Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Today I want to talk to you about the deeper hopes. You know, the ones that come from your passions and inner yearnings. This being the season of hope we encounter many folks trying to spread some along with a little joy. I'm particularly interested in joy...for obvious reasons. But, let's focus on hope for a little bit, okay.
Here is where my mind is on this topic. In Christian ministry I have had many opportunities to be with people in seemingly hopeless situations: hospital bedsides, gravesites, when someone gets bad news like a positive HIV report, and many others. Sometimes it is difficult to see the light in such darkness. It's there. I promise. Take a little trip with me to Orlando, FL. No, not to visit The Mouse, but to a place with much more meaning. In the Central Florida Reception Center, located at the southeast corner of Orange County, there is a unique place of hope. In 2006 the Florida Department of Corrections decided to establish a palliative care (hospice-like) unit for male inmates from all over the Florida DOC. I had the wonderful responsibility of establishing a chaplaincy for these end-of-life patients. After training the necessary corrections and inmate orderly staff in the spiritual and emotional needs of folks in this condition, we were ready to receive qualifying inmates. An internal physician had to authenticate the inmate's condition, the inmate in turn signed the proper forms and they were then transferred to the CFRC South Unit for palliative care.
So, where does hope come into the equation? These inmates, with their families present, were given a special opportunity to die, while incarcerated, with some dignity. I know, there are many who do not see the need for this type of care for these criminals, but as human beings, there is a need. As a matter of course, when the attending physician determined that the inmate's life was on "death watch", his family was allowed many more visitation privileges. Here is where Chaplain Joy (me) was allowed to witness a refreshing hope in a normally hopeless environment. It was in the faces of the family and of the dying inmate himself. During these last hours willing loved ones were allowed to stay in the medical unit with the inmate and offer comfort and familial care. I even saw a couple of inmates allowed to return home under the warden's Compassionate Release, to die surrounded by their loving families. Most often the patient lasted only 24 to 36 hours before they passed on, but the family members were given time that they normally would not have had. I saw hope dispensed...and even offered some myself. We spoke of faith matters, family matters and anything that mattered. There were believers, agnostics, athiests and folks from every faith represented. Each dying their own way. Some with more hope than others. They were either afraid or at peace, but each was glad to have had the privilege of present family members.
A strange example of hope you say? Yes indeed. But it comes in all forms. Like the guys on Florida's death row who receive home made cookies at Christmastime from Al Paquette of Al Paquette Ministries. Tough men who soften just a little at the gesture. Hope comes in all shapes and sizes.
I cannot close without letting you all know that the real hope of the world is the little baby born in Bethlehem, growing up to sacrifice Himself for our redemption. Just for the record, my hope is built on nothing less...than Jesus' blood and righteousness.
Here is hoping you have a great Christmas and a Blessed New Year.
Until next time,
Thursday, December 9, 2010
While the majority of us see this season as a positive one, enjoying the hustle and bustle of Christmas preparation. There are a smaller number of people who cannot, no matter how hard they try, muster up even a little Christmas spirit. Now, all of us hopefully understand that family losses are magnified when there is a special time dedicated to familial gatherings. Christmas, Chanukah and New Years are three of those events. Personally, I lost my mom in January of this year. It was a result of many months of sicknesses and our family was somewhat prepared for her passing. But we, as a family, will most certainly feel that loss this holiday season. As a matter of fact I am already thinking about my mom's wonderful attitude that bubbled over during the Christmas season. She is missed.
A friend of mine shared with me that her family lost seven family members and close friends this past year! Do you think that will have an impact on their holiday celebrations? Of course it will.
My purpose of this topic is not necessarily for folks like my family and my friend's, but those of you that find yourself unusually down right about now. Just so you know, I am not an expert in this field, but as a therapist of many years (and a human being with real emotions) I can sympathize. My family and I will certainly celebrate Christmas and ring in the New Year effectively without out mom, but it won't be the same. I believe that the aforementioned friend, becuase of her faith, will also have a celebrative Christmas. But, for those of you who are struggling, I mean really struggling, I've included a link from WebMD for you to peruse. It's about Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD and is quite comprehensive. Please look it over and know that there are some things that you can do for yourself and your loved ones to assist you in your healing. http://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/seasonal-affective-disorder
And, for all of my readers, may God bless you and remember to celebrate the birth of His Son, Jesus.
Merry Christmas and have a blessed New Year.
Until next time, God bless you.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Have you ever put your foot in your mouth? Then, after realizing that you did, trying to make it all better, had to make room for the other one? Wow, I have. Mine are a size twelve too! Foot-in-mouth disease is what some choose to call it, but I think it can get even more serious. Anyone who has lived at all knows how important our words are. Some words can hurt deeply and others can heal effectively. What's the difference? I believe it is a combination of what we say, when we say it and how we say it. Let's look at the "what" first.
All of us have been on both ends of a comment that has cut straight to the bone, have we not? As a child we used to repeat this little ditty: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!" Uh, that's a lie. Physical wounds heal much faster than emotional wounds. In all of the thousands of hours I spent in a therapeutic setting I never once had someone come to me to discuss the effects of an arm broken after falling out of a tree at twelve years old! It was more likely the ridicule they faced for climbing that tree in the first place that had a greater impact on them. Physical wounds often leave visible scars, but those that others cannot see can be more painful to deal with. We all need to be careful in choosing our words, especially when we are angry. Harsh words have a lingering effect. So, what should I say in any given situation? Here are two suggestions to consider:
1. Think before you speak,
2. Ask the question: What would I like to hear right now?
So, what about the timing of our words? I remember somewhere in my mid-thirtees I was in a crisis. It seemed that all of my efforts to find opportunities to use my theological education were for naught. It was apparent that I was frustrated, discouraged and confused. You see it was more than just a job situation. This was about who I believed I was! Someone very close to me, knowing my situation said to me: "Why don't you go back to school and become a teacher?" Now, it wasn't a bad suggestion given my gifts and talents in that area, but the timing was terrible!! Because the words to me really meant: "You ought to just give up." Given my emotional state, the words were not timely. Remember the previous two suggestions? They apply here as well.
Now, what about the way we speak? Okay, I love sarcasm. But unless you are a stand-up comedian it's usually inappropriate. Do your words mask anger? Frustration? Jealousy? Impatience? Exasperation? If so, I'm here to tell you it's a thin mask!! Our emotions are usually quite apparent when we are responding to someone. The delivery of our spoken words betray a transparency that can be very hurtful to the receiver. Being aware of this can help us to avoid a world of hurt.
So, what if your words have betrayed you? What if what you said and when you said it with that attitude has caused damage to someone you care about? How can you get out of that holding cell that your words have put you in? Well, there's a solution that is both easy and difficult: apologize!! Isn't it amazing what impact a sincere apology can have? The power behind the three little words: "I am sorry" is amazing! So, then why is it so difficult? Because it's humbling to have to admit that we are wrong. Don't let pride stand in the way of any relationship. The Bible says that it comes before a fall!
Watch your words. They will either imprison or free both you and the person receiving them.
Until next time. God bless you,
Monday, October 25, 2010
So, where in blazes am I going with this? Well, my little eleven-week-old Max is constantly underfoot. As careful as I am with my size twelves, I do occasionally step on his sensitive little front paw. He yelps and yelps and I gently pick him up and comfort him. Do you know what he does then? He licks and licks my face to let me know (in my mind anyway) that all is forgiven. A dear friend of mine recently said this on her Facebook page: "My goal in life is to be a person as good as my dog already thinks I am." I agree and I'll tell you why. It's a thing called unconditional love. Dogs are masters at this quality. Just that little example of my big foot with most of my 230 pounds of weight behind it should make my point.
Oh, to be a person as good as my dog already thinks that I am.
There are godly qualities in well-bred and well-behaved dogs. I listed some at the beginning of this article. The one I want to focus on for a little bit is forgiving. I wish, and more than that, pray to God that I (we) would be so gracious with each other. So often we cannot or will not let go of an offense suffered. Trust me I have been very guilty of this at times. But the longer I live, the more I realize the importance of being like my Max: forgiving. I know, I know, a dog does not understand the principle of grace and forgiveness. But does he really need to? We claim to understand it perfectly and many of us can actually quote the Webster definition. But do we practice it to the degree that we can define it? This is especially true for those of us that call ourselves Christian. What excuse do we have for not being gracious and forgiving? I've searched and searched and I can't find one in the Bible! As a matter of fact here is what the Apostle Paul said to the church at Ephesus: "Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you." Ephesus 4:32.
Wow, so the next time someone "steps on your paw" be sure to remember what your response ought to be. I sure will, especially since Max arrived.
Well, I think I'll "paw's" here for now. Until next time. God bless you.
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
Those are the beginning lyrics from a great song by Aaron Neville, called Everybody Plays The Fool. So, why am I starting this blog off with that? I'm about to tell you. Sometimes we, okay, I think too much. Just like the subject in that song I sit around mopin', cryin'. Well, maybe on the inside. But my point is this: We are always talking to ourselves. For some of us, it's an art form that makes us look crazy! But, most of the time the kind of self-talk I'm referring to is internal. I do it...so therefore everyone must. The truth is that we do. Sometimes the things we say are good and true, and other times that are damaging and false. Sometimes those thoughts are creative and sometimes destructive.
I had this very experience this morning. Hence, this topic this afternoon! I was sitting on my back deck, preoccupied and deep in thought. My thoughts brought me back to my past, reviewing some mistakes and choices that caused me pain. My mind was being quite creative. Unfortunately the creations were negative and not truthful in the least. When I realized what I was doing to my beautiful morning and my opportunities before me, I stopped. When I put a halt to this stinkin' thinkin", the realization came to me that the problem was not my creative mind. It was the focus of that creativity. You see, I realize that God gave me this mind and it's up to me to maintain it like my new Dodge Ram: according to the specifications. One of the specifications for maintaining my mind is to remember to tell myself the truth and use that truth to glorify it's Creator.
Obviously, that's not what I was doing this morning. So, I told myself to stop using that wonderful creative mind to do damage, but rather do some good. Then, I started thinking about the very deck I was sitting on. Below it was treacherous for little puppies, of which I have two. There is a big opening that they have already explored and nearly got stuck in. What to do...
My creative mind saw some old pickets in its memory, found them and installed them. Problem solved!! Now, what next? I have a writing lesson hanging over me that I have been avoiding because it is very taxing to my brain. Okay, creative mind. Tackle it! I decided that while I was thinking properly I might even finish this project that was annoying me. (even moderately gifted writers get annoyed with writing sometimes) I went inside, to my study and opened my one-quarter finished lesson and put my committed mind to the task. About an hour later I was finished and my lesson on the way by electronic mail to my mentor.
Phew, what I can do when I'm thinking correctly.
Does this principle strike a chord with anyone else? I think it might. You see, the Bible says that we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. So, my friends, you and I are what we think. I was being creative, but to my detriment. I decided to use that same mind to create something positive. I believe we can all accomplish much more when we are in our rightly focused minds.
Think about it, okay.
Until next time,
God bless you
Thursday, September 23, 2010
So today, my question to all of you that are reading this blog is: What prison are you in?
Let me explain the reason behind my question. Most of you have been to church, or at least have seen Charlton Heston portray Moses in that epic film The Ten Commandments. But for those who have never heard of either Moses or Charlton Heston, let me refresh you.
You see the Jews were slaves in Egypt and being horribly mistreated. God called Moses to rescue them from their captivity. Ring a bell? So, after performing many miracles in their release from their captors, they come to a great river and God opens it up so they can cross on dry land. Amazing, right!! They get to the other side and start grumbling and complaining, wishing that they had stayed as slaves in Egypt. This really ticked Charlton, I mean Moses off. Are you following me? Here is my point: After all that their God had done they began to reflect on their situation and convinced themselves that they were better off in captivity. The journey to freedom had been trying and very difficult, making it easy for them to look back at the "good old days" of Egypt.
I've done that. Have you? Sometimes when things get tough in our current life situation we tend to romantisize our former circumstances. We would rather be "enslaved" in our past than free in the present. We had this discussion at church last night and it brought to mind two principles that I have encountered:
- The familiar is less threatening that the unfamiliar, even though it may not be healthy for us.
- Sometimes freedom creates an anxiety that is too overwhelming to cope with.
The other might be surprising. I have met and counseled with many Christian folks (on the inside and outside) that in spite of their strong faith in Christ are still bound by living within unattainable rules. They set the bar of behavior too high for themselves and others. Legalism is their prison and it is just as real as the bars and razor wire that holds felons in their place. So, which do you think is a more real prison? I believe both are very real to the captive. The actual inmate needs someone or a few people to catch him/her as he leaves his concrete home and enters the free world, in order to help him make the adjustment. He needs someone to believe in him and assist him in adjusting to his new-found freedom.
The virtual inmate, or as I like to call them, the Christian Felon, needs something similar. He or she needs a person who understands mercy and grace to come alongside of them and assist them in their adjustment to their free world. The chains of legalism are just as restricting as the handcuffs and literal chains of the sentenced inmate. As often as I can, I remind the guys I minister to behind bars, that they can be freer than some folks who have all the freedom that they need. Some are. Are you? What imprisons you? What imprisons me? When we discover our limitations we ought to be willing to get the assistance we need to break free from our imprisonment.
I'll leave you with this from the Gospel of John 8:32 "...and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."
Until next time,
Wednesday, September 1, 2010
My wife is an avid runner. She loves to run mile after mile. I admire her for that because I used to be one myself. Unfortunately my body will no longer carry out the desires of my mind. So, I do the eliptical, treadmill and less joint-damaging exercises. But I digress. My point is that runners often use the miles and minutes they are gliding along the trail or highway to work out some important ideas. This morning my wife came back from her morning run and broached the subject of grace. She said that she has a clearer understanding of why some people in the public eye might have a problem with those of us who claim faith in Christ. Maybe, she said, they see a disconnect between what we profess (about God's grace) and how we treat those outside of our faith community. I hate to admit it, but she is on to something. How often have I been more concerned about the behavior of someone whose lifestyle I disagree with than their spiritual condition? Confession time: too often. My all time favorite author, Philip Yancey, talks about this situation in his devotional guide Grace Notes. In this section he is talking about the Apostles Paul and Peter and their teachings about grace. "We are to administer, or dispense God's grace, say the two apostles. The image brings to mind one of those old-fashioned atomizers women used before the perfection of spray technology. Squeeze the rubber bulb, and droplets of perfume come shooting out of the fine holes at the other end. A few drops suffice for the whole body; a few pumps change the atmosphere in a room. That is how grace should work, I think. It does not convert the entire world or an entire society, but it does enrich the atmosphere." Yancey goes on to say: "Now I worry that the prevailing image of Christians has changed from that perfume atomizer to a different spray apparatus: the kind used by insect exterminators. There's a roach! Pump, spray, pump, spray. There's a spot of evil! Pump, spray, pump, spray. Some Christians I know have taken on the task of moral exterminator for the evil-infested society around them." (p.287)
Has anyone had that experience...from either side? I have, and from both. Here is what I know: if someone wants to truly be a dispenser of God's type of grace, it needs to be dispersed into the atmosphere without any strings attached. The definition of the kind of grace that God dispenses is: unmerited favor. That means that you can do nothing to "merit" it. You cannot earn it, so you cannot un-earn it! It is a gift. So, I need to ask myself this question: Am I an atomizer of God's grace, allowing the droplets to change the atmosphere around me? Or am I moral exterminator, using a form of grace in an attempt to eliminate the evil-infested society around me?
"For by grace you have been saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as the result of works, that no one may boast." Epesians 2:8-9
Until next time, God bless you.
Saturday, August 7, 2010
Here is his pastoral dilemma.
What does anyone say to a man that is suffering physically, emotionally and spiritually over the apparent tragedy that just happened in his young life? And, how do I answer the "why" questions about his situation? Also, did I say the right things to him?
Well, after listening to this wonderful young man of God I encouraged him by letting him know that he offered his best care. Here is why: Not because he answered all of his questions but because he gave him his presence. You see, there are so many times in the midst of an apparent tragedy that we think we need to have answers to the big questions, most of which contain the word: Why? When, in actuality aren't we really asking for someone to stand alongside of us and walk with us through the crisis? Seriously, do we really expect that our spiritual leaders and mentors can answer the most elusive questions of time eternal? I don't believe so. One of my mentors and spiritual advisors offered me this great story early in my ministry. Here is how it kind of goes:
A man is walking down the road and falls into a deep hole. The walls are slick and steep and he cannot climb out on his own. A teacher comes by and asks him what he might have learned from his mishap. Then a philosopher happens by the hole and ponders the meaning of the hole in this man's life. A religious leader comes to the edge of the hole and asks the man if he believes God put him in that mess. Then, along comes Jesus and after surveying his dilemma, climbs down into the pit and says to him: Let's get out of this together.
Okay, so what is the meaning here? I think it's pretty obvious. In the immediacy of our circumstances we often think that we need someone to solve our dilemma for us, when in reality we need the presence of someone who cares about us and what we are facing and offers their help. So many times in my life and ministry I have discovered the healing power of a friend standing with me, or having the privilege of being that friend. Is that true for you? I'll bet it is.
So, my faithful readers, take a moment and look back at the times that you have been in a crisis. What meant the most to you: the solution or the support? And when someone calls on you in their own "hole", what would serve them best: offering your solutions or your support? It's a good question and one that can be answered.
Finding Real Freedom means being present for a friend sometimes. Believe me, a time is coming when you will need it as well...
Thursday, July 15, 2010
So, why am I telling you this? My contract ends sometime between now and September 25, 2010. So guess what I'm doing again. Yes, that's right, job hunting.
These are tough times as many of you are aware of. Jobs are scarce and there are hundreds of applicants where there were just scores before. It is really easy to get discouraged. For example, I applied for two chaplaincy positions in the past couple of months. One of them was in a retirement home and the other a prison. The first, I didn't even get an interview, but several weeks later I received a letter saying, well you know, the standard rejection prose. And just last week, after a positive interview, I heard back from the county jail. Yes, someone else was selected.
So, let me ask you: How would you react, or, better yet, how do you react when you are disappointed? There are so many options, aren't there? Here's a samplingof some possibilities:
- Self-condemnation ( If I wasn't such a _____ I would have gotten the job)
- "Whatever"...which can actually be a kind of thinly veiled anger
First, it depends on how desperate your circumstances are. If you're at the end of your rope, and there is no knot to hang onto, then let-downs can be very devestating. I've had my share. I also think that the people you surround yourself with will most definitely have an impact on your reaction. Do you have supportive friends and family? That is critical. What about your the age factor? Wow, that hurts. I'm in the deep end of the fifties pool, and that has an impact on my employability for sure. And, finally, where does faith come in? Do you have any? I'm not just talking about that pie-in-the-sky kind of belief system, but a core faith in yourself and your abilities.
Personally, I am a man of faith. Mine is in a God that cares about everything that happens to me and for me. Even with that spiritual dimension, I still have to believe that I can accomplish what I need to in this life. I also have to have someone close to me that has similar confidence and faith.
So, let me finish this up. Every one of us will face disappointments. Life is just that way. How we react is not only an indication of our healthiness, but also a determinant. We cannot be afraid to be honest about our circumstances with someone that can assist us. I have used a select few confidants, several supportive friends and family members, the clergy and even an occasional counselor.
Give someone the privilege to be there to catch you as you're falling. It will certainly make the landing a lot easier.
By the way, my reaction to the news about the jail chaplaincy was an amazing peace. I believe that God showed me in my last season of unemployment that the "no" is a step toward the "yes" that is waiting for me.
Until next time...God bless you.
Friday, June 25, 2010
Let me ask you a question: If that was your organization, and the former public enemy number one suddenly claimed he was now a dear friend, what would you do? You would at least be quite skeptical, true? Me too. So, the situation needed a solution. That solution came in the form of a man named Barnabas, aka: Son of Encouragement. I'm sure you can see where this is going. Barnabas introduced Saul to the inner circle and everything was great.
So, how does this apply to men and women who need to start a new life after incarceration? One of the men in our group said it very concisely: "I need a Barnabas when I get out." I know, it's a risky venture. I recently read a story on Facebook from Prison Fellowship. You know, the organization started by former president Nixon's man, Chuck Colson. According to this former inmate's posting, he had been in prison for 20 years. While there, he saved all of his pay from his twenty-five-cent an hour job for a motorcycle. He was ready to start all over and found someone who was willing to take a chance on him and hired him to work in his business.
How many of us would do that? Would I? To this day this ex-con remains a faithful employee and an honest man.
Did you know that the first three hours after an inmate is released are the most critical? So many men and women make life-changing decisions within those few hours: either positive or negative.
So, where am I going with this? I believe that everyone deserves a second chance. Many Barnabas's are needed. I've had my share and endeavor to be one for when someone needs me.
God bless you in your journey to find "Real Freedom."
Monday, June 7, 2010
- Both of my parents loved me,
- My dad taught me so many things, including a solid work ethic,
- My mom, whom we recently buried, stayed at home for us,
- I went to good public schools and then had a great college education,
- I've met some incredible people in my lifetime,
- My health is good,
- I've got two grown and very responsible children with children of their own,
- And I've been blesssed with a wonderful wife.
That's just a sampling of the ways I am a beneficiary. But guess what? With all these benefits I have not been a perfect man!! (Don't act so surprised, none of you have been perfect either.) So, once in a while I just have to pause and think about how I've survived thus far.
We had family visiting us for a few days recently and they are raising their sweet granddaughter. I honestly don't know how they do it. As we were hanging out together with the baby, I noticed that some things have changed since my childhood. For instance, how did we make it without our own baby-designed toothpaste? And what about those special bumper pads for high chairs in a restaurant? Did you know any kids that wore bicycle helmets, knee and elbow pads? Not in my neighborhood! What was a seatbelt? For me that was when I misbehaved in the car and dad handled it!
So, what am I getting at? I'll tell you. There are some very important not-so-obvious aspects to being a benificiary. Those things you cannot see but know you've been given. I'm talking about grace. Grace is the intangible. I recognize that I have been given so much that I not only do not deserve, but I could not even earn on my own. I love talking about grace because it disarms folks. It's a peaceful word, isn't it? Whenever I think about grace two things come to mind: 1) My favorite book What's So Amazing About Grace written by my favorite author, Philip Yancey; and 2) An encounter I had with a young inmate in the Central Florida Reception Center where I was chaplain.
The first I highly recommend picking up and reading for yourself, but the second I'll tell you about. After about three years of ministering to and teaching the Bible to the men at that state prison I had a young man knock on my office door and ask to come in. I motioned him inside and he simply said: "Chaplain Joy, I just want to say thank you." By the look on my face he could tell I was unclear about what he was referring to. Just for a little background, this young man had been convicted of shaking his young son to death three years earlier. He was like a closed book and very rigid and legalistic when it came to his faith. Needless to say I was curious about what he was grateful for. He then said: "You taught me about grace and I want to thank you." Yes, my eyes filled up...because I realized how difficult it was for him to admit and what an amazing work God had done.
So, I've been thinking about that intangible: grace. That young inmate didn't deserve it and neither do I. But I am amazed at what a beneficiary I am.
Until next time. God bless you.
Friday, May 14, 2010
My background is in pastoral ministry and I have also been a prison chaplain. Right now I'm finishing up some work with the US Census Bureau and transitioning back into ministry. New Covenant Fellowship Church is our home and I just began serving there as Discipleship Pastor. Tabi Upton and I met while attending a neighborhood event, she representing Chattanoogacounselor.com and I the 2010 Census.
So, why blog? I've got a lot on my mind concerning hope, freedom, grace and overcoming struggles. My desire is to share some of those thoughts here and hopefully encourage someone along the way. I guess it's impossible to live as long as I have (balding and grey hairs prove it) and not discover some things about this life. God has allowed me to go through some stuff and rescued me from so many other disasters. I personally believe that we all need to experience freedom, hope, love and grace. I always remind the guys I minister to in prison that you can be freer in here than some of the folks I know "out there!" real freedom comes from real faith in a real God. My key Bible verse, and I promise not to beat y'all to death with them, is found in the gospel of John, chapter 8, verse 36. And it says: "So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed." I believe that from my crop-circle at the top of my head, all the way to my size 12 1/2 feet!
I hope we can have some fun together as we explore this adventurous existence and get to know each other. So, for now...God bless.