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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Best Teachers

Today, I am presenting a workshop at the Indiana Wesleyan University Celebrate Teaching Conference. Hundreds of public and private school teachers will be in attendance for the event. In my session I will emphasize how Jesus, the master teacher, engaged students not with just the content he taught but the character they caught from him. Here is the CHRIST acronym I am sharing:

The most influential teachers possess the following character traits:

C-ompassion: When Jesus was filled with compassion he taught the people (Mk. 6:34). Teaching in a way that liberates the minds and hearts of students may be among the most compassionate ways to serve humanity. Teachers who care deeply for students will find a way to act on behalf of the student.

H-opetimism: I realize this is not a word, but I can make one up if I want to:-) Hopetimism is seeing and naming the future potential in the present problem sudent. Jesus called Simon, "Peter" when the latter was anything but rock-like. Jesus saw and  named the Peter-potential buried inside of the Simon-problem. Good teachers do the same.

R-elatability: Excellent teachers find a way to connect with all types of learners. There was no one like Jesus, who was perfect in love and completely sinless. Yet he found a way to relate to anyone, even a demon-possessed madman running around in the nude, cutting himself, and yelling out profanity. Teachers are called to relate to students in a way that brings dignity and adds value to them all, even the ones who are most at-risk.

I-ntegrity: Integrity happens when one's values are congruent with one's behaviors. When a teacher makes a promise and keeps it, or professes a conviction and embodies it, she models integrity. Teachers who live and teach with integrity cultivate integrity in students.

S-acrifice: Jesus would sacrifice anything to elevate his students to a new level of living. This meant a cross for him. Teaching has a cross attached to it. The best teachers know, accept, and thrive in this reality. They recognize that teaching is not a career but a calling that makes every expenditure of blood, sweat and tears worth the expense.

T-rust: Teachers who live into the above traits will become exhausted and discouraged, no doubt. They will need to be reminded that while their mission may be too big for them, it is not too big for the God who calls us to mission. Jesus' trust in the Father brought him peace to persevere. The same, of course, will be true for teachers today. Get alone with the Father to be reminded that he has the power to do anything in and throug you. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Are you really ready for an addiction recovery church?

When I found Christ or Christ found me, I was smack-dab in the middle of a fight with alcohol addiction. Alcohol was winning. I started drinking when I was 13, mostly to escape the shame and pain of my parents’ addiction to cocaine and heroin. At age 16 I dropped out of high school and had no ambition in life other than to obtain my next drink. Two years later I, in a drunken stupor, initiated a fight with a guy who stabbed me, nearly to death. This near-death experience was a sobering wake-up call. That’s when Christ and I found each other. Alcohol may have kicked the tar out of me, but it was no match for Christ, the addiction annihilator.

God began to rebuild the ruined walls of my broken life. He did it primarily through the motley crew called the local church. Before long God invited me to join him in doing for others what he had done for me. God called me to be a pastor and, with joy and fear, I swallowed hard and said “yes.” Early on in my call I had this overwhelming passion to pastor a church that was a safe haven for addicts to access the grace of Christ for recovery.

This dream got buried someplace deep within my heart, so deep I almost forgot it was there during college and the first five years of my pastoral ministry. Then I went to Asbury Theological Seminary to pursue the M.Div. degree. Asbury reminded me of my roots as a Wesleyan pastor. John Wesley’s heart was not only “strangely warmed” for God but strangely broken for English peasants who were steeped in alcoholism and not welcome in the Anglican Church of that day. So Wesley went out to preach hope in the fields. Addicts were saved, set free, and sanctified. The Methodist movement was born.

One Spring Break during our Asbury days, my wife and I joined some seminary friends for a trip to California. On Easter Sunday we decided to attend a church in San Francisco. We waited in a long line to get into the church building. It was obvious to us through sight, sound, and smell that we were surrounded by people who were, like the peasants of Wesley’s day, steeped in addiction. I finally got a seat next to an intoxicated woman who fell asleep on my left shoulder. I remember the excitement I felt at the beginning of the service. “Here are tons of broken people barging into the church to experience resurrection with Christ on Easter Sunday,” I told my wife. You can imagine my disappointment when the name of Jesus, let alone his resurrection, was not even mentioned during this “church” service. But the dream deep in my heart was resurrected and I vowed to someday cultivate a congregation that not only attracted addicts, like this one clearly did, but connected them to Christ for resurrection.

When I graduated from Asbury, I went to serve as lead pastor for a church in Northeastern PA. The church was what some might call a bit of a “holy huddle.” The well-meaning people of the church were so concerned about personal holiness they drew lines in the sand that prevented them from making their community whole. Like the Church of Wesley’s day, this one was not the most welcome place for the addicted. This church had five pastors in ten years, which is revealing. When they called me to be their pastor, I somehow found the grace and guts to say “yes.” The community around the church was growing, due to an influx of people moving in from New York and Philadelphia, and the need for addiction recovery was increasing. This church was perfect for me!                    

Before our boxes were unpacked, I began preaching on texts like Luke 4 where Jesus, with some help from Isaiah, describes his mission as one that will bring liberating good news to the poor, marginalized, and captive. So, I assumed that if this mission was good enough for Jesus, it would be good enough for the church. In time, we invited groups like Narcotics Anonymous and Gambler’s Anonymous to use our building free of charge. We chose to pay electric bills in the winter for families in addiction, with no strings attached. We even started a Celebrate Recovery program for people with “hurts, habits, and hang-ups.” The perfect leader surfaced to run this ministry. He and his wife met in rehab during their fight against cocaine. He needed a job upon parole from prison and the church took him in.

In time, addicts began to trickle into the life of the church. Some of the longtime attendees of the church were not as excited as I was for us to become a recovery church. Some left the church; others decreased or ceased their financial support. Finances were tight, conflict ensued, and I was ready to quit. Although we were helping a few people, the resistance of the church coupled with my own fear of holy risk-taking prevented the church from really putting a dent in the problem of addiction that was devouring our community.        

I took a sabbatical. Asbury invited me to participate in the residential Beeson Pastors D.Min. program. During that year at Asbury, we enjoyed a trip to Houston to explore churches that were diverse in style and size. One of those churches happened to be Mercy Street, a church built on and driven by a vision of recovery from addiction. Unlike the church I visited in San Francisco, this church in Houston was partnering with Christ to raise people from the dead. I cried throughout the service as God persistently whispered into the ears of my heart “Stay faithful to what I have called you to do and I will use your church to set captive addicts free.” 

In time the church I pastored did became the kind of church I always dreamed of serving. We became a church where people would rather show up high or drunk than stay home and sober up until they could fit into their “I’ve got it all together” mask. This made for some interesting corporate worship experiences, but it was well worth it. If you visit this church on any given Sunday, you will smell alcohol, see track marks, and feel the nervous leg-shaking and nail biting of a person deciding if she wants to stay clean or get high after church. Yep, this is my dream church!   

I no longer pastor that dream church. Instead, I serve as a professor to pastors. In my current vocation, whether I am teaching homiletics, leadership, or formation, my students hear bits and pieces about that recovery church where dead people were raised to life again. As I look out at my students I notice a glimmer in the eyes of a few. In that very moment God is placing in them the dream he once placed in me to cultivate a church that partners with Christ to lovingly liberate addicts.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Cosmic Chiropractor: My Journey from Addiction to Recovery

I was 18 years old and out of hope. My friends were heading off to pursue college and career. I was destined for neither. Suicide was not an option but neither was hope. The only thing hope had taught me, up to this point, was not to hope. I settled for the purgatory of lifeless living.

I blame addiction for my purgatorial existence. When I was 12 years old, my slightly older sister, Tammy, found a hypodermic needle in our family bathroom. We brought it to my parents and the bomb dropped. My dad, and hero, confessed his longtime addiction to shooting up heroin. The shock and shame of my dad’s addiction was hard to swallow. I associated my father with all of the “junkies” my friends and I poked fun at in my South Philadelphia neighborhood.

Just when I thought the shock and shame couldn’t hang any heavier around the collar of my identity, my mother went off the codependent deep-end. My mom was the glue that held my family together all of those years while my dad was using. She “held down the fort” when my dad was away on “business trips,” which I later discovered were really stints in rehab and detox centers. Growing up with an alcoholic father and being married to a drug-addicted husband slowly eroded my mother’s soul so that she too became an addict. My mom’s drug of choice was cocaine and it quickly transformed, or deformed, her from a loving mother into a lunatic monster. I still remember the day she chased after me, while my friends watched, for several city blocks begging me to give her money to cop.

Everything was collapsing around me, especially my family’s economic system. We hit a recession that became a depression, causing my parents to pawn our video game system and my acoustic guitar to support their habit. Welfare cheese became our staple meal. The car and mortgage payments were ignored for months. We lost our car. We lost our home. We lost each other. My freshman year in high school began with my parents, sister, and I living with four different extended relatives. We lost our dignity.  

The trifecta of despair, shame, and anger led me into the same trench of addiction that demoralized and destroyed my parents. By the time I turned 16 I was an alcoholic, jobless, high-school drop-out son of two drug-addicted parents. That was the label that I, with the help of others, assigned to me. I lived only for the drink that allowed me, at least temporarily, to forget the label. I quickly discovered, however, that vice does not diminish shame; it deploys it! I was, as they say, so low I could walk under a snake wearing a top-hat.

Living my life seemed more torturous than dying. I was not suicidal really, but I had a death wish. The South Philly that shaped me was overtly racist. The Italians, Jews, Blacks, Hispanics, Vietnamese, Polish, and Irish each had our allotment of turf. If someone ventured out of their own ethnic environment and into another, they were asking for trouble. One of these troublemakers walked through my Italian neighborhood. What is worse, it happened on a night when I was not only drunk from beer but high from marijuana.

For no other reason but his ethnic make-up, I punched him as hard as I could, from behind, on the right side of his face. He fell and then came to his feet in an instant sprint. I chased him, fueled by the cheers and belly-laughs of my drinking buddies. The man stopped and, when I went to swing at him, stabbed me, collapsing my lung. I nearly achieved the death for which I wished.

Well, that was the “before” picture. Let’s fast-forward the slideshow 23 years to the current “after” picture of my life. God has replaced the old label of “alcoholic, jobless, high-school drop-out son of two drug-addicted parents” with some new labels. Some of my new labels are: child of God, lover of Christ, forgiven, redeemed, transformed, husband to Amy, dad to Zach, Lia, and Sam, Asbury Seminary M.Div. and Beeson Pastor D.Min. graduate, Lead Pastor of a congregation that became a fast growing and multi-ethnic addiction-recovery church, Associate Professor of Proclamation at Wesley Seminary, and author of Preaching Essentials: A Practical Guide. 

Those who knew me during both the “before” and the “after” snapshots of my life, even my non-religious family and friends, would call what happened to me a “miracle.” God has restored to my life the “years that the locust has eaten” (Joel 2:25a). One of the premier tools he used to accomplish this miraculous restoration is the community of faith. Through the Church I bumped into Humpty Dumptys like me who were being put back together again. Through the Church I was adopted by spiritual mothers and fathers who saw and spoke the potential of “Christ in me, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). Through the Church I was forced into fellowship with people who were frightening and frustrating but formative. Despite her failures, foibles, and flaws, the Church was and still is a means of God’s grace to me. I am who I am because of who she is. 

God also used the Bible like a scalpel to surgically sever shame from my soul. I located my story lodged in particular nooks and crannies of the biblical story. What God did for those Egyptian-oppressed Hebrew slaves, he did for me. I resonate with those oppressed slaves turned mighty nation in more ways than one. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt so that you would no longer be slaves to the Egyptians; I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with heads held high” (Lev. 26:13). God is the cosmic chiropractor who breaks the bars and lifts the heads of the hopeless and helpless among humanity. God did this for those ancient Hebrews and, through Christ, he has adjusted my crooked spine too.