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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Party Up In Heaven

Friday August 9th was just another day, or so I thought as I rolled in at 7:30 that morning. I'm the apprentice to River City Ministry's Executive Director and Evangelist. I'm an urban evangelist with much needed training wheels. Every day, my God reminds me that I have no clue what I'm doing, I am here to learn and depend on Him.

I showed up droopy eyed, because we have a beautiful two week old baby girl, and somehow even the one who doesn't stay awake the whole night with the new born manages to feel like they did. God bless my wife! Anyway, I don't usually come in on Fridays, Fridays are family days, but Anthony (the Executive Director) was out of town and Paul (the Operations Director) was out of the country. I was glad to do it, a little proud of the fact that I was trusted to be the man of the house, so to speak, and a little afraid of the responsibility.

I was getting ready for a trip to Georgia to speak to one of my supporting churches, and getting ready to speak at River City Church for the first time since moving here. I thought I was ready for the latter, but Anthony has been teaching me how to speak to the urban culture. I love this form of speaking, but it is new to me because I spent the last 8ish years speaking to white churches who were, for the most part, more middle class. I tell you all this so you can understand that I was tempted to stay in the office and work on my sermon. I could always leave the door open in case anyone wanted to talk.

But that's not my job. I have left the days of the desk job behind. Now I am an evangelist. I'm glad for the change; for the last few years I have wanted to be a minister and not a preacher. I did not want to spend my time preparing lessons for those who are saved or have "enough Jesus" in their lives. God was pushing me to really get out there and serve. God bless our brothers who dedicate their lives to teaching and encouraging the saints, we need you, and I appreciate every effort made to push the comfortable church member out of their comfort zone and into the Lord's work. But it was time for me to step out of my own comfort zone and do what I knew God wanted from me.

Now my job is to try to teach those who come to River City Ministry, a day center for the poor and homeless, about Jesus. I had a bunch of Bible studies and lots of times of prayer with those who showed an interest, and was even able to help seven people renew their walk with God, but I had not been able to lead anyone to the water for baptism. I pray everyday as I get ready for work that God will open the heart of those who need to change, that He will help me see who they are or that He will bring them to me, and that He will give me His words and His heart so that I can lead them to Him. Today was the day that this all happened.

Everyone I talked to that morning was glad to take the time and talk about God. When I asked them if they would like to sit and pray with me, everyone said yes. Two people even asked to pray for me! I was grateful for the prayers, I sure need them. I saw two men who I tried to help get set up with a P.O. Box at the Day Recourse Center and was talking with them when a man came in who was an answer to my daily prayer. He was there to talk and I knew that he was someone I was supposed to talk to. I asked him if we could sit and pray together and our prayer time developed into a Bible study. Mike shared his struggles and we talked about how he could begin his walk with Jesus. He had faith in Jesus and was ready to change his life, as we studied about counting the cost of discipleship and began discussing baptism, he told me that this was what he needed and he was ready to make it count.

During our talk, Mama B poked her head in to say hello and I told her the good news of my new friend's decision to give his life to the Lord. She asked if she could come along, and as she went to gather her stuff, a friend asked her where she was going. When a man I have never seen before heard her say that she was on the way to a baptism, he asked her if anyone could be baptized! She said, "You better come talk to Steven." God was filling the nets as fast as I could draw them in!

We sat and talked and Bill told me he was ready to give his life to the Lord, he just wanted to make sure that he knew how and that he didn't fall back into sin. So we talked about what a commitment he was making and how by God's help he could keep walking the walk after he was born again.

So, off we went rejoicing, just as God was rejoicing with His angels in heaven. We waved good by to their old lives and old identities, and welcomed two of God's newborn babes with warm embraces. On the ride back, Mike shared that he wanted to be a voice for God but wasn't sure how to start. I told him to just share how good God is, to share how God was patient with him, and how He give him a new life and would do the same for them. We stopped at a church that hands out sack meals so Mike and Bill could grab a meal to save for dinner (both men are homeless). When we got there, Mike talked to everyone he saw about how good his God is! God is busy in Mike's life, because Mike learned what it is to surrender to him.

When we got back for lunch, I announced the wonderful news that two of the Shepherd's wandering sheep were carried back to His fold. In the middle of the announcement, I kid you not, a man interrupted and said; "Can you baptize me when you're done?" HA! Isn't our God awesome!

This was Marshall. We had talked three days ago about him coming to the Lord! He had never heard the parable of the prodigal son, and when he did it brought him to tears. We talked about what he needed to do and he said he wanted to be baptized, but not today. I warned him about putting it off, but I didn't want to pressure him into anything. Anthony talked to him and had him promise that he would at least come back the next day, after study and prayer, to talk more about it. He said he would. before he left that day he said, "It won't be tomorrow, it will be Thursday." I was concerned that he was putting it off and that he wouldn't show. Well, Thursday came and went and there was no sign of Marshall.

Thursday, before Anthony left, he told me, "That happens, but then again, he may show up tomorrow, ready to go. Some times the days you're not expecting anything are the days when you have more responses than you do the whole week." As you can tell, Anthony has been at this for a while, he knows how the inner city flows and how God likes to surprise us.

God filled the nets, I pulled in the fish, and God cleaned them. When you become fishers for men, you never know when God will bring the big haul or which side you will be fishing on when it happens. But when my God delivers, He really delivers. The day I don't usually come in, became the day that I'm glad I didn't miss. My God is great! He delivers souls, changes lives, and enriches the lives of all those who He uses in the process.

That day, a brother who had never been able to baptize anyone came with us and was able to baptize Marshall. He was so happy that he cried. He, Mama B, two others who came with us, and I were so happy about God letting us be there to witness three of his children come home that we could talk of nothing else the rest of the day. There was partying on earth and in Heaven that day, and the three men who gave their lives to him were the guests of honor.

Monday, August 19, 2013


(This was my first sermon upon coming to River City Church)
Our God is amazing and all creation stands as proof of that! His might and strength is beyond description, beyond our understanding. But what does it look like when God shows off a little bit? What does it look like when God flexes?
Then the LORD said to Moses, "Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh: Because of my mighty hand he will let them go; because of my mighty hand he will drive them out of his country." (Exo.6:1)
So I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them. After that, he will let you go. (Exo. 3:20)

"Therefore, say to the Israelites: 'I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. (Exo. 6:6).

If I may be so bold, it sounds like God is flexing. And when God flexes, the world trembles. When God's people cry out, God delivers. God showed His might by what He did in the nation of Egypt, but He also displayed His might in the life of one man. Just as God didn't allow Pharaoh to release His people until He was done showing His power (flexing, if you will), He did not stop until He showed Moses just how powerful He is. 

In a time of great trouble, God brought His people to the most fertile area of all Egypt. By God's grace, the Israelites were given the delta area of the Nile, called Goshen. But as the years passed, everything changed. God's people became man's slaves. The land of blessing became the poor shambles of an oppressed people. The king commanded mass racial genocide to ensure his grip on his kingdom of disposable people. Does any of this sound like our nation's history?
Anyway, out of this conflict a child was born. By God's wisdom and power this slave child became the beloved child of the king's daughter. It was in this way that Moses was making his way from wicker basket to marble throne. There was just one problem. Moses knew his heritage. What kind of man could sit back and do nothing, seeing what Moses saw.

In the desert heat, as the sand blew by, a people who once belonged to the almighty sweated and bled to make another man's dream of wealth and might a reality. Here were a people beaten down so far that they lost all hope and were losing all sight of their God. They toiled in the mud and lay the bricks that built up their oppressors. Amidst it all, some held enough faith the cry out to God for deliverance. not knowing that these prayers were being heard by his God, Moses took it upon himself to answer the cries of his people.
So the "prince of Egypt" raised his hand against the man (the Egyptians in this case) and tried, by his own power, to deliver his people. But instead of a liberator, he became a murderer, and the very people he tried to save rejected him. Moses was now a wanted man. Pharaoh put the word out for him to be killed and soon his face was chiseled onto the walls of every Egyptian post office.
Now a fugitive, Moses left everything and ran. He didn't run to his mother (either of them for that matter) or just down the road, no, He just kept on running. He ran right across the border and kept running 'til he saw desert women being oppressed. Once again he saw the opportunity to play the liberator. Welcomed in by the desert folk, Moses found what seemed like the perfect hiding place and alibi. After all, who would suspect a sheepherder? For 40 years Moses hid from his people, his God, and his problems. But God wasn't done with him!
This 80 year old fugitive, while tending his father-in-laws sheep (not everyone will hire an illegal alien and fugitive, after all), saw a sight like nothing ever seen before. I have to go check this out, he said, and off he went. Little did Moses know, that he was about to face someone He had been running from.

God called Moses out by name, from the fire, and said; "Do not come any closer...Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground." Then he said, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob." (Exo. 3:5-6).

So what do you do when confronted by God?!

Let me tell you about a man I know whose story starts out a lot like Moses'. This guy was raised knowing about God and His people, like Moses. He saw things going on around him that he believed were wrong and tried, by his own power to do something about it. He tried to follow Christ by his own power, and held himself to an impossible standard. He became frustrated because he saw that he was unable to become who God wanted him to be. He held others to the same impossible standard, and became angry when they couldn't live up to it either. He misused God's Word, and though he never took anyone's life physically, he may have brought spiritual death by turning people form God by the way he misrepresented Him.

But when he saw his brothers and sisters being mistreated by others because they couldn't live up to the impossible expectations of others, he became so confused, guilty, and depressed, that he began to run from God. Thanks be to God that my Lord did not allow him to run for long. He nearly lost his faith, but instead decided to pick up his Bible. He read 1st, 2nd, and 3rd John and came face to face with a God he had never seen before. Instead of a God who held men to impossible standards and waited for him to fail, he found a God who was loving, patient and kind. This man found himself confronted with God. This man was me. I knew I had to change, I knew I needed God to change me, I knew my own power was not enough.
Depending on human power is where Moses and I failed. But self-reliance is a huge part of our culture. We say thing like: pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, if you want something done right do it yourself, he built himself up from nothing, he's a self-made man, he took his future in his own hands, he scraped out a living from the dirt, he climbed his way to the top, he made a name for himself, etc. We are a people who believe in doing things by their own power.
This is where Moses and I messed up; this is where both of us failed. So, I ask you again. What do you do when confronted by God?
First you listen! Look at what the Lord told Moses:
1. He told him to take off his sandals. Moses was in the desert country of Midian, without his sandals, Moses was completely vulnerable. You can't pull yourself up by your own bootstraps if you're barefoot! God wanted to begin by showing Moses that he was helpless.
2. He told him to take them off because he was on holy Ground. Not only did God want Moses to see his own helplessness, he wanted Moses to acknowledge that he was in the presence of the Almighty, the one who can do all things. God said, Moses you are on my turf, so show some respect and take your shoes off.
3. God says I am the God of your ancestors. This should bring to Moses' mind all the mighty things God did for his family. This also calls Moses' mind back to the people and the God he ran away from. It also showed that the God of his ancestors was not just in the presence of His people; God was even here in the desert. Moses could run from the God's of Egypt and they were powerless to follow him, but not the God of Israel.
4. God assures him that He has not forgotten His people, but He too has heard their cries and will answer them in His might. Now God says that He will be the one to deliver the people. Moses was unable to do this, but God is able.
Now, look how Moses reacts. He falls on his face before the Lord and hides in fear. This is good!
In our American culture, we don't usually see anyone fall on their face unless they have a gun to their head. The stance of falling on your face is one of complete surrender, showing you are no threat whatsoever. Moses completely submits because he recognizes that he is in the presence of one who is infinitely greater than he is.
The only way Moses could ever move forward was to accept his need for God and surrender to Him.
It was not until hardships in the faith came my way that I realized my great need for God. I realized I couldn't take one step without Him. This realization began to change everything, but even when I turned around and really started to see my God for who He is, I acted based on what I thought was right and invited God to join me. God was not done teaching me to depend on Him.
God was not done with Moses either. You see, God brought Moses to his knees so that he could make some hard realizations. God gave Moses the challenge that would make clear to him just how much he needed his God.
Then the LORD said, "I have seen how cruelly my people are being treated in Egypt; I have heard them cry out to be rescued from their slave drivers. I know all about their sufferings, and so I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians and to bring them out of Egypt to a spacious land, one which is rich and fertile... I have indeed heard the cry of my people, and I see how the Egyptians are oppressing them. Now I am sending you to the king of Egypt so that you can lead my people out of his country." (Exo. 3:7-10)
Poor Moses, he runs from his past and God brings it all back to him. Fear overwhelms Moses.
But Moses said to God, "I am nobody. How can I go to the king and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?" (Exo. 3:11).
God answered, "I will be with you..." (Exo. 3:12).
We know how this story goes. Moses has reason after reason why he cannot do what God asks of him. What if they ask me who you are? What if they don't believe me? I'm not a good speaker. Over and over God reassures Moses that He, the Lord, will be the one to make it all happen.
But the Lord's patience only goes so far. Send someone else Moses said, even after God showed him that he would equip him with all he needed. God's anger burned hot against Moses. The time for Moses to realize his own weakness had passed. It was time to put his faith in his God.
How often are we just like Moses? I can't speak to people. I can't love those people. I can't quit drinking. I can't walk away from him/her. I can't stop using. I can't help who I am. I can't pay my rent. I don't have the money. I don't have the time. I've done too much. I've gone too far. I've hurt too many people.
Why can't we see it? Why couldn't Moses see it? It's not who I am, it's not who I'm not, It's not what I have or what I don't have. It's about who God is and what he has the power to work in me.
All Moses had in his hands was a stick, but with God, it was a serpent, a sign to all of God's power. His other hand was empty, but with God it was a sign of God's power to destroy or heal.

God gave me the challenge I needed to really learn what it means to depend on Him too. River City Ministry was my challenge. I preached about how we needed to be busy doing the very things done here, and coming here was part of what inspired the sermons. Our visits here were a part of God working on me. The director talked to me about this kind of work and I said my heart was with my youth group and I wanted to see them through high school. But then, the next year, my best friend and I had so many things point us towards urban ministry that we told the director and evangelist that this was what we wanted to do when we were older and more educated and we asked him how to get started. Kimberly and I talked about it and began to make all kinds of reasons as to why we needed to wait. Then one day, we realized we had no reasons, only excuses. We prayed and prayed about it and I told the church what I was thinking about, I talked to the evangelist and he told me they would take me as an apprentice. That scared me and we prayed harder.

One day the decision weighed on my mind to heavily and I said, "Lord I don't know what to do. I wish you would just show me, but I can't think about it any more." I decided to get my mind off of it and focus on our teen devotional. It was the beginning of a new quarter so I was trying to decide where to start. I made four suggestions for what we could study and had the youth vote, via text. All but one said they wanted to use the video series of The Forgotten God by Francis Chan. I had not watched them yet, though I had read and loved the book. I turned it on and Francis talked about how he struggled to see what God wanted for him. He said, "Then it hit me, what if God's will is right in front of me. What if God wants me to go serve the poor. What if the answer is that simple." I turned it off and said, "Okay Lord, I hear you. I remembered His patience only goes so far, and I decided to listen before His anger burned hot against me!
We came out here and every day God challenges me and causes me to rely on Him more. It is a beautiful and terrifying thing to grow in Him this way. But each day God shows me a little more of His glory, and helps me let go a little more. It's not about who I am. It's about who He is and what He can do with me.
Now here's the question. Will you submit to your God and rely on His power? Will you forfeit your will and your puny power? Will you hand your life over to him? Or will you let God's anger burn against you? It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God.
So, stop running and start following. Stop cutting your own path and allow God to direct your steps. Stop sinning and start living for Him. Stop living by your own power and start relying on your God. Stop seeing your limitations and start seeing God's limitless power. Stop inviting God to join you on your journey and let God take the lead. Take off your sandals; you're on God's turf. Get on your knees before Him and accept what you can't do and see what God can do. Then step out in faith and see what God will work in you. It was not until God's people cried out that He showed up to save them. But when they turned to Him for the answer, God went to flexing, and showed them just how much He is willing to do through and for His people.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Saints on the Streets: 8/13

James the Just was said to have spent so much time on his knees before the Lord that he had knees like a camel. Tiberius is a modern day James the Just. Whenever there’s a conflict, Tiberius withdraws into the throne room of God and leaves this world behind. There’s no one that this brother would rather talk to than the Lord. Whether happy or sad, grateful or concerned, he prays.

Tiberius Reading his Bible

I watch, day after day, as Tiberius reads the word and talks to God about what he’s reading. We talk about what he reads and learns, and he teaches me so much about how to talk to God. I asked Tiberius what he read today and he told me that he stayed awake most of the night in an abandoned house and read some of all 66 books. "I read from one book ‘til I’m reminded of another, then I go there. That is how I make my way around the Bible."

Mama B sees us all as her children in the Lord. Even though her life is filled with disappointment and loss, she always has an encouraging word and passage for everyone around her. Since coming to Christ, Mama B can’t help but talk about Jesus. She shares Anthony’s books* and her daily passage from her prayer journal with people on the streets. She has brought many people to River City Ministry and helped several of them come to the Lord.

In speaking of her troubles, Mama B doesn’t waste time blaming others. Instead, she said that God is a jealous God and He teaches us hard lessons to bring us back. But when we turn back to him, He gives us all we need. He gives His toughest battles to his strongest warriors, and if He brings us to it, He will see us through it.
Mama B gives a copy of Your Seeking Soul Set Free to her friend Randy
DJ is not where he wants to be. He was raised up in the Lord but wandered from Him. He has struggled to walk with God while living on the streets. Surrounded by alcoholism, drug addiction, violence, and ungodliness, he strives to live for God. But, the inability to find steady work, a home, or a restored relationship with his family drags him down.

These were all things that DJ kept to himself until last month. "There is no room for softness on the streets," he told me. "That life is hard and the people got to be hard too. If I opened up and cried like this with people on the street, they’d see it as weakness. Then I’m a target. So, I kept it bottled up. But I’m tired, Steven. I’m tired in my soul, and I can’t keep it in anymore."

DJ shared the story of his life with me, the pain, the loss, and the constant presence of God. He told me he wanted to make sure that He made God his escape from His problems, and he asked me to walk with him on his spiritual journey. We prayed together and DJ was restored to a right relationship with the Lord! DJ would do anything for me if I asked, and I would do the same for him. God gave us an instant bond, and I thank Him for the blessing DJ is to me.

These are just a few of God’s children that have made an impact on me. Their loving hearts, prayerful lives, and uplifting attitudes have taken me from teacher to student to fellow traveler on the journey home.

In the month of July, we had twenty-one restorations, and four baptisms. Several of these came from studies that Anthony and I did together and seven of the restorations came from personal studies I had with my friends at River City. Lorry and I walked in the local projects to invite people to church, and the next Sunday five people came to worship with us. This week we have follow-up visits and Bible studies with the ladies who came, and prayerfully, the Lord will add them to His church.

Please pray for us as we continue serving the poor to open doors to God.

*If you would like a copy of Your Seeking Soul Set Free or Spirituality 101 for only $3 per book, contact me and I will get you in touch with the author, Anthony Wood. These books make great baptismal gifts or class material.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Human Graffiti

One brief month ago, I came to River City Ministry full of fear, excitement, and eagerness to teach. I was not sure exactly what to expect.

What I found was nothing like what I anticipated. My view and of poverty, urban culture, and myself changed completely. My mentor had me walk the streets with the people we serve and observe how they are treated. What I saw was human graffiti.

When He saw the crowd, He had compassion on them... (Matt. 9:36)

Walls, homes, train cars, signs, abandoned vehicles, and pretty much everything else in the city are defaced by graffiti. We know that it is there, and we may even glance at it every once in a while, but if we comment on it at all it is usually a sad remark of disgust. Many times we cannot make out what the symbols stand for, but regardless of the message, graffiti is seen as a vulgarity. Its existence is a violation of the law, and it makes our cities look trashy. We see it all over the city, but forget it as soon as we pass it. Who gets out of their car to admire graffiti?

Welcome to the world of the homeless. Though they dwell under the bridges, in the parks, and anywhere they can in the city, and we all know they are there, who gives them more than a glance? As a matter of fact, most people pretend not to see the homeless and purposefully avoid eye-contact. Sure we may comment to those riding with us that it is a sad shame that there are people on the streets, but that is usually the end of it. After all, their very existence is a vulgar stain on the city; soon and gladly forgotten.

Because of the difference in our experiences, outward appearances, and living conditions, we cannot even make out what they stand for or who they are. To avoid guilt, we don’t look too hard, or give that much effort to learning anything about them. We reassure ourselves that they are only reaping what they sowed or trying to take advantage of someone. After all, we would probably get robbed if we stopped to help, and if we gave them money they would just spend it on drugs. So now, with clear consciences we “pass by on the other side.”

What we fail to see, is that often, like the graffiti on this page, the men and women we overlook are pointing to Christ and all bear His image. If we looked harder, we would see men find people who rely on God to an extent we cannot comprehend. You would. God has blessed my life by allowing me to walk with spiritual giants. The libraries of most of these men and women consist of only a Bible. They spend so much time in God’s word that they are empowered to serve their God fearlessly in the darkest of places. While living under whatever bridge they are not run out from under, my friends on the street manage to thank God for all their blessings I continually take for granted.

 I came as a teacher, but my God humbled me to make me a student. For years, I preached about a faith that consumes the life of the believer, but here, in the inner city, I have seen it! God broke me down to cause my faith in Him to grow, and now He is building me back up to serve beside my teachers. We share our love for God with each other and lean on one another as we walk with God. My God has opened my eyes, now I can see His Son’s face everywhere in this city, because I now see His people instead of ignoring the human graffiti.

For the needy shall not always be forgotten, and the hope of the poor shall not vanish forever.
(Psalm 9:18)