Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Everything Was Against Them

As we prepare to celebrate the 230th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the birthday of our country, allow me to share with you some excerpts from a masterful essay by the historian David McCullough about John Adams, our second president and a truly remarkable man whom McCullough considers “as devout a Christian as ever served in our highest office”* (Matt Soper, 7/2/06).

Though he is often imagined as a rich Boston blueblood, John Adams was born into a poor farm family. In 1756 at the age of 20, he wrote in his diary: “I am resolved to rise with the sun and to study Scriptures on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings, and to study Latin authors the other three mornings… I will rouse up my mind and fix up my attention. I will strive with all my soul to be something more than persons who have had less advantages than myself.”

Adams went to Harvard with the implicit understanding that he would become a minister, but he was never really drawn to that calling. [He became a lawyer and then took an interest in politics]. By the time he became president in 1796, he had served a multitude of duties for his country. He had been one of those who explained the philosophy and principles of the American Revolution to the people of the time through what he wrote in newspapers. He had defended the hated British soldiers who were arrested and put on trial after the so-called Boston Massacre, when nobody else would defend them. Adams more than anyone got the Continental Congress to vote for the Declaration. Keep in mind that only about a third of the country supported the Revolution. Another third was opposed. The remaining third, in the human way, were waiting to see who won. But Adams got the Congress to vote for the Declaration. He put the name of George Washington in nomination to become the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army; he chose Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence.

Adams never failed to answer the call of his country to serve, and he was called upon again and again, always to the detriment of his livelihood and often with risk to his life. He was asked to go to France during the Revolution, and set sail with his 10-year old son, John Quincy, in the dead of winter. British cruisers were lying off the coast of Massachusetts, just waiting for someone like Adams to make a run for it to try to obtain French war support. Had he been captured, he would have been taken to England, to the Tower of London, and hanged. Everyone who signed the Declaration of Independence was putting his head in a noose. When our founders pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor, that wasn’t just rhetoric. They were up against the greatest military power on earth and had very little military experience. They had no money – there wasn’t a bank in all of America in 1776. And no colonial people had ever successfully revolted against the mother country. Everything was against them.

* These excerpts are reprinted by permission from IMPRIMIS, the national speech digest of Hillsdale College,

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Head and Heart

Last week I wrote about an increasing burden I am feeling for the poor in our area and how we as a church can more directly take hold of the Biblical mandate to “continue to remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10). I shared information about the work of Bear Creek Assistance Ministry (B.C.A.M.) and statistics from the Cy-Fair School District concerning the poor in our area. A member commented something to the effect that I am “discovering there are poor people in our area.” Well, let’s just say I’ve known it in my head but am starting to feel it in my heart. And it’s important to note: I am feeling it especially in my role as a preacher whose role is to foster healthy Biblical community and call the flock (including me) beyond ourselves into God’s Kingdom mission.

This week I visited with Cypress Assistance Ministries (C.A.M.), on Huffmeister near 290, and talked at length with its director of fifteen years, Joan Christiansen. Let me say that both B.C.A.M. and C.A.M. are very impressive; they are well run and organized. Here are some things that stuck out from my conversation with Ms. Christiansen:

* C.A.M. has four primary ministry programs: 1. Assistance (food, rent or utility or transportation money, vouchers, etc.), 2. Operation Jobs (employment networking and placement), 3. Angel’s Attic Resale Shop (clothes, furniture, books, household goods, etc.), and 4. Adult Education (G.E.D., job training, etc.). Interestingly, people occasionally come to C.A.M. in times of bereavement when they don’t know who else to turn to. Evidently they feel that folks who help materially will help spiritually as well. The reverse should be true also, of course.

* Ms. Christiansen described one “cycle” into homelessness she sees often: a working Mom or Dad sustains an injury on the job, for instance; workers compensation is slow in coming and inadequate when it arrives; they miss some payments in order to meet medical bills; soon the snowball gathers speed and they miss a rent payment; eventually they wind up on the street with their kids. “It’s easier than you might think,” she said.

* She noted that C.A.M. sees a lot of need among seniors and disabled, though seniors often are reluctant to ask for help. C.A.M. has a food delivery program to seniors on the third Monday of the month, because “that’s about the time their money starts running out and they are willing to receive help.” Each volunteer driver delivers a food package to 2 or 3 seniors one day per month. One woman had been caring for ten years for her husband who had multiple sclerosis, and their money finally ran out. That’s when she was willing to ask for help.

* Finally, and this may sound incredibly obvious, but here’s something we can all do regularly: Donate stuff to and shop at B.C.A.M. and C.A.M.’s thrift shops. I always figured buying at thrift shops should be left for people “needier” than I. But purchases are a source of cash for these ministries; they welcome “middle class” shoppers.

Okay, I’m pretty new to all this, much to my chagrin, but I’m learning. And I’m thinking and praying about what this can lead to. As always, I am open to ideas and suggestions.

Thursday, June 15, 2006


Living in suburban middle-class areas as many of us do, it is easy to feel that “the poor” are not our immediate neighbors. My illusion was shaken nine months ago when I encountered a homeless teenager sitting on the curb near the Kroger on 290 & Spring Cypress. He had a sad story, much of it incomprehensible, and wanted to go to Phoenix. I helped him out with food, clothing and a little money, and began thinking.

I began thinking about the biblical mandate to help the poor. I began wondering how West Houston could take hold of that more directly. We have an outstanding ministry to the Impact church near downtown Houston, but what about the poor in our “direct ministry” zip codes? We respond to many benevolent needs within and outside our congregation, which is wonderful, and we partner with various agencies when they request local church help over the holidays and for special situations. But I began wondering if a group of Christ-followers committed to living out the gospel in our area should satisfy ourselves with waiting to be asked. I began wondering if instead the “Jesus way” is to take the initiative.

Recently I made an appointment with the director of Bear Creek Assistance Ministries (on Hwy 6 and Keith Harrow) to get an idea of the scope of their work and their current needs. I was particularly interested in ministry to seniors, for whom God placed a burden on my heart after I watched a documentary about how many elderly people appear “on the surface” to be financially comfortable but often have to choose between buying medicine or food. I learned a good bit in this meeting about our area. Following are some facts that caught my attention:

* BCAM has 22,000 visits per year, 11,000 of them first-time, from people seeking food, clothing, transportation vouchers, medical help, employment training and other “life development” assistance.
* BCAM has a waiting list of seniors who have requested help making essential repairs to their homes, e.g. to a crumbling and un-functioning wheelchair ramp (contact me if you would like to do some “home improvement”).
* BCAM logged 47,000 volunteer hours in 2005. Their biggest need still is for volunteers.

Talking to our own Kelli Durham, Cy-Fair Asst. Superintendent of Communication, I learned that:
* Cy-Fair’s projected enrollment for 2006-2007 is 92,100 students, with over a third (34%) expected to qualify for free or reduced fee breakfast and lunch (For a family of three, the income level to qualify is $21,580 for free meals and $30,710 for reduced).
* Cy-Fair ended the school year with 1528 homeless students of which roughly 1200 were due to hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

I am setting up an appointment with Cypress Assistance Ministries (CAM) soon, on Huffmeister near 290, which I expect also will be an eye-opener. I welcome your input and ideas.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Two Trials

I have lived in two large cities while each hosted a nationally scrutinized trial: Los Angeles in 1995 during the O.J. Simpson trial, and Houston in 2006 during the Enron trial, from which several guilty verdicts came last week. They provided quite different experiences.

The Enron trial, by which I mean principally the case brought against Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling was, well, businesslike. The Houston media covered it extensively, of course, but one didn’t get the sense that the entire city was hanging on the result. Don’t get me wrong; there was high drama. And I have a feeling there would have been outrage if Lay and Skilling had been acquitted (and there may still be outrage if their sentences are perceived as being way too light). After all, thousands of people lost millions in retirement savings due to Enron’s collapse. But I perceived an air of semi-calm confidence among citizens during the trial that the justice system was doing what it was supposed to do and would find its way to a reasonable conclusion.

The Simpson trial was a complete spectacle, a combination of trial-of-the-century and Desperate Housewives extended final episode. In the midst of it I wrote the following in my weekly essay:

“This trial reminds me of the Anita Hill - Clarence Thomas hearings on Capitol Hill several years ago which, in Peggy Noonan’s words, were like a three-day commercial for term limits. Something about being on television causes people to posture, grandstand, preen, and very often make idiots of themselves. The O.J. trial has sunk very quickly to the level of burlesque (have you heard the sidebar conversations? I’ve seen more maturity between the four and five-year olds on my block), and much of the pathetic spectacle resulted because both judge and lawyers knew they were becoming CELEBRITIES and therefore ceased striving to be HEROES” (10/1/95).

But underneath the burlesque was the ugly reality of racial division. The racial tension in L.A. during the trial and after the not-guilty verdict was palpable. In my multi-racial congregation it was less so but still significant. Our congregation’s whites and blacks tacitly agreed not to talk about it. I remember the day after the verdict, which pleased many blacks, offended many whites, and angered many blacks about the whites being offended; I was riding the exercise bike at Bally’s gym, pedaling hard and tilting my head to the right to exhale. A young black man was riding next to me. He said, not angrily but curtly, “Would you mind not breathing on me?” I felt that comment was hugely symbolic, and I remember thinking as I turned to breathe on the other side that this racial tension is often just below the surface and will not be overcome easily. [In that sense, the academy award winning movie “Crash,” set in L.A., though fictional, was quite realistic].

So the Enron trial was fairly “smooth” in that sense. Most people seem to feel the verdicts are just. The message is that corporate wrongdoing will be punished. As for the message of the O.J. verdict, to me clearly it was that racial division and differences are deep and wide. Have we made much progress in the last eleven years? I’d like to think so, but probably not. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina brought them to the surface again. The Kingdom of God is advancing in many ways, in some more slowly than in others. Let’s do our part to speed it up.