A Haunted Thanksgiving

Relax.

This isn’t one of those posts where you’ll be reminded of how many kids will die of starvation while you get a second helping of mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving.

It’s just a reminder to step away from the culture war and the talking points to remember why there aren’t a whole lot of other countries that have a day on their calendar like Thanksgiving.

I’ve talked to kids in the United States who have told me their dreams for the future. They talk about wanting to get into good schools and become engineers or speech pathologists. For the most part, I expect them to get their wishes.

A few weeks ago I was in Haiti. I spent a significant part of my time there building and remodeling desks for a school. Some of the students helped me. They were some of the nicest, hardest working people I’ve ever been around. And they have dreams too. They want to get into good schools. They want to be engineers. But my expectations aren’t as high for them.

Haiti is a complicated country. When people talk about how bad things are there, they always go back to the earthquake of 2010. It’s hard not too. But the problems started before then. Long before then. Honestly, I don’t know if anyone is smart enough to trace the problems back to one particular issue. Certainly not an American like me who spent all of seven days there. Haiti is suffering from a toxic mix of poverty, corruption, and good intentions gone bad.

One day when I was painting a desk, one of the students helping me told me his dreams for the future. I should say dream. His was a simple one.

“I want to go to America,” he said with a glimmer in his eye.

I spent a second thinking about how America would respond to this young man’s wish.

Some would say, “Don’t bother.” They’d tell him about all of the hatred and violence, about the president’s crazy tweets, and about our own brand of poverty and corruption.

Others would say, “Don’t bother,” for different reasons. They would proceed to tell him about how overcrowded we are, convincing themselves that he wouldn’t do a good job of assimilating.

We do have our problems here in America. And yes, there are those who abuse our system of immigration. But when I looked at that young man, I couldn’t blame him for his wish. Sure, coming to America wouldn’t fix all of his problems but it sure would open up some pretty good opportunities for him. If I were in his shoes, I’d want to come to America too.

I’ve been thinking about the look on that kid’s face when he told me about wanting to come to America. It was one half determination and one half desperation. I don’t see that in my country. The only people who want to leave the U.S. like that kid wanted to leave his country are angry political activists vowing to move to Canada and folks running from the law looking to hide out in Mexico or Europe.

This week I found out about the Trump administration’s plans to send back several thousand Haitians who have been living in the States under special status since the 2010 earthquake. I don’t know all of the details behind this. I’m no policy expert. All I know is that if I had been living here for nearly a decade, I wouldn’t want to go back to a country that isn’t prepared to receive me, even if it meant staying in one that doesn’t want me.

Immigration is a complicated issue. Carelessness on the part of our government is a clear path to losing our freedoms. Apathy on the part of our citizens is just as clear a path to losing our souls. Behind the tweets, talking points, and statistics, there are faces. Faces with a glimmer in their eye. Faces that belong to hard working bodies. Not all of those faces need to be in the United States. Some of them do. Knowing the difference requires more discernment and less pandering to the base.

I don’t have all of the answers to our country’s immigration problem and I certainly don’t know what steps need to be taken to fix what’s wrong with Haiti.

All I know is that kid’s face.

It haunts me.

It haunts me because I want him to be okay, whatever that means for him.

And it haunts me because if a kid wants to come to where I live that bad, I must really have a lot to be thankful for.

But it’s really hard for me to give thanks for where I live without remembering the faces from where I’ve visited.

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The Most Important Missions Trip

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I don’t know how many times I’ve driven by the house. It’s a nice house. And it’s located in a nice part of the community. Homes there aren’t known so much for the cars parked out front as they are the airplanes kept in fancy hangars in the back. This was not the kind of neighborhood where the police make routine visits to carry people away or collect evidence from some gruesome crime.

All of that changed on Monday.

Friends of the family were concerned. The man and woman had not shown up for work. When police arrived for a welfare check they found opened doors that should be closed and unlocked doors that one might expect to find bolted shut. After walking in, police discovered a man, a woman and a child. All three were dead.

As I write this, details are still coming in. Stories like this one have a way of changing between the initial news reports and the setting in of reality. What we do know is that a nearby school was not placed on lockdown. Police also stated that they were not searching for a suspect. That’s likely because this was no home invasion or robbery gone wrong. By all accounts, it was a murder suicide.

When I got the news, my mind went back to a small classroom in Louisville, Kentucky. We had spent months discussing how churches could do better at reaching out to hurting people. Most of our time was spent examining a church in Florida that had spent years successfully providing food, jobs and a fresh start for poor people.

Near the end of our time together, I had a question. So I asked our professor, Dr. T. Vaughn Walker.

“What about Peachtree City?”

Geographically, Peachtree City is very close to Atlanta, Georgia. In reality, it’s a million miles away. People in Peachtree City drive golf carts to go shopping at high end stores. The schools are good. The athletic opportunities for kids are endless. The lawns are manicured. The houses are beautiful. Which led to my question.

“What about Peachtree City? How are churches in areas like that supposed to minister to hurting people when, by all accounts, no one is hurting?”

With his usual wisdom and kindness, Dr. Walker corrected me.

“Don’t assume that just because the house looks nice on the outside that there are no problems on the inside. People in nice houses aren’t immune to cancer and divorce.”

And murder suicides.

The Church puts a big emphasis on helping hurting people. And that’s a good thing. That’s how it should be. But as we do this, we must remember that not all hurts are equally broadcasted.

Poverty is pretty easy to spot.

A broken marriage isn’t.

Poverty, at least to a certain degree, can be addressed from afar. Money can be sent. Trips can be taken. New structures can be set up.

But there is no check or summer missions trip that can adequately speak the gospel into a family that has been ravaged by adultery or cancer.

If we really care about helping hurting people, we must not forget about the crowded villages in Haiti. But we also need to remember the spacious house next door with a 3.5 car garage and an airplane parked out back.

Pain, suffering and evil pay no attention to zoning laws or tax brackets. They make their presence felt in all types of homes. And if we really want to help hurting people, we will do the same.

This summer, it could be that the most important missions trip your church could ever be a part of is the one that begins with you walking up the hill, knocking on your neighbor’s fancy door and inviting the whole family over for a meal.

Chances are, you have no idea what’s on the other side of that fancy door.

And you have no idea what an impact your presence can make.

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” Isaiah 52:7 (ESV)

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Just Ask Bud Post About Powerball

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The next Powerball drawing is Wednesday night. As I write this, the jackpot is somewhere around 3.2 bazillion dollars. That’s bazillion with a b.

While we’re all surprised at how high this thing has gotten, none of us should be surprised by the hysteria surrounding it. Saddened, sure. But not surprised.

As is usually the case with hysteria, there is a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding going around.

One of those lies tells us that if we took all of the money in the Powerball pot and distributed it to every American, poverty would be solved in this country because we’d all be millionaires. Every last red white and blue one of us. The problem with that is that the math just doesn’t work. But it goes deeper than that.

You can’t solve poverty simply by giving poor people a bunch of money. That’s a lesson that many of our elected and non-elected government officials have yet to learn. Even if the number did work, without the proper instruction and education, that money would be right back in the hands of the rich within a year.

Something else we’re told about Powerball is that winning it all will make your life happier, easier and funner. That also is not true. If you don’t believe me, Google the name Bud Post. He won over 16 million dollars in 1988. That’s million with an m. By the time 1989 rolled around, Post was a million dollars in debt. He would later call the whole experience a nightmare and say that he wished he had never won. Having an old girlfriend successfully sue you and a brother put out a hit on you will do that to you. Bud Post now lives on $450 a month and food stamps. So much for all of that money solving poverty.

Bud’s story is not unique. Evelyn Adams lost her millions gambling in Atlantic City. I’m sure that she had a great time. Now she lives in a low income neighborhood. Lara and Roger Grifiths lost their home, marriage and the jackpot. The stories go on and on.

But carry on with buying your ticket. I’m sure you’ll be different.

“You’re talking a big game now, Pastor but I’m sure you wouldn’t turn down that ten percent offering.”

Another myth.

Yes I would turn down that ten percent offering. And if your church is a legitimate one, it will do the same.

Yeah, I know. Think of all of the gyms and programs and buses and pews and computers and other shiny Jesus stuff that could be bought with that money. How on earth did the early church grow from just a  handful of folks to an international  movement that continues to thrive two thousand years later without that ten percent from some guy’s Powerball winnings? It’s almost like they had something supernatural behind their growth and influence. Hmmm.

There are churches that have been given large donations only to, much like our friend Bud Post, end up in debt a year or so later.

While money is important, it’s the Holy Spirit, not the lottery that fuels the true Church’s mission. And part of that mission is ministering to the poor, not feeding off of them in order to build nicer buildings.

A lot of people today are wondering what they will do if they win that big prize. I’ve got a few ideas.

  1. Hire some guy to successfully sue you.
  2. Convince your family members to try to kill you.
  3. Spend yourself into debt.
  4. Move into the projects.

That’s where you’re most likely headed anyway so why delay the inevitable?

So instead of dreaming about winning the lottery, just get up and go to your job tomorrow. Work on your marriage. Hug and teach your children. Listen to some good music. Enjoy a meal with friends. Laugh.

None of that is likely to get you a 3.2 bazillion dollar paycheck.

And that’s okay.

You’re better off without it.

Just ask Bud Post.

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Giving Is The Best Communication

The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. As it is written,

“He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor;

his righteousness endures forever.”

He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.        2 Corinthians 9:6-11 (ESV)

HT: The Awesomer

Fish Sticks, Tater Tots and Habakkuk

There is a good way to make people think that you are really spiritual.  Tell them that you were poor growing up.

Here’s how it works.

Person 1: “Remember those G.I. Joe lunch boxes we used to have back in grade school?”

Person 2: “Yeah, they were awesome.  Mine had Snake Eyes on it.”

You: “I never had a lunch box because I was on the reduced lunch program.  Oh, and I had to hitch a ride from a guy on a mule just to get to school.  We were poor, you know.”

Jackkpot!  End of conversation.

I didn’t grow up poor.  But things were tight.  That’s usually how it is in a single-parent home.  It was common for me to overhear my mom crying while talking to some bill collector on the phone.  Also, we ate fish sticks and tater tots for dinner a lot, if that tells you anything.

Now that I’m a husband and father who is obscenely rich, at least according to President Obama’s pledge to only raise taxes on the wealthy, I often wonder how my mom did it.  How did she manage to raise two kids and pay for all of the things that come with raising two kids?  And how is it that virtually all of my childhood memories involve laughter?  Why did our financial instability not become an emotional drain on our family?

Habakkuk has the answer.

He was a prophet during the time that the nation of Israel was divided.  One half of the nation had been enduring oppression at the hands of Assyria while the other half was about to get bullied by Babylon.  As you can imagine, this led to a lot of difficulties for God’s people.

Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
Habakkuk 3:17 (ESV)

In Habakkuk’s time, barren fig trees and empty fruit vines meant economic catastrophe.  But it was a catastrophe that Habakkuk was ready to face.  How?

yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places.
To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.
Habakkuk 3:18-19 (ESV)

Habakkuk knew the difference between the temporary and the eternal.  Olives, cattle and fruit were very important but they were only temporary.  Whether it’s 640 B.C. or 2013, worship of the temporary always ends badly.  This explains why people kill each other in the Wal-Mart parking lot on Thanksgiving night when they find out that there aren’t enough flat screens to go around.  Wouldn’t you kill somebody if you just found out that your god was sold out?

My mother, much like Habakkuk, kept an eternal perspective in our home.  She did this by teaching and living the eternal gospel of salvation by grace through faith.  And she did this by reminding us that our strength doesn’t come from a really awesome G.I. Joe lunch box but from the strength and might of the eternal and living God (Ephesians 6:10).

My kids don’t know what it’s like to live in a single-parent home, they’ve never had fish sticks and tater tots and they will never meet their grandmother here on earth.  But I hope that they learn her valuable lesson of knowing how to let go of the temporary while clinging to the Eternal.