Friday, May 8, 2015

Brian & Lorenzo: A Mentor's Encouragement

Many great leaders come to mind when I hear the term “Aspire”. Leader’s such as Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr, and even President Barack Obama; all of which aspired to stand for something greater than themselves. We all should aspire do something great in our lifetime, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be in the limelight to do so. Throughout my life I have always asked God to place me in a position where I am able to give back to my community and, more importantly, positively impact someone’s life. Both of these aspirations came into fruition the moment I joined the Aspire Movement. 
I have the great honor and pleasure of serving as a mentor to Lorenzo Davis, a 5th grader at Restoration Academy. Serving as a mentor has been an incredible experience. I have learned so much about Lorenzo, and I have learned even more about myself. When I first met Lorenzo it was a rather difficult time in his life. He had experienced a loss in his family, and as a result it affected his self-esteem and performance in the classroom. I met with his mother to gather her expectations for Lorenzo and what she hoped that he would gain from me mentoring him. As we talked, the conversation ended with her telling me how much she truly wants him to be successful. Our conversation showed me how much she truly cared about his well-being, and led me to believe that she saw the potential in him to be great and needed me to be the person to pull it out of him.
Me and Lorenzo’s first conversation was very straightforward and to the point. I told him how much I truly cared and believed that he could be the best that he could be. However, the thing that stood out the most, in our initial conversation, is when I asked why his grade were so low in a particular class? His answer was a shrug of his shoulders and “I’m not smart enough.” I informed him that he was smart enough and I proceeded to challenge him to change is way of thinking and to never doubt himself. He accepted that challenge and here we are a little over a year after our first meeting, and he seems to be more focus than ever. His performance in school has been exceptional and he has grown a lot more confident in himself.

Being a mentor has taught me a lot about patience not only with other people, but also with myself. I have experienced a lot in my life since I became involved in Lorenzo’s life, and seeing how he has risen above adversity has encouraged me to remain steadfast and rooted in my faith in God. Again, I am honored to be a part of the Aspire Movement and look forward to continuing my role as a mentor.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Addressing our #Hashtag Culture

We find ourselves in a current culture where social media gives us the play by play of nearly every viral, news worthy moment. Whether it be an earthquake, a celebrity death, a social justice issue, or anything “trending”, we typically see it first through social media, not by reading about it in a paper or seeing it on local news. 

While I am grateful for the advancements in technology, social media and the vast reach it has and use much of it in my day to day, I am also aware of the shallowness it promotes. 

It used to be people were dedicated & called to a particular issue where they studied, engaged & took full advantage of every resource to address. Now with social media everyone seems to be an expert on everything. The problem is we don’t really know that much, haven’t studied & read enough from the right sources, and instead of offering real solutions and empathy to situations, we tweet some memorable maxim or offer a picture that we feel sums it up. 

It is no wonder there is little credibility at the outcries of injustice when a media moment popularizes a particular issue and everyone then jumps on board. It is so easy to “second a motion” or jump on the latest thing trending, capitalizing on emotions and energy, but will we become a people who give our whole lives for a particular cause? Will we read and discuss with others who carry different view points in a God honoring, humble way to learn and really become familiar with the bigger picture or we will settle for the #hashtags? 

It is so easy to jump aboard a cause when it doesn’t involve sacrifice or a real time commitment of energy and resources. Anybody can tweet or #hashtag anything. It is so easy when it is culturally cool or the thing of the moment, but the real grunt work is in the day to day behind the scenes perseverance over years and years to see real change. 

I am reminded of William Wilberforce whose entire life was encompassed by his passion for the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. he worked tirelessly, endured scrutiny and went against the grain of his own culture. He gave 43 years to a cause and never waivered no matter how hard it got. He was disciplined, learned and had credibility to address the major issues of his day because his life reflected his outcry. 

What about us? Will we continue to fall victim to the latest #hashtag and champion only that which is cool and current or will we go against the grain and call sin, sin, no matter the backlash and scrutiny? Will we endure hardship and persecution because we champion a cause through trials and triumphs or will we succumb to the newest flash in the pan, jumping from cause to cause but never developing a biblical framework to properly address anything thoughtfully, truthfully yet lovingly? 

I find myself in rebellion to anything trending. It’s not that I don’t care about some of these issues, many are near and dear to my heart. But I long for a consistent witness of faithfulness over time, informed and directed toward a specific cause through a balanced understanding on the real issues at hand. I can’t speak on Obamacare, I never read it...I can’t address Ferguson in great detail, I wasn’t there...I can’t do your icebucket challenge, there are many worthy causes my heart is drawn toward that are personally more important to me & my resources. 

So while we keep chasing the trending #hashtag in a shallow misinformed way, we will never see change happen until we put our hands to the plough in the areas God has called us to in a longterm commitment whether they be popular or not. 

Don’t #hashtag it, dedicate your life to it! 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

"I haven't been suspended this year"

This past weekend I got to spend time with a few of the boys I mentor from the inner city. As usual we talked about everything, from angels to sports, education and health. Out of no where one of my young men made a somewhat random comment.

"Jason I know I am growing in the Lord because I haven't been suspended this year!"

My immediate thinking was I wonder how my suburban parents would react to such a comment as "progress". I certainly wouldn't be gauging my own children's success by the fact they hadn't got suspended from school. But when I thought about it more and processed it, I realized this is true growth from a young man whose life is being impacted by the gospel of Jesus Christ.

He went on to say that when others try to pick fights with him he prays for himself and them. He prays that God would give him self control to not only walk away but also not to lose his temper inside.

This is utterly amazing from a young man who has never met his father, lives in a community and goes to a school where respect and survival are priority, and has witnessed outbursts of physical violence every single day both in his home and community.

God said His kingdom is like a mustard seed, a small seed that falls to the ground and dies. When it takes root it grows, not rapidly but slowly. I am privileged to witness the slow growth that is taking place in these young mens lives.

As they grow I am challenged myself to remember that God does that same slow process in us as we follow Him. Growth doesn't take place overnight and walking with God in faithfulness is more important than running for God in haste.

We must remember in urban work that our kids we invest in have a different starting point. It's not that they are less than, incapable or slower. It's that they have had to grow up faster, experience more hardship, and suffered oppression and the effects of dysfunction much more. This makes the journey with them much tougher, yet extremely fulfilling as we see visible signs of God's grace in their lives.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Don't Waste the Heart (Part 2)

In my last blog I explained some mistakes I have made and some warning signs available to gauge if we are wasting the heart of those entrusted to us. In this blog I want to share a practical process we can implement in our conversation as a way to guide our people in pursuing their God given call to minister. 

I need to reiterate this before I begin. These are not simply bullet points, or an ala cart menu where we can pick and choose the ones we tend to highlight. In a society where we gravitate toward isolating principles and choosing our favorite, this is more of a hierarchy if you will, a methodology that flows chronologically. 

If you see them only as various options you will short circuit the flow of how these function as a whole. I believe this process although directly used in this blog to address urban ministry can be used in so many other facets of life creating a healthy communication stream in all of our relationships including marriage, parenting, business, and many other interpersonal relationships. 

1- Listen with humility & patience. If you are like me (and you are) you have a grid or world-view you process through. You also carry certain presuppositions and have developed a unique ability to discern terminology through a ministry philosophy. That is well and good but realize people are not where you are and you must take the time to humble yourself and try to understand their position. They may use words unknowingly that are offensive or hurtful when describing the poor & marginalized. 

Be patient and listen intently to them. James reminds us to "be quick to hear, slow to speak". Don’t assume they will use the right terms or articulate their plans adequately. After all you may be the first person they have confided in with this information. Henry Ford once said, “If there is any one secret of success it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.”

Also realize the courage it takes to approach a professional with an idea or a desire to serve. I have learned that while sometimes people have a hard time expressing what it is that they actually want to do, their heart and motivations are in the right place. Become genuinely interested by arousing their passion, intently listening & affirming them. 

Being in the moment displaying humility and patience before reacting gives the person across from you the confidence to express their heart. 

I like to remind myself something at this point. This is the effect I desire from my preaching! 

When people here a message on poverty, or the churches responsibility to the fatherless we want them to have their heart strings pulled. We want them to display an eagerness to get involved and serve. Yet we mistakenly grieve and exasperate them because they “don’t know what we know”. 

Of course they don’t! It is our job to kindle that passion and shepherd their heart, not waste it because their maturity and experience in the area is limited. 

2- Encourage first- After listening to someone share their burden for urban ministry my immediate natural default is to correct and deconstruct some of their thinking. I believe this is necessary in shaping people to have a right view of ministry. 

But that should not be the next move. The first step after listening is always encouraging. I have learned to point to all the positive things they said during the conversation. Reiterate their burden and thank them for heeding the call of ministry. Thank them for taking the initiation to make contact and explore. Instill more confidence in them that they are indeed following the Lord. 

As with children, we all like to be encouraged. One sure fire killer of passion and enthusiasm is discouragement and instant critique. It puts a person on the defensive and crushes their motivation no matter how heart felt and right we may be. 

3- Reject Pride- It is so easy to listen to someone talk about an idea and shoot it down immediately based off years of ministry experience. I try to remember that while I have heard countless people share countless ideas, I am listening to an individual who is trying to be faithful to God. Even though their idea maybe something I have heard before, I am listening to a person who has no clue I have already heard what they are telling me from other individuals as well. 

I also try to remember that I have gatekeeper syndrome many days. I am worn out sometimes emotionally by the history of paternalism and the negative impacts wrong philosophy has had on poor people. It is at this moment I have to remind myself that the person in front of me is just as important as those in the community. They have a heart, a burden, a story, and it is reckless for me to not to extend grace. 

While remaining sensitive to those I minister to in the neighborhood, I need that same level of humility to minister to those desiring to help. I need to see their worth and value that they are created in the image of God as well and need to express the same level of encouragement and empowerment. 

4- Correct in Love- When I started out in ministry this was always my first step. Why? It's the easiest for us as humans to gravitate towards. 

There are many things you can learn in seminary, theological tools, practical understanding of inner church workings and many other wonderful truths. But learning to correct in love comes from suffering and experience bathed in prayer and the Word. There have been many times I know that I have been spot on in my critique of someone’s flaws in ministry philosophy and understanding in urban philosophy. 

The problem: I have been harsh and unloving in my critique. I treaded on their heart in the process. 

Don’t get me wrong there is definitely a place for correction but when it is administered it must be done graciously and lovingly recognizing one’s own flaws and faults. We must avoid cynicism and sarcasm which are two evils we often find in correction when done wrongly. 

A practical step I have taken in the process is simply asking questions, and doing so thoughtfully and graciously as to not come across as rhetorical and sarcastic. When you ask questions and help others come to see things for themselves they are far more willing to learn and take them to heart. Recall the words of Galileo, "You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him to find it within himself".

Share with them your own mistakes in the process. It isn’t nearly so difficult to listen to a recital of your faults if the person criticizing begins by humbly admitting that he, too, is far from impeccable.

5- Remember God Uses Mistakes- I have written previously on this point so I will not belabor it now. But more often than not when we are motivated by the gospel of grace even when we make mistakes God uses those to shape us and advance His kingdom. 

In conclusion don’t exasperate the people willing to help. Listen to them and shepherd carefully. Many times we have turned away the very people God is calling to engage in ministry. Recall often that while God has called you to a position of influence and shepherding He is concerned about shaping you and conforming you into the image of Christ through how you handle and love the people entrusted to your care. 

Don’t waste the heart! 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Dont Waste the Heart (Part 1)

I had done it again! 

I watched the tears stream down her face as she was trying to process all I shared with her. What did I say or do that caused her to be so hurt? Had I been too harsh with my correction or sharp with my exhortation? 

Of course not, I thought to myself, I was just protecting the very people she was endeavoring to help. I was guarding the core principles of urban ministry and defending the poor. After all it is my responsibility to influence and train the people God has entrusted to me; to protect the dignity of those we minister to; and that means speaking the hard truth that cuts at our pride and superiority. 

I felt justified in my response to her because after all I had seen firsthand the harm of paternalism and folks who come into the urban context with a superiority mind-set, a quasi “Savior-complex”. My guards were up, and unfortunately I had landed a sharp uppercut to a very well meaning friend and co-laborer. 

But as time went on I realized a valuable lesson. I had sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. 

I had wasted her heart.

Unaware I had treaded upon her heart in the name “of doing good and being a gatekeeper”. 

I had failed to shepherd her heart through patience and encouragement. I had failed to take into account the fears that God was helping her overcome to muster up enough strength to even get involved in urban ministry in the first place. 

Thankfully I have repented for my actions and watched God do a wonderful work in my own heart through failing as a shepherd. It is through my own pastoral experience of missing it, that I want to share with you some insights we can implement as others approach us regarding urban ministry opportunities. 

For pastors our call is one of gentleness as Paul articulated in his letter to the Thessalonians that he “was gentle among them like a nursing mother taking care of her own children”. How often I forget that I will be held accountable for how I love and care for the people God has entrusted to me. 

Before I share some principles for how to interact with urban volunteers specifically I want to shed light on some areas we need to check as warning signs that we are wasting peoples hearts. Then I will write a follow up blog with some practical principles God has taught me. 

Warning #1- We value getting projects done right more than shepherding and rightly leading people. 

In speaking with a good friend today about this very subject we discussed how personality tends to shape this danger. If you default to valuing people over projects this may not be an area of concern for you. I happen to be an off the chart “D” & “I” personality which means that when the rubber meets the road I quickly move into getting the project finished right at the expense of trampling upon and using people. Lord help me overcome that. 

Warning #2- We have stopped learning and figured out what works and what doesn’t. 

Having read a myriad of books on urban ministry, attending countless urban mission conferences, and being discipled by some of the greatest mentors who have done urban ministry for decades, I often times feel like I know what works and what doesn’t. Having tried various things and watch them fail I feel like I have a great grasp on best practices, theology, methodology and ministry philosophy. Having labored and learned from the best in administration I often feel superior in my understanding of how things work. 

Danger zone. 

While all of those things are great and I am an expert in this area I still have a lot to learn about everything! I have had to examine my heart and ask God to give me a teachable spirit so I never fall victim to the trap that someone else may very well be right  and I need to rethink some things. 

Warning #3- We think there is only one kind of urban worker.

How many times I have sat in front of someone sharing my story only to discourage them and set forth a perception that if “you don’t have my cultural experience of the black community you can’t do urban ministry”. Unintentionally I have portrayed that urban work is only for those who know history, have a host of black friends and grew up as a minority like me. 

While I cherish my experiences and thank God for them, most white people who desire to get involved in urban ministry will not be from the hood, they won’t have been locked up for selling dope, they won’t have a myriad of black friends, and they won’t grasp black history because God has granted them a different story. What they do possess often times is a willingness to be shepherded and trained. It is my job to carefully deconstruct with humility and patience and not project upon them that they have to know what I know, and be who I am in order to do ministry effectively. 

My biggest fear is that we are preaching justice and desiring for others to get involved only to expect them to immediately think & process ministry like veterans. Instead of treading on their heart and discouraging them we need to patiently train them and walk alongside of them in a journey of learning together. 

Be careful not to waste the hearts of the very people God has led into ministry with you. 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Learning From My Daughter

I think by now most people are aware of the "Elf on the Shelf". It is a doll that mysteriously comes out after Thanksgiving to "watch the children" and report back to Santa. Each night we move the doll around and place him in different spots. Some may think a Christian has no business engaging in this practice with their children as it promotes parallel syncretism.

Whatever. That's another discussion for another day.

What I have learned from this experience is a valuable principle. Each and every day my daughter wakes up the first thing she ponders on when her eyes open it is "where is the elf"?

She enthusiastically goes about the house looking for the elf and when she finds him she smiles and laughs at his mere presence. The eagerness by which she goes about finding him tickles me and teaches me something of infinite value.

When I wake up do I possess the same eagerness to go and find God through prayer & the Word? Is it an awe consuming desire to meet with Him as soon as my eyes awaken to the new day?

Can I confess that more often than not I wake up, go turn on the coffee, ponder the emails, details and objectives of the day before I thank God and search for Him? This is not to say that any of those things are wrong but I default to busyness before communion with my Lord and Savior.

The difference is clear, while the elf moves about, God never moves. He is right there waiting to draw near to those who draw near to Him. God does not hide Himself from His children, He is right there accessible through His means of grace.

This whole experience has taught my to critically think through how I can shape my daughter to search for God in the same way she seeks out that elf every morning. As I shepherd and guide her heart I need to careful that I am obedient and searching out God for myself, depending on His Spirit, and living with a heart of gratitude and thanksgiving.

Like my daughter when she finds the elf, I also laugh and get filled with joy when I meet with my Savior who loved me while I was unlovable and desiring of death and punishment. I find peace when I seek the God of the Word who redeemed me from my sins and gave me a new life with a new motivation.

As my daughter realizes as she matures that the elf doesn't really watch over and report to Santa about her behavior, I hope to train her that there is One far more important watching over her, desiring an intimate relationship with her. One who truly does see the heart of man and extends loving grace to His children not simply for their benefit of getting stuff, but for His own glory to be on display in their lives.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

I messed what

Over a year ago an event happened that changed the course of the summer for the Williams family. While our daughter was attending school a teacher accidentally closed the door on my daughter’s hand and broke her finger. 

What made it so bad was this was the teacher’s first day on the job! 

We were almost as sad for the teacher as we were for our daughter because we could see the pain and anguish she felt from making a mistake. Thankfully our daughter has healed completely and I am sure the teacher learned a valuable lesson as well. 

This is a powerful illustration of a principle I have come to know and experience. That mistakes and blunders are life’s greatest learning tools. 

The teacher will probably make various mistakes in life but one thing she will not do is close the door without making sure that no children are in the path. Mistakes and blunders have a way of teaching us things that successes rarely do. 

Working in urban ministry and church ministry has its share of challenges and risks, especially working with the poor. Just having returned from CCDA, an urban ministry conference emphasizing mercy and justice, I was struck by the amount of great men and women of God I met with who made gross mistakes in ministry. 

From patronizing to wrong philosophy to moral failure there was a litany of brokenness and mistakes. But it seemed to me as  I engaged with them in dialogue they were some of the most humble, most learned folks. They were the risk takers who made things happen. They created programs, they planted churches, they raised up indigenous leaders, yet they all made mistakes. 

With so many books being written on the right way to do ministry, and the vast amount of material available on urban philosophy and methodology, one would think it is a ministry for perfection and perfect people. Folks are simply scared to say a mumbling word or get involved for fear they will do it wrong. 

I happen to know people who quickly offer critique of how many things the ministry I am involved is messing up. While I certainly want to always be humble and teachable, can I confess I don’t really care if I mess up? 

I mean who doesn’t make mistakes and mess things up? Doesn’t our God use broken, imperfect people to carry out His plan so that no human may boast in His presence or receive glory from the work He is doing? 

Now I am not talking about throwing caution to the wind and not taking into consideration the wisdom of others. I am not talking about being a bull in a china shop and doing whatever you please at the expense of others. But what I am saying is that we will all make mistakes and I don’t think that is the end of the world. 

In order to make an impact you must take certain risks and be willing to repent when things go awry. In fact it is when I have made the biggest errors that I learned the most. It is when I have screwed up royally that the greatest opportunities for repentance present themselves and the deepest relationships have developed. 

We will all blunder and close the door at the wrong time. People will get hurt. We will alienate others along the way. You cannot appease everyone. 

But what is the alternative? To do nothing. 

I refuse to stand at the judgment seat of Christ when I am to give account of Matthew 25 and tell Him I was scared to mess up so I never got involved. I will take risks. I will motivate others to jump in without a life vest. And God will always be faithful to work His preordained plan and cause all things to work together for good. 

In conclusion it is important to listen to others. It is valuable to heed the warnings and learn to do good. But you won’t gain life’s greatest lessons by doing everything perfect. You will fail and when you do be willing to repent and humble yourself. Be willing to forgive and reconcile with those accusers. 

The alternative is avoiding mistakes by doing nothing at all. One who makes no mistakes never makes anything happen. Some of  God’s greatest works have come through imperfect people making grievous errors. He is sovereign and controls the final outcome. Trust in Him and don’t be afraid to fail. Failures are God’s tool to create deeper dependency and trust in Him. They are God’s reminder that we are all imperfect people serving a perfect God.