Back to Liberia – the poorest country on the planet!

It’s been a challenging year. Those of you who know us also know about what our family has been through. [You can read my most recent blog at:] Then, as we were making our initial plans to return to Liberia, in West Africa for our pastoral training project, my dear friend, and our Liberian coordinator, Pastor Peter Flomo tragically died right after Christmas as a result of routine dental work in Liberia! This was, quite honestly, a ‘kick in the stomach, because it seemed so senseless!

In a couple days, I will be returning to Liberia, which once again, made the ‘list’ as the poorest country on the planet!

Since Pastor Peter’s untimely and tragic death, I have connected with several other pastoral leaders who are so genuinely excited about our intention to provide pastoral and leadership training in this impoverished nation. My dear friend, Dr. Mark Glenn, from Illinois, who has accompanied me three times to Liberia already will be joining me… Mark is a great friend and a great travel partner!!

We have tried to set our expectations to a reasonable level, as we gather pastors and leaders together and share our vision and our heart to provide practical and solid Biblical training to enhance their leadership skills and be a blessing and encouragement to them.

Nothing about Liberia is easy. Everything seems like a challenge – the incredible traffic in the capital city, the absence of even basic infrastructure (after almost 20 years of civil war, followed by the horrific Ebola crises, the country is in shambles) yet, there is something about the remarkable resilience and optimism of these people that keeps us coming back!

Mark and I will do our best. We will meet with pastors and leaders, encouraging them, envisioning them, and training them to the best of our ability.

Thank you for praying for us and being such a support to our efforts!! It truly makes a difference!!   Thanks to the generosity of my son, Erick, and his organization, Every Home For Christ, we have some compact video equipment we’re taking with us and our hope / intention is to be able to get some of our experiences ‘on screen’ so you can see!

Still in His Grip,

Steven Todd

Walking through hell – one year later

IMG_4690 - Version 2Deciding whether to even write this blog had been one of the harder decisions I’ve ever made. It was one year ago that our family experienced the greatest trauma of our lives. A violent intruder, recently released from prison, brutally assaulted our daughter-in-law and kidnapped and assaulted our four-year old granddaughter. This led to a nation-wide manhunt and she was miraculously rescued several states away, thirty-six hours later. There are still tens of thousands of websites, photos, videos, and articles online about this whole ordeal.

We had flown through the night to the East Coast to be with our son and his family, and were with him that next evening when he got the phone call from the FBI that our precious little granddaughter had been rescued. That moment was the complete antithesis of our nightmare – the greatest sense of relief and joy we have ever experienced even as all the local and national news media was broadcasting our family’s ordeal constantly.

Those thirty-six hours were, quite frankly the closest thing to ‘hell on earth’ I have ever experienced. In the early hours of the morning, while quickly packing our suitcases before leaving for our flight to be with our son and his family, I had briefly hid from my wife in our laundry room where, in the dark, and through desperate tears, I told God that if my precious granddaughter was not found alive, I did not think I could serve Him anymore.

After the extraordinary news that she had been rescued and was safe, my family ‘statement’ on Facebook ended up being shared and read 27,000 times. This was something we could have never anticipated, nor was it anything I had ever desired!

In the days following, we were barraged with media request, and I was even offered opportunities to speak at churches and share “the story.” Yet, I knew the “story” was also a story of assault and abuse and a lot of recovery that I simply could not reconcile personally, or theologically.

So, one year later, our family is recovering… we’ve spent time with therapists, we’ve embraced God’s grace in this nightmare, but at the one-year mark, I find myself still very reflective.


God is not silent, even in the silence.

It was my trauma therapist who said to me, “Even when you were threatening God, in the midst of your trauma, you were still in a conversation with God, and that counts for something!”

I’ve traveled around the world, many times over, but the initial middle-of-the-night two-hour flight to Chicago, on our route to Charleston, South Carolina, was the longest flight of my life. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t rest; all I could do was worry and despair! With my earphones on, I fingered through various playlists on my phone and landed on the classic song, “You are my hiding place,” based on Psalm 32:7, and sung by the vocal band, Selah. I played that song over and over as I sat on that plane. Somehow, God was telling me, ‘it’s ok, I’m here.”

God actually wants a relationship with us after all!

I was a pastor in the Jesus Movement and for several decades following that revival.  Over twenty years ago, I was president of our local evangelical association and I was the ‘guy’ who was often quoted in the newspaper when evangelical / biblical issues were addressed. At times I have probably lived in that ‘ivory tower’ of academia and theology that people talk about. I always had a ‘thoughtful,’ even provocative answer or response to their questions.

As it turns out, the bumper stickers were actually correct – I have come to understand that God wants relationship with people, not with theology, policy or political positions!

I came to appreciate that God wanted me, with all this ‘stuff’ I was going through, to just be in relationship with Him!

Don’t compare someone else’s crises or trauma.

It’s always the temptation, to begin a conversation with someone who has experienced trauma or loss, and start with ‘I understand what you’re feeling, because I…” No, actually you don’t understand, neither did I, so please don’t do that.

It’s true that St. Paul told the Corinthian believers that because of the struggles and difficulties they had experienced, they would be able to comfort anyone with the ‘comfort you yourselves received from God.” But comfort is not comparison, nor is it trying to give answers when there really aren’t any. Comfort is your kindness, your presence (when appropriate) and your commitment to loving them, praying for them, and being available.

There is great help out there! Get help when you need it!

Quoting the Apostle Paul again, he told the church in Galatia to ‘bear one another’s burdens.’ Yet, just a couple sentences later he seems to contradict himself, saying “and each one should carry his own load.” Putting my theologian hat on for a moment, I would note that these two sentences have very different words in the original Greek language. The ‘load’ that everyone should just ‘carry’ is much like a little ‘day pack,’ in other words, day to day, we all have our challenges and responsibilities, so just carry them! But, in that first sentence, the ‘burden’ we are told to help one another carry is akin to a massive millstone, something so heavy, so monumental, that if others do not help, it will crush us!!

I was embarrassed to actually call the trauma therapist to make my first appointment. I am glad I pushed through my own personal awkwardness because, quite honestly, he was used by God to help rescue me from what was becoming a very dark place in my mind and imagination. Someone once responded to the question if ‘therapy was helping’ by simply saying ‘yes, the help helped!’ I would agree! Get the help you need!

The future

I find myself more reflective, some of the things that used to really agitate me don’t have the power they used to have in my mind. I feel very blessed, though a little bit broken, and I think that’s ok. After all, I don’t want to end this life with people talking about how I was some great thinker or preacher or writer, I want people to say that, even if only in a minuscule way, I was ‘like Jesus!’

Little Country Church on the Edge of Town

IMG_0709The song by that title was in many ways, the ‘ballad’ of the Jesus Movement of Southern California in the early 1970’s. Love Song, the Christian ‘folk-rock’ band who defined ‘contemporary Christian music’ in its earliest genesis sang it, recorded it, and scores of young worship leaders in training, like myself, practiced endlessly on our guitars to master the electric guitar intro.

But the song was clearly about the original “Calvary Chapel” location in Orange County California, hardly a ‘country church’ to anyone outside of California.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I went on a little ‘road trip’ (she’s a public school teacher in a district with an October break – which we love!). On our way to visit some life-long friends who now live in Missouri, we went through my dad’s hometown of Wamego Kansas. This little village on the prairie about two hours west of Kansas City has become gentrified, has a charming downtown, and has the original “Oz Museum,” because it was the region that Frank Baum imagined when he penned his famous book, “The Wizard of Oz.”

But it’s also the little town where my dad was born in 1927. Nearby, in the tiny town of Belvue, my great-grandmother was born back in 1875, shortly after Kansas became a state. I have an entire row of relatives buried in the cemetery there; one of my ancestor’s has a Civil War Union Veteran marker on his grave. My grandmother’s maiden name was Fish and there are a lot of them buried there!  (Kind of proud my ancestors were on the Union side of the war!)IMG_0740

I mentioned in a blog last spring about arranging for a new gravestone for my grandmother. Well, it stands here in Wamego at the city cemetery, so we figured we would stop by, take some photos and enjoy this little slice of the Midwest before heading on toward Missouri.

My dad’s cousin, my ‘first-cousin-once-removed’ also lives near here and we wanted to visit with her, so we spent the night and a couple days in Potawatomi County in Northeastern Kansas.

Another thing I have wanted to do for years was visit First Presbyterian Church in Wamego. Ninety years ago, my grandparents had been members there and according to my late grandfather’s obituary in the local paper, they came to faith in Christ at this church. (My grandfather died two months before my father was born in 1927, so my grandmother, a ‘single mom’ during the depression eventually moved to Los Angeles in 1938 where my dad IMG_0712grew up and I was born and raised)

So, in this little town there stands a stately Presbyterian Church building where my grandparents worshipped and I had never been inside the sanctuary.

Since we would be there on a Sunday morning, I emailed the pastor and told him of my connection to his congregation, as well as a short ‘bio’ with my own ministry credentials (in retrospect, perhaps a mistake, since when we arrived, it seemed everybody in the church had read my email and knew my resume!!)

The Sunday service started at 10:15. We were running just a few minutes late (arriving at about 10:12) and saw nobody outside at all. We walked up the stairs, and into the lobby where a lady – whom we found out was their church secretary -asked us “are you the Todds?” and promptly escorted us to the 2nd row…. except .. everyone was already seated, probably 100-150 people, and the pastor was in the lobby, ready to head down the aisle for the formal processional to begin the worship service. It was as if they were waiting for the long-lost prodigal to arrive!

The guy sitting next to us, as it turned out, was moderator of the ‘presbytery’ board for all of the Kansas Presbyterian churches and knew where I went to seminary and our ‘story,’ so I can only assume my private email made its way into the church newsletter!

But something happened in that old, stately sanctuary. We sang, accompanied by an old but completely functional pipe organ “I’ll fly away,” along with “What a friend we have in Jesus” and several other old hymns that no doubt, my grandparents had sung in that same sanctuary.

There was a public confession of faith, similar to what we say each week at our church, followed by the pastor’s assurance of forgiveness, a kid’s sermon, an adult sermon, and eventually, the benediction. They insisted that we join them for the “Second Sunday Supper,” a potluck after church, in the fellowship hall. It was a delightful time, as if we were surrounded by family we had never met, all asking about our family history.

The pastor had insisted that I feel the freedom to take whatever photos I wanted (to include me up in the pulpit since, well since I love standing in pulpits I suppose!).IMG_0722

They could not have been more welcoming and even made us consider (at least for a few minutes) the benefits of living in a small town like Wamego.

The Take-aways:

Cultural Relevance is not necessarily the answer.
During this same trip, I had taken along my most recent copy of the National Association of Evangelicals magazine, (Back in the 90’s, I served as president of the Colorado Springs Association of Evangelicals),’and the topic of this issue was, “The Thriving Rural Church.” That morning in Wamego we did not experience a culturally relevant church, yet we saw a multi-generational community of believers who seemed unfazed by their ‘old school’ ways.

Continuity is perhaps even stronger than cultural adaptation and contextualization. From Joshua’s order to take stones from the dry river bed of the Jordan as a memorial to future generations to a more contemporary experience where I sat in a sanctuary tearing up as I thought about my grandparents’ faith being expressed in this same space, there is something very powerful about the legacy and continuity of our faith throughout generations.

What is really important anyways? Have we made ‘cultural relevance’ the new litmus test to determine a church’s value? These folks in Wamego are hardly ‘cutting edge,’ yet in a town of a couple thousand, gather a significant percentage of the populous from all ages and worship together, fellowship together, and seem to have a sense of both community and purpose.

Our time in Wamego was intended as a brief stopover in our trip, yet it ended up as a very emotional experience for me. My grandparents came into a relationship with Christ and therefore, eventually, so did I, quite probably, because of the trajectory they set. The older I get, the more humble I become!

Beginning a New Chapter

IMG_8667On Maundy Thursday (the night before Good Friday where we commemorate Jesus’ Last Supper with His disciples) I received a call from the president of The Kings University, where I had been serving as the Director of the Colorado extension campus since 2014. He told me they had decided to close all of their extension campuses. It was hard news, yet I knew God was in control.

The Backstory

I came up through the “Jesus Movement” in the 1970’s in Southern California and began in pastoral ministries right after finishing college. I served on the pastoral staff of two large churches, one in the Los Angeles area and the other in Denver before planting a church in Colorado Springs, where I was privileged to served as Senior Pastor from 1984 until 1999.

At that time we transitioned from the senior pastoral role and began working with AFMIN (Africa Ministries Network), training and equipping thousands of African pastors and leaders. Between 2000 and 2014, I had traveled to Africa 42 times and had the honor of training over 10,000 pastors and leaders face-to-face and thousands more through our ‘multiplication’ impact.  For eleven years, I was privileged to lead a project in the massive Nyarugusu Refugee Camp where we saw over 1000 churches planted inside three refugee camps!

In 2014, I accepted the opportunity to serve as the Director of The Kings University’s extension campus in Colorado Springs. I was able to continue to work with AFMIN (which is now known as EMIT Global). When I was told that the University had chosen to close all their extension campuses my immediate response was to reach out to EMIT Global and consider ‘jumping back in’ full time with this remarkable work.  I will direct the Liberia, West Africa project, including both a pastoral training project and women’s initiative, as well as travel and teach in other African projects and help develop training curricula.  I will still live here in Colorado, but travel frequently to Africa.

The Future

One of the remarkable new initiatives within EMIT is our Women’s Empowerment Initiative!

EMIT is moving to the next level of wholistic leadership development by extending our training to a wider audience of community leaders – women! While Africa appears on the surface as a patriarchal society, just beneath the surface, women are the lifeblood of African culture and society.

In 2016 EMIT launched women’s initiative projects in Zambia, DR Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi. More than 1000 women were in attendance, including government officials, business, and church leaders. The enthusiasm of our launch had confirmed the massive hunger and need for training the women of Africa – for the sake of God’s Kingdom and to see lives, communities, and cultures transformed by God’s grace!
Our training curricula includes such issues as:

• Biblical Theology of Gender
• Mentoring and Spiritual Growth
• Biblical Literacy, Communication Skills, health issues, family dynamics, and more.

IMG_4920This position requires me to raise my own financial support. I am humbly asking if you would prayerfully consider either an initial lump sum gift, or be willing to commit to 12-18 months of monthly support as we get started again. Because of the short notice we were given by the university, we’re trying move quickly on raising support, and thus, I’m reaching out to you. Thank you for prayerfully considering this. I would be delighted to meet with you and share what God is doing! You can privaECFA logo jpegte message me on Facebook, or email me at: and I will respond right away!!  Emit Global is a member of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.  

Tombstones, Ashes, and Optimism

Image: Ash WednesdayThis week was a collision of macabre activities and metaphors. Today is Ash Wednesday and I am looking at emails from a small rural Kansas funeral home with sample photos of tombstones with my Grandmother’s name on them.  Some time ago, I had taken on the task of replacing a tombstone in this rural, northeastern Kansas cemetery where she was buried over 50 years ago.

Though I have many fond memories of my Grandma Todd, the photos did not ‘choke me up,’ because it was something I had been pursuing on behalf of my family for some time and it was over fifty years ago when she died. My siblings and I had some comical banter in texts between us as I shared the tombstone options with them in order to get a consensus before ordering it.

But tonight, I will participate in our church’s Ash Wednesday service as one of the pastors up in the front marking the congregants’ foreheads, making the sign of the cross with the ashes on the hundreds of people who come forward.

I reflected on how strange today is – picking out the tombstone and then wiping ashes on people’s heads reminding them, ‘from dust you came and to dust you will return.” What a downer! This is hardly a Norman Vincent Peale moment in my ministry.

Statues of dead people

I have traveled extensively throughout Europe and seen countless churches and cathedrals, most surrounded by graveyards, with tombs in the floor and granite carvings of dead people in the alcoves and smaller altars. While a bit gruesome, this custom wasn’t an expression of a morbid fascination with death, actually it was for the opposite purpose. It was to put the certainty of death in a person’s path on a regular basis so as to remind them to live for God and not fear death.

Our American western approach to death has become ‘celebrations of life,’ which certainly have value, but in one sense, increasingly shield us from the mechanics and sacramental realities of death.

The author of the New Testament book of Hebrews tells the readers, “Only in this way could he (Jesus) set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying.” Heb. 2:15, NLT

The Lenten Season on the Christian Calendar invites us walk on a journey to Christ’s passion and ultimately to the cross in order to celebrate the resurrection. Reminiscent of Tony Campolo’s famous sermon, “It’s Friday but Sunday’s Coming,” we face the mortality in order to experience the immortal and hope filled truth of ‘the life of the world to come.’

So whether or not you are able to attend a service tonight and have someone smudge black soot on your forehead, consider walking through the journey of Lent in our sojourn to Good Friday and Easter Sunday!

When Redemption isn’t Fair

Liberia Appears Calm Before Landmark Presidential ElectionsI was mildly excited to land again in Monrovia, Liberia – the brutally hot, humid, and poor West African city where I have been five times before. My efforts in Liberia were abruptly halted by the Ebola crises that erupted just as I was preparing to go in the spring of 2014. It took a couple years, but I made it back.

My good friend, colleague, and thrice-Liberian-travel-partner, Dr. Mark Glenn and I met our friend, Pastor Peter Flomo at the always-chaotic Monrovia airport and were whisked away for a bumpy 45 minute drive to our hotel, which I confess, is one of the ‘nicer’ places to stay in Monrovia. After 42 trips to Africa, including 11 years of traveling to Congolese Refugee Camps, I now insist on staying somewhere that is:

• Safe
• Clean
• Has A/C (what can I say?!!?)
• Has WiFi for communicating

We arrived late on a Sunday night so after about 30 hours of travel we got settled into our rooms and slept. That next morning, Pastor Peter had two meetings arranged for us. As Peter told us about the meetings, Mark became animated because he had actually done a bit of research on these men as a part of his doctoral studies.

img_8501Our first stop was at the residence of Liberian Senator “Prince” Johnson, who, as it turns out, was the Army General who infamously tortured and executed the former President while sipping a Budweiser beer back in 1990. This event was video-recorded and thus viewable (warning, it is horrific and I would advise against viewing it, but it is a matter of historical fact). General Johnson fled to Nigeria where he eventually experienced a very dramatic conversion to Christ and eventually returned to Liberia where he now actually serves in government and also pastors a congregation.

We had arrived the week after our Presidential elections and Johnson was understandably very eager to discuss US politics, though neither Mark nor I really wanted to delve into the chaos of our 2016 elections! As our conversation did eventually navigate to the condition of the Church in Liberia, Johnson noticeably perked up and shared his frustration with the lack of any real training that most pastors and church leaders actually have and the apparent inability of the Church to really do anything in the area of community and cultural transformation.

If this would have been our only meeting that day, we would have felt like we did have a historic opportunity, but the day was just beginning.

Off the main (pavedimg_20161115_144446408_hdr) road, we found ourselves hopelessly stuck in a wet, muddy, and impassible dirt road where a large truck’s tires were partially
buried in the red, wet clay that looked like it belonged on a potter’s wheel. We got out and walked around the growing collection of stuck vehicles and soon saw a small ‘compound’ with razor wire greeting us.

“This is the home of General Butt Naked” our friend announced. (Again a warning – even the simplest ‘Google’ search will be horrific, yet it is a historical fact!) The homeowner, Joshua Blahyi, was the ‘General’ of the militia responsible for recruiting hundreds of ‘child soldiers’ during Liberia’s civil war and committing tens of thousands of unspeakable horrors – not only vicious murders, but cannibalism to ‘satisfy’ the gods of their tribal religion.

After the war, Joshua had a radical conversion to Christ, but was forced in exile to neighboring Ghana.   Eventually he was able to move back to Liberia, though there were many death threats against him. Today Joshua actively searches for the ‘child soldiers’ he once led – young men, mostly drug addicts now, and attempts to lead them into relationship with Jesus, teaches them a trade – construction of houses, and actually helps them get gainful employment. He has helped hundreds thus far, and the homes he builds – he gives to the families of the victims whom he has killed.

As Joshua shared his story with us on his porch, he had tears – as did I. At the end of his incomprehensible story, I closed us in prayer and then asked him if he would pray. What can I say, I ‘lost it’ emotionally as I heard a truly repentant and humble sinner pray for himself, his nation, and for me! I’ve read the many articles and accounts online that question Joshua’s conversion and suggest it was motivated by something other than ‘religion.’ All I can tell you is that I know when I meet a brother in Christ, and I did meet one that day!

img_8532In the weeks since I’ve been back I have told some friends about this story and one friend asked me, “where is the redemption for the thousands of innocent people he killed?” I can only answer, “in the same place where redemption for Joshua exists – in the loving arms of a God who redeems the unredeemable.

I was reminded of the biblical story of Jonah – as he was angry at God’s forgiveness of a people he felt were ‘beyond’ redemption. Yet that is the story of the Gospel – God redeeming people who don’t deserve it! Or, in the words of songwriter Jonathan David Helser, “Grace is the collision on the way back home, in the arms of a Father who won’t let go.”

Amazing Grace indeed!

Peace, Goodwill to all Men?

crowd DIGITAL CAMERA linda centerThoughts from an honorary refugee

One of the [few] advantages of my season in life after more than three decades of vocational ministry is that just by ‘waking up’ and ‘showing up,’ my resume looks impressive – at least on the surface. But one of the most meaningful ‘honors’ I’ve received actually doesn’t appear in my CV. A few years ago I was made an ‘honorary refugee’ inside the Nyarugusu Refugee Camp in central Africa on World Refugee Day. I have no identification card or certificate for the honor, but I received it nonetheless.

I spent eleven summers traveling to this remote part of the world and had the privilege of teaching, encouraging, and helping thousands of refugee pastors and church leaders. I brought my wife, Linda a number of times and she was able to help establish a vocational school for women refugees inside the massive camp.

The thousands of photos I have taken inside these refugee camps over the years capture so many emotions and memories; I can’t even recall them all.

So, when my fellow Americans, including some running for president, hurl vitriolic and hateful epitaphs about refugees with such certainty and moral authority, I have silently cursed and called them names. That hasn’t helped either.

Some of my friends have posted or shared blogs and articles discussing the Old Testament passages about how to treat the alien and foreigner, or how Mary & Joseph, when taking Jesus to Egypt were “middle eastern refugees,” while others immediately post their responses with titles like, “Why the Bible does NOT tell us to accept refugees,” or “how liberals are twisting the Scripture to make us feel guilty!” (Both views often show a theologically simplistic perspective that those Scriptures probably aren’t addressing specifically, though don’t even get me started on Jerry Falwell Jr.’s absurd comments recently!)

So, as an ‘honorary refugee’ myself, and (forgive my bragging) also as a guy with a doctorate in missiology / cultural anthropology and more actual time in refugee camps than anyone else I know (other than the refugees) I finally decided to share my own thoughts and convictions. This isn’t a policy or political blog – I don’t have a ‘dog in that fight,’ but this is addressed to my fellow Evangelical Christians. My thoughts:

  1.  The last place they want to be is in a refugee camp!

These people exhausted every other option. When left with the choices of seeing their families killed or starve, they head out with others hoping for something, anything and end up in these camps. Whether in crudely made mud huts or canvas tents, it provides shelter and little else. There is no sense of dignity, privacy, or (in most cases) little protection against sexual abuse. Meager daily UN rations are supplemented by whatever the refugees can grow, barter, or gather on their own. Health care is sparse, though the UNHCR is certainly doing the best they can.

2.   More than anything else, they want safety, stability, and a future for their families.

I count numerous refugee families as my friends. I’ve sat in their huts and had tea with them. They love their children. They celebrate births, they mourn the dead, and I have stood next to the graves of their children and wept with them. All of them talk about the day when they will go back to their country of origin and live a normal life again (even though in most cases, they’ll never return again).

  1. Many of them truly admire the US – they know that we are a generous and mighty nation and that we have helped people all over the globe!

I’ve been given crudely made American flags and even been given letters for me to deliver to the US President (whom they are pretty sure I know personally). It is always odd to see how far reaching American culture is and how much they want to be like us. Even Muslim refugees have told me how they love America.

  1. The Bible does actually tell (command) us to be kind to people in these sorts of circumstances!

From the story of the Good Samaritan to the stinging imperatives in the Sermon on the Mount, being kind to others, even our ‘enemies’ is certainly what Jesus had in mind for us. To come to any other conclusion is to simply ignore the clear text of Scripture. 

  1. The Bible also makes it clear that our allegiance is to God over our allegiance to our country.

John Piper (with whom I disagree almost as much as I agree) notes in a recent article that we are the people, “whom the Bible calls ‘refugees and exiles’ on earth, namely Christians!” Of course I care about our country’s security, but I am a follower of Christ before anything else and that must inform and direct my opinions on all things.

Our Better Selves?

I have heard some political leaders chastise other politicians for hateful comments toward refugees. They usually say something like “We are better than that,” meaning that inherently, Americans are morally good, kind, and accepting. I actually take exception to that noble, but inaccurate view of humankind. No, “We” aren’t better than that… we are exactly that way, as is every son and daughter of Adam.

As Alexander Solzhenitsyn so eloquently said, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

It is only because of Jesus and through Him we can receive the grace to actually love our enemies and be truly kind to the stranger, receiving him / her as we would Christ Himself.

So, let’s rise above who we are ‘naturally’ and be whom Christ has called us – ambassadors of His reconciling love to a world in need. And, just to be clear, let’s make sure that includes refugees!

Bells, Smells, Foot Washing, and God’s Presence.

ColoradoSpri.Grace&StStep.1928WelteMigno.20121124.175156I took some of my college students from a NT / Christology course I’m teaching on a field trip last night. We went to the Maundy Thursday / Foot washing service at Grace & St. Stephens Episcopal Church in downtown Colorado Springs. The building is arguably the most beautiful structure in our city. It was built a century ago and is in the gothic English style. But it was more than architectural beauty that assaulted these young men and women; it was the surprising realization that God was present there. In the midst of [literally] ‘smells and bells,’ and high church vestments and choral singing in Latin (or Greek, I couldn’t really make it out, though it was absolutely enveloping!), they encountered a deep piety, more Scripture being read than the average Evangelical church would read aloud in a year, and the most vulnerable, intimate expression of worship we could imagine – foot washing.

Ok, I admit I am one of the many evangelical theologians who has been ‘charmed’ by the Canterbury Trail in recent years. Our church is a parish of both a non-denominational ‘mega church’ and the Rwandan Anglican Diocese, and our pastor is actually an [Evangelical] Anglican priest. (It was a surreal moment for me a couple months ago, when being prepped for my spinal surgery, and I told the nurse, “my priest is going to be here in a few minutes.”)

Back to the field trip: Early in the semester, our class began to talk about early Christian worship, which inevitably led to conversations about the ‘traditional church.’ Call it inspiration or just novelty; I mentioned in class that perhaps around “Holy Week” we should go visit one of ‘those churches.’ They all agreed and I started my research.

(I am not unaware of the challenges and circumstances surrounding the Episcopal denomination and other Anglican groups.)

Grace & St. Stephens Church (the long name a result of a merger of two parishes in 1893) is a gorgeous church building. I had the privilege of officiating a wedding there probably twenty five years ago that I still fondly remember. The current congregation recently went through a terrible schism between ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ factions and they are recovering as an interim ‘rector’ (an Episcopalian ‘senior pastor) is guiding them through these tough times.

We all met at “Grace” a few minutes before the service began. The students all dressed a bit ‘smarter’ than their usual ‘hipster’ look and we found a long wooden pew in the middle of the nave that would fit all of us. The silence in the building was deafening. People trickled in, bowed slightly toward the altar, and kneeled in silent prayer in their pew. I peeked at my students; they were just looking around.

One of the robed assistants went to the side and proceeded to ring the church bells for the ‘call to worship’ (three sets of three rings, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, Who was, and is, and is to come’).

The next ninety minutes went wonderfully slow. Lots and lots of Scripture were read, as the lectionary brought us from the Old Testament account of the Passover, through David’s Psalm of penitence, St. Paul’s description of the Last Supper, to the Gospel accounts of that night Jesus instituted the Eucharist. Choral renditions of these same Scriptures were interwoven, then a painfully short, yet powerful 10-minute sermon by the associate priest on the incredible vulnerability of Jesus’ final act before the cross – washing the disciple’s feet and we were suddenly faced with an awkward, yet holy moment. We were removing our shoes and socks, standing in line in the center aisle and not only having someone we don’t know wash our feet, but then taking their place and washing the next stranger’s feet.

The elderly lady who so gently washed my feet looked at me and said, “When I give you a hug after I’m finished, you’ll need to help me get up!” I was in tears.

Back in the pew, all of us were on the kneeler and quietly praying / contemplating what we had just experienced.

In no hurry, they finished and the Rector began to lead us into the celebration of the Eucharist. This time, we got in that same center aisle, but now made our way up to the ‘high altar,’ and as we stood in between the two sides of the choir, we could hear them singing ‘at us’ looking at the stained glass, hearing the echo of their voices, and the priest would put the wafer in our outstretched hands, keeping his finger pressing on it and saying, “the body of Christ, broken for you!”

When it was all done, and we silently left the church in almost darkness, we migrated over to one of the ‘Bohemian / hipster’ coffee places that are springing up all over our downtown area. My first question to my young friends was, “so, what were your impressions?” The answers ranged from “reverence,” to “I loved the silence!” Then I asked, “Are these people Christians?” One young lady, who had never attended this type of service before, almost immediately spoke up, “Yes!” She then confided that she had been taught that most of these ‘mainline’ type churches weren’t even “saved.”

We had a great conversation about faith, worship, and who should be the ‘star’ of our gatherings (the pastor, the band, the ‘event?’).   All in all, a pretty good evening!

Neurosurgery and Sub-continent Indian Poverty


I had spinal / back surIndia008gery a few weeks ago. I didn’t post about this on social media because, well, because I also don’t post what I’m having for lunch or my beverage selections at Starbucks… guess I’m still a bit ‘old school’ about my personal life.

I’m doing great – the original pain is gone and my recovery is at or ahead of my surgeon’s predictions!

The hardest part was the recovery: I was ‘ordered by my surgeon (who is only a few years older than my oldest son!) to take two full weeks to rest and recuperate, and I was prohibited from driving…which really sucked!

I would be lying if I said that during those two weeks I had powerful and reflective times of meditation, thoughtful reading, and soul-searching. In truth, while on pain medication, I mostly tried to find comfortable positions while lamenting the terrible choices of daytime television and, eventually, made my daily ‘trek’ around the side of our property to the mailbox.

During my prolonged R&R period I did shuffle around our house enough times to look at some photos in my study and be reminded of some of my many trips abroad and I began to reflect on one of them in particular – our first trip to India over 20 years ago.

As background, I started out in full-time ministry very young – at 22 years old. All I had ever known was adolescence, high school, college and… being a pastor. At the old age of 37, I was already feeling a bit ‘burned out’ serving as an associate pastor at two ‘mega-churches,’ and having planted and pastoring a congregation in Colorado Springs.

Then, in 1993, through a remarkable series of circumstances, Linda and I found ourselves in a remote part of east-central India ministering to over 20,000 people. During one afternoon, while we were there, we were being driven by an Indian pastor who spoke no English, but who decided to stop in a very rural village, presumably where he had grown up, and we were greeted by dozens of (very small) people standing around their humble grass covered mud huts eager to meet the American [white] “holy man” and his wife.

Nobody spoke English, which made our brief visit not much more than perfunctory smiles and nods. But just as we thought our time there was done, from somewhere in the small crowd that had assembled, a little girl was shoved in front of us. She was probably 9 or 10 years old. Unlike other little Indian girls, with their beautiful jet-black hair that was exquisitely braided by their mothers, this little girl’s hair was cut short. She was disabled, walking on all fours, like an animal. We realized that somebody wanted us to pray for this little girl, or heal her!

Linda and I dropped to our knees on the dirt, stroking her little head, crying and praying. Then, perhaps motivated by God’s Spirit, I found myself lying on the dirt, looking into this little girl’s eyes. Suddenly, beyond the blank stare, I found myself looking at a deep love, as if I was looking into the eyes of Jesus.

I have never forgotten this moment…it has been one of the defining events of my spiritual journey. I don’t know if I was actually looking into the eyes of Jesus or not (Matthew 25 might imply that I was). But I do know that at that moment, I was seeing with a clarity I had never seen before – or since.

Since that time I have made 41 trips to Africa, working among some of the poorest people on the planet. My politics have changed (nope, you’ll have to talk with me personally to find out how). My theology has evolved, but one thing remains…God’s grace is not only amazing, it is far more generous than we imagined!

The only regret I have is that it took hydrocodone and surgery to remind me!

If I had a hammer: Happy Reformation Day

Standing at the Wittenberg Door

As I have mentioned in other blogs, I was raised Missouri Synod Lutheran. For those not familiar with the Lutheran landscape in America, we were the “true” Lutherans, originally from German immigrants who settled in the midwest in the 19th century (though my own ethnic pedigree is 96% British Isles).  Our brand of Lutheranism was all encompassing:  Our social, theological, and gastronomical lives were Lutheran, i.e., we acted like Lutherans, believed like Lutherans, and, at our wonderful church potlucks, we ate like Lutherans!

I attended Lutheran parochial school, was baptized, confirmed and married in the same Lutheran sanctuary.  Martin Luther was our namesake and would have been our patron saint, except that, as Lutherans, we didn’t have patron saints, and we were darn proud of it!

Many decades of following Christ have led me from those liturgical roots through the Jesus Movement, pastoring in both the Calvary Chapel and Vineyard churches, a couple of advanced seminary degrees and now attending and active in a non-denominational church pastored by a young, ordained Anglican priest that has embraced a liturgical form with weekly celebration of the Eucharist.  (almost forty years after being a “Jesus Freak,” I often find myself, along with my wife, serving as Eucharist ministers,  holding the chalice and repeating those familiar words, “The blood of Christ, shed for you” as fellow believers take the cup.)

Through all my church and theological pendulum swings, one thing never changed – my image of Martin Luther as a “take-that-Pope-Leo-in-your-face” sort of guy, especially when, on the morning of October 31, 1517, he grabbed a hammer and nailed the 95 thesis to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, a small town in eastern Germany where he was pastoring and teaching.

A couple years ago, we were able to visit Wittenberg and other ‘Reformation’ sites in Germany for the first time.  One of my ‘bucket list’ photo opps was being allowed inside the “Lutherstube,” the room in the Wartburg Castle where Martin hid out from the Pope and translated the Scriptures into German.  (A personal note – my wife is half German and her great-grandfather, Bernard Hartung, was the head guard of the Wartburg castle around 1900, and we were treated like royalty when we told them this little known fact).

Nail it to the door!

My sojourn through the non-denominational, evangelical, charismatic-lite universe has always had a strong anti-Catholic, as well as anti-mainline church fervor.  Anytime we found our personal convictions or opinions confronted, we were ready to come alongside Martin and nail our grievances to the Wittenberg Door.

This Door has become iconic – even a satirical evangelical magazine used the phrase as their name.  Whenever and wherever Protestants of any persuasion disagree with, well, almost anything, we find ourselves lining up behind Martin and ready to pound those objections into the splintered door of the established church.

The sentiment is not without warrant.  Pope Leo had acquiesced to an elaborate ‘ponzi scheme’ whereby penitent medieval churchgoers were coerced into buying indulgences and thus funding the building of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome.  Luther’s initial list of grievances gave birth to a more developed ‘protestant’ theology of the three solas: sola scriptura, sola gracia, sola fide (Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone).   But is it fair to piggyback every complaint against any church ‘system’ to Luther’s posting of the 95 theses on that October morning in Wittenberg?

Martin had no intention of dividing the Church, but rather, reforming and revitalizing it.  His heart was clearly for the institution of the Church, and he was not nailing a manifesto against organized religion in favor of a ‘make-it-up-as-you-go’ personal religious experience.  But, the unintended consequences of that crisp, late October morning are still with us today.  Do we really want to identify primarily with Martin’s desperate act that morning?

Consequences of that hammer

  • Violence and bloodshed. We can spin it any way we wish, but an immediate and direct result of Martin’s actions was a series of clashes and ‘class-warfare’ battles that killed over one hundred thousand people.
  •  Splintering the Church. From The Church (ok, technically the ‘Church’ already split once in 1054 between the Roman and Eastern branches) we now have over 40,000 different ‘branches’ of Christianity in the world.
  • Elevation of human ‘will’ and choice. The democratization of the Church began.  No longer was it an attempted ‘Theocracy,’ with God working through His leadership, but with the priesthood of believers came an onslaught of personal agendas in ecclesiastical matters.

Before you think I have crossed the Tiber River and returned to home sweet Rome, I must clearly state that the positive consequences of that October morning are monumental.  Every child of God has access to Scripture and we understand that we are saved by grace, through faith, and we know that we can go directly to God without the necessity of a mediator.

Standing in front of Luther’s desk where he translated the Bible (the bare wall on the right is where he threw the inkwell at the demon harassing him. Over the centuries, visitors took portions of the wall until all that was left was stone)

As we acknowledge the role that our forefathers in the faith, including Dr. Martin Luther, had in delivering the saving message of God’s grace to us, let us remember that our goal should continue to be that of Jesus’ prayer in John 17, that we might be one and that, as a result of that unity, the world might know that God has sent Jesus into the world to save the world!

Happy Reformation Day!