From the “Barrio” to the World

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Antonio* was “raised by the streets”, the youngest of 11 siblings, 3 who died before he was born, to an immigrant single mother in a poverty-stricken LA neighborhood.  By the time he was 10 he was involved with gangs and drug dealing. Through his adult life he was in and out of prison and drug addiction. He has a number of stories where he should have died, most notably when someone jumped out of car to shoot at him, point blank, but none of the bullets hit him.  Through incidents like this Antonio knew God was real but, it has been a battle for him to follow Jesus. He’s been sober from drug addiction for about 5 years now and got connected to our church last year. This year Jesus has led Antonio into deeper discipleship through our Discipleship School.

 

Elizabeth* also grew up in a tumultuous home in this working class neighborhood.  Her parents were divorced when she was still a youth and she became a single mom soon out of high school.  She’s familiar with struggle as she has had to balance housing, work, school, and raising her 4 year old son who was diagnosed with autism just about a year ago.  She’s been connected to our church for several years now and has been so excited to join our D-School this year to give herself more fully to Jesus.

 

Just last week our D-School went out on a street outreach.  Antonio and Elizabeth were in my group.  Before we went out we asked God if there was anything he wanted to show us.  Elizabeth got a specific image of a hill in our local park. Antonio got an image of a homeless encampment near that same park.  We walked up the hill that Elizabeth saw and we prayed for a man who was deciding between two jobs as well as a couple that were about to embark on a road trip for the funeral of this woman’s father.  All of them were taken aback as it dawned on them that God saw them, the woman of the couple even asking if her boyfriend had sent us! Then we went to the homeless encampment Antonio had visited before and for the first time he prayed for a young man there.  The young man alluded to his depression and began to smile as we prayed for him, saying it felt good.

 

It was a privilege and honor to see Elizabeth and Antonio lovingly interact with complete strangers and being bold in Jesus name, with the life that He offers…new life that they have experienced themselves. I wonder to what extent their deep compassion for those in need comes from the pain of their upbringing that God brought them through?  Through D-School Elizabeth has been learning to overcome her insecurities to not only receive God’s love but to give it away to others. Antonio has been learning that while he is busying himself trying to care for others God wants to care from him. But God is challenging them to put into practice what they have learned.  Elizabeth, Antonio and 3 of his teen children are going with us on our mission trip to the Dominican Republic from June 11th-June 21st!  We look forward to what the Lord has for us there to grow us and His Kingdom!  

 

As of today we’ve raised $26.512.60 and have $7,587.63 remaining for all 21 of us to go!  I’ve fundraised my portion and put in my own funds as well.  Most of our D-School students do not have much financial means to support themselves nor do their networks.  That is why I’m reaching out to YOU…because we need your support to reach that finish line! Would you consider investing in “the least of these” to see them transform communities with the upside down Kingdom of God?    

Click here to send the D-School team of LA’s Eastside to the DR (see “D-School Mission”)!  

 

*names changed to protect privacy

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Who Are “The Least of These”?

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There is a terrifying passage for Christians found in the 25th chapter of the book of Matthew where he recalls the words of his teacher, Jesus.  In it Jesus describes a time at the end of the world as we know it where “the King” of all creation judges the people, distinguishing those who go into eternal life and those into eternal death.  The test of destination and identity (sheep or goats respectively) is by how each person, throughout the course of their life, treated people that Jesus refers to as “the least of these.”  

Given the literal eternal ramifications of these interactions, who then are “the least of these”?   

According to the passage the least of these fit into at least 6 categories.  They are those who are:

  1. hungry (v. 35)
  2. thirsty (v.35)
  3. stranger (v. 35, greek word xenos – meaning foreigner)
  4. naked (v.36)
  5. sick (v.36)
  6. in prison (v.36)

All 6 of these categories describe people who are in great need.  

There are interpreters who qualify that “the least of these” is only referring to needy disciples of Jesus, not needy people in general because in verse 40 Jesus calls them “the least of these MY BROTHERS” (emphasis added).  Purporters of this view make this claim because Jesus is talking to his disciples in this passage and earlier in Matthew 12:46-49 Jesus calls his disciples his brothers.    

Here’s a number of reasons why I think “the least of these” can be interpreted more broadly than just disciples:

1. In the context of this passage

Jesus speaks of “all nations” and “people” (v.32) being present at the great judgement where this scene is described.  The condition of each person’s separation, one from the other, is how they treat “the least of these.”   If the least of these were only disciples of Jesus in need there are at least a couple issues. What would happen to those who do not live amongst or come in contact with disciples of Jesus (the modern mission movement exists because there are still populations of people for which this is true), let alone a disciple in need?  Wouldn’t it be likely that those that are not in contact with the disciples of Jesus would be those who are in need?

2. In the context of this gospel

If we are going to use Matthew 12 we must also look at the other uses of the word brothers (adelphos) in the book of Matthew.  When speaking to “the crowds and to his disciples” in Matthew 23:1, Jesus broadens the definition here that they should reckon each other all as brothers in 23:8 (disciples and non-disciples alike).  In the “sermon on the mount” no less, recorded earlier in the same book, Jesus teaches that an identifying mark of being “sons of [our] Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:45) are those that EXPAND the circle of whom we love and that to greet only our “brothers” (adelphoi) in the limited sense would make us no different than unbelievers (Matthew 5:46-47).  It seems strange, and a little suspect, to turn around and insist then that our definition of care for our “brothers” in Matthew 25 then ought not expand to include others in need…which Jesus is constantly challenging his disciples to do (Matthew 4:24, 5:3, 8:16, 9:12, 11:5, 14:14, 15:32, 19:21).  So it seems we may not truly be the “brothers” that we think we are if our love is so limited.

3. In the context of the rest of scripture

There are too many passages to name here that affirm God’s identification and concern for the poor, the needy, and the stranger that the weight against a contrary interpretation is revealing (just for starters: Exodus 23:6, Deuteronomy 10:18, Leviticus 23:22, Psalm 140:12, Proverbs 14:31, Isaiah 1:17, Jeremiah 22:16, Acts 10:2-4, Galatians 2:10).

4. Even if the interpretation is correct that the least of these is limited to the disciples of Jesus, the irony is that the vast majority of the disciples in the world are more likely the poor, the needy, and the stranger anyway. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2016/may/26/the-world-is-getting-more-religious-because-the-poor-go-for-god

Like the lawyer, seeking to justify himself before Jesus in Luke Ch.10, I wonder if we as interpreters of the bible want to make the circle of “the least of these” smaller because we hope to limit our responsibility…we want a more comfortable religion?  But isn’t what we see in Jesus the opposite? He’s constantly flipping our expectations (responding to the lawyer’s question with the story of the good Samaritan) and breaking through our carefully crafted barriers.

Jesus, help us to love the least of these…to love you.  

A Biblical Case for Political Engagement

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*never you mind that these are the two things we are NOT supposed to talk about.

You may have heard it said “Let’s leave the politics to the politicians and the believers to the gospel”, or something like that.  

To the extent that we as Christians should not be enslaved or beholden to politics, I agree.  To the extent that one thinks the gospel (the good news of Jesus) doesn’t intersect with political realities or that it is somehow more Christian to disengage from the political sphere, I will have to disagree.  

On a practical level, it seems naive to insist there is no overlap.  Even to disengage from politics (activities associated with the governance of a country or other area) is a political choice.   On a spiritual level, God sees love for Him and love for others as interconnected. It is a human thing, not a God thing, to separate the two (doesn’t Jesus surprise us when he is asked of the greatest commandment, that he responds with two?).  

So why should we as Christians engage with politics?  And if so, to what extent?  

Loving ones neighbor does not happen in a vacuum divorced from politics and the governance of peoples.  The American mindset automatically goes to loving my neighbor as meaning solely loving individuals, when that is not the mindset of most of the world (which are of more collectivist cultures), and certainly not of the biblical witness.  The bible recognizes group, not just individual, responsibility.  It even recognizes systems, not only individual players.  Therefore, we are not just to do good to individuals, but as we are able, to do good for the larger community

The Apostle Paul, in Gal 6:10, exhorts us “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”

The passage states “as we have opportunity” to “do good to everyone”.  Yes, the priority of care ought to be for the family of believers but this DOES NOT mean the exclusion of all others.  

First, let us look at do good to everyone”:  

Too much evil has been done in the name of “good” / “God” that He is NOT about, and, unfortunately, we even see this playing out in these times by people claiming to be Christian.     

We cannot be clear enough on what it means to do good FROM THE BIBLE.

Yes, we are not saved BY good works.  But we are saved TO DO good works.   So what is the good work we ought to do?  The Apostle John, the beloved disciple of Jesus, believed that God’s love lives in a person through action on behalf of the ones in need (1 John 3:17-18). James, most likely the half brother of Jesus, taught that true religion is caring for those in need (James 1:27).  He even goes so far as to make the outrageous claim that a faith that is not accompanied by works, and the notable example he uses is caring for those in need, is dead and no better than demonic (James 2:14-19)!  Jesus himself dropped on his disciples that to care for the least of these was to care for Jesus himself and was the litmus test of eternal salvation (Matthew 25:31-46).  The common thread of what it means to do good is to care for those in need…to do justice.  Even, and maybe we need to be reminded especially, those we do not consider as “us”.  

Lastly, let us look atas we have opportunity”:

We must remember that during the time of the writing of the epistles most folks were not people in power but were people without the right of Roman citizenship (Jesus himself did not have citizenship status) or at least not in positions to affect direct political change.  Their opportunities to do good for larger society, at the policy level, was limited.  Even from that context of the new testament the case has been made for political engagement. 

But if you want more scriptural models it is helpful to go to the Old Testament when Israel was once a Theocratic nation state.  There we get some frames for what God’s government could / should look like.  I won’t get into all of that here (check out the books of the law for that) but suffice it to say that the laws of the government were about personal purity as well as just relations, with special considerations for the more powerless of society (and gasp! even provisions in the government for taking care of the poor!).  God took seriously not only individual actions but political actions.  When Israel strayed from His way the prophets took them to task.  Isaiah makes a scathing rebuke to the lawmakers of his day declaring “Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees,  and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil,  and that they may make the fatherless their prey (Isaiah 10:1-2)!”  Amos warned “Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate (5:15a).”  The gate was the central place of political exchange.   It was Israel’s job to engage in politics…for good.  They did not take that seriously, and so God took the kingdom away from them.  

But we’re not a theocracy anymore so why engage in godless politics?  

Remember also that Joseph, Daniel, Esther, and Nehemiah were not priests or part of the theocracy of Israel either, but they affected policy of the pagan government for the good of those in need.  

If you are a citizen, and a citizen in a democratic country no less, you have more opportunity than most to do good that affects a great number of people.  And as Uncle Ben famously said, Jesus had said before him “to whom much was given, of him much will be required.” 

2017: A Year of Lament…and Deeper Healing

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excerpt from my end of the year letter…

This was a hard year in many respects: nationally (increasing natural disasters, divisive politics, senseless deaths, policies further marginalizing the poor), locally (sharp rise in homelessness and the housing crisis in LA), and as a church family (more uncertainty for our undocumented siblings, tragic deaths, marriages in crisis, and chronic illness taking out local leadership).  I’ve had to learn how to lament (about 40% of the Psalms are lament): to cry out to God in the midst of pain.  We like celebration.  We don’t like lament.  But God’s been showing me that lament is God’s invitation into a relationship so intimate that He wants us to process our pain with him, not a kind of relationship that only allows us to speak when it is in praise.

Yet, He has opened my eyes to the work He is doing nonetheless.  We’re seeing favor in our community like never before, our attendance numbers are slowly increasing, our discipleship has multiplied, but most of all God has been doing deep healing.  Our life groups have persevered through the storms.  We are working on better structures to care for the church community.  Although circumstances may not have changed drastically, many of our local folks are in a much better place with Jesus than they were a year ago.  A handful of key local leaders even preached during Sunday services for their very first time!  God, in his love, has brought many difficult issues to light.  But it’s only through this process that we can see more clearly and the work of deeper healing can take root.

What Does the Kingdom of God look like (in real life)? Part 7: It is a Reversal of Status

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Final Part 7 of 7 in a series to attempt to answer the question, from my own experience and witness, “What does the Kingdom of God look like (in real life)?.”    

7. It is a Reversal of Worldly Status

In all the talk about who is great, who we want to make great again, and who is the g.o.a.t. (aka greatest of all time), God’s view of who is great is completely the opposite from the world.  To God, whatever is highly valued by the world is detestable to Him (Luke 16:15) and whoever is considered least in this world are the ones who are great in His eyes (Luke 9:48).  God’s Kingdom is the complete reversal of the world’s kingdoms.    

How do we know that God does indeed have special favor and esteem that He bestows on the “least of these”?  It is through something that this world can never give…intimacy with Him.  Think, in the bible, to whom and when God personally appears and shares special intimacy with people: an old childless nomad in the desert, a shamed bi-cultural stranger in a strange land, a little boy born of a barren mother who was raised in a temple, a runt of the litter shepherd boy, and a virgin teen girl from a poor neighborhood, just to name some.  In my experience too, the people i have come to know who have had the most amazing supernatural revelations and experiences of intimacy with God are people that this world overlooks.  

Gus came from a family of 8 siblings, growing up in poverty in a rough neighborhood.  He is someone that society has overlooked.  He doesn’t have any advanced degrees.  He was notoriously violent and struggled with substance abuse.  That was until the Lord met him about 7 years ago.  Since then God has been transforming him and he has a relationship with God that i’m jealous of.  

About a year ago our church was doing a bible study in the book of Daniel. Daniel himself was not someone “great” before God stepped in; essentially he was a trafficked teenager who was enslaved and likely castrated in service of a foreign king in a foreign land.  One of the first and most miraculous ways God revealed Himself to this boy was to not only interpret this mad king’s dream but to reveal to Daniel what the king dreamed BEFORE the king even told him what the dream was.  This is an impossible task, for anyone could come up with an interpretation for a dream once they hear it, but who could possibly know what another person dreamed before they even heard it from the dreamer, except God alone?  And, come on, that’s a silly story in an ancient text that doesn’t happen today, right?  Wrong.

During the weeks of our bible study in the book of Daniel, God gave Gus a vision of a woman walking down the street and then hands came up out of the ground and started pulling her down.  

Gus asked God, “Who is this word for?”   

God replied “No. This is someone’s dream.”  That following Sunday, Gus saw a young adult that has been a part of our church for years.  She too was raised in this poor neighborhood and was raised by a single mother who struggled to make ends meet for her 4 children.  God told Gus “It was her dream.”

Gus hesitantly approached this young lady and shared the vision that he had seen.     

She immediately asked “Have you been talking to so-and-so?  I just told her that I had that dream.”

Gus answered “No. God told me.”

This young lady’s jaw dropped and she went on to share how she was going through a lot of struggles and that those struggles were holding her down.  For those who may still be skeptical, God revealed yet another dream in detail to Gus and it turned out to be a different dream that this same young lady had!  

You see God lifts up “the least of these” in this world to show us true greatness, giving them insight that no human could possibly know…even to lift up others who also don’t have much in the world’s eyes, in order to demonstrate that HE sees them.  

In God’s Kingdom, HE makes the least of these the great ones among us.  

What Does the Kingdom of God look like (in real life)? Part 6: It is a Mystery Revealed

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When I was in 5th grade an illness struck my body.   My mother first noticed that my legs looked a little swollen.  She pressed down on it with her finger and let go.  An indention stayed on my leg.  She sought doctors. One morning i woke up and my entire body was swollen.  I was rushed into the hospital.  Rounds of doctors, nurses, and doctors in training were brought in to see my curious condition and prodded and poked my body.  I had to stay overnight at the hospital for days.  The doctor told my mother i would have to take steroids to treat my nephrotic syndrome (a rare chronic disease of the kidneys, that in some cases can lead to kidney failure no matter what treatment is used).  She was told that the side effects of these steroids could stunt the future physical growth of her middle child.  She recounts her shock and the fear when she heard this news.  there was no guarantee that the steroids would cure the illness.  There was no history of such illness in our families or my siblings.  There was no explanation for the cause of the sudden onset of this disease in her child.  

If someone was faced with these facts in their life, there could be all manner of responses and questions:

Why did this have to happen to me?  What did I do to deserve this?

What kind of God would allow something like this to happen to a child?

Oh, well.  What can you do?  Life is ultimately meaningless chaos.

OR

Could it be that there is something deeper happening than what we can see, at the present moment?  

Turns out there was.  

You see, for some strange reason, my mother and I can recount an unexplainable peace at the time of these events.  Yes, i wasn’t bleeding out and yes, the staff at the Children’s Hospital of LA are amazing.  But a lot of my mother’s friends were surprised that my mother was so relaxed in the midst of such uncertainty.  She was too.  And there was certainly no good reason that I would be at peace staying overnight for an indefinite amount of time in an unfamiliar place.  I was a total mama’s boy (and may still be ;)) and was terrified of the dark, constantly insisting that I not be left alone in such cases.  But there I was, a 10 year old boy, telling my mom she didn’t need to stay with me and that I would be alright, though there was no clear evidence that I would be.  

Turns out I was admitted into the hospital on a Sunday morning.  Everyone at our church found out what had happened and were praying for me.  Turns out my future youth leader, a person who would later influence my life in a significant way, visited my church that Sunday.  Turns out a member of the english congregation of our church worked at the hospital i was in and came by my room to visit.  Turns out that, contrary to what should have happened after taking steroids for years after that Sunday morning, I am now the tallest member of my family.  

I grew up in the church but, to me, God had no relevance to my life.  Everything was in our control.  Until it wasn’t.  These events created a shift in my perspective that God is not far away but is near.  He is personal.  He knows me.  This time in my life are my first memories of praying to God.  

You see, if it wasn’t for this illness, that seemed random and meaningless, I would not have the relationship with God that I have today.   

You see, Jesus is at work.   

I’m not saying there won’t be hardship that you still have to go through.  I’m not saying it will always be a linear path.  I’m not saying you will get an explanation in this lifetime.  But He is at work nonetheless and, like the parable of the growing seed, He is doing something for good.  Just because we cannot see a reason for what is happening doesn’t mean there isn’t one.  The Kingdom of God is a mystery revealed.  We don’t know when the mystery will be revealed or to whom, but it is all only a matter of time. So let us keep holding onto His hand.      

What Does the Kingdom of God look like (in real life)? Part 5: It Starts Small

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our church spring retreat in 2015

Part 5 of 7 in an ongoing series to attempt to answer the question, from my own experience and witness, “What does the Kingdom of God look like (in real life)?.”    

5 (of 7). It Starts Small

Like a mustard seed, the kingdom of God starts small but becomes great.  

I’ve had the privilege to join in on the Kingdom that is unfolding through the story of our church.  

It all started in late 2004, or more likely before that in a lot of other unseen ways, when Chris and his wife Maggie decided to move into an apartment in the working class neighborhood of Lincoln Heights.  God had given them a dream to see a thriving church in LA’s urban Eastside for and made-up of the working class community.  

Those early years were really rough as it was difficult to build trust with neighbors who were suspicious of these outsiders. Many small bible studies started and folded.  Chris was physically assaulted and struggled with depression.  Other outsiders from the community joined them as a team for periods at a time, praying with them for the community and spending time with people of the community.  

In the summer of 2006 a game of catch football started in the back alley of Chris’ apartment complex and it soon gave them and their team connection to a group of youth.  A youth group began with the leadership of another team member that came in, Ryan.  The vision for a community non-profit, In the City, was also born around this time, which is currently directed by an original team member, Jenny, who has been here the longest along with Chris and Maggie.  In the beginning of 2007 Chris was released by his supporting church to be full-time in the neighborhood for a church plant in the neighborhood.  The church started by meeting in the apartment carport with about 20 people.  

In the fall of 2007, Chris went to a Lincoln High School football game and encountered a woman from the community who was serving the hungry players dinner from her own paycheck.  This woman turned out to be Lucy, a key person of peace of the neighborhood.  She soon received Jesus and immediately started reaching out to the people in her life.  The church grew to nearly 40 people.  In the fall of 2009 two JV football players from Lincoln High, across the street from the apartment complex, joined the youth group and then invited two more friends.  Together these high schoolers grew in Jesus and in leadership, bringing vital energy to the youth group.  By the beginning of 2010 this church had to begin renting space from a local elementary school.  

In the fall of 2010 Chris met Isabel and Gus.  Isabel had been crying out for someone to explain the bible to her.  Gus wanted nothing to do with the church.  But nevertheless they eventually went and were transformed and grew into sobriety from substance abuse.  They reached out to their network of friends about the Kingdom of God.  By 2011 the church had grown to nearly 70 people and moved to meeting at a local middle school.  

In 2013, Chris’ family returned from a year long sabbatical in which they experienced a breakthrough in healing ministry in Mexico.  Healings started to break forth in greater ways in the church.  By the end of 2013 the church moved into a new building that is on the main thoroughfare of the community on Broadway.  

In 2014 an East LA church plant was commissioned out from our church and the elder team of our church had its first locally raised leadership.  Now in 2017, our church has more local leaders now than “relocator” leaders.  And these local leaders are now discipling others.  The average Sunday attendance is 80 people and at least 120 are weekly connected to the life of the church. We are more connected to community organizing in the neighborhood than ever before, weighing in on affordable housing and community peace coalitions.  There are so many more unnamed people and untold stories that have made up this larger story.  

Sometimes the works of the Kingdom of God seem small, fruitless, hard, long, and not worth all the pain.  But without those small and seemingly insignificant encounters, decisions, and sacrifices we would not be where we are now.  We know God is far from finished with the dreams He has for this community and its impact well beyond its borders.  

In the midst of the labor, let us bear in mind that the Kingdom of God may start small but it always becomes greater.