What is Appropriate Sabbath Keeping?

Sabbath.  The single most important thing that separates Seventh-Day Adventists from every other Christian denomination.  In short it’s the observance of Saturday as the day of rest told to Moses by God and etched into stone as part of the 10 commandments.  For Adventists the Sabbath starts at sundown on Friday and concludes at sundown on Saturday as followed by the Hebrews.  Sabbath is a welcome respite from the other 6 days of the week.  Adventists don’t work jobs that require Sabbath hours (unless it’s healthcare related), nor do they buy or sell.  Traditional Adventists won’t do strenuous activities like sports or things that are too playful such as swimming.  Sabbath is a day of rest and worship.  At least that’s the theory.  In practice, keeping the Sabbath is much more complicated that many would have you believe.

Growing up I remember the mad scramble of our Friday afternoons preparing the house for Sabbath.  As soon as we got home from school our parents put my brother and I to work as we all dusted, vacuumed, scrubbed toilets, made beds, picked up laundry, and anything else that needed done to make the house spotless.  It was a stressful and annoying ordeal as we worked to undo the toll that life had taken on our house during the week.  The Sabbath hours would roll around and the house came to a screeching halt as we all collapsed from the mad dash to Sabbath rest.  For two boys Sabbath had mixed emotions.  We cherished the time as a family when we didn’t have the distractions of the rest of the week.  Then it was also unwelcomed since our Sabbath observance eliminated Saturday morning cartoons, playing with friends, and generally anything fun (at least in our minds).  Church in the morning was followed by the best home cooked meal of the week which led directly into nap time.  Our parents would sleep for hours while my brother and I watched the clock march slowly toward the exact moment sundown came and we were free.  For my brother and I Sabbath keeping was a burden.  A bondage from which we sought freedom for 24 hours once a week.

So what is appropriate Sabbath keeping? To a growing number of progressive Adventists this childhood bondage experience has led to a different application of Exodus 20:8-11, one that is more open to personal interpretation, and at first glance more liberating.  Many progressive or “liberal” Adventists I know have no problem going to Starbucks before or out to a restaurant after church.  They enjoy going to the beach for a swim or cycling down the road.  Personally some of by best Sabbath’s start in the gym early on a Saturday morning and include a long hike, some rock climbing with my boys, and conclude with a scoop of ice cream from the dairy some time mid afternoon, well before sundown.

To traditional Adventists however, everything I just said is quite disturbing.  Those individuals still rush home to ensure they aren’t in the public sector at Sundown on Friday.  And although they don’t work or engage anyone to work by eating out or shopping those Adventists also fail to see the host of hypocrisies and inconsistencies they have created.  While in college at an Adventist University I witnessed the same individuals who condemned going to a restaurant after church pre-purchase meal passes to the campus cafeteria where they would wait to be served lunch by a college student working to earn tuition dollars.  Those same individuals can also tell you exactly when sundown is, as they look forward to the moment when they can get their scoop of ice cream or turn on the TV.  I’ve seen Adventists condemn new members to their church for “inappropriate” Sabbath activities, yet never invite those people home to enjoy “proper” Sabbath fellowship.

Although I’m clearly not a traditional Adventist, I by no means dismiss everything that traditional Sabbath observance brings.  I don’t go shopping, do house work, or play competitive sports.  Those things tend to be rather selfish in nature and have a different time and place.  The difference for me is the heart of the decisions that are made during Sabbath hours.  That time at the gym is personal reflection time, often listening to sermons or worship music.  A time to “come apart from the world” and relax my mind and body, the blessing of peace and health.  The long hikes and ice cream are all about the blessings of time spent with my family.  All things that I know traditional Adventists would promote as worthy Sabbath outcomes.

All of these things are tough topics to tackle and the topic of appropriate Sabbath keeping has come up recently in our household as we made some significant changes removing ourselves from the shelter of Adventist culture in the past year.  Our kids no longer go to an Adventist elementary school and now are faced with the challenges of school activities during Sabbath hours.  We have also had to answer relatives and friends who question my transition to a job where I work Friday and Saturday evenings.  In a world where many Adventists give up jobs because of Sabbath observance, I embraced one.  But they don’t see the bigger picture.  My job in itself is a ministry.  My Fridays and Saturdays are spent reaching out to teens and connecting their stories to the bigger story we all share in God.  It’s the same thing I did as a youth leader for the church for ten years.  In essence I’m no different than the pastor who is paid to present the sermon each Sabbath morning (unless you honestly thought pastors were paid for Monday through Friday and the Sabbath sermon was free).

My point however with appropriate Sabbath observance is that each person has a different way in which Sabbath brings physical and spiritual rejuvenation.  I like to think that God on the seventh day took a step back as He filled His eyes with all the wonders He had just created and said “This is good”.  Then decided to swim in His ocean with the humpback whale, run through His fields with the cheetahs, or free-climb with Adam to the top of the mountains.  There wasn’t a church or a sermon or a Bible study.  Just the joy of the blessings of rest and refreshment in the presence of God and His wonderful blessings.  Jesus confirmed that Sabbath was made for man to enjoy (Mark 2:27).  It should be a blessing not a burden.  And for each of us our joys and our blessings are different.  They can’t be dictated or spelled out in a rule book.

The most profound statement I’ve heard regarding Sabbath came from my pastor when I was a teenager.  He said, “If you’re sitting around watching the clock for sundown so you can do something after Sabbath, then you’re heart isn’t on Sabbath anyway.  You’re mind isn’t on God.  You would be better off doing that thing and enjoying it on the Sabbath than to ruin your Sabbath thinking about what you can’t do.”  And it made sense.  My brother and I would play one on one basketball on Sabbath afternoon, but never played on our school’s team Friday night.  For non-Adventists (and many traditional Adventists) that differentiation doesn’t make sense.  But to me, the difference is clear.  God in His infinite grace has blessed with so much more than I deserve.  And in His wisdom he also gave me one day a week where I can set aside all the stress of the world, willfully and guiltlessly say “no” to distractions, and open my eyes to love and appreciate those blessings.  And however you spend your Sabbath my only question would be is are you encouraging yourself and others to enjoy and give praise for all the goodness God has placed in your life.  Or is your Sabbath keeping merely a requirement and a stumbling block to the joy of saying “this is good”.  Then you will be able to answer what is appropriate Sabbath keeping.

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Donald Trump, Not the Leader We Need. The Leader We Deserve

Donald Trump

Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump speaks at his South Carolina campaign kickoff rally in Bluffton, S.C., Tuesday, July 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

“He’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now.”  It’s one of the last lines uttered in one of the greatest movies ever.  At the end of The Dark Knight Commissioner Jim Gordon explains to his son why Batman is running.  Why he can’t come out of the shadows and be a welcomed and gloried hero to Gotham City.  Batman, like Gotham City is full of deep flaws, haunted, and dark.  The vigilante hero of the city is every bit an embodiment of who they are as the countless villains that terrorize it.  Like the citizens of Gotham who have embraced their cultural indiscretions and the anti-hero that represents it, so too have Americans received the embodiment of their sociology in the form of Donald Trump.

Why is Donald Trump so popular?  I’ve seen this question come up over and over as he continuously climbs the polls to lead the candidates for the Republican Party.  He’s loud, offensive, and arrogant.  Everything the stereotypical politician isn’t.  And should he win the nomination and eventually the election (which scares not only Americans but other countries as well) he will be exactly what America deserves.

United States culture is everything that is Donald Trump.  Travel abroad even for a short period of time and you will see American’s flaunting their Red, White, and Blue as they trample social norms and demand everyone speak English.  During the year I spent studying in France it was common for me to hear American tourists have their demands ignored by friendly tour guides only to return to  the group mumbling “if it wasn’t for us in WWII they’d all be speaking German”.

At one point in time the United States was the gold standard of societal progress.  Our Declaration of Independence and Constitution provided a template for government that countries have modeled ever since.  Yet, rather than push ourselves to continue to innovate alazy but talentednd challenge the world to a higher standard we have settled into complacency.  Take for instance a BBC report that showed the Math and Science scores of 15 year olds in 76 countries.  On that list, the United States ranks 29th.  However, the US is often ranked first in patriotism and self-confidence.  I’ll never forget the day I saw a young boy at the playground walking around with a Nike t-shirt that said “Lazy but Talented”.  As if that was something to be proud of.

American’s love being bigger, bolder, and more in your face than any other country. American’s are proud of the fact that we stand alone as one of three countries not using the metric system.  They blissfully enjoy having 662 military bases in 38 countries, while no other country does such a thing.  For most American’s our place in the world is defined not by GDP, education ranking, or scientific breakthroughs.  It’s determined by the number of gold medals at the Olympics.

So why not have a leader who represents the country appropriately?  A leader who would put other countries to shame with his zeal for making ‘Merica great again?

Donald Trump is the 2000 calorie Whopper you order “your way”

He’s the 14 mpg your Hummer gets because global warming doesn’t exist.

He’s “the NFL is biggest sport in the world” (never mind that thing called soccer (real football))

So, go ahead and vote for Donald Trump.  He’s everything that so many think is right with the United States.  I can’t think of a better way for the US to truly embrace what it is and show the world who we are.  And when it all goes down the toilet, Trump can honestly stand there like Maximus in the coliseum and ask “Are you not entertained”?

Sources:

http://www.bbc.com/news/business-32608772

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I Got Robbed and Found a Good Samaritan

If you’ve ever been the victim of a crime you know that there’s no greater moment of disappointment, violation, and anger.  Add to it being outside of your element while traveling and you wind up in a situation of complete helplessness.  This is exactly where I found myself one cold December night while on a business trip to Washington DC.  But more than the broken car window, stolen belongings, police reports, and lack of sleep that ensued was the interaction I had with a complete stranger and their outreach to me.

At the time I was a recruiter for a healthcare network and spent a good part of my fall traveling to college campuses recruiting students for internships and full-time positions.  After a full day of presentations and interviews I proceeded to a little area down the road from the school to Roscoe’s Neapolitan Pizzeria.  It’s a fantastic wood-fired pizza place in a quaint area of Takoma Park, Maryland.  The area is full of little boutiques, designer shops, and restaurants.  The dinner was superb and if you’re ever in the area it’s a must stop.  After dinner I casually walked to my rental car parked around the corner and sat down in the front seat.  As I punched in the return address on my GPS I noticed glass on the passenger seat.  As I looked over my shoulder I saw that the rear window was broken in.  I quickly scanned the interior of the car and found that my briefcase which had been sitting on the floor (what I thought was out of sight in the dark and through tinted windows) had been taken.

I immediately went into autopilot, calling the police dispatch to send an officer then quickly texting my manager and director to inform them of the situation.  The initial concern of my boss for the company laptop adding to my anxiety for the moment.  He wanted me to try to remember everything that I had in the bag as well as saved on the laptop.  There were resumes, internship brochures, business cards, the lap top, and…

My heart sank as I remembered I had stuck my personal hard-drive in there to do some writing on the flight.  Months of work were now gone.  Replacing those moments of inspiration would be impossible, even if I were to piece together some of it from older back-up files at home.  My manager’s voice turned into one of those teachers from Charlie Brown as he droned on about corporate integrity and contacting the IT department.  I knew the laptop was useless to anyone outside the network servers and I didn’t store any classified documents on it.  He said his piece and I basically hung up on him as the squad car rolled up and the two officers stepped out.

After an hour’s worth of filing a police report, calling the rental car company, and following up with my boss one last time, I was back on the road to Baltimore where I would swap out the car.  The drive down the interstate was excruciating.  The cold winter air rushing in the broken window behind me a reminder of my loss.  Then about 20 minutes down the road I got a call.  Since the number was a DC number I assumed it was the police.  Could they have actually found something?  With all the real crimes going on did they actually do more than file the paperwork?

The voice on the other end of the phone was foreign with an Indian accent, definitely not the officer I had spoken with.  The man introduced himself as the Dean of the school of Business for Strayer University.  He had found my information in a laptop bag his security officer discovered while doing rounds outside his building.  I was dumbfounded.  I could actually care less about the bag, but the possibility of retrieving any of the contents gave me hope.  I briefly explained what had happened that evening and asked if it was possible to come by and still retrieve my items that evening since I flew out the next morning.  He responded with sincere sympathy that he still had some evening classes that evening and would look forward to seeing me.

It took all I had not to drive a hundred miles per hour going back just a few blocks from the scene of the crime where Strayer University was located.  I parked the car and upon entering the building, approached the security guard sitting right inside the door.  He was an older gentleman who stood and greeted me with a smile.  I introduced myself and explained who I was there to meet, hoping he wasn’t aware of the situation and avoid the embarrassment of retelling the story.  He said he was actually the one who found the bag and then walked me to where the dean was teaching a class.

As we reached the classroom the security guard poked his head in the door.  I could hear the dean excuse himself from class to step into the hallway to meet me.  The dean was intelligent and professional looking wearing a tan suit and tie even this late at night.  His grip was strong as he shook my hand, but his eyes were compassionate as he expressed sincere sympathy for my misfortune.  He had my bag with him and handed it to me.  He stood quietly as I scanned the contents of the inside glad to see the resumes and information from my day’s work inside.  However, my hard drive and the laptop were missing.  I’m sure he saw the hope leave my eyes as I closed the bag and looked back up at him.  He said “please go have a look outside with our security.  He can show you where he found the bag and maybe something is still there.  I’ll look again myself in the morning daylight and if I find anything I’ll let you know.”  He handed me his card and before stepping back in the classroom asked that I email him tomorrow with an update and to let him know I returned home without further incident.

The security guard and I headed outside to a group of trees where he found the bag.  With flashlights in hand we began searching the area.  We found a few post-it notes and loose business cards blowing around, but nothing where the bag was.  The guard was ready to head inside when I looked at the base of one of the trees and saw my black hard drive.  The guard couldn’t believe my luck.  After finding a few more things I decided to call it a night and thanked the guard for his help.

The entire drive back and next day I couldn’t believe what had just happened.  Not only the loss and recovery, but the kindness of a man who didn’t owe me anything.  Regardless of the inconvenience to himself, he showed me grace and kindness that no one else did in that situation.  He didn’t take the chance interaction as casually as I would have.  He didn’t know how much I needed that kindness in my life at that moment.  And that’s what was so amazing and humbling about it.

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It Was Okay: An Honest and Spoiler Free Review of Star Wars the Force Awakens

I did it.  I stood in line for hours in an overcapacity cinema lobby waiting with great anticipation to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  We followed every command of the movie theatre manager directing traffic as if we were kindergarteners waiting to go to recess.  As the lights went down and the LucasFilm logo came across the screen cheers rang through the auditorium.  Louder ones would come at the end as the credits rolled.  As the cheers and applause subsided and the lights came up, I sat there with one thought on my mind; is that is?

I’m not going to win over any friends with this one, but I’m going to get it out there.  I believe that hype, anticipation, and nostalgia are going to skew everyone into believing Star Wars: the Force Awakens is better than it really is.  Is it a good movie?  Yes!  Is it worth seeing on the big screen?  Definitely!  Is it the best movie of the year?  I don’t know.  But let’s face it; this is a much anticipated reboot of possibly the most cherished film franchise of all time.  Because we have waited so long for redemption from Jar Jar Binks I don’t believe we are viewing it with an unbiased eye.

In a year that saw amazing big budget films hit theatres like Mad Max Fury Road, Avengers Age of Ultron, and Jurassic World; Force Awakens fits right in there as your average big budget sci-fi movie.  Its acting, effects, plot points, and viewing experience are right where they should be.  As many will agree it undoes all of the disappointment and non-sense George Lucas brought us with episodes one through three.  However, was it groundbreaking and deserving of the title “Biggest Movie of All Time”?  No.  That title to me will always belong to movies like Titanic, ET, Jaws, Lord of the Rings, and the original Star Wars; groundbreaking, cinema changing works of art that rocked our imaginations and changed the world.

With the Force Awakens there was nothing that should have blown anyone away who has watched movies recently.  The effects were on par with Star Trek and any Marvel movie.  Where the original Star Wars movies blew people’s minds with effects and worlds never seen, Force Awakens feels like we dusted off the same old concepts and updated them with modern design and animation.  There was not the mindblowing moment of the star destroyer cruising across the frame.  Parts of the space flight scenes felt like I was watching JJ Abrams Star Trek where he simply swapped out the Enterprise for the Millennium Falcon.

The movie felt the same as the original.  I know a lot of people were afraid it was going to change.  That Disney would mess it up or Abrams would veer in a new direction.  To be clear, every Star Wars fan is going to be extremely happy with how true JJ Abrams stayed to the themes and feel of the George Lucas created universe.  However, and maybe I’m the only one, but I actually wanted some sort of reinvention of the characters along the lines of Daniel Craig’s James Bond.  But everything felt the same, like we just picked up from the ending of episode 6 even down to Oscar Isaac’s ‘70’s style hair.

Then there was the predictability of it.  I won’t give away any spoilers, but after you’ve seen it I’ll simply ask “did anything that happened shock you?”  I felt betrayed in every reveal and every major plot point thinking that I could have written that script myself. With lots of new characters and directions you could go, it felt like it was Luke, Leia, and Vader all over again.  The trailers which I watched over and over again led me to think there was going to be this major plot point like finding out Vader is Luke’s father.  I waited and waited, and while some things may have caught many in the theatre, when it finally came my reaction was “really, that’s all?”

The Force Awakens followed a pretty predictable modern script for trilogies.  It had plenty of homage moments to the fans who will appreciate the tributes to the classic.  Then it just wandered through without really pulling me to the edge of my seat.  It gave you more questions than answers so that you’ll come back to the next movie, slowly building to the third installment.  Sure the originals left some questions to be answered, but they ended with somewhat of a resolution.  Force Awakens felt like they needed to keep everything just out of reach so that you’ll buy a ticket to the next movie.  I wanted to yell out “you can’t end it like that” the way my dad did at the end of Fellowship of the Ring.  The anticipation and fan theory over the next two years will be frustrating to say the least.

In the end Force Awakens is nothing more than a place setting.  It reintroduces us to the world we loved and restores our confidence in the stories and characters we have longed to see again.  It sets the stage for what is to come.  And like the Lord of the Rings or Godfather movies I’ll look at Episode 8, the second in the trilogy, to do the heavy lifting.  I know that is where JJ Abrams is taking us.  I know that all the predictability of the first was to build our trust again in the directing, acting, design, and effects that we felt betrayed by in episodes one through three.  The movie was good.  Worth being out late with friends and worth going back again to see with my son.  But for a Star Wars movie is was a bit pedestrian.

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Why Are Muslims Here?

Why do Muslims hate the United States?  With the growing amount of violence perpetuated by ISIS recently, I’ve found myself asking this question a lot. I’ve argued with many people because I didn’t want to lump all Muslims into the “terrorist” category as I felt it was unfair to the millions of Muslims who don’t blow up buildings.  Then a shooting happened this week in California.  A seemingly normal Muslim couple killed 14 people within blocks of family and friends I had in that same area.  And as details come out about the shooting, my question has changed from why Muslims hate the US to “Why are Muslims in the US to begin with”?

Only 24 hours before going on a shooting rampage, Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife had all the appearances of normal American citizens.  Syed graduated from Cal State and worked for the County.  He and his wife were both legal US citizens who entered the country legally and lived here for several years.  They had an infant child and one online site had Syed describing himself as “enjoys working on vintage and modern cars, reads religious books, enjoys eating out sometimes”.  Yet, after raiding their home police found large piles of ammunition and a bomb lab with 12 explosive devices.  As information continues to come forth, it’s becoming clear that Syed and his wife had become unhappy with the United States and intended to retaliate.  But why?  Why stay somewhere you hate and spend your time plotting your own demise verses going where your ideals and beliefs might be more accepted?

Why Muslims Hate the US

Muslim flag burning

According to the website IslamDaily.org:

“Muslims hate America because of who America is and what America represents. Muslims hate the core of American culture and they fear that America’s influence in politics, entertainment, and wealth will erase their culture. To a devout Muslim America is vile, blasphemous, and as far from “pure” as pure can be. Muslims see American women degrading themselves on the silver screen and being unfit as wives and mothers. Muslims see American men as slovenly, easily corruptible, lacking of virtue, and wallowing in one vice or another”

On the surface I can’t argue with their general assessment of American culture.  That quote could have easily been taken from any conservative Christian site as well.  The key point in that statement however is fear that “America’s influence…will erase their culture”.  As a parent living in the midst of US culture I struggle with what to show my kids and how best to raise them.  The hardest part is keeping them protected from the things that I don’t feel are best for them.  That is all while I still enjoy movies, video games, and eating out at restaurants.  I can’t imagine how disturbing it would be from across the globe where American companies are trying to entice you to join their growing market share.  Fear for your family and your way of life will cause a lot of people to do things they never thought possible.

However, culture isn’t the only area that causes Muslims to hate Americans.  Our government is a key source of distrust and hate.  In an article for the Huffington Post, Quasim Rashid pointed out:

“Citizens of such nations view anti-Islam propaganda emerging from the United States as stemming from the US government itself–not private citizens… Our image in many Muslim majority nations is that of a people who support dictators when convenient for oil and economic gain and overthrow them when not–all the while preaching the free speech, democracy, and freedom that we don’t practice.”

History has always been written by the victors, leaving a void where the other side of the story is rarely heard.  I’m sure from a global perspective the US is about as innocent a victim as Pilot when washing his hands of Jesus.  Our foreign policy has admittedly been very self-serving, rushing in with billions of dollars of troops to promote democracy and leave the country with little better than martial law when we’re done.

Yet, while this provides some perspective and maybe some justification for the hate Muslims feel for the US, it still doesn’t answer my question.  Why are they here?  Why do they come to live in a place that they feel personally violates everything they hold dear?  Sure it’s a war tactic as they declare Jihad on Western culture.  I get that.  But I don’t consider this the same as special forces or police officers going undercover to bring down a crime syndicate.  Despite what they may say or think, these people are not soldiers sent in for covert ops missions living underground until the proper moment.  Nor are they spies gathering precious intel to share with headquarters.  This is closer to a Southern Baptist pastor becoming a homosexual so he can prove it’s a lifestyle choice.

Why Don’t Muslims Leave

If the culture is so bad that they must wage war against it, why then do they attend US Universities, marry, obtain good jobs, buy homes and other frivolous American products, and have children in the US?  Most people when they feel something is not who they want to be or is against their beliefs will first address the problem personally before dealing with the outside factors.  If they don’t agree with a church, they leave.  If they aren’t happy with their fitness level, they get a gym membership.  They don’t murder the pastor or blow up a McDonald’s. The responsibility is on you as an individual to change that which you feel is negatively impacting their lives.   Then you take steps to change the world around you.

Despite what the ads say no one needs the clothes, jewelry, electronics, or food that we’re sold every day.  And no ones forcing anyone to buy it.  Muslims who hate America can leave.  They can take all that money and effort spent in war against western culture and create an insulation for themselves against the world.  Don’t accept  tourists and don’t accept  dollars to buy  products or services, primarily oil.  Stop filming terrorist videos on a Canon or Sony camera, edited on a Mac or PC, then uploaded to Youtube and the link re-tweeted by their official Twitter page.  Stop watching sports on flat screen TVs and buying pornography off the internet.  Quit buying Nike shoes and drinking Coca Cola.  And when you figure out how to stop watching the Kardashians, please tell the rest of us how.  Show the world your way is better.  Because right now all your doing is showing you don’t know how to handle a disagreement at a Christmas party with coworker.

Additional Sources:

CNN – “Who were Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik

Wall Street Journal – “Shooting Suspects Had Bombs, Piles of Ammo

 

 

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Gun Control Isn’t the Problem, Society Is

Well, here we go again; another school shooting.  No matter what media you use for your information gathering or social interaction, I’m sure it’s filled with levels of outrage and sympathy at what appears to be a disturbing increase in this pattern of violence.  I personally am at a point where I don’t care about the shootings themselves or their frequency, there are so many things to worry about in this world it becomes overwhelming.  Rather, what I’m tired of is the righteous indignation with which most people respond to the situation.  So for all of my hippie, peace-loving, gun control friends who are using another US school shooting tragedy as a platform to go insane about gun violence I ask this: What do you expect?

Let’s forget the debate about background checks or weapon restrictions.  Instead let’s talk about what can be seen as a cultural epidemic.  A culture obsessed with its freedom and individuality, full of entitlement and increasingly numb to the realities of the world.  Each year studies and surveys come out revealing very disturbing results.    We are a society that can be categorized as:

  • Wanting higher wages without higher education
  • Wanting fame without talent
  • Wanting success without work ethic
  • Wanting reward for participation without effort
  • Wanting love without commitment

When you line these things up you have individuals who feel it’s worth taking the lives of other people solely for the reason of getting their 15 minutes of fame.  That’s not a gun problem, that’s a cultural problem.  Let’s face it; somewhere down the road of self-discovery and freedom of expression we lost the things that kept us whole.  Today’s “freedom” no longer has the bitter memory of what it took to earn it.  Freedom is a right and with that right comes a disgusting reality.  For a country founded by religious devotion and work ethic we now relish our slothful decadence and irresponsibility.  Don’t believe me?  Explain why the Kardashians and Jenners are famous.

As far as industrialized countries go the US has slowly sunk to become one of the most unhealthy, least educated, over-compensated countries in the world.  The only thing we lead the world in at this point is pride.  And to use an old proverb “Pride goeth before destruction”.

Life is about balance and we as a society have become wholly unbalanced.  The same freedom that allows people to pick up 64oz jumbo gulps of Dr. Pepper with their double cheddar McRibwich also allows people to own firearms.  Neither of them are good for you and could kill you if in the hands of the wrong person, but if you try to take them away you will surely have a fight on your hands.  Neither can you expect your right to speak freely about how much you dislike something without respecting the right of someone else to speak freely about how you’re an idiot.  And sure we want freedom to be individuals and express ourselves, but we as a society have come to a point where we must now look in the mirror and ask “what have we become”.

If you ask me, the most frightening thing about the recent school shooting isn’t that it keeps happening.  It’s the fact that it will continue to happen.  It will happen over and over again until we cure the disease that is our current cultural mindset.  We must find a way to bring connection and wholeness back to a society that has become numb to one another.  We must find a way to let people know it’s okay to be normal.  That they aren’t alone and they don’t need to make grand overtures to be recognized as alive and providing value.

Gun control won’t do that.  Facebook outrage won’t do that.  Memes and stats and angry blog posts won’t do that.  NONE of it will do that.  We must individually decide that enough is enough and seek to be the change we want to see in the world around us.

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What I Learned from a Weekend of Prison Ministry

I’m standing at the far end of cell block H of a maximum security prison on the second level looking down the rows of 5×8 rooms on either side of me.  The windows of the doors are filled with faces staring at me.  I’m alone with nothing but a bag of chocolate chip cookies in my hand.  My heart is racing.  What if the officers forget I’m here?  What if they open the doors to the cells?  Is this how I’m going to die?  Scenes from every prison movie I’ve seen race through my head as I try to look as calm as possible.  I try not to listen to what’s being yelled at me through the doors.  I don’t make eye contact.  I just need one more bag of cookies from my team mate to leave for the last cell and I can get out of there.  How did I get here?  What in the world am I doing?

KAIROS is a non-profit, non-denominational ministry dedicated to serving those in prison.  Twice a year they do a weekend inside the penitentiary where provide an intensive spiritual retreat focused on openness, acceptance, and forgiveness.  We’re not there to proselytize.  We’re there to share hope and love; and cookies.  So many cookies!  We roll in with over 92,000 cookies baked by volunteers.  The tables are piled with them all day long.  Every night when they leave, the 42 inmate participants get two dozen cookies.  Then we distribute them to all 2600 residents in one gallon baggies filled with two dozen cookies each.   The rest of the weekend is indescribable.  The almost 40 hours spent with the men is filled with testimonies from the volunteers about their struggles and journey with God.  One man shares his recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.  Another shares his conversion while doing 12 months straight in solitary in that very prison.  I’m there to lead music.  I’m not at a table leading discussions or to give a testimony.  It’s my first time and many of the other volunteers are veterans having done this at least 3 times already.  The whole weekend is a blur as I listen, watch, and wait for my queue to play some more songs.

Monday morning is what they call the “fourth day”.  It’s the hardest day for the 42 residents who participated in the weekend.  It’s the day where they will be faced with the challenges of going back to their regular lives with us there to support them spiritually.  However they were changed and impacted by the events of the weekend, they must now face other inmates and guards who will mock them and discourage them and try to pull them away from what they found.  I learned afterwards that after the first meeting several of the guards pulled the participants aside, confiscated their cookies and strip searched them before throwing them in their cells with no showers.  It’s an intimidation tactic to scare.

It’s my fourth day too.  I don’t want to go to work today.  It has nothing to do with my job, my coworkers, or my employer.  My heart’s not there.  My heart is back in the gymnasium of the prison where I just spent three days.  Last night as I sat down with my wife for the first time since the weekend started and explained the change I saw in the men is when the enormity of it settled on my like having a king size mattress laid on top of me.  What did I just do? I was emotionally and physically exhausted when I went to bed, but sleep was restless.  My mind was on John, a 300 pound enforcer for the Aryan Nation who three days before the event beat a man so brutally they had to hospitalize him off site.  John stood before 200 other inmates and volunteers sobbing like a baby because he no longer wanted to be that man anymore.  My heart is on Richard, a convicted child rapist serving back to back life sentences with no hope of parole.  Richard hated Christians and questioned whether God even existed.  As we finished he shared he now knew God was real because he felt Him and saw Him over the weekend.  Henry simply wanted to thank us all for the hand written letters we write to each participant (one from each of the 42 volunteers) because he hadn’t received mail in over 3 years and given up that anyone on the outside cared about him anymore.

The stories are too many to list.  The power of the weekend is hard to put into words.  Even now as I attempt it I’m overwhelmed by the events and their impact.  I’ve been doing ministry for a long time.  I’ve built churches and preached on three different continents.  I’ve served food at homeless shelters.  I’ve stayed up until the wee hours of the morning counseling students with thoughts of suicide.  But there was something about this weekend in the prison that I can’t shake.  I don’t want to shake it.  I don’t want to log into work or life and do what inevitably happens after every mission trip or spiritual retreat.  You know what I’m talking about.  It’s that moment several days later where the power of your spiritual high has faded and you’re right back in the comfort of your own life.  You forget the fatherless children you reached on that mission trip.  You forget the conversation you had with the man who has been locked up since he was 18 and will never be released.

No, I don’t want to forget.  I can’t forget.  I can’t forget the change I saw over such a short time.  The blank, defeated, dead look in the eyes of the men on the other side of the glass as I delivered cookies.  That same look I saw the first morning as the participants came in only to be replaced with life by the third day.  They were alive.  They smiled and laughed.  Their souls had been reignited with the simple motto of KAIROS; listen, listen, love, love.  They knew someone cared for them regardless of what they had done.  We didn’t ask and we didn’t care.  We listened as they poured their hearts out for the first time in who knows how long.  As they told their stories with their hurt and their fear, I didn’t see criminals who sought to harm anyone anymore.  I saw broken men not unlike myself, who through circumstance and poor decisions had wound up where their loved ones, their identity, their ability to make decision had been stripped away from them.

This experience was entirely different from anything I’ve ever seen.   Both the change in the participants and the change in me was unlike anything I’ve experienced.  And I didn’t even realize it was happening.  I understand more clearly why Jesus said ministering to those in prison is like ministering to Him. You can’t minister to those in prison without finding Jesus.  Many people would say “We brought Jesus to the inmates of the prison”, but as I see it; Jesus brought me there and met me on the inside.

What do I do next?  I’ve been asked that question so many times and I’ve always had an answer for people how to keep the spiritual high going.  But now I’m asking for myself.  So many fourth days are followed by a fifth day and sixth day and inevitably that moment of change is a memory because let’s face it, it’s so easy to slip back into the comforts of this life.  But I don’t want a fourth day.  Not this time.  I’ve watched too many people rush right through their fourth day back to where they were like nothing happened.  I’ve gone through too may fourth days to know I won’t let this one go.  This one means too much for me.  How long can I make my fourth day last?  I don’t know right now.  I’ll let you know if I figure it out, but I can tell you one thing.  I’m going to try harder than ever to keep it going.  If you want to join me, please visit http://kpmifoundation.org/index.php

(the names used in this post were changed to protect the confidentiality of the men and the families of their victims)

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