Thursday

Forgiveness and Helping


Forgiveness and Helping

Gospel. Gospel means “good news.” In the New Testament it refers to the good news of Jesus Christ. In churches it often means a body of doctrine you must believe in order to be saved and to be in good standing.

Paul defines the gospel in Romans 15 as four items of first importance: Christ died for our sins, he was buried, he was raised after three days, and he appeared to the disciples. The point about Jesus appearing is critically important because it means too many people saw him to deny that his resurrection really happened. It is a fact.

It is because of the gospel - Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and appearance, that we have forgiveness of sins and fresh standing with God and the community. Paul said, “By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you” (v.2). That is good news, good news because our lives need forgiveness and restoration to God.

There is a parable about forgiveness and restoration that we are all very familiar with. Luke 15 tells the story of a young man who left his father’s house to go party. Jesus said he squandered his wealth in wild living. His brother specifically mentioned prostitutes. What a waste of the family’s resources and his young life. What this young man committed was personal, rebellious sin. His chosen lifestyle was sin, and it was his fault. He needed the gospel: he needed forgiveness. That would be good news for him, to know that he was forgiven and reconciled to the important people in his life: his family. And, he was forgiven and restored. Gospel.

But, there is another parable in the New Testament with a different view of good news. If we sin and separate ourselves from God and others, good news means we are forgiven and restored to God and others. But, what if we are not the perpetrator of sin, but instead we are the victim of sin? What does good news mean to the victim of sin?

In Luke 10 we have the parable of the Good Samaritan. In this story a man is traveling when he is attacked by a violent gang, beaten, robbed, and left for dead. But, good news! Two preachers walk by. Surely they will help him. Ah, no, that doesn’t happen. Apparently they have some spiritual business to attend to and can’t spare the time, nor can they risk being ceremonially contaminated by the uncleanness of the poor victim. So, they pass by. But, another fellow happens by, a Samaritan. He cleanses the man’s wounds and takes him to a motel, paying all the expenses incurred. The Samaritan was the bearer of good news.

As in the story of the Prodigal Son, there is sin in the story of the Good Samaritan. In the first story, the one who committed sin needed forgiveness, and he received it. Good news. In the second story, the man who was beaten was the victim of someone else’s sin. He didn’t commit the sin, but he was damaged by it. It was not his fault. What did this poor man need? Not forgiveness, but help. He needed to be cleaned, bandaged, fed, and given a place to stay. That for him is good news, and God gave it all to him through the actions of the Samaritan.

Two gospel stories, two good news stories, one involving forgiveness, and one involving charity. The gospel involves both. On the one hand, the gospel is forgiveness. God forgives, and we must, too. We must forgive those God forgives. Further, we must be agents of God’s forgiveness. There is action - we preach and teach the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.

On the other hand, the gospel is about helping. It is caring and ministry. This form of the gospel involves action as well, such as social engagement with other people, dispensing charity, mercy and justice as God reveals the need to us. We are agents of God’s charity.




For the gospel to be good news, it must touch people where their needs are. For some, those needs are the healing of the soul through forgiveness. For others, it is the healing of the body through food and compassionate care. Our role in the good news is to share with others what God reveals to us they need. (Idea from The Externally Focused Quest).

Warren Baldwin

Tuesday

Orphan Trains

 Orphan Trains

“Come on son, buck up and stop crying. We’re doing this for your own good. Is that your little sister? Ok, tell her to stop crying, too. We have a long trip and you are going to have to look after her.”

“Where are we going, sir?”

“You are going west, young man, you are going west. How old are you, anyway, son? Eight years old? Oh, you’ll do fine, you’ll do just fine. And your sister? Three years old? Well, you just watch out for her son, you hear? You watch out for your little sister now. She’s going to need you in the days ahead. Ok, buck up now. Stop your crying and whining. Wipe your face off. The train will be here soon and we have a long ride ahead of us.”


A conversation on this order was no doubt repeated thousands of times during the period from 1853 to 1929 when America was running the orphan trains from eastern cities to the prairie communities of the midwest. During these years there were hundreds of thousands of orphaned and abandoned children in America’s eastern cities. NYC alone had 30,000 “street children” in the 1850s. In an attempt to find decent homes for the children, the Children's Aid Society and the Catholic New York Foundling Hospital placed children on trains and sent them west. For some of the children it was a life-saving experience. For others, it was a nightmare.

Children could be as old as 18 or as young as 4. Some children got to travel in decent conditions; many traveled in cattle car conditions. Brothers and sisters often traveled together, only to be separated when they reached their destination if an adopting couple only wanted one child. Fortunate were the siblings whose prospective adoptive parents were moved by the tears of the siblings being separated and said, “Oh, ok, you can come, too.”

For John Green Brady and Andrew Burke, the orphan train experience was not so bad. Both were adopted by supportive families and eventually became governors, Brady of Alaska and Burke of North Dakota. But, many other children found endless work, abusive parents, and a life of crime. Some abolitionists saw the orphan train as a form of child slavery. Pro-slavery advocates argued that the orphan trains provided forced child-labor and undermined slavery.


No doubt the founders of the orphan trains meant the best for the children. They hoped that life on farms in the Dakotas, Kansas, Wyoming and numerous other states would be healthy for their bodies and spirits. Charles Loring Brace, founder of the Children’s Aid Society, wrote, "In every American community, especially in a Western one, there are many spare places at the table of life. They have enough for themselves and the stranger too."


 Herman Clarke, a minister, was a tireless worker on behalf of the children during his many years in the employ of the Aid Society. He received up to 2,000 letters a year from the orphans who loved and trusted him. Today, those letters provided invaluable information about the orphan train movement of 1853 to 1929.

Numerous sources are available for those who would like to read more. Christina Baker Kline has a novel entitled Orphan Train. You might want to read Andrea Warren’s Orphan Train Rider: One Boy’s True Story. There are more. And, you might be interested to know there is a National Orphan Train Museum and Research Center in Concordia, Kansas.


Orphan Trains. Thanks to my friend Perry Rubart for making me aware of this generally unknown subject. Whether good or bad, orphan trains were America’s response to a crisis situation for children. I hope the orphans, at least most of them, were treated well. I hope God was pleased. And I hope we’ll always have a godly heart for children.

Warren Baldwin

Friday

Compassion vs. Commitment

Compassion vs. Commitment

When people tell church consultant Kennon Callahan, “What we need (in the church) is people with more commitment,” he has a standard response ready. “Good friend, you have just taught me that you are a longtime Christian.” (Kennon Callahan, Twelve Keys to an Effective Church, 27).

Dr. Callahan’s response is not a put down, but an observation. He says the early motivations that lead people to investigate a church are compassion, community and hope. Compassion is sharing, caring, giving, loving and serving. Community is good fun, good times, belonging and a sense of family. Hope is confidence and assurance in the grace of God (21). People are looking for the kindness of compassion, the sense of belonging in community, and the assurance of hope, and they are hoping to find that in a church.


Photo from Ironbuilt.com 

Nearly everyone who walks into a church building is hoping that the people there will greet them with these three incredibly important attitudes: compassion, community and hope.

But, what are they often greeted with? Challenge, reasonability and commitment. Challenge is accomplishment, achievement and attainment. Reasonability is analysis, logic and good sense. Commitment is duty, vow, obligation and loyalty (21). These three attitudes are generally what church leaders are looking for in members. They want them to live up the challenge of Christian living, to understand with their heads the reasonableness of the Christian story, and to be loyal and committed to the church. These are attitudes are every bit as important as the three attitudes seekers bring to church with them, but it is not what they are looking for. They are looking for compassion, community and hope.

That is why Kennon Callahan responds to the statement, “What we need (in the church) is people with more commitment,” with “Good friend, you have just taught me that you are a longtime Christian.” What he means is, “You have been in the church for a long, long time. You came seeking compassion, community and hope, and you found it. So, you stayed here a long time. You lived up to the challenge of Christian living, you studied the scriptures for a long time and accept the reasonability of faith and knowledge, and you grew committed to the Lord and the church. But, you have been a church member for so long you have forgotten what it is to be someone who lacks all this, and is looking for it. In time people can accept the challenge, reasonability and commitment. Right now what they need from you, church leader, is compassion, community, and hope. Love and accept them, no matter where they are in life. Can you do that? If you can, they will put down roots because this place will feel like home, and they will feel they belong.” (Twelve Keys to an Effective Church Study Guide, 25)]

Well-intentioned church leaders know the importance of living up to the challenges of the Christian life, studying to understand the scriptures, and commitment to life and work in the church. They have worked at this for years. But, in the process, they may have forgotten what it is to be a beginner. A seeker. Someone who senses something is missing in their life so they go to church hoping to find it there. What drives them to that first visit, what Callahan calls motivational resources, are a yearning for compassion, community and hope. What they are greeted with is the set of motivational resources leaders rely upon: challenge, reasonability, and commitment. The result is a motivational gap, with the seeker often leaving, despairing of ever finding what he needs in church.

If you ever find yourself saying of your congregation, “What we need is more commitment,” catch yourself and rephrase your statement to, “What we need is more compassion.” Show enough compassion, grace, love, community, forgiveness, hope, and encouragement over time, and you won’t have to beg or cajole people into being commitment. Commitment will grow gradually and naturally as the person realizes their church is home, they put down roots, and they assume their place in the family.

How does your church offer compassion, community and hope to both members and visitors?

Warren Baldwin

Monday

You’ll Enjoy Reading If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name

You’ll Enjoy Reading If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name

“Looking at all the people at Matt Bell’s funeral was close to an out-of-body experience for me. I remained in my seat, but I felt as if I were high on the wall. I could see everyone clearly that way, and how we all fit together and how tightly we were all holding on to one another with otherwise invisible ropes. In school the children learn drownproofing skills ... (they) learn that the best way to survive if your skiff capsizes and sinks is to link arms in a circle and hold on tight. That’s what we were doing for the Bells that day.”

These words were written by Heather Lende in her book, If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name (p. 215). Heather is the obituary writer for her local newspaper. The title of Heather’s book leapt up at me from the shelf in our local library. “Read me,” it exclaimed.


Sometimes I read a book and say, “I can write one like that.” And I did, once. Other times I read a book and say, “I can’t write one like that.” Heather’s book falls into the second category. With such a book all you can do is read it and thank God there is someone who can put your feelings to words better than you can.

I’ve been in the situation Heather describes about young Matt Bell’s funeral. Eleven-year old Luke, a drowning victim in Cody, who gave his life trying to save another swimmer. Cole, also age eleven, who died in a car wreck. Five hundred people celebrated his life at his funeral, one of the hardest I ever performed. When it was over all I wanted was to go home so I could cry without anyone seeing me. There is a precious young child whose loving mother shares her ongoing conversation with her daughter on FB for family and friends to share in. And we will still remember Julia, Tori, Myranda, and Veronika, four high school sophomores we lost a few years ago.

In each of these and numerous other funerals I have attended or performed for young people and children, we were holding on to each other with invisible ropes, trying desperately to communicate love and support to families we love. We were consoling ourselves, too.

Since If You Lived Here was written by an obituary columnist there are, as you might expect, a number of stories about death and dying. They are not morbid. They are sensitively written and touch numerous fibers of your being: hope, sadness, laughter, grieving, purpose. You will do a lot of smiling and laughing as you journey through the book.

Lende says of her work,

    “I love what I do. Being an obituary writer means I think a lot about loss, but more about love. Writing the obituaries of so many people I’ve known makes me acutely aware of death, but in a good way ...

    My job helps me appreciate cookouts on clear summer evenings down on the beach, where friends lounge on driftwood seats and we eat salmon and salads by the fire while our children play a game of ball ... Most of all, though, writing about the dead helps me celebrate the living - my neighbors, friends, husband, and five children - and this place, which some would say is on the edge of no where, but for me is the center of everywhere.” (pp.8-9)

“This place” is Haines, AK, located about 75 miles north of Juneau, population 2,400. This little town is now high on my places to visit. I was privileged to speak in Anchorage two years ago, and will be in Homer in 2016. Maybe on that trip I’ll be able to visit Haines and pick up a signed copy of one of Heather’s newer books at the Babbling Book Store. Hope so.

Lende is right that she writes about love. She loves her town, her family, and the people she writes about. Writing obituaries isn’t a job for her; it is a spiritual service. And because it is, the author weaves spiritual reflection throughout, causing you to pause, ponder, and find some meaning in your own experiences. This isn’t the kind of book I can write, but it is a book I’m glad someone else wrote for me to read. I encourage you to read it, too.

Warren Baldwin

Friday

Sacred Spaces

Sacred Spaces

Teens are leading the way. Brad, a high school senior, takes periodic breaks from Facebook and Instant Messaging. Instead of sending and receiving digital messages that are pushed aside the instant a new post or message beeps or lights up, he is choosing face-to-face encounters with real people.

With wisdom far exceeding his eighteen years Brad says, “Humans learn to talk and make eye contact before they learn to touch-type, so I think it’s a more basic, fundamental form of communication.” He says abandoning digital connections allows him to enjoy “one really nice social interaction with one person.” (Sherry Turkle, Alone Together, 274).

Brad joins a growing number of teens who are disappointed in the shallow relationships typified by Facebook, Twitter and other internet social sites. They also describe digital relationships as exhausting. There is the constant pressure to maintain your on-screen image, presenting yourself in the best possible light, even when you have to fudge on the truth with exaggerated profiles and doctored pictures.

Brad regards online relationships as “throwaway friendships.” Another teen, Hannah, wonders what she has to show for the hundreds of hours she has spent maintaining her various social network sites and perusing those of her online acquaintances. She realizes now that those online friends are not really part of her life, and she longs for a genuine, flesh-and-blood connection with someone. Pattie, only fourteen years old, leaves her cell phone on the table when she walks out the door. “It feels good,” she says, “to have people not reach you.” Not reach you with a technological device, that is. Without a cell phone in hand Pattie is free to engage someone eye-to-eye, to see the smile, feel the touch, and hear the laughter. (Alone Together, 275).

lovetoknow.com

Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together, describes the inner desires of these and many other young people as the longing for sacred spaces. Sherry says “a sacred space is not a place to hide out. It is a place where we recognize ourselves and our commitments. A sacred space is about location and values. “Where we live doesn’t just change how we live; it informs who we become.” Technology promises us life on the screen, with a host of social, dating, and chat sites and pages to interact with scores of people with whom we will never shake hands or share coffee. But, Turkle asks, what kind of life flows from our connection to and location in our computer? “Where do we live, and what do we live for?” (Alone Together, 277).

Young people like Brad, Hannah, and others are saying, “I’m not living for the screen anymore.” They are powering down and checking out, checking out of the digital and opting for the personal. They are seeking sacred spaces to discover themselves and experience life with others in real time connections.

We gave our kids the digital world. Some of them are saying “No thanks,” and are giving it back. Good for them. Good for us.

Technology is part of our lives now. Frankly, I don’t want to do without it, not completely. But I don’t want to be enslaved by it, either. I need the occasional break from the incessant hunger of the tech devices to be turned on, looked at, listened to. I need sacred space.

In sacred space, a place of quiet and calm, we can find our location and values. We might even find more. Adele Calhoun sees sacred space as a place to rest, a place to “make space in my life for God alone.” (Adele Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, 66).

Brad and Hannah are leading the way. Shall we follow them? For one hour today, and for one afternoon this week, let’s power down and check out. Seek time in quiet, contemplating location, values, and God. Take a friend to coffee. Hold your spouse’s hand. Ask your kids what their highest values are. Spend real life time with God, friends, and loved ones. There’s hope some of our teens might help us rediscover other ways to power up and check in.

Warren Baldwin

Tuesday

Robin Williams

Robin Williams

A famous entertainer once said, “You’re only given one little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” It may take a degree of madness to be a public personality like an actor, comedian, singer, or other such out-in-front character. Every time you perform you put yourself out there to be evaluated, judged, and written about.

We’d think that since it happens so often entertainers are probably used to the public scrutiny and even develop some hardness to the negative reviews they occasionally get. That is true in some cases, but not all.

Ernest Hemingway is regarded by many as the greatest writer of the 20th century. Among his published works are Death in the Afternoon, The Old Man and the Sea, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, To Have and Have Not,  Big-Two Hearted River, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, The Torrents of Spring, Islands in the Stream and much more. With this many books to his credit you know Hemingway came under the critic’s pen many times, and you know he had to be used to it, no matter how unfair and caustic the comments might sometimes be. But, apparently that wasn’t so. Hemingway wrote, “That terrible mood of depression of whether it’s any good or not is known as the artist’s reward.” When Hemingway’s Across the River and Into the Trees received a negative review in 1950, Hemingway was apparently “emotionally wounded.” New York Times Columnist Timothy Egan wrote of Hemingway’s emotional hurt: “Creativity has its own land mines.”


The land mines of creativity are that the artist must continue to be creative, over and over and over and over again. There is no let up, no break. The adoring public wants more ink, more laughter, more music from the stars. And the stars must produce, and it must be as good as the previous performances, or the critic section will shift into high-gear.

The same entertainer I quoted earlier as saying, “You’re only given one little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it,” also said, “You bottom out. People say, ‘You have an Academy Award.’ The Academy Award lasted about a week, then one week later people are going, ‘Hey, Mork’” (Timothy Egan, “Robin Williams, the Vulnerable Showman,” NYT, Aug 14, 2014). In other words, “You made us laugh last week. You made us laugh tonight. But what new stuff do you have for tomorrow?”

With my last quote from the famous figure some of you probably recognize the entertainer I am speaking about is Robin Williams. I was as shocked as everyone else when I read about his death. And I grieved when I read the cause.

I was not surprised that immediately articles and blogposts began to appear discussing suicide, its causes, and its aftermath. “Can Robin go to heaven?” some writers asked and answered. With a confidence I can not seem to find on the subject, some answered, “No,” others answered, “Yes.”

Suicide is an intensely sensitive and emotional issue. I’ve sat with friends who wept over the self-imposed death of one of their loved ones. They not only missed the person who just took their own life, they were filled with those questions  we all pray we never have to ask: Why? Could we have done something to prevent it? Where is he or she now? Can you be forgiven of suicide? My answers are, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.” And for the last one, “I sure hope so.”

Right now, I must admit I am thinking more about Robin than some of the other issues. Robin, the funny man, one of the funniest in the public eye. I didn’t like all his humor, no, but some of it I did. And I always marveled at his quickness. He was fast!

I think about a story of Robin sitting in a dressing room after a performance in Seattle. “You were great,” someone told him. “Really,” Robin asked? “Did you really like it?” The visitor later said Robin was like a schoolboy hungry for a pat of approval on the head (Timothy Egan). I wish one of us could have said to him in a way he could have felt it, “Yes Robin, you were that good.”

I hope all of us has someone saying that to us. And I hope all of us are saying it to someone else. You are that good.

Today, we will speak words of life into someone’s heart, and give them hope to hang on, with God’s power in their lives.

Warren Baldwin

Wednesday

Listening is Ministry

Listening is Ministry

“Listening carefully and responding accurately to the story of another is a true ministry. To be understood and accepted by another person is a treasured dimension of human living. It is also the first movement of any kind of care.” Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals, Herbert Anderson & Edward Foley

Ridiculing someone’s idea or mocking their serious question are effective ways of making them feel belittled and inferior (they are also sinful, just for the record). Though these verbal offenses cause great harm they are committed frequently and enjoy fairly widespread acceptance, which is too bad.

There is a less aggressive but equally effective way to make a person feel emotionally debased and hurt: just ignore them.

Maybe you’ve had the experience of trying to speak to someone and they totally ignore you. They know you are speaking to them, but they don’t even acknowledge your presence or speech. Equally bad is when they do address you, but it is not in response to what you said or asked. Rather, it is for them to express what they want to say to you. They are controlling the agenda by ignoring you and redirecting the conversation.

Pointing out these inconsiderate ways of treating people will, I hope, make us wise and sensitive to the problem, and will encourage us to be aware of any tendencies we may have to practice them. I certainly hope no one reading this will respond with, “Oh, so that is another way I can annoy someone. Ignore them.”



Admittedly, I give too little thought to the power of listening. The first time I realized how deeply some people need to be heard was when I was 17, and a woman I met at a summer job told me about the death of her son, the same age as me, only the summer before. She began telling me about the accident, then the sense of loss, then the annoyance of legal and insurance issues, then the constant darkness of his absence, then the cancerous pain that ate at her soul everyday. She cried. I listened. I was overwhelmed. My heart ached for her, but I had no way to comfort the incredible hurt other than to listen to the flood of words that poured out of a soul desperate to be heard. After an hour the clock chimed it was time to resume work. Soon, my summer job was over and we never talked about it again.

I’ve thought about that experience many times over years. I hope I’m finally learning something from it. The power of listening. No one could bring her son back, dull the pain or ease the loneliness. But anyone could listen. A group of listeners may have saved her marriage. When her husband, also burdened with grief, could no longer bear his wife’s need to unburden her heart, he left. A group of five to ten caring friends and fellow church members, meeting regularly with both the husband and wife, taking turns listening, may have saved their marriage.

Listening is ministry. Over a kitchen table, in a hospital room, after a funeral, over a cup of coffee.

“Listening carefully and responding accurately to the story of another is a true ministry. To be understood and accepted by another person is a treasured dimension of human living. It is also the first movement of any kind of care.”

Listening is a way to honor a person’s dignity, reassure them of their value, relieve them of intense inner burdens, and possibly even save their families and lives.

What do you think Jesus must have been doing with the sinners and social outcasts of his day? We assume he was preaching.

I think he was listening.

Warren Baldwin