Discovering Indiana Gumbo: a few thoughts from my weekend retreat

From Wikipedia: “Gumbo is often used as a metaphor for the mix of cultures that exist in southern Louisiana. The dish combines the culinary practices of French, Spanish, native tribes, and African slaves, as well as Italians and Germans. In the 18th and 19th centuries, people from these cultures lived together within a fairly small area with minimal mobility. This fostered an environment in which cultures could influence each other and meld to create new traditions and cuisine.”

About once a year I spend a weekend hanging out with some people who have become very good friends. Years ago I would have never believed that I could spend an entire weekend with such a motley crew. These friends come from all walks of life, with various religious backgrounds, levels of education, occupations and personalities. When you stop and think about it you quickly realize that we are all very different, yet we are so incredibly the same. We all get together in a secluded area in west central Indiana. Not at a hotel or resort area with five star amenities, but at a campground with little more than the necessities; -we don’t mind it though.

We always invite new friends to come and join us on these weekends. As a matter of fact, the primary purpose of the entire get-together is to be a blessing to these new friends. They are often very apprehensive about attending our little retreat. They arrive nervous and curiously anticipating what could possibly happen during this pilgrimage. Many of these “new friends” have heard stories of those who have attended the retreats before whose lives have been changed and transformed. And just as I did on my first weekend, they wonder how this “transformation” could happen in such a humble atmosphere? And more importantly, could it happen to them? To complicate matters, those of us who are veterans of these weekend pilgrimages are not to quick to share all the details of what actually happens. We tell our “new friends” that the veil of secrecy is kept in order to make their weekend as special as possible. And on Sunday evenings, they almost always return to their lives different from when they arrived on Thursday evening. As a result, many of us return in order to help provide the same opportunity for others. And although those of us who return do so to joyfully serve and give, we actually receive much more than we could ever possibly give back during the weekend.

There is so much more I could say about these retreats, about this extended family and how God has used them in my life, however I seriously doubt that I could ever find adequate words to express their worth to me and thousands of others. In addition, it must be stressed that the people who participate in these weekends are imperfect and they know it. We are not anyone special, and we know it. Those who participate in this community are simple ordinary people who just happen to love God, each other and their neighbors -a lot. We are Methodists, Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Catholics, Non-denominationals and any other Christian denomination in between. Yet we come together, set our religious differences aside and love one other. Participating in such a diverse yet unified community has profoundly affected me. God has revealed Himself -and His ways to me through these experiences and He continues to use these weekends to teach me what His Church is supposed to look like. -It looks so much different from what I once thought.

Those of you who follow this blog know that I am often critical of “the Church” in the U.S. I try hard to stay positive but my frustration often shows. Being a part of this community encourages me. These weekends give me hope. Again, I want to stress that this motley crew is full of ordinary imperfect people, just as I am ordinary and imperfect. But it seems that those of us who participate have made a conscious decision to love each other -and others despite their imperfections and differences. God honors that decision to love -and it creates an atmosphere that is simply indescribable. Being from southeast Louisiana, it has always been very difficult to find good gumbo here in central Indiana. However, I do believe I have found it here after all.

Born of God -my manifesto on being an authentic Christian

Born of God -my manifesto on being an authentic Christian

I have been a Christian for nearly eight-teen years and have been in the ministry for almost as long. I grew up in the Southern Baptist Church, but was frequently exposed to the Catholic Church as my mother’s entire family was Catholic. Three or four years after I became a Christian (for real) my wife and I left the Baptist Church to help plant a non-denominational church. During the first years of that church plant, we “explored” outside the boundaries of our former SBC doctrinal beliefs. We ventured into the areas of charismatic and pentecostal doctrines and experienced both the liberty and potholes in those often untamed theological frontiers. Some years later, we moved to another state and planted our own church. It was a Churches of God General Conference church and thus we were exposed to CGGC doctrine and culture. A few years after planting our new church I became involved in a few ecumenical organizations in our area and was even further exposed to other church traditions such as the Christian Church, the Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church, etc. I am leaving out far more than one denomination from this story, but surely by now you get the picture. I have experienced many different “flavors” of Christianity and have gotten to know a lot of good people who love God AND participate in a different “flavor” of Christianity than me.

While there are many narrow minded groups out there who think that their “flavor” of Christianity is the only “correct” version, I would like to think that there are more than a few of us (hopefully, many, many more) who have realized that God works in many different Christian denominational contexts and cultures. Furthermore, I would also like to think that there are those of us who have realized that no Christian group has found perfection in regards to their theology and practiced values of authentic community. In short, I have discovered that there are many of us who dearly love God and have declared Jesus Christ Lord and Savior of our lives. We may call ourselves Baptists or Catholics, Pentecostals or Presbyterians, Methodist or Nazarene -but we really are all in the same boat. One day, we will all be in heaven and all those petty denominational titles will seem so childish and silly. Perhaps, in the manifest presence of God we will blush when we think of all of the trivial conversations -and arguments that we had during our earthly lifetimes… These thoughts are why I have adopted the following statement as my motto, “Some follow the Pope, some follow Luther, others follow Calvin, still others follow Wesley or Winebrenner; I follow Jesus with the understanding that God can use whomever He chooses to speak into my life.”I think the Apostle Paul made a statement similar to this in his first letter to the Corinthians…

It is my belief that we spend so much time thinking, debating, arguing and “silently positioning” over our differences that we often miss the most important and fundamental questions of the day, -fundamental questions that almost no one would argue over. These are probably the least controversial but most important questions that we should be asking: Are we in love with Jesus? Have we truly surrendered to God and His Word? Are we daily humbling ourselves and yielding our lives to the leading of the Holy Spirit? Do we have a practical daily relationship with God? -Not much controversy here; yet I think we have to admit that if we (all) could answer yes to these questions, the face of Christianity would look different than it does now.

I shared the message that is linked below a few weeks before Christmas. I never intended for it to be an “oral manifesto” for me or my ministry; but after sharing it and listening to it while editing it for my blog, I realized that it was just that, my manifesto on being an authentic Christian.

This sermon can be listened to or downloaded with the links below:

Born of God -to download .mp3 file

Thoughts Regarding My First Kairos Weekend -and Fine Wine

I think a lot of us who work weekend retreats like Walk to Emmaus, Kairos and others do it for well-meaning selfish reasons. Yes, we want God to use us to help people, but we also get a “spiritual high” from the weekend thus feeding a hunger for the retreat atmosphere and God’s presence.  -I am not saying that this is a bad thing, just the dynamic that often happens.  God uses this dynamic to do much good in the lives of everyone involved on the retreat, those who are served during the weekend and those who are serving.

However, working my first Kairos has been different for me.  For whatever reason, God never allowed me to achieve a “spiritual high” this weekend.  Furthermore, I missed my wife and kids a lot, served in a role that did not match my gift set and personality well and I literally thought I would go crazy being confined to such a relatively small area in the prison for thirteen hours a day.  In short, at times I was near miserable.  As a result of this uncomfortable and spiritually sober environment, I learned a few things about myself, those serving, the offenders, and God this weekend. I would like to share a few of these things in this post.

About myself: I learned that I am still so freaking selfish. You think you are growing, you think you are past certain “childish” tendencies, and then you see yourself react to situations and realize that you still have a long way to grow as a follower of Jesus. There were no outward situations involving my selfishness this weekend, I think I did a pretty decent job of hiding it.   But I know what I dealt with on the inside, those battles with my flesh that no one knew were raging except for me and God.   I have grown a lot in the past four years, but God raised the bar on me this weekend, yet again.

About those serving: It was very refreshing to work alongside of some true Christian servants this weekend. There were guys like me who had no clue what they were getting in to, BUT there were others who knew exactly what they were getting in to. They have served on these Kairos weekends many times and they continue to joyfully serve. These brothers and sisters came from all walks of life and various Christian backgrounds: doctors, Baptists, carpenters, very well-educated, Catholics, not-so-well educated, engineers, Methodists, pastors, Charismatics, wealthy, Presbyterians, younger guys, conservatives, not-so-wealthy, older guys, liberals, guys like me who had never been on the inside of a high security adult prison and guys who… let’s just say… have spent some “extended time” there.   Our group of Christian servants was most definitely diverse.  How refreshing it was to lay aside our denominational and political differences, our social statuses and in some ways even our own lives and simply be the hands and feet of Jesus for those who are truly considered to be “the least of these” by society.
I am so over petty religious differences.  If you follow Jesus and call Him Lord, God, and Savior then we have enough in common to work together for the good of the Kingdom.  On the contrary, if you want to come around and debate petty religious differences or talk about my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who are outside of your rigid belief system or denomination, please don’t; I am simply not interested in having that conversation.

About the Offenders: Wow, where do I start? Honestly, I was pretty nervous about this weekend. I would be spending 36 hours over 3 days with 42 convicted felons. Myself and 2 other team members would be sitting at a table with 6 convicted offenders and we would attempt to build a family unit. We’re not just talking about enduring a church service together, we’re talking intimacy…  Actually, I was A LOT nervous.
I think about those six guys now and I weep. You see, I made a mistake; I got to know those guys.  I love those guys now… A drug dealer, a convicted murderer, a Muslim and a guy who is trying to make the best of his long prison sentence by pursuing his doctorate.  I am not scared of those guys; I genuinely love them now.
The fact of the matter is, we are all just a few stupid mistakes away, a not-so-good up-bringing away or a dead-beat dad or mom away from their predicament. I am not making excuses for their crimes nor am I attempting to make them out to be the victims. I am just stating the facts.  The Truth is, a lot of these guys had never experienced the love of God expressed through the Church, before last weekend.   Maybe, in a way, we have failed just as miserably as they have.
I am not stupid; I know some of these guys just played the game with us, but others didn’t. For some of those guys, last weekend was truly a life changing experience and they are truly embracing God working in their lives.  I will never think the same way about prisoners and prison ministries.  And I can no longer stick my head in the sand and neglect these type ministries; they are not glamorous, but neither was the cross that Jesus hung on.

About God: This may come off as a little crude, harsh or even offensive to some, but I will take the risk and try to express the thought anyway because I think it is an important one and needs to be expressed.
In the past five years or so I have evolved into a person who looks for and cherishes those moments where God is genuinely manifesting His presence.  I am not talking about a worked up service, but genuine encounters where God is working and making Himself known. It is kind of like the person who is a connoisseur of fine wine; sure he could buy the cheap stuff, but he has come to realize that the fine wine is just so much better. It is made with better grapes from well pruned vines.  It is processed so much more carefully by caring individuals who cherish its high quality.  It is bottled and even stored with the up most concern and caution. Therefore fine wine is not cheap, but when it is opened, poured, and shared it is genuine and can be enjoyed by all who partakes of it, without drunkenness. You see with fine wine, there is no need for drunkenness; it is made to be enjoyed in a state of soberness.
On the contrary, those who purchase cheap wine often do so to just get a buzz or even to just get drunk. They pay little to no attention to the flavor, the quality of grapes that it took to make it or the carefulness of the hands who cared for its transportation and storage. It is cheap wine, made for quick and easy consumption, cheap thrills, and fruitless drunkenness.  It is mechanically created and lifeless, therefore it has little to no value and is sold inexpensively, consumed quickly or just thrown away with little to no thought given to it.  It is simply not cherished as fine wine is.
I have grown so tired of cheap wine in the Church.  I could say more, but will end that line of thought there.  I will just say that on weekends like this past one, I have found “fine wine.”  Wine that is flavorful, complex, smooth and sweet all at the same time! It leaves a wonderful aftertaste and causes no hangovers -because there is no drunkenness. Fine wine like this is not made easy though… The vines have to be diligently tended, the grapes had to be carefully harvested and pressed, but oh the end product is so worth it…
I have indeed become a connoisseur of this fine wine.  The cheap stuff will no longer satisfy me; arrogant spirits, over produced services and unbroken vessels just seem so… cheap now.   I discover the fine wine when I pray with other pastors from various denominations and backgrounds on Tuesday mornings,  I find it at ecumenical community services,  I find it at coffee shops and restaurants when I take the time to get to know other servants of God in our city, I find it in family devotions with my wife and children, I found it a few weeks ago at an Emmaus Walk and I found it again this past weekend in a maximum security prison with 42 convicted felons and a motley crew of selfless servants in rural Indiana.
This past weekend I learned that God continues to manifest Himself where fine wine is being made and served. Who knows where I will find this “fine wine” next but I am searching for it. I can promise you, I am searching for it.

*If anyone is interested in getting involved in the Kairos Prison Ministry, here are a few links:

Kairos for Wabash Valley Correctional:  http://wabashkairos.org/

Kairos for the state of Indiana:  http://kairosofindiana.org/

National Kairos:  http://kairosprisonministry.org/