Vision New England Blog

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The general blog of Vision New England dedicated to equipping and encouraging New England Christ followers to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly and make disciples.


God and The Power of Humility to Change A City

Miracle in Bridgeport 

Business Insider ranks Bridgeport, CT as #4 on its list of “Most Dangerous Cities in America.” Bridgeport is, in many ways, a microcosm of the racial and political tensions that have been filling our country’s headlines, and it’s been that way for a long time. As Pastor Luis Burgos of City Wide Christian Church puts it, “the history of unity here is bad, as bad as it can get.” 

 

So, when the Holy Spirit put it on Pastor Luis’ heart to provide a host site for a Ten Days of Prayer initiative – designed to bring churches together – he was understandably skeptical. How far can this go, really? The prospects looked iffy at best, but he decided, in humble faith, to say “yes” to God’s call.   What followed is nothing short of miraculous. 

 

When Pastor Luis shared the “Ten Days” idea with the leaders of his church and a handful of close friends, they bought in so deeply that they agreed to take vacation time from work so they could be “all in.” They decided as a team to host a dinner for local pastors that would introduce them to the “Ten Days” vision, and 50 (yes, five-zero) pastors attended. They were so moved to be part of it that the team decided to host a second dinner so those pastors could invite others in their networks. 70 MORE pastors came to that second one, and responded with similar enthusiasm. What??

 

With such a strong response, the team decided to move the 24/7 prayer into a 1,000-person tent placed in a neutral location, so the focus would be on Jesus instead of a particular church. Their strategy for each day was to pray for 22 hours, and spend two hours hearing from the Scriptures.    

 

Those times in the Scriptures led to unusually deep times of repentance. God moved powerfully, leading pastors who had been at odds with each other into a profound reconciliation. Jesus was exalted above racial and doctrinal differences, and the Holy Spirit began moving different ones to confess their attitudes to one another and take steps toward a new and supernatural unity. 

 

It became so obvious that God was doing something special that people started inviting their non-Christian friends; and, starting with the second night, many came to know Christ. On the third night, they brought in a portable pool and started baptizing these new believers and encouraging them to connect with a local church – ANY local church – so they could become part of a faith community. Already, many have.    

 

David wrote in Psalm 133,

 

“How blessed it is when God’s people live together in unity!  For there the Lord bestows His blessing, even life forevermore.”

 

In Bridgeport, humility led to prayer and confession, which led to reconciliation and unity, which led to blessing and life. I guess David knew what he was talking about.

 

Why a humble, united church can be the best hope for a city’s healing and change 

Tensions are part of the story of every town and city. More often than not, those tensions started generations ago and became ingrained in the city’s culture. They caused otherwise-sane people to hold tightly, and often blindly, to arrogant and condemning attitudes towards whichever group of others was on their radar.    

 

When Christians and Christian churches take an honest look in the mirror, we often find that, despite all our talk about Jesus, and love, and not slipping back into the patterns of the world, we aren’t all that different; more than we’d like to admit, the arrogance that blinds them blinds us, too.

 

Certainly, within every town and city there are people who care deeply about its health and have great dreams for its future. When arrogance goes unchecked, though, people keep doing things that undermine progress; and regardless of how noble those dreams may be, it’s likely they’ll never get the chance to be realized.  

 

On the other hand, when we own our arrogance and work to overcome it, the doors open for tensions to actually be put to rest and for a new and respect-based unity to emerge. Unfortunately, going down that road requires a level of humility, courage and persistence that most people just don’t have.      

 

That’s why Jesus, working through a humble and united church, can be the best hope for a city’s healing and change.  Jesus “humbled Himself” (Phil. 2:4-11) in a way that makes any of the humbling we’re talking about here look like child’s play. The fact that He now lives in us is the game changer that opens a whole new world of possibilities we didn’t have before. The humility, courage and persistence we couldn’t muster before are now possible.

 

As Bridgeport shows, the Holy Spirit gives us a whole different type of power to work with, a power that shatters tensions by breaking down lie-plagued mindsets with truth, covering long-standing wounds with grace, and creating new cultures built on treating those we used to look down on with love and value. He creates “new normals” in a way that political efforts and just try harder never could. 

 

Sure, the events of September only touched a portion of Bridgeport; but now there is a pocket of unity that didn’t exist before. The people who experienced it, and especially those who lives were eternally changed by it, can now describe to their family, friends and co-workers “how blessed it is when God’s people live together in unity.” As humility continues to take root and become their norm, and as they learn to value those they once condemned, the culture and the story of Bridgeport will change – the story they live out now, and the story their children will live in future generations

The Parent

The Parent

 

I’m about to discuss a subject that I usually tend to avoid, because I generally believe the topic can’t really be articulated very well within the confines of human language. Nevertheless, this theme keeps popping up in my life, and I’ve been feeling very pulled to write about it lately, so I’ve decided to stop resisting.

 

Today I want to talk about one of the only things that I really get (even if it’s hard to explain) about life and how we should live it: unconditional love.

 

Jesus teaches that we should strive to love one another unconditionally. Because we are human, though, this is often close to impossible for us to do with most people, many of whom we probably don’t even like. Even so, we should still try to achieve this feat in one form or another, even if it's less a matter of "love,” so to speak, and more a degree of acceptance – relating to others humbly, and showing people mercy and justice regardless of their situation, and what they may or may not have done to/for you.

 

While Jesus is the quintessential example of unconditional love in The Bible, in all honesty, I've learned the most about this quality from the modeling of my own father, Bruce, who I've seen exhibit more profound and moving displays of love than any other person I've ever met. I could provide seemingly endless examples, but unfortunately, as with most personal anecdotes, without a certain amount of lengthy context (much of which is too sensitive and intimate for this sort of article) their real force and meaning would be lost. Therefore, I'm mainly going to omit these illustrations, and rather just focus on what, specifically, I've learned about the nature of unconditional love from my dad, and explain why I believe that reaching for this ONE quality is the most important thing we can do in trying to live lives of mercy, justice and humility.

 

Unconditional love is not about an outcome. It's not about someone loving you back, or gaining anything from your relationship with them. When you love someone regardless of if they love you - despite whatever horrible things they may have done to you - and whether or not they are even in your life at any given moment, this is the most magical, beautiful, and powerful gift that we can give to someone. This sort of love is how God loves, and if we can find this for even a small number of people, it's a truly incredible thing.

 

It can be really hard to manage this sort of love as a human, with all the instincts, emotions and volatility with which we experience life. Jealousy, anger, fear, and desire, all have an annoying ability to obscure the real meaning of love. These feelings leave us dissatisfied, wanting more, or wanting better. Often we try to make people into something they aren't, and change them, or we try to force them into a role that they don't want or aren't ready to adopt. When we have these expectations associated with what we think is love we can get so hurt, and go so far astray because none of this is actually what love is really about.

 

My dad will sometimes say to me, "I love you anyway," rather than, merely, “I love you.” What he means is that he loves me even though I'm not perfect - even though I sometimes disappoint him, and even though he sometimes doesn't agree with things I say and do. While I would never do it, I could say the most hateful things to him, and he would love me anyway. I could storm away from him in anger, and never speak to him again, and though it would hurt him and make him sad, to say the least, it wouldn't destroy him because he'd love me anyway. That's part of the wonder of unconditional love. It sustains you even when people fail to live up to what you may want from them. Of course we are going to want things, but when we can love without the necessity of these hopes being reality, we gain a special kind of peace that's hard to find, because we have that love in us, no matter what, and that love is from God.

 

In addition, loving unconditionally is the purest way to understand and learn justice, mercy and humility, and to recognize how to put these qualities into practice, because love is, simply, all of these things. Like God, love is the parent of these three qualities.

 

When we can set aside our own self-interest for the sake of helping and supporting someone; when we make time for them, and work to understand them, even when it’s inconvenient, or show them patience and encouragement, even if it’s a challenge, we learn true justice. Through unconditional love, we learn that sometimes justice requires sacrifice and suffering, and that we don’t need to resent these parts of life, but can embrace them as being used for something greater.

 

When we see people for all that they are - mess and everything - and we can treat them with love, respect, and kindness, this is true mercy. These people may have hurt us, and they undoubtedly have the potential to hurt us more (because love requires vulnerability) but we can overcome the fear of this pain, and the scars it may have already caused, with forgiveness and acceptance.

 

And when we can finally internalize that our own plans, hopes, and desires aren't the most important thing in our relationships we can experience true humility, where we finally acknowledge that there is something much bigger than ourselves at work in the world. When we surrender to loving others in the way that God loves us, this is sufficient. It is through unconditional love that we learn how to cast off the selfishness that can be so hard to overcome, and in doing so we further perpetuate our ability to do justice and show mercy, both with those we truly love, and to others in general.

 

Essentially, this is my less eloquent way of paraphrasing the classic 1 Corinthians 13 passage. Of course, it’s a great collection of verses, both beautifully written and also incredibly meaningful, but I think people often reference it more because it’s poetic than because they really appreciate what it says. In reality, the message is incredibly challenging, and mercy, justice and humility often don’t come easily. However, this is perhaps the most important reason why we need to use the few sources of deep and meaningful love in our lives to refine and practice these qualities, so that they may permeate the rest of our life. It is within this context that we graduate from an intellectual (and ultimately insufficient) understanding of love – one which can be discussed in words – to a complete understanding of love, which cannot.


Joanne

Joanne

In honor of Mother’s Day, I find it suiting to write about my mom, Joanne. I should initially note that I’m pretty fortunate to have a mother that I’m able to talk about in the context of the topics of this blog; sadly I’m sure that some mothers fail to exhibit the qualities of mercy, humility and justice – or even just general love – to their children. My mother, however, has been exemplary in these regards, and I believe (and hope) that I have adopted these traits in part to her credit.

Joanne is something of an unsung hero in my family, and I admittedly contribute to this most of the time, myself. One reason is that my dad has a very unique personality, and there’s a lot of psychological mirroring, so to speak, between us. As a result, we have a weird and close relationship that I don’t have with my mom, even though I don’t love or respect her any less. Nevertheless, I understand how it could be easy for her to feel like she is taken for granted, particularly by my sister and me, who she has consistently sacrificed and fought for. In honesty, though, the paradox is that the very fact that she is the kind of person that can silently be taken for granted is exactly what makes her so special and beloved by her family. If she asked for appreciation and gratitude, not only would we be unable to repay her appropriately, but it would somehow take away from what she does, too. This said, the fact that she simply plays her role quietly is both incredible and important.

There is much to admire in the person who refuses to turn away when others need help, even if helping and supporting someone takes away from their own happiness, and even if they can’t fully understand what the other person is going through. This is the heart of altruism, which I think could probably be best defined as mercy, justice, and humility coming together through love, and Joanne has personified this countless times throughout my life, both towards me, specifically, and also towards others. Her family is everything to her, and no one exemplifies what it means to fiercely love your family more.

Joanne has advocated for my sister and me over and over, and she has supported us through all of our activities. She attended every one of our sporting events, rain or shine, even if the temperature was in the single digits. She even carted me around 6+ hours round trip, when needed, so that I could play AAU basketball in Bangor, and then get to Hampton to play field hockey team. She went to every basketball game one year, even though I only played 45 seconds the whole season, just in case I got in the game. She would rebound for me when I would go into the driveway to shoot baskets, and she built me a regulation field hockey goal so that I could practice at home. She would even throw me balls to practice catching and fielding for lacrosse, even though she knew little about the sport.

My mom remained resilient through my dad’s constant health struggles, first his battle with cancer when I was six and my sister was four, and later the vascular complications that arose as a result of the chemo and radiation. Perhaps even more demonstrative of her strength and love, though, was her treatment of me, during a particularly difficult period of my life.

When I was suffering from severe mental health crisis, and was periodically in and out of the hospital during 2012, Joanne would visit me in Portland every day, usually bringing me snacks to cheer me up. When I was home she would read me Dr. Seuss’s “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” every night, to remind me how much she believed in me, and because I’d become illiterate and couldn’t read myself. She had no idea how to relate to me, or help me, but she kept trying every single day, and I know that watching me, and being helpless, made her suffer. I don’t know how many times I broke down into a hysterical, incoherent mess of agony, tears, and snot that she simply sat with, unable to do anything more. I can’t truly comprehend how she felt, but I imagine that having to go through the stress and pain that I put her through – with all the uncertainty of not knowing if I’d make it – had to be one of the hardest things for a parent to go through. Yet she did it with so much strength that she didn’t even know she was helping me just by enduring and being there with me, not giving up on me, or treating me like a menace, no matter how menacing I was. You may think that any decent mother would have done the same, but I truly don’t think this is the case, knowing exactly the sheer living Hell that I created for my family over that time. Yet Joanne endured, regardless of the pain. This was justice and mercy that I can’t fully fathom, but have benefited from more than I can explain; it helped keep me alive, and she didn’t even realize what she was doing. She just did it, because that’s who she is.

On the night of my 20th birthday, I had my first major mental breakdown. I went out of my room, over to my dad, and fell at his feet in panic. After a few minutes of making a huge commotion, and my dad being unable to calm me down or understand me, he decided to take me for a drive until I could articulate. Awoken by the fuss, my mom came into the room, confused, and wanting to help. My dad essentially told her to go back to bed and that he would handle it, and Joanne was left standing there, perplexed, knowing only that something was terribly wrong and that I hadn’t involved her. You see, even with as strong as my mom has always been with me, and as much as she has fought tirelessly to support and understand me, anytime I chose to seek direct help, or talk about my struggles, I would run to my dad. It was always Dad that I leaned on, even though all my mom wanted was to help me. Which she was (and is.) Still, she receives little credit. But, she never stops.

Today when I talk to my mom, fully conscious, and cognitive functions (relatively) intact, I sense a sadness and a feeling that her family doesn’t appreciate her (even though she doesn’t tell me outright.) I think she feels like she’s been penalized for the fact that she’s never had to surmount some sort of insurmountable challenge – such as my dad did in overcoming alcoholism or cancer, or I have in growing past my severe mental illness – because she can’t connect to or understand us as well, or maybe she thinks we don’t respect her because of it. I think she sometimes feels like a martyr, because so many people in her life have suffered, and have required her to be the source of strength; to be the proverbial “rock” without recognition. The sad thing is that she doesn’t realize her altruism is the most valuable gift she can give others; she should feel accomplished, rather than taken advantage of, for the fact that she gives us something we can never repay. This is a truth about justice, and mercy: in many cases, they can’t be repaid. I can never repay my mother for all she has done for me; she has just done it because she loves me, and because it’s the right thing to do as my mother. We should all hope to give such gifts to others with true humility – expecting nothing in return, and finding the true satisfaction of our actions in knowing that we have given people something they desperately needed, which they could find nowhere else.



The Humbled Gunslinger

            Do you remember Ken Jennings? Maybe a better question is: do you know who Ken Jennings is? When I was younger, I went through a phase where Jennings was one of my heroes. During his run of 74 wins on Jeopardy!, watching him crush his competition was one of the highlights of my day. In many ways, I felt I related to him, because he was a bit of a know-it-all, and I considered myself one, too (although I definitely would have qualified this remark by adding the caveat: “for my age,” to create an excuse for not being as much of a know-it-all as I liked to think.) Naturally, because of how much I enjoyed watching Jennings on Jeopardy!, I tuned in to watch him, and fellow human champion Brad Rutter, face off against what was considered the latest breakthrough in artificial intelligence: IBM’s Watson. Over the course of the tournament Watson – literally a thinking computer – completely destroyed the two most prolific champions in the show’s history, giving hope to his creators that they had successfully created a piece of technology capable of quickly and accurately processing oral information, finding the appropriate solution, and then conveying it in actual human language with appropriate context. In all fairness, as much as I would have liked to see mankind triumph over technology, it was amazing, and the evolution of Watson’s practical uses today is just as incredible (albeit subtly terrifying.)

            Recently I came across a TED talk given by Jennings. During the talk (link below), he explained how he felt about both his dominance on Jeopardy!, as well as his loss to Watson. Though the speech wasn’t overtly about humility, I realized some interesting points about the importance of being humble from what Jennings said. These lessons are relevant to us, both as Christians with the direct responsibility to walk humbly, and moreover as global citizens who face challenges every day that push us further away from community, due to a societally created value of self-promotion, external validation, and superficial appearance.

            I was quite struck by hearing Jennings discuss how, after losing to Watson, he wondered for a time about what his life meant, because something had been created to replace him in the only thing he felt he was ever good at. He had achieved widespread fame and wealth due to his performance on Jeopardy!, and naturally he was proud of this accomplishment, and it made him feel validated and important. We can all relate to this in some way or another, because success, accomplishment, external validation and recognition have all become enormous parts of our culture. While I think we should strive to accomplish great things, and take pride in them when we do, I completely admonish the fact that the majority of our worth has become wrapped up in how others see these accomplishments; because this causes us to fear one another, and avoid challenges, thinking they will possibly disturb our sense of value if we fail. We see this reflected not just in our never-ending search for approval, but also in the way we relate to one another. We water down all of our relationships to mere superficial, tenuous, highly controlled interactions, in which we can show others only the positive, and only the success; we don’t have to be threatened by others being better than us, and this attitude is detrimental to both us and our society on the whole.

In truth, though, Jennings shows that we need to all have different strengths and areas of expertise. I found it very humbling when Jennings spoke about how it is virtually impossible to be a Renaissance Man today, and to be an expert on a variety of different subjects. As someone who is probably pathologically competitive, and who has to regularly confront my tendency to try to outdo and one-up everyone, Jennings’ message that we need to embrace the fact that we all have different knowledge and skills, and that we should use this as a basis for community and relationship was one that I really needed to hear.

It’s no secret that I have many unflattering narcissistic tendencies; most of my family and close friends have always known this. My dad used to lecture me when I would go off on some tirade or rant about publicly taking down my “idiot” classmates, and he would often say, “You know, there’s always a faster gun.” Normally I would just respond with anything that would get me out of being lectured through the use of dated gunslinger references, but I heard this line in my head while listening to Jennings’ talk. When we don’t embrace humility, and consider the beauty of our differences with others (even when these differences make others better than us at certain things) we walk through life with a disproportional view of our abilities, and we think we can’t be beat. Additionally, because we fear, deep down, having this grandiose perception shattered, and we create a life for ourselves in which we stifle our own progress by shying away from challenges. In reality, though, there’s always a faster gun, and failure to accept this means you will be dead when you eventually encounter it. With Ken Jennings, this could have come in the form of Watson, beating him when he was originally so confident in his chance of winning. Where Jennings really showed his genuine intelligence, though was in his description of how this experience made him realize that failure doesn’t need to be devastating, but that we should all humble ourselves to the fact that each of us has something unique to offer one another.

Nothing, not even IBM, can take away Jennings’ accomplishments, and the fact that he is one of the greatest trivia wiz bangs to ever live, but his true value doesn’t come from the opinions of gameshow viewers, or prize money, or even the approval of his family and friends. It comes from within, and I think one of the beautiful things about humility is that when you embrace it, you not only find it easier to see your sense of self-worth truly within yourself, independent of society, but also to see others’ worth in the fact that they may be better than you at somethings, and this isn’t scary, hurtful, or shameful, but necessary.

We weren’t created to live in isolation, but our world instills values and beliefs in us that separate us further from one another, replacing real, deep, meaningful connection – where we can rely on one another’s strengths and weakness and see these things as gifts – with superficial, fearful exchanges in which we constantly feel threatened by the mere thought of someone being better than us. Fortunately, humility offers us a solution to this problem. We don’t need to stop trying to learn, grow, know, and achieve, because this fuels community advancement, but humility takes the emphasis off ourselves as individuals, and focuses on the bigger, collective picture, by allowing us to realize that everyone plays a role. This view of humility should help us set a practical foundation for our relationships, in which we teach and learn from one another, and we admire rather than envy one another. Walking humbly helps us bring each other up, and elevate one another, rather than incessantly living condescendingly in order to feel better about ourselves. With humility, we don’t have to go through life, regarding ourselves and others as simply cocky gunslingers that need to be avoided and feared for the sake of psychological survival. Instead, we should appreciate our coexistence with people who are both better and worse than us in different areas, and both learn from them, and educate them in return. This is how we were created; to be neither the best nor the worst, but to live in relationship with others, and humility is the key to managing this in our society that is so focused on competition and success.

 

Link to video: https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_jennings_watson_jeopardy_and_me_the_obsolete_know_it_all?language=en