hungry place. Truthfully, my life didn’t know the constant daily struggle of the poverty he described. However,  I spent a painful period in this place he spoke of;  just long enough to teach me what I needed to know about the deepest sorts of hunger.  Those hungry years perhaps did more to shape my life and understanding of what’s true, good and valuable than most of the other times I was otherwise sheltered and fed.

This is where the good gift of perspective comes in: for at least two reasons, I confess that I’m truly and totally thankful for those dim, lean and hungry years. I could probably come up with more but here are at least my top two.

First, I see now that during those years I learned something about a mother’s love.

                     Especially my own.

Perspective’s gift has helped me to rightly remember the period in my life when I first moved South. I was too naive to fully recognize the struggle at the time but now, I can clearly see how my mother’s love and sacrifice kept her children fed and sadly, somewhat oblivious to our predicament. We were struggling hard and I didn’t know… didn’t or maybe couldn’t understand it.

Because we left NJ under the cover of darkness, she had to keep things on the down-low — we couldn’t apply for the typical programs … she didn’t have custody of us.  It was bad but still better than what we left behind.            Oh sin…

I recall the eviction from one house and then another. I remember the bare cupboards and empty refrigerator. There was that time someone gave her chitterlings and it was all we had but the smell was too much for me so I went to bed hungry instead. There was the massive garden and the rows and rows of vegetables I despised picking and yet, learned to can and preserve one horribly hot summer because it was so important to her.

I didn’t know why.
I complained a lot.
I was selfish.

My favorite times in the week were when we went out to eat at a little “Meat and 3”cafe in town. FINALLY, a hot meal with stuff I liked!  We’d always show up late and by then we were so hungry. Mom would sit us down and fix plates from the steam table and as we feasted, she’d visit over coffee with the owners. We’d finish up with sticky cobbler or something like that while she helped bust down the steam table; disappearing many times through the swinging doors to the kitchen in back.  We did this a few times a week.

                Quite often actually.

It’s taken me all these years to connect the dots and see the complete picture: my mother never paid for those meals. Not with money anyway. Her “payment” was to help clean up and close out the place for the night; wash some dishes, wipe the counters, mop the floors. During one of the most fragile times in our lives, she fed us that way.   Thanks Mom.

Mother Teresa on Kindness

Here’s the second thing: those people who owned the place, they didn’t have to feed us.

We weren’t from around there; they didn’t have to let us in the door or show us any kindness whatsoever. Not only did they do it quite often, but they treated my mother as a friend and helped her keep her dignity by not only giving her a way to take care of her children but a listening ear, a cup of coffee and eventually… a part time job with bonus leftovers.

Like many things in my life back then, the sweetness was short-lived because it wasn’t fully rooted in the solidity of the Gospel. However, the heart lessons remain deeply rooted in me. Thanks to this period in my life,  the good gift of perspective has given me empathy.

I can easily recognize and see the many levels, faces and signs of poverty— physical, emotional and spiritual— and care enough to do whatever I can to help.

It’s what I hope you and the people around me are able to see as well.

Hunger Stats

Everyone knows that this is the time of the year when the requests for help and donations will start rolling in and I hope you’ll consider the ways and places where God is leading you to be involved.

Sometimes it’s all we can do to give a donation to an agency such as Baptist Global Response and others like them, who will see that funds are distributed internationally and spent within  communities to purchase emergency food supplies.  Many of these agencies also supply job skill training or start-up seed and livestock to give families a foothold for the future.

Shelters and food banks like the Savannah Baptist Center or the Broad Street Ministry Center also meet the needs of those living on the fringes by providing food, clothing, toiletry items, job training, counseling and spiritual support as well. Some schools and communities have backpack programs for the kids who will go home to hungry houses.

These are the BIG and PUBLIC sorts of ways you can help but there are others. Look around and maybe there’s someone in your midst who could used a helping hand to get on their feet— share a meal, teach a skill… listen.    Show them Jesus.

That’s mostly what I see now.

I see the sheltering wings of my Savior guiding us along during those years when His name was only beginning to be understood by my heart. After all these years, thanks to the good gift of perspective I look back and barely remember the hunger but I’ll never forget being fed and how He was near.

It makes me want to feed others too

What about you?

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The Most Beautiful Church I’ve Ever Been In

It’s been at least eight years since I was there for a two day conference. I doubt I could easily find my way back and if I’m completely honest with you, right now I can’t even remember the name.   Sorry.

I could spend some time researching— maybe Google it and come close but it’s not going to make this memory any more solid. Unless you want to visit …or have a church like this one, then I guess you’d need to know. Maybe it will just be enough for me to tell you about my experience of the most beautiful church I’ve ever been in. Because honestly, this church could be anywhere.  It could be.

The most beautiful church

So…actually…we got lost looking for this place. The GPS took us into a neighborhood where the streets got narrow, skinny and tight until….. BAM!  We found ourselves at a dead end where the road probably once continued on, but now there was a high fence and a guard rail keeping us from driving into the 10-lanes of interstate highway just beyond.

Backtracking, eventually we found it— our little host church in the big city tucked waaay inside an older neighborhood on the other side of that highway, just behind a rather sketchy looking shopping plaza.

The parking lot was rough and pocked with holes. Though the grounds were spotless, the landscaping was nothing to shout about– some scrappy looking bushes here and there, not much more. The building itself was rather plain; just a standard white, wood frame church with a bit of a steeple poking out the top.  I think there were some benches out front.

This church was hosting us for an event with about 60 or more students studying the fine art of Christian speech and debate. The people were gracious and accommodating, pleasant and very glad to have this group of future Christian leaders and speakers in their midst.  They were so encouraging.

The interior of the church was mostly forgettable. No really– I forget. I recall only that it was plainly furnished and happily worn from use. Nothing notable about the carpet and pews, the fellowship hall and speaking rooms were all rather standard and functional. Comfortable without being too over the top.  It was nice.

Based on these observations, as you can imagine, there was nothing about this place that said “success” according to the world’s standards. Nothing flashy and yet, I can recall most of these details so many years later because where these things were so plain and understated, there was one great thing that impressed me so profoundly,  that I really stopped to take in and notice the true richness of my surroundings in the course of those two days.

Painted on one wall just outside the sanctuary, there was a mural-sized world map and while I can’t remember the exact words below, I do recall it had something to do with the mission of the church. As in, THE mission of THE church as well as that one there. All by itself, that was something to behold and it surely could start you to thinking down the mental path of missions as you entered and exited the sanctuary each week.

That’s a nice thing to think about. However this congregation was obviously good at more than simply thinking about missions.

Here’s where it got truly extraordinary for me. Down every hall, on every side from the entryway and on around every corner, each wall was LINED EDGE TO EDGE  with a picture of a missionary individual or family this church personally supported. I mean the walls were full. Beneath the framed picture was a smaller frame with information telling about the place and people they served, when they began serving and how long and their prayer requests.  Every one of them was being actively supported by this church.

Maybe I’m just a bit sheltered but  I’d never seen anything like this before.

During the breaks I walked down the halls, looking at the pictures and reading the information, truly stunned as it dawned on me what I was a witnessing.

This rinky-dink, nondescript little church tucked back in the middle of downtown nowhere was reaching into nearly every country and continent on the planet one prayer at a time. One offering at a time.

My heart was just bursting with— gee, I don’t know… happiness?

It was a gift to be there— a challenge to behold and truly, this was the most beautiful church I have ever been in.  No doubt about it.

CS Lews on the Effective Church

Right now, it’s a bit of a personal issue for me remembering this scenario because recently a major missionary organization struggling to balance it’s worldwide budget is offering early retirement to their older missionaries. You know really OLD…..like 50.  For reasons I can’t fully explain my heart is so troubled by this news.

It makes me sad.
This is just the first step to downsizing their force.

One of the folks within this agency wrote, wondering aloudwhat if they just said no? Or better yet, what if every church in the convention gave $420 per month– the amount that’s been calculated for what’s needed to bring the budget out of it’s tailspin.

$420 per church, per month. It doesn’t seem like a whole lot.

You know,  a flood of refugees from Syria is currently pouring into regions that already have a viable Gospel witness established within. Refugees whom God has sent there to taste, see, hear and FEEL the love and Good News of salvation.

The majority of these refugees come from regions within the “10/40 window” where Gospel work is not only difficult…it’s downright dangerous. So God has opened the floodgates leading them to other countries where the work of loving and reaching them can be more fruitful in the long term– after the initial crisis is over and where the daily work will continue long after the news headlines disappear.  This passage from the Book of Isaiah 14:24-27 is rather exciting when you consider these circumstances in this light.

  As long as there are still folks there to do it…. and Satan would love to shut that down or delay it if he can.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m an idealistic dreamer to imagine that we in our churches who know true freedom and prosperity in God could afford to dig a little deeper… live a little more sacrificially, spending less on ourselves and our surroundings and instead have a hand in this work being done all over the world…to somehow be a part of keeping that “$420 Door” propped open by committing  to the support of the missions taking place here and abroad.

What would it be like… to have the privilege of being members of a church like that?

Personally….I think it would be beautiful.

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