Friday, July 31, 2009

Encouraging Words

But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel; I have called you by name, you are mine." (Isaiah 43:1)

One of the passions God has ignited in my heart is for what are typically called "at-risk youth;" specifically, I care about the young men and women who are involved with "street gangs," fraternities/sororities that originally started as a way of forming community and for mutual protection, but now have evolved into a culture of drugs and violence.

Gang violence is a problem in my home town. My perception, which may or may not be accurate, is that it has gotten worse in recent months.

Don't misunderstand. I don't live in fear. I feel safe in my home, in my church, and on the streets. I realize that innocent bystanders sometimes get caught in the crossfire - a perfect example is a four-year-old from Long Beach who is now recovering from a gunshot to the head - but most of the violence is directed at members of rival gangs, or people who are mistaken for rival gangmembers. As a middle-aged white woman, I don't fit the profile. ("Profiling" isn't just something the police do!)

In my previous post I asked the questions, "What are you doing about it?" and "What can the church do about it?" I don't know what to do. I'm not sure that my feeble efforts are making a difference, that my passion and my caring are translating into successful action. I'm frustrated with my helplessness.

This week, though, I saw a glimmer of hope. This week I'm at the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a gathering of some 6,000 clergy and laypeople who are here to conduct the business of the church, learn from one another, discuss priorities, learn from one another, reconnect with old friends, and recharge our batteries. This year's theme, based on Revelation 22:2, is "...for the Healing of the Nations."(1)

One of the friends I hooked up with is the Reverend Silvia Tiznado of Phoenix, Arizona. I told Silvia about how much I want to reach out to the young people in the neighborhood surrounding my church and my contention that, as much as it frustrates me, if they're tagging(2) on the back of our building at least they aren't out doing something worse. I shared with her that I try to address them with humor, and it seems to work - for a while - at least in stopping the tagging. Here's an example:

This is the House of God and it doesn't belong to me (the Pastor) or to the people in the pews. It doesn't belong to you or your homies. It belongs to God, and God loves you. Jesus Christ died for you, so why don't you come by some Sunday and get to know him. Get to know the people, too. You might like us!

It cuts down on the tagging, but that’s not enough. I want to offer them “a future and a hope.”(3) I want them to know the joy and excitement of having a life centered around God.

And Silvia said, “They want to be there. They’re drawn to the church, and that’s why they keep tagging on it.”(4)

Yes! Words of hope! I believe that it is God who draws all of us to Godself, to Christ, to the Church. And I am determined that Silvia was speaking with a prophetic voice when she declared that the young men who claim the neighborhood around our church are being drawn there.

QUESTION: What can those of us who are on the "inside" do to prepare for the arrival of those who are "outside" to ensure that they feel wanted? How can we communicate welcome to people who do not know that they are welcome?

(1) "... on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month;and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations." Revelation 22:2, RSV.

(2) For those of you who don't know, "tagging" is graffiti, usually one's name or the name of the gang, frequently using spraypaint and with a distinctive style.

(3) For I know the plans I have for you," says the LORD, "plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Jeremiah 29:11, RSV.

(4) I'm operating from memory. My apologies to Silvia if this isn't exactly what she said!

Monday, July 20, 2009


Upon you I have leaned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother’s womb. My praise is continually of you. (Psalm 71:6)

Some scriptures say that we are born sinners. I believe that we are born perfect and innocent. Every criminal, drug dealer, hard-core gangbanger started life as a sweet, newborn baby with a clean slate, beautiful and pure and with all the potential of the human race.

In cities and suburbs and rural areas all across the world, "street gangs" are a concern. We're losing our kids, and we feel helpless to do something about it. The thing to remember, though, is that they aren't just "our" kids; they're God's kids. And God weeps at every senseless death, every ruined life, every fractured family.

Locking them up isn't helping. "Three Strikes" isn't helping. Fear surely isn't helping. We have to love them back into the arms of God, and love is a verb. Love is action. Love is something we have to do.

The following information is from Focus Adolescent Services:*

Young people join gangs for a variety of reasons, some of which are the same reasons children join other pro-social groups such as 4-H and Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts."

Some of the reasons for joining a gang may include:
  • A search for love, structure, and discipline
  • A sense of belonging and commitment
  • The need for recognition and power
  • Companionship, training, excitement, and activities
  • A sense of self-worth and status
  • A place of acceptance
  • The need for physical safety and protection
  • A family tradition

Focus identifies the risk factors for joining a gang as racism, poverty, lack of a social support network, and media influences.

QUESTION: What are you doing about it? What can the church do about it?

*Focus Adolescent Services, Salisbury, MD.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Where We Live

"Blessed are y0u poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied." (Luke 6:20b-21)

No need to go into details, but I have been waiting over three months for some response from a company that owes me money. I've been frustrated, and can't understand why they aren't stepping up and doing the right thing. Do they think I can afford to pay hundreds of dollars just for fun?

And then I thought, "Well, maybe they do." Maybe they think that all pastors serve mega-churches and make six figure salaries. Uh... no. Some of us serve tiny churches and drive twelve-year-old cars. Like most big cities, Long Beach has some pricey neighborhoods - Naples, Bluff Park, Virginia Country Club, a few others. But I don't live in one of those neighborhoods, and my church isn't in one of those neighborhoods.

Here in North Long Beach, we're surrounded by Title 1 schools(1), Section 8 housing(2), and a forest of foreclosure signs. We have a lot to learn about who God is, what it means to be "church," what it means to be servants like Jesus. The people we serve are faithful and generous, but they have to work with what they have... and some of them have a lot to give.

QUESTION: What can the church do to meet the life-needs of the people in our communities, as James wrote, "What is the good, brothers and sisters, if a person has raggedy clothes and is hungry, and one of you says, 'I'm praying for you to be warm and fed' but gives nothing?"

(1) Title 1 is a program of the U.S. Department of Education with the purpose of "improving the academic achievement of the disadvantaged."
(2) Section 8 is a subsidized housing program administered by Housing and Urban Development.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Choose Happiness

"But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.'" (Matthew 11:16-17)

It seems that some people are impossible to please. I believe that happiness is a choice, and it's a choice God wants all of us to make.

Maybe you've heard the idiom/metaphor that asks if the glass if half full or half empty. We all have a choice in how we look at life. We can focus on the sorrow and disappointment, or we can focus on the beauty and the goodness.

Don't get me wrong: I know that life is hard. It's one of the lessons I learned from my parents. It may sound strange, but I think it was a positive lesson. I don't have a sense of entitlement. I don't expect to have life handed to me on a silver platter. I expect to struggle, so I'm o.k. with it when "the going gets tough." I've grieved for loved ones and worried about money and whether I would ever find a job.

BUT... I've also enjoyed laughing myself silly with the people I love. I've smiled at the sight of an awesome sunset or a newborn baby. I've learned to appreciate how amazing it is that all of the systems in the human body work to sustain life.

I could choose to close my fist around every insult and disappointment and loss, and I would be miserable. Instead, I choose to open my hand to receive the blessings that are all around me - people, music, color, nature - and be happy.

My glass isn't half full. In the words of Psalm 23, my [glass] overflows!

QUESTION: How can people learn to focus on the beauty and blessings of life?

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Celebrate Youth

Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. (1 Timothy 4:12, NRSV)
Today I leave for Loch Leven, our regional church camp and conference center, to spend the week as one of the counselors for young people who are entering 9th and 10th grades this fall. I’m looking forward to the experience. It’s an age when they are no longer children but not quite adults, an age when most are anxious to assert their individual identities and their independence.

The talents, ideas, and opinions of teenagers and twenty-somethings are too often discounted by older adults. What a mistake! They ask questions older people never think to ask. They recognize when we don’t “practice what we preach.” They have a personal interest in the long-range effects of policies and decisions being made now.

Like those of us who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, the youth of this twenty-first century are living in a nation that is fighting a war on foreign soil and dealing with political scandal, and they are facing peer pressure to experiment with drugs and sex. Unlike my generation, they are also tempted by a glut of electronic gadgets and attend schools that have been cutting “non-essential” programs for decades and are now faced with even more cuts to their budgets. Many are being threatened or tempted to ally with violent street gangs. I don’t know what that’s like.

QUESTION: How can the Church get its message out in a way that is more attractive than video games and drugs? How can the church be home and family to kids who feel like they have neither?

Friday, July 3, 2009

A New Venture

This blog was "born" on July 3, 2009. I don't know what to expect, but I hope it serves to help the readers grow closer to God.

God wants us to be in relationship with the Divine; and we build relationships through communication. God is not threatened by your questions, nor is your salvation dependent on your grasp or proclamation of any particular doctrine.

Obviously, Jacob's Well is directed at people who identify as Christians or who are drawn to Christianity. Christianity is a religion of community, and no blog, chat room, or other form of "virtual" community can take the place of involvement in a living faith community. If you live in the area, you are welcome to worship with us at North Long Beach Christian Church, 1115 E. Market Street in Long Beach, California; otherwise, unless somehow prevented from doing so, whether by physical limitation or some other confinement, I encourage you to find a church where you can learn and grow and participate in the "Priesthood of all Believers."