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Coronavirus Pandemonium 

I’m going to go out on a limb and be one of the first persons I know to say that NOTHING we have done in the past few days in response to corvoid-19 makes any logical sense. Every model that I am seeing suggests that we are more likely than not to have the exact same number of deaths from this virus and that the massive quarantine we are enforcing will only drag the timeline out further. This is being done to keep the hospitals and emergencies from being overrun with sick folks. My observation is that every person that has a cough right now is running to the emergency room or hospitals any way. My conversations with friends in the medical field leads me to believe the panic experienced in empty grocery store shelves is corresponding with overcrowded emergency room waiting areas. 

We no longer live on farms. This means that we do not have the means to raise our own food. As a result, every person in our community has to go to the grocery store. In fact, the citizens of Jeffersonville and Clarksville have five main stores that they frequent. With the recent panic purchasing that has been done, people have ventured into several stores to locate much needed items. Every item we purchase at these stores has been touched 3-4 times by persons who may not even know that they are “carriers” of the virus. Recent data is suggesting that people may carry the virus without experiencing any symptoms, which means we are at risk even from those who do not display a fever.  This means our mail may be carrying the virus, the money we exchange may be infected, the gas pump, the chip reader for our credit cards, the produce/can goods and even the coveted toilet paper may contain traces of the virus. 

What good is it to not worship together when we all have to go to the same grocery stores? What good is it to close down restaurants as a gathering place when the parking lot of Walmart is so full that you cannot get a cart between the cars? Any thoughtful person can realize that if daycares are closed, people will not be able to go to work and food will not get stocked on grocery store shelves. 

More recent reports about this virus in our area suggest that it has been around since late February or early March. This means that we’ve had weeks of infecting each other before ANY precautionary measures were put in place. My suggestion is that we avoid contact with any person over the age of 65 who is in poor health and children under the age of 6. In my opinion, compromising the economic livelihood of our neighbors and dumping our economy in the toilet is not the answer. 

One option that I heard England considered was quarantining the elderly only, while encouraging others to go about their daily lives as usual. Go to work, go to your kids’ games, and cause the virus to quickly move through the healthy population to get it over with as smoothly as possible so that anti-bodies are built up quickly. 

Instead of taking a conservative stance, our government seems to be overly anxious to do something in the fight against the coronavirus. In the meantime, we are experiencing the greatest single downturn our economy has ever seen. The approach may have the effect of bankrupting small businesses and pushing a hardworking middle class into poverty. We may be destroying our service industry in such a way that we will need a government bailout in order to right the ship. Family owned restaurants, daycares, and small businesses may be destroyed.  Closing restaurants, daycares, and other institutions that help working folks propel our economy forward seems irresponsible. 

I applaud measures that protect the elderly and the vulnerable. Limiting visits to nursing homes and hospitals makes sense. Social distancing makes sense. Maintaining basic hygiene makes sense. Pushing our economy down a rabbit hole is a move we will all regret. 

As a person of faith, I follow in Mother Teresa’s footsteps when she says, “No, I wouldn’t touch a leper for a thousand pounds. Yet I willingly care for him for the love of God.” God has called me to pray and each time I pray I’ve felt a restlessness that has left me unsettled. I called my 86-year-old grandma to check on her and she said Jimmie, “I’m living on borrowed time anyway.” I said, “Grandma, you saying that makes me sad.” She replied, “It shouldn’t. I have Jesus in my heart. I refuse to live in fear. I also love you with all of my heart.” I refuse to live in fear. I refuse to live in fear. I refuse to live in fear. 

I’m going to always treasure her saying, “I love you with all of my heart.” You see, she just got out of the hospital with a severe respiratory virus and pneumonia but even after this brush with death she refuses to live in fear. She went out dancing this past Thursday and she said, “I would have Friday, too, if they hadn’t cancelled it.” Refusing to live in fear is important for those who live in faith, especially when the fear can cripple our country and hurt others, much the same way this virus may. 

Faces of Homelessness 

Homelessness has many faces. There are as many faces to homelessness as there are people and personalities in the world. Most of us categorize homeless folks into specific stereotypes. We assign them off to various deviant groups and therefore write them off as casualties of their own choices. Not everybody fits these nice neat categories. We need to establish a realistic view of the people who are on the street and in need of services. After spending a month scanning all of our 2019 files into Google Drive (2,371 files), we scheduled our first case management meetings. We gave first priority to the elderly and infirm and women who have children under the age of six. Our first case management sessions interviewed two people who simply blew me away and caused me to need to pick up my chin off the ground.  God really broke my heart and the hearts of our staff members after hearing their stories. They have both agreed to allow me to share their stories. 

The first person we interviewed was Ms. Virginia. Ms. Virginia was born in Kumagaya City, Japan in 1957. Her original birth certificate was written on rice paper.  When she was three months old, her father took her by the ankles and slammed her back and forth against the walls of an abandoned apartment building. Then he left her for dead. Sometime later, a passerby heard faint cries coming from the building, and she ran in and rescued Ms. Virginia. She took her to the hospital, and they kept her there until she was fully rehabilitated. 

A young couple in their mid-twenties adopted Ms. Virginia while they were living in Tokyo. Her mother was from Tokyo, Japan and her father was from Allen Town, PA. Her adoption occurred while her father was stationed in Tokyo in the military. When Ms. Virginia was one-year-old, her adoptive parents moved back to San Francisco, CA. When Virginia was thirteen, her father got stationed at Ft. Knox, KY. She eventually graduated from Jesse Stewart High School in 1977. 

Right out of high school, Ms. Virginia began working in the food service industry. She worked at Pizza Hut and eventually rose to the position of Assistant Manager of a Pizza Hut in Louisville, KY. She worked various jobs as a waitress and eventually met her husband. She has three children and eight grandchildren. 

At the age of 43, Ms. Virginia had a stroke, and during her time in the hospital she was evicted from her apartment and lost everything. At that time, two of her children lived with her and the other child had already turned 18. She and her two children were homeless at Wayside Christian Mission in Louisville, KY. The stroke caused the left side of her body to be partially paralyzed. Because of her disability she immediately got SSI disability and Medicaid. However, she could not ever save up enough money for the first months rent and deposit while caring for her two children. So she sent her two younger kids to Columbus, IN, to live with their father. She left Wayside in 2003, and was taken into the Haven House Shelter because it was easier for her to not be put out during the day due to her disability. 

In 2013, Ms. Virginia was accepted into Haven House Services, Inc transitional housing program. In 2018, Ms. Virginia’s second bout with homelessness began when the transitional housing she was living in caught fire and burned to the ground.  For a second time, Ms. Virginia lost everything. Ms. Virginia is soft spoken, articulate, and full of wisdom. She has a high aptitude for upper level mathematics. She is one of our “adopted” children that have had health complications at an early age and doesn’t meet the minimum age requirement for long-term nursing home care. Because of the shortage of transitional housing and group home beds, she has had very few options. We are currently working with her on getting accepted into an assisted living facility on a Medicaid waiver. She turns 63 years next week and I hope to celebrate with her.  

The second case management meeting we held concerned Ms. Linda who was born in New Albany, IN to a young unwed mother in 1954. Her birth mom and her adoptive parents shared the same doctor. The doctor knew that Ms. Linda’s adoptive parents couldn’t conceive, and he knew that her birth mom wanted to give her up for adoption.  The doctor called the welfare office and arranged the adoption. 

She was raised in New Albany, IN, on a farm off Grant Line Rd. that her family owned. She graduated from New Albany High School in 1972. She never married and was living with her parents until their death. When her parents passed, she sold their small family farm and moved into an apartment with her friend. She worked full-time at the Census Bureau in a temporary position on and off for 13 years. She also worked as a security guard for Moore Security, who was then bought out by Securitas for 8 years. 

In 2012, she started having trouble with her feet that developed into neuropathy that caused her to be unable to stand and walk on her feet for extended periods of time. After about three months of struggling with the pain, she was unable to keep up with her bills and so she was evicted from her apartment. After being evicted she came to Haven House Services, Inc. and after a year was accepted on disability. She has retinal detachment in both eyes and cataracts in both eyes. She is scheduled to have surgery on her eyes in April. She is scheduled to meet with Lifespan to get a Medicaid waiver for assisted living.  Ms. Linda is polite, helpful, and has a kind-hearted disposition. 

It is our hope to get both of these ladies into permanent housing in the coming months. It has been said that, “The greatness of a nation is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” My hope is that Southern Indiana still shows its compassion toward the most vulnerable members of society by hearing their stories and treating them with dignity. After these case management meetings, I felt in my heart “these are the people that God has sent us as His church to reach and minister to.”  Deuteronomy 26:12 says, “When you have finished paying all the tithe of your increase in the third year, the year of tithing, then you shall give it to the Levite, to the stranger, to the orphan and to the widow, that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.” If we call ourselves Christian, then the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the homeless have been given to us to care for. My prayer is that our love for the “least of these” grows when we hear their stories and see their faces.

Desegregating Our Minds 

It’s not a secret; I’m white. When people see me, they identify me as Caucasian; which has afforded me opportunities that others with different skin pigmentation do not receive, and I should be aware of that fact.  Not only is this something I should be aware of, but I should also be fighting to ensure that those around me receive the same opportunities I receive. It is difficult to get outside of our own perceptions of reality and see that the world isn’t equal. There are not equal opportunities for all people, not even for those who try to struggle against the grain to obtain them. 

A year and a half ago our church youth group went on a mission trip to Atlanta. We spent our time in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. grew up. We visited Ebenezer Baptist Church, the APEX Museum, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Visitor Center, and several other sites that are closely associated with the Civil Rights Movement. It was there in Martin Luther King Jr.’s boyhood neighborhood that the awareness overwhelmed me that years of sustained prejudice, abuse, and subjugation are not able to be overcome in the 56 years since segregation ended. It is not possible to recover the amount of time, education, money, representation, and resources members of the black community were deprived from in a single generation. 

In my opinion, one of the most jarring and painful numbers ever penned on a paper is the number three-fifths. This, according to the US Constitution written in 1789, was the way African-American slaves were counted—as three-fifths of a person—in determining population for the purpose of calculating states’ representation in Congress. How does a group recover from being treated in this manner for their first 74 years of existence in this country (The Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in 1863)? 

What most people want to do is gloss over the fact that it took another 101 years for the Civil Rights Act to be signed into law in 1964. This act finally outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The fact of the matter is that African-American people may have been freed from the chains of slavery; but for 101 more years, they were subjugated by the mental slavery of discrimination based upon the color of their skin. Although African-American men were given the right to vote in 1870, they were subjected to a rigorous attempt to keep them from doing so, in the hope that they never would be able to elect officials who would share their same values. It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of August 6, 1965 that African-American women were given the right to vote. For the first 189 years our country existed, African-American men and women were not allowed to elect representation in government that reflected their values. 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. He died still trying to get equal access to basic necessities for African-American people. Before his death, the Fair Housing Act; which outlawed housing discrimination in the form of the sale, rental, and financing based upon race, color, religion, and national origin had failed to gain traction in both the House and the Senate. This means that on April 4, 1968, people still believed it was valid to discriminate against African-American people in order to keep them renting, buying, and selling only homes that Caucasian people “thought” they should have. Seven days after Dr. King’s death (April 11, 1968), the Fair Housing Act was finally signed into law. 

The Urban League has created something called an Equality Index. This index helps measure African Americans against their Caucasian counterparts. The metric measures opportunities that African American people are given in the areas of economics, health, education, civic engagement, and social justice.  The recent Equality Index study from the Urban League stated that African-Americans are at 72.5% when it comes to achieving equal opportunities with Caucasian Americans. The State of Black America finds that the Equality Index for African Americans has barely moved since 2005 when the study began. Entrenched financial disparities have made it hard for African Americans to achieve equality. 

In the fifty-two years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, we’ve come a long way; but we still have a long way to go. We must realize that during the first one-hundred-ninety-two years of our nation’s existence, before the laws against African-American people were defeated, scripture has always remained the same. In Galatians 3:28 we see the Apostle Paul saying, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.” These words have always been in scripture; but people have decided to look the other way, or act as if the words’ meaning didn’t apply to their discriminatory behavior. 

It took our country one-hundred-ninety-two years to offer African-American people equal opportunities. Shame on us! But let us not continue to live a lie claiming that because laws have been changed, everything is alright. Fifty-two years is not enough time for the harm that has been caused to be undone. A wrong that took six generations commit will not be turned around in less than two. 

How can we believe that the wealth, the education, the housing, the business, and the representation in government is going to completely turn itself around just because we say so? We must continue to fight for equal opportunities for all people but especially for those who have faced the uphill battle of discrimination. My belief is that a crime which took six and a half generations to commit will take at least that long to be undone. 

In my office there hangs a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and underneath the picture is a caption stating, “I have a dream!” Let us not give up fighting to keep the dream alive so that all people have the same opportunities to succeed and become all that God desires for them to be. 

Resources: https://www.usnews.com/news/the-report/articles/2018-05-04/african-americans-lag-behind-whites-in-equality-index

A Gift Received and a Gift to Give 

At Christmastime every man, woman, and child is thinking about gifts. My kids are pretty good children. They earn good grades, and they generally do what we ask of them. For the most part, they have servant hearts. I know there are some things that they want; and if I can give them a couple of things they enjoy, it makes me happy. Matthew 7:11 says, “If you, then, though you are sinful, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” You see, God wants to give us good things. The problem is that our idea of what is good doesn’t necessarily match God’s understanding of what is good. 

Growing up in a family of four children, I really didn’t have grandiose expectations of Christmas; because I knew my mother and father couldn’t afford expensive things. I knew that if I was going to get expensive things, I would need to pay for them myself. I received my favorite gift as a child when I was ten years old. My parents had me open the two or three gifts that were under the tree for me, which amounted to socks and underwear. I took my gifts to my room thinking, “Why did my brothers and my sister get so many things and I got only the necessities?” After placing my gifts in my room, my dad asked me to take out the garbage. When I opened up the back door, there sat a brand new 10-speed bicycle.  It was freezing cold outside and quite icy, but I bundled up and took it for a spin anyway. 

Like many kids this Christmas, I’ve been thinking about gifts. I’ve been thinking about what gifts God wants to give to us. Many people refer to Jesus as the greatest gift that has ever been given. We really need to unpack this idea for it to make perfect sense. For me, it is God’s capacity to forgive that is the greatest gift expressed in Jesus. Forgiveness is the ability to look past an offense. Forgiveness is a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or a group who has harmed you. Forgiveness is a decision that is made regardless of whether the person or group actually deserves to be forgiven. 

Romans 5:8 says, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God’s forgiveness is not based on our worthiness but on God’s choice. God chose to offer us the gift of forgiveness so we would know of His love for us. By this act we learn how we are to deal with the wrong choices of others. We don’t need to wait until someone cleans up their act in order to forgive them of the wrong they’ve done to us. Forgiveness is not offered based upon merit, but upon the gracious choice of the individual to no longer hold onto to feelings of hurt, frustration, and anxiety that are the result of someone’s actions. 

Colossians 3:13 says, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” Our forgiveness of others and ourselves is to be our witness of how we see God’s forgiveness expressed to us. I’m afraid that many of us either don’t fully understand the lengths God went to in order to forgive us, or we are resistant to extend this graciousness onto those around us. God has asked us to forgive because literally it is what is best for our body, mind, and spirit. 

Forgiveness brings the forgiver peace of mind and frees him or her from corrosive anger. Forgiveness involves letting go of negative feelings. Forgiveness empowers you to recognize pain that you have suffered without letting that pain define you. Forgiveness enables you to heal and move on, while also allowing the offending party to heal and move on as well. Research suggests that forgiveness makes us happier. It’s obvious that when we let go of feelings of anger, frustration, and irritation that we will be happier. 

Some of the greatest threats to our mental health are unresolved relational difficulties with those to whom we should feel close. Therefore, those that forgive others will see great improvements in depression and anxiety. Holding grudges and dwelling on them causes our blood pressure and heart rate to spike, which in turn causes damage to our body. When we forgive, our stress levels drop and our blood pressure and heart rate return to normal levels. 

Human relationships will always leave us hungering for more. Every human relationship is destined for conflict, because all human beings have sin in their lives. People who hold on to past hurts are less likely to cooperate with others and are likely to have trust and commitment issues, which leads to other relationship breakdowns. Forgiveness repairs our relationships and sets a standard for future conflicts. One long-term study involving newlyweds found that participants forgiving their spouses formed more satisfying relationships across the board. 

An understanding of how God has forgiven us in Jesus Christ can literally change the way we live and relate to those around us. People who forgive are seen as more kind and connected in the relationships they maintain. When we do this out of an understanding of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, we become the witnesses God wants us to become. 

Forgiveness begins with an understanding that God has released all of the debts our sinfulness has incurred. God has done so not because we did anything to satisfy them, but because of God’s sovereign choice. God chooses to be a gracious forgiving God, because that’s who God is. In turn, God wants us to let go of the inward anxiety caused by our past sins and to learn to let go and forgive ourselves. Psalm 103:12 says, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has God removed our transgressions from us.” If God removes our sin so far that it literally cannot be found, then who are we to keep digging it up in the recesses of our minds? 

Forgiveness is a behavior that we learn improve over time. We choose to be more forgiving and to go against the accepted “norm” behaviors of the world around us. As we begin to forgive ourselves and those closest to us, it becomes easier to forgive others because it becomes part of our character. Forgiveness literally becomes a part of who we are, and this is our witness to nonbelievers about the power of Christ that can change the world. Forgiveness is the gift we can receive that we can also give!

Why Is Ministry to the Homeless Critical for Our Christian Witness? 

Why would a pastor who has a full-time job and a family of five feel compelled to extend himself to the point of taking on the rebranding and reprogramming of a homeless shelter? The simple answer is because I feel that God has led me to do so. Why would we rename it Catalyst Rescue Mission? A catalyst is an agent that provokes a significant change or action. We intend to be a place where significant change takes place!!   

My understanding of Jesus through scripture is that he was homeless during much of his ministry. In Luke 9:57-58 it says, {57} As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” {58} Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” No doubt Jesus can identify with many of the circumstances that surround our homeless population. Jesus is very familiar with feeling alone, being forsaken by family, being preyed upon by evil, wicked people whose intent is to do harm, not knowing where the next meal will come from, and wondering where the next warm place will be to lay his head. 

I believe that the way Jesus will recognize his people when he returns will be by the way they minister to the “least of these.” In Matthew 25:37-40 it says, {37} Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? {38} When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? {39} When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ {40} “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” The great thing about this passage of scripture is the clarity of Lord’s instructed behavior: feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, inviting in strangers, giving clothes to the naked, and visiting the sick and the imprisoned. It is my belief that many of these characteristics are present in the lives of those who are homeless. When we do these things, we participate in the ministry Jesus would be doing if he were here. 

A frustrated community member emailed me and said, “I am very disappointed in the shelter being called a rescue mission.” She continued, “It is in my opinion a very dehumanizing term. We as Christians are not ‘rescuers’, but brothers and sisters to those in need.” I understand and respect her opinion; however, in Psalm 82:3-4 we find what I consider one of the greatest calls to action in the scripture which says, “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” God has called each of us to stand in the gap for vulnerable people. This means that we are to keep the wicked and evil people in our world from preying upon them. Many people who are homeless have never had parents who stood in the gap for them. Many people who are homeless have never had a friend or pastor stand in the gap for them. I think we each need to become those rare people who take God at his word and do what he says, especially in this regard. 

  

Because of my convictions and beliefs, I have led those that call Park Memorial UMC their church home to work with the homeless and transient population for the past 13 years. We have served a monthly meal in the shelter. We also have a strong working relationship with Exit 0 homeless outreach. An example of this relationship is the fact that two years ago, when Exit 0 had to vacate the warehouse space they were using, Park Memorial UMC extended the hand of fellowship and gave them ministry office space and storage space in our building. For the past five years we have allowed the Southern Indiana homeless population to use our address on their state issued IDs so that they have been able to attain them. Working with the shelter and with Exit 0 has unveiled my eyes to the plight of our most vulnerable neighbors. I can no longer plead innocence or say that I am unaware of the systemic problems facing the very people that Jesus calls us to minister to. 

I know the stories of injustice. I’ve seen people preyed upon by people who have offered their assistance. I have relationships with both Barbara Anderson and Paul Stensrud, and this experience has led me to the same conclusion I find in scripture, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few” (Matthew 9:37). I’ve witnessed first-hand a few people giving it all they have, while the rest of our community acts like there is no problem. Unfortunately, I have been forced to come to the conclusion that many of our “social service agencies” are more concerned with their own program and program dollars than they are about addressing the larger issues that are plaguing Southern Indiana. 

I believe that we are responsible for the revelation that we receive. This means that God gives us the knowledge of things and expects us to use this knowledge to accomplish His Will for our lives. I began to feel my heart being stirred to do something about what I’ve come to understand; but I didn’t know how to begin, so I waited. I believed that God would reveal the timing; and shortly after I witnessed the amazing things that Homeless Prevention Task Force was able to accomplish at America’s Best, He did. 

Barbara called me and through the course of our conversation it became readily apparent that God was leading my heart toward the purchase of the shelter. The only problem with that was that I didn’t have any money. I had to communicate my heart to the Leadership Team at Park Memorial UMC. The amazing thing is that they were unanimous in their support and they have been nothing but Christ-like throughout this process. 

I am fully aware that we have a lot of work to do in the days ahead. I believe that if God calls you, then God will equip you for the work he has asked you to accomplish. This includes God bringing the right people to join you in completing his will for your life. I’m excited for what God has in store and can’t wait to see the lives he is going to change. Please pray for our efforts and for the people whose lives we will touch. Also pray and ask God how he might use you in our efforts. If one of the ways God would want you to contribute is for you to send a donation to Catalyst Rescue Mission; please make checks payable to Catalyst Rescue Mission, and send them to 1820 E. Park Place Jeffersonville, IN 47130.    

Arm Wrestling with Evil 

Matthew 11:12 and Luke 16:16 share the same advice about the Kingdom of God. They say, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the Kingdom of God has been forcefully advancing and forceful people take ahold of it.” This means that, as far as the Kingdom of God is concerned, we can’t just sit on our laurels and wait for it to happen upon us. We must go out and grab it. The advancement of the Kingdom of God is the responsibility of all those who call themselves disciples of Jesus Christ. 

What does advancing the Kingdom of God actually mean? It means that the Kingdom of God is taking over new territory. The problem with taking over new territory is that the entity that already occupies that space isn’t likely to go willingly. When the people of God begin to advance God’s Kingdom we can expect that the enemy will come at us even stronger than before. 

If before your advance you were getting a few minor temptations, as soon as you become a threat to the evil powers that be, you will receive a full on frontal attack from the evil that is in this world. Things that normally would be easy will probably be a little more difficult. Things you thought that already were taken care of are going to come undone. Relationship issues that you had experienced and dealt with will be brought up and thrown in your face. 

The difference you will experience when you begin to do something great for the Kingdom of God is the difference between being scratched by a kitten and being scratched by a lion. Satan is going to bring the fight to you! You can expect it as you expect to file your taxes by April 15th! Many people automatically assume that if they meet resistance it means they are doing something wrong. The reality is that when you are forcefully advancing and occupying the ground of the enemy, the enemy is going to fight back. 

Many people give up! Many people throw in the towel. Many people succumb to the temptations! Many people allow the advancement of the enemy to overthrow their willingness to accomplish what God has asked them to do. DON’T GIVE UP!!! In these adversarial moments with enemy, we must pray and ask God for strength. We must depend on God’s strength to carry us through, and we must lean on the Holy Spirit for guidance. 

In Philippians 3:12-14 it says, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” 

Paul is straining to advance God’s Kingdom in the world. The Apostle Paul has laid everything that is good in his life on the altar. He has given God permission to use him in whatever ways God sees fit. But Apostle hasn’t just laid those things that are good down on the altar before God; he has also made a conscious choice not to go backwards when he says, “forgetting what is behind.” Paul has laid down his shortcomings, his failures, and hurts. How many people have failed to become all of what God is calling them to become because they have become fixated on something from the past? They have allowed the past to become an obstacle in their future. How many future opportunities are we going to allow our past to take from us? 

I don’t doubt that there have been circumstances that you have faced that have overwhelmed you. Some of you have been physically, emotionally, or sexually abused. Others have been in toxic relationships with people whose only motivation was to use you for their own gain. No doubt, some of us have made poor financial decisions that have plagued us into the present. Many of us can pinpoint a specific moment in time where we made a decision or a series of decisions that have led us to where we are today. Even when these circumstances are not our current circumstances, they still envelop our minds. 

Satan uses what has happened in our past to keep us from fully experiencing God’s Will for us in our future. Satan knows that if he can keep your mind enveloped in situations from your past, he can continue to steal energy and God’s strength from your future. Part of giving God your everything is also giving God all of your hurts, all of your pain, and all of your sorrow!  When our minds do not “forget what is behind”, we use energy that is meant to be poured out in the transformation of others for ourselves (and our self-loathing). 

There also seems to be a petrifying fear that God cannot use us in our brokenness. Our minds begin to say “because I have done this or that, or because I have not lived this way or that way, I am unworthy to be used by God.” You see, being used by God is a mindset. As long as we allow our mind to be plagued by negative self-talk we will not present ourselves to God as a vessel He can use. We’ve got to stop basing our usability by God on our emotions. Our emotions are up and down. Sometimes we are going to be confident in our ability to do what God asks, but most of the time we are not going to feel like God can accomplish a monumental task through us. We must center our thoughts around this statement: “Because God said it is so, therefore it is so! Because God said it is, it is! We must take God at His word.” 

Many of us feel that our struggle is just against ourselves but Ephesians 6:12 says, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” 

Our battleground against sin exists within our minds. You see, it is not a sin to be tempted. We all are tempted every day to do things that we know we ought not do. The problem with temptation is beginning to dwell on the thought. We begin to think that the thought sounds enticing, and we begin to replace God’s will and God’s plan for our lives with the action the temptation desires to bring about. 

We find in John 8:44b, “He (Satan) was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” The only power that Satan has is the power of his lies. His sole purpose of existence is to get us to believe in a lie for so long that it becomes the framework for our reality. He desires to get us to believe a lie for so long that it begins to govern how we feel.  Now feelings are powerful things; and when Satan has us basing our feelings on his lies, he defeats us every time. I am sure your feelings sometimes overwhelm you; but unless your feelings are based in the truth, you will slip up every time.  

II Corinthians 10:5 says, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” How do we take captive every thought? We can only take captive every thought by verifying its truthfulness.  The surefire way to overcome Satan is with the truth. We can overcome Satan with THE truth. I’m not speaking of our human truth, but of God’s truth. Depending on God’s Word and praying for God’s strength will enable us to win the battle against the enemy. My prayer is that you will take the fight to the enemy rather than allowing the enemy to take the fight to you!

Even Jesus Gave Himself Permission to Rest 

We live in an internet-driven world, where people expect to have instant access to us whenever they deem it appropriate. We are raising a generation of children whose minds cannot rest for interruption by the thought of “who might have just DM’d them, and might be awaiting their immediate response.” We have families that sit around dinner tables and restaurant booths staring at the bright light emanating from their phones, instead of at the beloved faces of those they should engage in communication. 

Fairly recently, I had a conversation with one of my daughters about a friend who was nagging her and arguing with her over the fact that she left her one “read.” What this means is that she opened an Instagram message and read it but never responded to it. The problem was that the girl had messaged my daughter at such a late hour that she fell asleep and didn’t respond until the morning. You see, we even give people permission to know when we have looked at their messages! All this instant gratification is driving us further and further apart. 

We are becoming locked in, signed in, tuned in, connected, interlinked, and on the grid twenty-four hours per day. We may fool ourselves into thinking that we set limits on our use of these technologies, but we often inadvertently challenge ourselves to circumvent the very limits that we impose. In addition, technology is so efficient that it will continue to maintain our connections while we work, sleep, or eat; leaving us little reason to actively think about its effects. 

I am convinced that each person in our world is seeking community. Each person is seeking a feeling of being interconnected with others. We all have a God-given need to be heart-connected to other people. However, impersonal modes of communication cannot make up for real community. Real community is getting to know someone as more than just the persona they choose to display to you on social media. 

We need to give ourselves permission to unplug social media to let our minds rest. Let us remember that when Jesus felt in constant demand, he gave himself and his disciples permission to rest. In Mark 6:31-32 it says, “Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.’ So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place.” If we don’t fill our emotional tanks through quiet, rest, prayer, and positive self-care, we will have nothing left to give to those around us. 

We should commit to embracing the idea that no person deserves instant access to our time outside of our immediate families. One of the ways that I do this is to avoid installing the Messenger app on my phone. This simple decision keeps people from thinking that I should be immediately at their fingertips the instant they reach out to me. I don’t “do” Messenger. If people need me (and unfortunately they sometimes do) they can call the church, email me, or they can call my cell phone number. A second way that I guard my heart and my attention is to not allow notifications from any social media to alert me on my cell phone. This ensures I’m not constantly being interrupted by alerts every time someone “likes” a post or every time someone posts on my wall. Finally, create space for cell-free zones. The dinner table is one example of a cell-free zone. When you are on a family outing you may want to consider leaving the phones at home, or putting them under the seats of your car. Don’t even carry the silly pieces of technology into that venue or that event. 

Limit social media use to the occasion “when you get to it.” This means social media should be the least of your priorities, and personal interaction with live human beings should rise to the top of your agenda. Make a commitment not to check your phone when you are in the company of another person. Spend time engaging with that person rather than engaging with the way people display themselves on social media. Be present in the moment, and don’t allow your need to post your experience to social media to prevent you from enjoying the experience in the present! 

Let’s seek real places to connect with real people, rather than what I call social media “fake life.” People really post on social media only that which they want you to see about them. Even when people say #nofilters, they have already filtered the content to their liking, even if they haven’t doctored their photo. This is easily discovered by noticing the number of pictures in someone’s gallery they scroll past in order to select exactly the right one, which gives them that “perfect” glow. 

I believe there are ways that social media can be utilized for good, but there are dangers even in attempting to do so. Don’t lose yourself in an attempt to entertain others. Seek out real relationships with a group of people who will care about you for who you are, even when that includes your downside. Always post content that is God-honoring and uplifting. Don’t get into quarrels that can never be resolved in impersonal ways. Guard your heart and your mind, and remember that God is God even of our media use!

Ministry For and With the Poor 

Our society is backwards. We like to drink our $4.25 latte’s that were made by an employee making $9.00 per hour. We like to grab a quick McDonald’s hamburger for $3.99 that was made by an employee making $8.75 per hour. But we don’t want to house the people that serve our needs in our community. We don’t want “those” poor people living next to us. Our lives benefit from the poor and the services they provide, but we don’t want to build affordable housing that meets their needs; because it will “drive down our property values.” 

One of my biggest takeaways from the last few months in my work with finding homes for former residents of America’s Best motel is that a large percentage of vulnerable people work. These people are the working poor and we have left them to be devoured by sharks. Hotel/motels, buy-here pay-here car lots, and check cashing businesses gobble up every hard earned dollar that they can find. 

We, as a society, carry with us a general disdain for the poor. We believe that they are dragging humanity down and that we would be better off without them. We look at them with judgment and condemnation for the perceived choices they have made. We believe that they haven’t applied themselves fully toward earning an income that will sustain them. We believe that they have not given their full attention to their education, which would have helped them “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” We believe that they should have taken more precautions and not ended up with children out of wedlock. We believe that they should take control of their mental health and not allow it to keep them from finding suitable employment. We believe that they should have spent their money more wisely and not wasted it on alcohol or drugs. We believe that they should work toward their own betterment and that their plight is not our responsibility. 

I can understand that a secular person might come to these conclusions.  What I cannot accept is the idea that a Christian man or woman who takes seriously the words of scripture can maintain such a viewpoint. I cannot and will not accept the views of a Christian man or woman who maintains this perspective in light of the ministry and care that Jesus offered the poor while He was present upon the earth. The Messiah’s ministry is characterized in Isaiah 61:1-3 where it says, 

“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.” 

The Jews believed, based upon the prophecy of Isaiah and others, that when the Messiah came He would bring with Him “good news for the poor.” This good news would contain a healing for people’s broken hearts, a release of prisoners, and the ushering in of a hope and a joy that would overcome despair. Let us remember that Jesus walked into the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:14-21), unrolled the Isaiah scroll containing this very passage of scripture and read it out loud. After reading it, He rolled the scroll back up, gave it to the attendant, and said; “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” 

Jesus was declaring to the religious powers that be that the Messiah was present. Wherever Jesus went from that point on His teachings and example uplifted the plight of those without power, influence, or financial stability. Upon Jesus’ ascension, His followers carried on a ministry to people who were poor and marginalized. In fact, in Matthew 25, Jesus says the way He will be able to determine His followers from the rest of the secular world is by the way in which they treat the “least of these.” The “least of these” are those who are hungry, those who are thirsty, those who are homeless, those who are sick, those who need clothing, and those who are in prison. Our mission field is clearly defined by the parameters set forth by Jesus. Jesus never wastes His time to try to get the religious establishment to recognize their error in interpreting correctly how God meant us to take scripture. Instead, Jesus goes about the work of communicating God’s care to those who feel far from God.   

So, if the Gospel you’ve accepted does not compel you to walk beside the poor, then you might want to reevaluate the example of Jesus. Jesus could have easily spent his time teaching in the synagogue and Temple courts, but He chose to situate Himself next to the poor, the marginalized, and the vulnerable. If we, as the church, are not the good news to the poor, then there is no good news! We must advocate for a conversation with the poor, and not about the poor. 

The other night Tawnya and I went to dinner a Cast Iron Steakhouse, because Emma was working there. As we entered the door I saw a disheveled man exiting the bathroom. This man’s clothes were in tatters. There were several gaping holes in his shirt and the rear-end of his pants were ripped. I asked Emma if he had been eating at a table and she said, “No, he just walked in.” I told her that I’d speak with him. I asked if he was there to meet anyone and he said, “No, just here to use the bathroom, but, I am hungry.” I said, “Great, I’ll buy you dinner.” We walked out on the back patio of the restaurant and had an eye-opening conversation. The morning before we met at Cast Iron, this man had left the Western State Mental Hospital in Kentucky, 179 miles away. He had walked toward Clarksville, IN because he remembered that this was where he was born. He was still wearing his hospital bracelet, had his hospital picture ID, and was wearing his hospital issued “no skid” socks and slide sandals. 

On his journey he had cut across fields. His arms and shirt were scratched and ripped due to walking through briar patches. His pants were ripped, because he was crawling over a barbed-wire fence and had gotten them caught. He had slept the night before in an open field and even had the cockleburs in his hair to prove it. I found out the man’s name and that he had bipolar disorder. I bought him food and got him another set of clothing. I had to question the probability of him leaving the Western State Mental Hospital the morning before and making it 179 miles to the exact location I would be eating at that night. What is the probability of him running into me, the pastor of the church who just made a leap of faith to buy the Haven House? The easy answer is that God put him there that night, to remind me of what our mission is together. Our role is to minister to the “least of these” in whatever way we can.  Sometimes our efforts can only be small, but other times our efforts with the people God places in front of us can change their lives forever. My prayer for us is that we would be open to the ministry to the poor that God has for us, and that we will believe that it is our responsibility as “the” church to meet their needs.

Fatherhood 

On March 17, 2004 I became a father for the first time. I had been around babies, but I really hadn’t needed to take care of them. The day after Phoebe was born, her mom had to have emergency surgery to remove her gallbladder. I was left with the 24-hour, round the clock care of a tiny little infant about which I knew very little. I am thankful for the nurses who helped me learn how to properly hold a baby and how to bottle feed one. 

I would describe my first interactions with Phoebe as a bit odd. It felt like meeting someone for the first time and not knowing how to act or what to say. Of course, Phoebe couldn’t say much either. Over the course of a few days I realized which cries were for food, which cries were for needing changed, and which cries were for needing to be rocked. 

After the anxiety dwindled over the care and maintenance of this new little creature, the idea finally sank in, “I’m a dad.” Honestly, it was a little bit scary to ponder what being a dad meant. As I thought about it I realized that having a baby doesn’t make you a dad (it makes you a donor of genetic material). Being a dad is a lifelong commitment to walk beside another human being and be there for them no matter what. Any long-term commitment like this should make you a bit nervous, and hopefully you ponder the responsibilities before donating the genetic material. 

On February 16, 2006, I became a father for the second time. Shortly after Zeke’s birth I decided that I had the best of both worlds (a boy and a girl), and that I should have a vasectomy. The craziest thing for me was that I always thought I’d have more children even though I could no longer contribute the genetic material to create them. I felt this way because I knew that my heart had more love to give. Then on February 22, 2014, I became a dad again to three more children. They are triplets of different ages, who had been raised by a single mother with whom I fell desperately in love. I have accepted the wonderful opportunity and responsibility of making Brandon, Nathan, and Emma children of my own. 

When Zeke was born, I thought, “How could I love another child as much as I love Phoebe?” That’s when I realized that parental love is multiplication, not division. When I got remarried to Tawnya, I realized that the parental love I feel for each of my five children is different, and yet the same. The love I have for every one of them is as unique as they are themselves. I love them differently, because each child offers something different that I admire. My love is the same; in that, I would gladly give my life for them, and I have a “whatever it takes” mentality guiding me. 

So in my early years of being a dad, and even now, I have had to struggle with the question of, “How will I become the father that I want to be?” Most people start with the example of the father that they have had in their lives. I don’t want to down-talk my own father because he’s one of the hardest working men I have ever met. In the years since I’ve been on my own, our relationship has blossomed and I would say we are good friends now. My grandpa was not a good father to my dad. My dad learned from his father’s mistakes but it was difficult for him to overcome all of the cycles of thinking and behavior he learned from watching his dad. It is my belief that he was a better father to me than his father had been to him. Obviously, there is no definitive book on fatherhood. So I would explain that I am thankful for the father I had, but that I resolved to do some things a bit differently than he did. 

I took a deep look at the sacrificial love of Jesus. I realized that I must be an example of this kind of love to my children. As you can imagine, this was a monumental task. So I started looking around at Christian father’s, that I admired, and I tried to figure out the principles they were basing their parental relationships around. One of the first things I realized is that I would need to be emotionally available to my children. This means that they would need to feel comfortable talking to me and sharing their feelings without a thought of retribution. 

I think being emotionally available to children is a hard thing for a man to do. We have been taught to act like we are emotionless blobs of flesh and that it is not manly to “get into our feelings.” There’s been a longstanding tradition of men working and providing the financial backing for their family with little else required. This leaves a huge void in the lives of our children and leaves a huge burden to be carried by our spouses. I often think men who buy into this line of thinking are just copping out of what they know they should be doing.  It is only when we are emotionally available to our kids that any real teaching can be done. Teaching can be accomplished through careful correction, but it’s better done in conversation. 

Another thing that I saw in the lives of men I looked up to was the principle: I should never ask my child to do something that I myself am not willing to also do. Or as Jesus puts it, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Luke 6:31). You can tell a child to not use profanity (and even wash their mouths out with soap), but when you are sitting around using profanity, your words spoken to them are in vain. You can tell children to clean their rooms but if your room is the dirtiest room in the house, your instruction will fall on deaf ears. You can tell your child to treat others kindly, and not to talk negatively about other people; but when you are passing along gossip, you should not be surprised when they do as well. The example we set for our children should be one of integrity and honesty. 

The more I thought about fatherhood, the more I realized that the point is to launch human beings capable of loving and serving others in the same way Jesus loved and served. Since they have to do this in the “real world” it means I have to set up rewards and consequences that make sense in the “real world.” A common parental mistake in 2019 is to say something like, “Let her/him stomp off up the stairs and slam the bedroom door. Children should be able to express their emotions.” So are you telling me that I can stomp off from my boss and slam my office door? Or are you telling me that I can stomp off in an angry huff when my teacher (or a police officer) tells me something I do not like? If it doesn’t work that way in the “real world” then it shouldn’t be allowed in the home. Thinking about child-rearing this way makes it easy to explain the rules. 

There is more to say about fatherhood than all the books in the world could contain. I’ve realized that I’m not perfect as a dad, and I never will be. But I can honestly say I’m willing to go the extra mile and to put in the work to be the best dad I can be. At the end of the day, I recognize that I’m only here to point my kids to Jesus, and to pray that they somehow see His love in me.   One of the ways I’ve chosen to do this is to bring my children to the places I serve. They have been to nursing homes, homeless shelters, and to visit shut-ins. They haven’t just witnessed me being a servant of Christ but they have served right beside me! Fatherhood is one of the greatest blessings, and for this blessing I give God all of the glory!

"Amazing Grace....That Saved a Wretch Like Me!" 

A long time ago I came to terms with the fact that people aren’t always going to agree with everything I say. For that matter, people aren’t always going to agree with everything I do either (but that’s a different subject). There are things that break my heart and I believe, even if you disagree with what I’m going to say, if you intentionally think about the situation it will break your heart too. 

Tennessee Department of Correction inmate Don Johnson has been on death row for 35 years and was executed on May 16, 2019. Don was convicted of suffocating his wife at a Memphis camping center he managed in 1984. Don did not allow his guilt to be a question. He readily admitted to the murder. 

Psychological evaluations of Don discovered that he had one of the most horrific childhoods the psychiatrists had come across. He was abused, bullied, abandoned, and institutionalized. The abuse he endured, he transmitted, culminated in the death of his wife. 

My heart breaks for the family of Don’s wife and for their daughter Cynthia! This story did not end with this heart break, in fact, in 35 years God so transformed Don’s life by His grace that it was no longer the same. In the 35 years since his crime Don’s life became a Jesus story and a testimony of the grace of God. 

While Don was in Shelby County Jail (Tenn.) he heard another inmate testifying about the healing power of Jesus. As Don was convicted and taken to death row, he heard more stories about how God had changed people’s lives. Shortly thereafter Don dedicated his life to Jesus and was baptized on death row. 

Years later he was ordained an elder in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. He was the only elder on death row. Riverbend Unit 2 was his parish, and many on the inside and outside of the prison can testify of how his faith has shaped them as people, this includes correctional officers and staff. But the most incredible witness of how God can transform any situation by His grace is the witness of his daughter, Cynthia Vaughn. 

Cynthia lost her mom at the age of 7 and became a champion for the death penalty, especially when it came to pertain to her father. Cynthia wanted him dead, she hated him, and to her the death penalty seemed like justice. Like many victims of horrible atrocities, Cynthia eventually found that her hatred was not hurting him, but it was killing her. She was in a prison of her own anger, resentment, and in her words “in my own internal house of hell.” So after 30 years of not speaking to her father Cynthia broke the silence and reached out to her father. Throughout the five years they had together they were working hard to heal the wounds of their shared past. Cynthia forgave her father, not so he could sleep at night but so that she could have peace. 

The more Cynthia got to know her father, as the new man he had become, the more she desired to fight to save his life. Cynthia is not only fighting for alternatives to the death penalty for her father, but for everyone else too. She sees the power of restorative justice and how it has transformed her dad. 

As Christians we must consider, “What would Jesus do?” And then we must do it! Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7). In the Gospels, Jesus interrupted an execution of a woman guilty of a capital crime by saying, “Let anyone who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7). The Bible is filled with murderers who are given a second chance (Moses, David, and Saul of Tarsus). The United Methodist Church puts it this way, “We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore, and transform all human beings.” 

Activist, speaker, and author of the book Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us, Shane Claiborne says, “When we kill those who kill to show that killing is wrong, we legitimize the very evil we hope to rid the world of, the evil that sent Jesus to the cross.” No one is beyond redemption!! 

Don Johnson asked that his special last meal before his execution (May 16th) be donated to the homeless. His public defender said, “Mr. Johnson realizes that his $20 allotment will not feed many homeless people. But his request is that those who have supported him to provide a meal to a homeless person as well.”   

My heart is broken that a man that God had so changed by His grace was executed on May 16th. Even as the tragedy of death was upon him Don’s faith in Jesus shined brightly for all to see. 

Among his final words were: "I commend my life into your hands. Thy will be done. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen." As he was being executed he prayed for forgiveness for those who were executing him saying, "forgive them for they know not what they do." And he asked for forgiveness from all who he has hurt. 

Then he sang hymns for two minutes. Don praised God until there was no breath left in him. 

As he breathed his last breaths, he sang these words: 

“No more crying there, we are going to see the king. 

No more dying there, we are going to see the king." 

And he died. 

Resources: 

https://religionnews.com/2019/05/09/will-grace-prevail-as-tennessee-execution-looms/?fbclid=IwAR2MWziK-icXMNzFhY4lEjopkazTxRSs8vtNOgOWZC21fG8XL6Ssx4AEZpI 

https://www.foxnews.com/us/death-row-inmate-forgoes-last-meal-asks-for-meals-to-be-given-to-homeless-instead?fbclid=IwAR24mfAaeenoPBvQtmbXyxFAZlAHSaLwpvLgqISYdKCtznbmd6eU6kj0eCY 

https://www.tennessean.com/media/cinematic/video/3645920002/death-row-inmate-don-johnson-is-an-elder-at-riverside-chapel-because-of-the-churchs-prison-ministry/ 

  

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