Monthly Archives: April 2010

Listening to the Lilies

Have you listened to the lilies lately?  Has God ever spoken to you through the birds of the air? Matthew 2:26-29 was the first passage of scripture that ever deeply convicted me.  In this passage Jesus is reminding us about how foolish our tendency to worry is.  One of my greatest challenges throughout my Christian journey has been accepting the simple truth of this passage; “26Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?  28“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.”

As I shared in my post titled “The Gift of Discontentment” and “Maintaining Balance”, I experience God most powerfully in nature.  Some of the most profound lessons I have learned in my spiritual journey were learned from ducks and lakes.  This past weekend we celebrated Earth Day and today I listed to a beautiful sermon about earth day by Brian McLaren which was delivered at the National Cathedral.  I encourage you all to take the time to listen to Brian’s message which can be found on his blog in a post titled “For the beauty of the earth”

I am very fortunate to have the ability to spend a considerable amount of time enjoying the beauty of creation either in my kayak, on my bike, camping with my family, or hiking the trails around my neighborhood.  I can not imagine not having these places and opportunities in my life.  Sadly, many of my urban friends do not have the same access to creation that I have due to a lack of transportation and the limited parks that surround our public housing complexes.

I never really thought about nature as a privilege until this weekend when we did a  prayer walk through Hillside Court; the grass was over grown, there were no flowers, the park is in severe dis-repair, and the community is in the middle of an industrial area surrounded by warehouses.  A little girl stood peeking through a screen door at us as we walked by.  My teammate, Rudy, commented “It looks like she is in jail.”  It was a haunting image.

As my children hop on their bikes and head to the neighborhood playground or climb trees at our land this week, I will remember that little girl in the cinder block cell, peeking out at the world.  How will she experience the loving embrace of the God of creation that has so profoundly shaped my life?

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Filed under Personal Reflection, Stories from the Street, Urban Ministry

Taking off our Lenses so we can See

Do you believe that you can take a radically diverse group of people and in all that diversity find unity while still respecting differences?

When I wrote the vision of Embrace Richmond in 2005, I never dreamed it would be so difficult to live out.  Our vision is “a city united to embrace all who are in need; a place where people of every race, class and religious background join together to care for one another.”  This is no small vision.  The issues of race, class and religious beliefs have deeply divided, not only our city but our world. These are the things that have brought about wars and terrible destruction.  It would be much easier to pretend these differences did not exist or to simply hang out only with people who are just like us. There are very few places in our society where this level of diversity exists in harmony.  While I believe in the vision, I acknowledge that Embrace Richmond has a long, long way to go in achieving this vision.

While the issues of race and class are often the most visible dividing lines, I believe the issue of religion can be the most divisive if we do not approach it with sensitivity and intentionality.  However, I also believe that if we learn to respect the beliefs of others, and focus on our common values, then our shared faith in God can be a unifying bond that can help us bridge the divides of class and race.

I think all of us would agree that respecting the religious beliefs of others is essential to creating unity across religious divides.  However this is no easy task and I have fallen short on many occasions.  It is not that I sought to offend, I simply forgot to take off my Christian lenses. At times, I act as though everyone around me believes the same things I believe and by making that assumption, I have unknowingly offended others.

I know my evangelical Christian sisters and brothers are getting very uncomfortable, they are thinking “But I am a Christian and I am not ashamed of the name of Jesus!” I am in no way suggesting a kind of Universalism. What I am wondering is if there is a way for us to each be true to our own beliefs while still respecting the beliefs of others?

I am a Christian, every one knows that. I make no attempt to hide that fact.  Embrace Richmond was founded on Christian principals and values and is sustained by the prayers of my Christian brothers and sisters.  I do not want to underestimate the role our shared faith in Christ has played at Embrace.

However, even among Christians we often fail to recognize that we all have different theologies (ways of understanding our faith).  Some believe that the primary reason Christ came to this earth was to save us from the wrath of God and eternal damnation; while others believe Christ came to this earth as the tangible presence of the living God so that we could come to know God more fully through him.  Some emphasize Christ’s life, some his death, and some his resurrection. For some its all about a “personal relationship”, others the “saving of souls” and for others it’s about “redeeming the world” or “ushering in the Kingdom of God.” Some focus on the “sin of man” and some focus on the “grace of God”, some on the “word of God” and some on the “life of Christ.” All of us know that even among Christians, we don’t agree…thus the vast number of denominations.  We will never achieve unity by trying to reconcile all these differences or by coming up with some unifying “statement of faith” that we all agree on.

However, with all the many things that divide us,I have seen individuals from vastly different understandings about faith grow to love and respect one another and each others beliefs. I think often we offend out of ignorance of about what others believe.  This ignorance exists because we don’t make space for honest conversations about faith.  If we always assume everyone agrees with us,they will not feel safe enough to share that they think differently.  This is especially true if we present our beliefs as “the only way of understanding God.”  This simply perpetuates the ignorance about what others believe and prevents honest conversations. To create this safe space we must acknowledge that none of us are God…none of us know everything there is to know about God…there is room in all our theologies for a margin of error.  Honestly, I would not want to worship a God that could be fully understood and defined by man.  Would you?

Brian McLaren’s new book “A New Kind of Christianity” is an interesting read.  I especially liked his analysis  of the “lenses” we use when we look at Jesus.  Some view Christ through the old testament, some theologies view Jesus heavily through the Apostle Paul’s lens. McLaren argues that Paul viewed Jesus through the lens of his day, the Greco-Roman world view which was influenced by Plato and Aristotle.  Most western Christian’s view Jesus through the theology of Augustine.  All protestant Christians are heavily influenced by Martin Luther’s “solo scriptura”.  The list of “lenses” is endless.

Having grown up unchurched, I see the church through the eyes of an “outsider”.  I have spent time in seven different denominations and thus have been influenced by the lenses of these denominations, I have dear friends from every specter of the Christian tradition.  I read extensively and thus have adopted the lenses of those I have read.  It is impossible to read the bible, or reflect upon our faith without bias.  If you have only been in one tradition or have only experienced one version of the Christian tradition, I believe it is even more difficult to see these blind spots.

This past week six very devout Christian women read a chapter of scripture and spent time praying about what the passage meant to us personally.  Everyone of us interpreted the same words out of the same Bible passage completely differently.  So who was “right”?  I don’t think “rightness” is the point of reading scripture. The passage spoke to all of us through our own lenses and met each of us where we were.  The key is allowing space at the table for everyone to agree to disagree and fostering a spirit that allows the scriptures to speak to everyone where they are.

McLaren argues that the place to start is to view Jesus through the gospels.  That is the reading of Jesus that is the clearest, least contaminated by human lenses.  I love reading the gospels in my parallel bible which lines up the passages that are similar side by side. By reading the same story in different gospels, you also come to see that even the gospel writers had their own lenses, their own target audience, and their own agenda. Ask any devout Christian and each of us will name our favorite gospel.  My favorite is the Gospel of Luke because of Luke’s strong liberation emphasis.  What is sad is that we even argue about which gospel is the “best”.

My prayer is that we stop trying to prove ourselves or our positions as “right” and begin to simply see them as “different” or “right for us.”  I don’t want to stifle religious conversations, I think our world is hungry for safe places to explore spiritual questions.  I simply want us to engage in these conversations with the utmost respect for everyone at the table and I think context is important.   If everyone at the table happens to be Christian, we need to respect the diversity of the Christian tradition but can find common ground in the person of Jesus.  If we do not know the beliefs of everyone at the table, then we need to respect the diversity of religion in general and find common ground in the loving God who created us all.  This does not mean we have to be shy about our own beliefs, but that we simply need to acknowledge that our way of understanding God is not the only way of understanding God.

Brian McLaren’s blog is very interesting.  In a post titled, “On Emergent”, McLaren reflects on the diversity of voices present in the emerging church conversation which is trying to define what the church of the future might look like.  McLaren writes “The process is awkward and messy at times…. the key issue is to stay at the table when you’re hurt and offended and misunderstood and made uncomfortable.”

This is my prayer for those of us in leadership roles at Embrace; that we would stay at the table, seek to understand one another, be willing to be made uncomfortable, forgive when we are hurt and above all seek not to offend but instead seek unity while respecting our diversity.  It will not be easy, but I believe this is the unique call of Embrace Richmond.


Filed under Leadership, missional church

A Tribute to Dr. Cecil Sherman

Albert Mohler writing about the life of Cecil Sherman?  I was too curious not to check it out.  As a graduate of Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, a seminary formed out of the Cooperative Baptist split from the Southern Baptist Convention which Cecil Sherman was an instrumental part of.  I was a bit surprised to see a post titled “This Man was no Moderate: The Legacy of Cecil Sherman” on Albert Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s blog.   Dr. Cecil Sherman passed away at the age of 82 earlier this week.

While I never had the privilege of taking one of Dr. Sherman’s classes while at BTSR and I honestly have never really followed Baptist politics, I wanted to post my response to Dr. Mohler’s post.  It is obvious that Mohler and Sherman are from opposite ends of the theological spectrum.  However, I found it refreshing that Mohler actually sees the voice of Dr. Sherman and all he stood for as having purpose.  For Mohler, the benefit of Dr. Sherman’s fight was to serve as a means of separating the right (conservatives)  from what Mohler calls the left and allowing for the “reclaiming” of the Baptist convention by conservatives.

However, I see the life of Cecil Sherman from quite a different perspective.  Without the Cooperative Baptist voice, I would never have attended a Baptist seminary and I would have completely abandoned the Baptist tradition.  Cecil Sherman fought to give moderate Baptist’s a voice, a place to belong within the Baptist tradition.  He inspired me not to give up on the Baptist tradition and gave me the courage to speak the truth that God has revealed to me even when it is not consistent with the “conservative” right.

Thank you Dr. Sherman for creating a place where Christian’s like myself can discover God’s word, grow in compassion and love toward our neighbors, and seek to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ.  I also want to thank you Dr. Mohler for reminding the world that your voice is not the only voice within the Baptist tradition.

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Are we all Addicts?

What is your drug of choice?  comfort, security, competition, praise, staying busy, controlling people, being in shallow relationships, having too much or too little money, worrying, seeing ourselves as superior or inferior to others.

The above list of addictions came from an intriguing post on Theoblogical titled “What’s Stopping Us?” which claims that we are all addicted to something and for most of us it is not substances but culture.  So, what are you hooked on?

Assuming there is some truth to this statement how do we overcome these addictions?

Theoblogical gives us this cure for what ails us:

  • a group that is breaking with the culture, the world’s systems, and providing support for total recovery from that culture [according to the post it is “in Christ” but I think my AA friends would argue differently]
  • a reconciling group of extreme diversity, especially highly privileged and severely oppressed
  • a group closing the gap between the deepening of personal faith and the expression of that faith in public political ways
  • a group seeking biblical justice in all forms, including the redistribution of wealth
  • a praying group, growing in our capacity to love, understanding that authentic love is always nonviolent.

I liked the above prescribed cure because it so closely aligns with what our Community Works groups are all about.  We are gathering a radically diverse group of people in low income communities (where the wealthy never step foot) and telling them that they (not the government), by the power of God (not human might) hold the power to change their own lives and their community.  We are breaking with the cultural messages of  that breed complacency, materialism, entitlement, dependency, arrogance, fear of the other, powerlessness, hopelessness and building up a spirit of unity, humility, advocacy,  self-sufficiency, love and generosity.

I know a number of you are in recovery from various addictions both substances and culture. What do you think of the cure proposed above?  Do you agree, disagree? Would you add to it, subtract from it?  What freed you from your addiction?  Do you think we are all addicted to something?  If so, what would you say to those who are still in denial?

While many in our communities battle addictions to substances, it is the additions to culture named in the Theoblogical post that we can’t see that are cancerous to our society and impact us all.

So, are you an addict?  Are you willing to admit that you are “powerless” over your addiction and join a group of fellow addicts who are seeking to “work their recovery” together?  If so, I invite you to join one of our Community Works groups and be embraced by a bunch of sick and suffering cultural addicts who together are finding healing.


Filed under Urban Ministry

Proposed New Cover for My Book – What Do You Think?

The beautiful Yolanda McDuffy is featured on the cover of my book which should be in print by late spring.  Yolanda is one of our amazing Embrace Richmond team members whose personal dreams are transforming our Fairfield community.  Stay tuned for more information about Yolanda’s journey.

The photographers responsible for the photo were Sakura Miyazaki and Caitlin McCaig.  Sakura and Caitlin are both sophomores in the Humanities program at Monacan High School and coordinated this photo shoot as a volunteer project to support Embrace.  (Yes, Caitlin is my daughter for those who were wondering)

For both the reasons named above, this cover means a lot to me personally and I pray others will love it as much as I do.


Filed under Book Related

Maintaining Balance

Have you ever felt your life was out of balance?  Have you ever had a season when you were simply to busy to rest and reflect upon your life but later came to realize that by resting and reflecting, your life actually got easier and made more sense?  I have just recently come through a season like this.

This past week Jamie, who leads our Fairfield Court missional community, shared that when our communities gather and the conversation is more spiritual in nature, there is a real energy in the room verses conversations that more focused on the tangible stuff our groups engage in like GED tutoring or planning a clothing give away.  I have also seen the exact opposite happen in groups that spend all their time on spiritually focused things, like bible studies.  Often these groups come alive when occasionally people start to discuss how they can tangibly live out the scriptures in the world.  I think the key is balance.

I just went back to a post that I wrote August 1, 2009, titled “Empowering a Movement” based on a book about Church of the Savior.

This particular quote from the book caught my attention:

“We have found it incredibly hard to hold to the concept of the inward and outward journeys. We early discovered that not many persons want them both. Weighted heavily on one side or the other, most of us struggle intensely to keep these two dimensions in any kind of creative tension in our individual and our corporate lives.”

I think we need to be intentional in balancing these two elements of the journey in our own lives and modeling that balance in our missional communities.  I think Jamie’s observation that when the conversation is rooted in the things of the spirit, the passion and energy is present is because perhaps we have been more heavily focused on the outer journey in our groups.  If we want to get to the core of some of the issues faced by those in our communities, like hopelessness and apathy,  we have to find ways of helping people along in their inner journey.

I would love to hear from all of you regarding practices you have developed that have helped you in your inner journey.

The outer journey is obviously the easy side of the equation for me.  I am a “doer” and I have to work hard at making time and space to simply “be”.  For me, practicing stillness or contemplative prayer in nature has been the most powerful practice for me related to the inner journey.  My time spent on my ridge alone in the middle of nowhere just sitting and soaking in the presence of God does more for my spirit than anything else I have found.  I gain such clarity and discernment from this practice in addition to inner peace and healing.  I experience the same healing presence when I am alone in my kayak.  Sometimes I paddle to spiritual music which can be healing but sometimes God sings to me through the birds of the air.  Today was one of those days…blue sky and God’s love in the subtle breeze across the water.

I took a class in seminary called Celtic Spirituality which met at Camp Hanover.  We would gather in a cabin, then we were to spend the next hour seeking God in the wilderness, then came back to class and shared where we met God.  It was a powerful class!  I learned more about spirituality in that one class than I did in all my theology books.

That has been my pathway to a healthy inner journey. When I neglect this practice, I become unhealthy and the outer journey is simply no fun. I encourage you all to share your own path.  I think it may help us to discern how we can help others find their way while we learn more about one another and how God has shaped each of us.

I ask that we embark in this sharing with a gracious spirit, a spirit that respects each contributors journey as valid and equally true as any other person’s journey.  My prayer is that while we may not all have the same practices, we all can respect the practices of others and the fruit that each practice yields.

So, where do you encounter God most powerfully?  How do you find inner peace and healing?


Filed under Leadership, Urban Ministry

New Book Title Announced

from the Sanctuary to the Streets: How the Dreams of One City’s Homeless Sparked a Faith Revolution that Transformed a Community.

Hoping to have the new cover design done within a few weeks and then off to printing.

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Meet James; our prophetic, hungry, new friend

Have you ever had a total stranger speak such truth into a situation that you knew God was speaking through them?  Well, I have not had that happen very often but today was one of those once-in-a-blue-moon kind of days.

Every Wednesday a group of key leaders from Embrace gather to pray and seek God’s guidance regarding our ministry.  We gather at Commonwealth Chapel because Pastor Rob Rhoden and his church have always been very supportive of the ministry of Embrace.  They have been so generous that they have given Joe a key to the church and allowed us to have full use of the building for our leadership team.  Today, as with most Wednesday’s, the church is empty as we unlocked the door and proceeded to make it our home for the next couple of hours.

Every week someone wonders into the church while we are there praying.  People looking for the pastor, sales people, people asking about various ministries at the church.  We are never able to help them because none of us are actual members at the church.  Honestly, it was getting a bit annoying.  I was even thinking that we should lock the church doors each week so that our bible study time would not be interrupted.

But today we had a different kind of stranger walk through the door.  The minute I saw James, I was annoyed…yet another interruption of our very important time with God.  However once he began to speak, I was deeply convicted.  This stranger was there for us.   I wish I would have had my tape recorder out to capture his exact words but this is what I recall him saying and there were five witnesses to this event who can correct me if I am wrong;

“Hi, my name is James, and I was just released from the county jail and well I have been going round to all the churches trying to get me and my family some food but nobody will help us.  I tried all the churches round my house in the east end and no one would let me in.  It’s like I must stink or look bad or something.  So I decided to come uptown and try to get some food.  I thought that at least one church in the city would help me but seems the church don’t help people no more.  I am trying to stay calm but I feeling very frustrated.  Will someone please help me?”

It was obvious that James was feeling hurt, rejected, and less than the beautiful child of God that he is.  James sincere rebuke of the church, broke the hearts of all five of my fellow Christian leaders and I.  It was as if Jesus walked in the door, and laid bare the reality of what the church has become; a gated community, locked up with those in need of Christ compassionate touch locked out.

Our team prayed with James and an angel named Dick Denzler, with Tabernacle Baptist Church, which happens to be just two streets away, opened up their food pantry just for James and his family.  While James rebuke of the church shines a telling light on the church at large, I am grateful that God put us in Commonwealth with an open door and gave us friends like Tabernacle Baptist so that we could minister as Jesus would have us minister.  These two Churches helped James see that Christ spirit still dwells in the church.

It is quite ironic that James traveled from the east end, where we have a ministry, to a church, where we are not ministers, and happened to walk through the door while we were praying about how Embrace could more fully usher in the Kingdom of  God in the City of Richmond.  It was as if God was saying, “Do you love me?  Feed my sheep.”  Not just in a spiritual sense but in the very real tangible way that James needed food.

As a side note, we have invited James to join our East End missional community and are praying he will take us up on this offer.  Please pray for James and his family and for the doors of the churches across our city to be opened up to Jesus who wears the disguise of the hungry, the homeless and the broken.

So, what do you think of James rebuke of the church?  Do you think his experience is typical?  If James walked into your church (assuming the door was unlocked), how would he be received?  Are we so busy studying God’s word and praying for the hurting, that we have failed to live God’s word and physically embrace the broken?

Before James would leave to go to Tabernacle to get his food, he insisted on hugging each and every one of us…I feel like I got a hug for Christ today…a pat on the back…a “well done good and faithful servant” and the Lord sent that hug in an unexpected stranger named James.

(For those of you who are wondering, yes, the photo above is our very own Yolanda and if you can not read it the sign she is holding says “As Unto Christ”.  We shot this picture as we were trying to come up with book covers and Yolanda is a great model!)


Filed under Stories from the Street, Urban Ministry

Stop the Pressess!

Well I thought I was done with the book, it made it through numerous levels of review all the way to the managing editor who decided on Friday that he does not like the title.  He gave some very convincing reasons why so we are now in search of the perfect title for what was “Embrace Dreams: A Journey Beyond the Pew.”  Below is my “short list” of ideas that I am going to submit.  Let me know which one you like best or if you have an even better idea!

Title Suggestions

Embrace The Dreamers

Bridge of Dreams

Sanctuaries to Streets

Homeless Dreamers

Sub-Title Suggestions

Embrace the Dreamers:  How the Dreams of the Homeless are Transforming our Sanctuaries and our Streets

How the Dreams of the Homeless United a Community and just might Transform the Church

A Journey from the Sanctuary to the Street transforms a community and could transform the church

There are numerous shorter versions of the sub-titles but this gives you the idea

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