Choosing to be Thankful

A guest post by Amanda Garner.

Photo by: Karen Halbert Photography

We’re in the middle of a 4-week series at our church called “Yours: Your Heart. Your Share. Your Life. Your All.” As part of the series, different people in our church are writing some reflections on our daily scripture readings. This morning’s was written by my wife, Amanda. I hope you’ll take a minute to read these thoughts about thankfulness. They are on point. I realize that I’m partial here, but I’m thankful that I get to see the beautiful, faithful heart of their author on display up close and personal every day.

Psalm 116:12-14
12 What can I give back to the Lord    
for all the good things he has done for me?
13 I’ll lift up the cup of salvation.
I’ll call on the Lord’s name.
14 I’ll keep the promises I made to the Lord
in the presence of all God’s people.

What can I give?

As we prayed, our 4 year old thanked God for every piece of furniture in his room and his brothers’ rooms. In the middle of the bedtime hustle, I found the naming of his gratitude to be tedious…but as I reflected on it later, I loved that his little heart could see ordinary desks and beds as gifts in his very own room. If I allow myself to name each of the ordinary blessings in my life- physical, relational, emotional, spiritual- I am simply overcome by the ocean depth of God’s generosity to me. I am drowning in my cup of abundance. How could I ever repay God for that? The psalmist tells us that he lifts up his “cup of salvation” recognizing that all the good things are gifts from our generous God. The psalmist takes on a posture of gratitude.

I really like the way that sounds- “It’s all God’s and I know that and I’m grateful.” The part that really messes with me is when the Holy Spirit nudges me to respond to God’s generosity by imitating its abundance. I don’t mind to give out of excess. It’s easy to offer my surplus or leftovers, but emulating God’s extravagant generosity requires me to be much more open-handed with “my” time, “my” money, “my” energy, “my” home, “my” family, “my” plans. The psalmist reminds us to call on the name of the Lord when we respond.

“Lord, thank you for the ordinary gifts of breath and sunsets and the gentle breeze. Thank you for laughter and work and forgiveness. Help me to stay alert to where you are working around me today and help me to offer my plans, my time, my money, and my very self to join you with open hands. Amen.”

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What to Do When the World Has Gone Crazy

Here’s my honesty today: I’m not even sure what to say or what to do. This is too much. It’s too much. My heart is numb and it’s broken and it’s in disbelief. If this were an isolated incident, it would be too much in and of itself. But it’s not an isolated incident. Today is in a long line of unbelievable heartbreak, division, controversy, pain, brokenness. This world has gone crazy. Natural disaster, threats of nuclear war and leaders of nations casually throwing out nuclear annihilation as if it’s normal operation in the world, shouting matches over what it means to have freedom, shootings at churches, and now this. Last week my kids had “emergency preparedness drills” at school, on Sunday we had to share with our leaders in our kids ministry where to take the children in the case of an active shooter in our building, and everybody is supposed to act like this is normal? What in the world is going on?

In the Old Testament book of Psalms, David cries out to God, “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?” and “Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.”

Those words have echoed in my heart in increasing measure over the past few weeks, and today there is no silencing them. How long, Lord? How long will things like this persist? Trouble is near, it’s all around us, and I’m wondering if there’s anyone around to help.

What do you do when the world has gone crazy?

Here are some things that I’ll do today:

1) Pray. I’m not talking about polite prayers or polished prayers or formulaic prayers. In a time like this, my prayers are raw, they’re honest, they’re even angry. If I’ve learned anything from reading things like Psalm 13 and Psalm 22, it’s that God can handle my honest prayers. My “What the hell is going on?” and “Where are you?” prayers. Sometimes prayer is simple and joy-filled and polite and quiet, and sometimes it’s unfiltered and from the gut and loud. I believe that God appreciates both and wants our honest, unfiltered prayers. And so on a day like today, I don’t hold back in what I pray.

2) Remember that Jesus wept. Followers of Jesus claim that Jesus is the King of the World. The shortest (and therefore most memorable) verse in the Bible is, “Jesus wept.” What’s it mean to have a weeping savior? Shouldn’t the king of the world be strong and brave and battle-ready? You can’t set up dominion over the world and be a cryer, can you? What’s it mean that we follow a crying king?

It means that Jesus is deeply connected to us as people. It means that he’s not immune to what it means to be human. It means that he cares deeply when we’re hurting. It means he’s with us in the struggle. It means that he’s affected by what happens in the world and isn’t separated from that. He doesn’t sit on a throne in a tower far removed from the everyday pain and struggle and heartache and fear that we face as human beings. He doesn’t turn his back and pretend everything’s ok in the face of tragedy.

We have a weeping Messiah, a crying savior, a God who is with us in the peaks and valleys of our lives, a God who sees and feels and responds.

In times of tragedy, I do not believe that this was “all part of God’s plan” or that “everything happens for a reason.” There are many reasons for a mass shooting, but I don’t believe that God’s plan is one of them. Things like this are the result of human sin and brokenness and stubbornness and evil, and I believe that God’s heart is broken with our hearts today. Jesus wept, and I believe that today he’s weeping with us over this.

3) Commit to the work of the Church. What’s happened today and over the past several weeks is a sign that what we do together as the church is urgent and it’s important. In fact, I would say that there’s nothing more important. We don’t just gather for fun. We don’t just get together as a club on Sundays. There’s no such thing as a sedentary church or an inwardly focused church – the church of Jesus is a church that’s intent on going to reach and serve our neighbors with the love of Jesus.

The unconditional love of Jesus is a powerful force and it could wreak havoc on the world as we know it if we would unleash it in our homes and neighborhoods and communities. It’s been said that the local church is the hope of the world. When people are hurting, we have the chance to offer healing. When people are broken, we are able to offer restoration. When people are isolated and alone, we can offer connection.

We have one shot at this life, and I’m more and more convinced that what we do matters. How we love people matters. How we treat people matters. How we speak about people matters. Every word we say to somebody or about somebody makes an impact. Every small act of service in the name of God’s love makes a difference. Humility matters. Choosing to be with people matters. Forgiving our enemies matters. Seeking the good of all the people, not just the people who agree with us, matters. The world needs the love of Jesus on display now more than ever.

Pray. Honest, authentic, real, raw, unfiltered prayers.

Remember that God is with us in the struggle, weeping with us, walking alongside us, giving us the grace we need to move forward.

Be the church, the real church, the church that unleashes unconditional love and forgiveness and mercy and grace and healing on a hurting and broken world.

“How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me. Look on me and answer, Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death, and my enemy will say, ‘I have overcome him,’ and my foes will rejoice when I fall. But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.” Psalm 13.

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2 thoughts on “What to Do When the World Has Gone Crazy

  1. Travis,
    A Christian friend forwarded your article to me, and to be honest, I am having trouble understanding what prayer can do. Are we to pray to a God who either allowed this to happen or was not powerful enough to stop it? If he is powerful enough, why did he choose not to stop it? And why would he answer the prayers of so many people when he simply could have stopped this horrific event from happening in the first place? I see a lot of people who say they are praying for Las Vegas. What exactly does Las Vegas get from all that praying? I saw a sign once that said: “The actions of one accomplish more than the prayers of millions.” I see no evidence that leads me to believe that isn’t true.

    • Joe, thank you so much for your comment and your questions. These are some of the deepest questions that I wrestle with as a person of faith, and questions that people have wrestled with for centuries. I wholeheartedly agree that “thoughts and prayers” without action aren’t often accomplishing very much. As for me, when I pray, I am often asking for direction and wisdom for what I should DO, not merely praying and assuming that all God wants from me is to pray about something. I think God ultimately wants my action, but again, my praying is often asking for guidance for my action. What I’m hoping is that what Las Vegas (and the rest of the world, for that matter) will get from all the praying is people who are willing to take action. Again, thank you so much for your comment and questions.

What You Can Do to Help in Texas

As the news reports continue to come in and people hear from friends and family members who are being affected by Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath, many of us are asking this question: What can I do to help in Texas?

Here are three things I am doing that I’d ask you to do with me:

1) PRAY. There are people who are still at risk and in danger with much more potential for rain and damage over the next several days. My prayers today have looked something like this:

God, I don’t understand the hows and whys in times and situations like this, but I pray for the rain to stop. I pray that through your power and with the help of your Spirit you’ll send rescuers to the people who need to be rescued and provide safe places for people who don’t have anywhere to go. I pray that you will comfort the people who’ve lost everything. I pray that you will bring out the best in people in the worst of situations. I pray that you’ll fill the Church with the courage and the strength and the passion to rise up and be your people, to be the comforting, rescuing, healing, loving, serving hands and feet of Jesus to people who are in need. I pray for those of us who are sitting in dry homes and offices and schools today, that you’ll help us respond in ways that share your love and concern with the people who are scared and hurting and lost and in danger. Help us to be your people. Amen.

2) PREPARE. While most of us can’t physically be present right now to help, we can prepare to be helpful in the recovery and clean-up efforts when they begin. We are assembling disaster recovery buckets at our church and will send them for distribution in Texas to aid in clean-up. These buckets, when filled, contain essential supplies that will help individuals and families when they return to their homes and businesses once the floodwaters recede. This is a tangible and very helpful way that we can be involved in efforts to respond. For instructions on how you can join us in our effort to fill these buckets, or to learn more about our effort, please click here. If you are local, you may return filled buckets to The Village on either Sunday, September 3 or Sunday, September 10.

3) GIVE. We have set up a text to give through The Village in order to send support directly to those responding in the affected areas. Simply text 28950 with the word iRespond and any dollar amount that you would like to give. (For example, text iRespond 50 to 28950 for a $50 donation.) You may also write a check to The Village and write “Hurricane Response” in the memo line if you would prefer to give in that way. 100% of what’s given through this will be sent directly to our partners in the affected areas.

If you would prefer, you may give directly to UMCOR, an organization that works with local churches in the affected area for long-term relief and recovery work. 100% of giving to UMCOR goes to the efforts on the ground. Click here to donate directly to UMCOR.

Our church is in partnership with the Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church, which has over 1000 churches either directly affected by this storm or in the surrounding areas. Many of these churches have already been turned into shelters and more will become response outposts and recovery centers once the floodwaters recede. Because of our partnership, we are able to give directly to community organizations and churches that are already on the ground in the affected areas, and we will continue to look for opportunities to partner with them and serve in their recovery efforts.

This is an opportunity for us as people to be at our best, and I hope we will all take full advantage of that opportunity.

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I’m Not Being Political, I’m Being Theological

I aim to think through everything in life from a theological perspective. What I mean by that is that I try to look at the world and form my opinions and take actions in the world based on my understanding of who God is and who God wants me to be. I aim to operate based on who Jesus is, and where I feel like he’s leading me to go. I make every effort to allow the Spirit to guide me as I read Scripture and pray, not that I will become more knowledgeable about Jesus, but that I’ll become more obedient, living my life by the words and teachings of Jesus.

What I hope for the people in my church and for people who claim to be followers of Jesus is that each of us view the world in this way – through theological lenses. My great hope is that we will look first not to our own opinions or our own politics or our own preferences, but that we will look first in all things to God and aim to see the world and live our lives in response to that.

This week, the events in Charlottesville and the response to those events demand that we be theological in our words and in our actions. Very often, being theological requires us to speak into situations that have been politicized. Although it’s been politicized, this is not a political situation, this is a theological situation. Who is God in this? Who are we to be in light of who God is? This is an important time to proclaim theological truth, what we believe about who God is and what God opposes.

Evil is real. Racism is real. Hatred is real. Injustice is real. Oppression is real. Sin is real. What has happened in Charlottesville and what continues happening around the country in the name of white supremacy is indefensible and it is inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus. There is no plausible way to deny that.

Yet hope is real. Love is real. Forgiveness is real. Grace is real. Reconciliation is real. Justice is real. Jesus. Is. Real. There’s no possible way to stop that, no human effort of hatred and violence that can overcome the love of God. It will not be defeated.

There will not be two sides with very fine people in the end. In the end, only the side of love will prevail. Only the side of goodness will prevail. Only the side of truth will prevail.

When I became a follower of Jesus, I pledged my whole life to follow Jesus.

When I became a follower of Jesus, I pledged to follow a leader whose love and grace transcend the borders of nationality, race, gender, ethnicity, and any other human category.

When I became a follower of Jesus, I pledged to follow a leader who laid down his life not only to save his friends and the people who looked like him, but in order to extend grace even to the people his friends considered enemies.

When I became a follower of Jesus, I gave up my rights to myself and said I would instead give it all to him so that I might be shaped and molded in the way he saw fit.

When I became a follower of Jesus, I gave up my “freedom of speech,” and I made a vow instead to speak life, truth, grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness, even when it’s difficult, even when it doesn’t serve my own interests.

I don’t believe it’s possible to simultaneously follow Jesus and defend the words and actions of people fueled by hatred and self-concern. I don’t believe it’s possible to follow Jesus into a white supremacist rally unless you’re following him there to oppose it. I don’t believe it’s possible to follow Jesus to a podium and do anything other than clearly denounce the evil and hatred that have been unleashed by white supremacist groups and their allies.

This is not a time to be silent. This is not a time to waffle. This is not a time to defend the indefensible.

This is a time to pray for wisdom and forgiveness. This is a time to grieve. This is a time to listen actively to those for whom the effects of this hatred are a daily reality. This is a time to proclaim the truth of our faith.

The book of Revelation contains some of the most beautiful, hope-filled images of what’s to come and toward which we are called to work. I’ve been drawn to this image over and over again in the past several days, and I continue to gain hope from the beauty these words contain.

“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” Revelation 7:9-10

May it happen soon.

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5 thoughts on “I’m Not Being Political, I’m Being Theological

  1. Oh, Travis, if only the words from all of our pulpits were so clear. Bishop Ough wrote that we need to follow our thin words with thick actions. Your words were not thin. Thank you. –Jan Knight

  2. We all sin and fall short of the glory of God. Mercy and forgiveness are how we are instructed to behave. Can we, as believers, see the potential for evil in our own hearts and be able to look for the hurting in another?

  3. Your perspectives of Christianity may differ a little from those you are castigating but that does NOT mean that your interpretation is better than theirs. They may even have studied the Bible longer and in greater depth than did you to come to the understandings that lead to their behaviors. Your hubris at saying that you are the arbiter as to what is and what is not Christian thought and action applies only to yourself unless you can demonstrate a paper signed by God defining you as ‘The Christian Arbiter’. If you have such then you can not only speak for all Christendom but you can then determine as well which sect truly can be considered Christian. Lacking such a paper then your disagreements with them should simply lead you to sitting down with them and truly listening to them – perhaps for the first time.

  4. In my view, to be truly theological, my view and understanding of Jesus would mean that He would see the racist, bigoted White Supremacists with grace, mercy and tears; and that he would work to soften their hearts. The other day ABC had a great segment on White Supremacy and Antifa. It featured one Antifa female “leader” and 2 White Supremacist’s leaders along with their followers and actions. What I saw in and through them and, especially, the followers were that most seem lost and in despair, and their ways and views, no matter how repugnant, are their only way of out in experiencing family and solidarity through common experience of isolation, poverty and downright alienation from the “rest” of the country.

  5. This was absolutely beautiful.
    Thank you for sharing – as I will do the same.
    Grateful that you have allowed yourself to share the good word in a time such as this.
    Be blessed.

It’s Never As Easy As It Seems

Confronting the reality of the refugee crisis

It’s never as easy as we think it is. We want things to fit neatly into our system, into our worldview. We want to feel like we have some level of control over the situation. We want to feel like there’s nothing to fear because if we can control something, we don’t have to fear it. If we can figure something out or master something, we can tell it what to do. We can fix it. We can legislate it into order. And so we approach issues with an agenda, hoping to find justification for the beliefs we already hold.

I am writing this from Amman, Jordan, where I’m spending my spring break with a small team from the U.S. trying to see, hear, and experience the Syrian refugee crisis from one of the places where more Syrians have fled than almost any other place in the world. Jordan’s population has grown by 20% over the last five years as Syrians have fled across the border that Jordan and Syria share, to the north of Jordan.

Tuesday morning, our team started the day by introducing ourselves to each other. One of the themes that emerged from all of the introductions was our desire for unfiltered information. We each said we had a desire to hear what’s actually happening here in an unfiltered way. When we finished introducing ourselves, one of the World Relief staff people said that it is actually a very rare thing to have a group who wants to hear unfiltered information – who just want to hear the facts as they are. He said, “Coming to issues like this with a genuine sense of curiosity is rare.”

Typically, people have already formed their opinions when they come in and they’re looking for information to back up their preconceived notions. This is a sad commentary on the state of affairs in our world, particularly in the United States, when many people would rather only hear the truth that backs up their worldview rather than allowing their worldview to be shaped by the truth. This is not a “one side” or the other issue, it’s a widespread epidemic of fact-anemia. Don’t give me the truth, only give me my truth that I already agree with. This is a dangerous spot to be in as a person and as a society. It’s dangerous as a follower of Jesus to already have in mind what Jesus should say before we go to him to find out what he actually does say. When we only look for Jesus to back up our opinion, we’re no longer following Jesus, we’re asking Jesus to follow us. That’s not discipleship, that’s idolatry, and we’re all guilty of that in some way, shape, or form.

So, on Tuesday, we huddled together in a small room at the World Relief office and we dug in together as different staff people from this region and from the World Relief headquarters shared with us as much unfiltered information as they could about the current crisis in the Middle East and how World Relief is responding to that crisis.

Then, on Wednesday, we visited in the homes of refugee families, mostly near Zarqa, which is situated between Amman, the capital city of Jordan, and Mafraq, one of the largest refugee camps in the world, with somewhere around 80,000 refugees living in it. One of the things I’ve learned on this trip is that only 10% of refugees live in refugee camps. Ninety percent of them are trying to find their way outside the camp for a variety of reasons, one of them being safety. Many refugees are women and children whose husbands and fathers are still in their country of origin or who have been killed somewhere along the journey. Many of these women do not feel safe inside refugee camps, because the tents are not secure.

Over the past few days, we’ve learned and been exposed to many things, many difficult realities. We’ve learned about the work of World Relief here in the Middle East. We’ve sat in the homes of refugee families who’ve left everything behind because bombs were detonated in their neighborhoods, their family members were killed, their homes were burned to the ground by government officials.

Our assumptions have been challenged, our pre-conceived notions have been confronted all the way around. As much as we’d like to make this a partisan issue in the United States, the reality doesn’t fit neatly into our partisan worldviews. There are things happening in reality here that are challenging to the core convictions of people on every side of this crisis.

We have so much to process from this trip and from this experience, and I’m still trying to get my brain wrapped around all of it. This seems like such a massive problem, how in the world do we begin to shine some light into the darkest of situations?

For Christians, I don’t think this is primarily a security issue. This is not even primarily a humanitarian issue. I think this is primarily a theological issue.

How are we to treat people who are made in the image of God?  How do we extend the grace and love of God in the most difficult of times and situations?

I am continuing to pray and process and will look forward to sharing more of what I’ve learned when I return home.

In the meantime, keep praying for the people who are here, the people who are affected most by this crisis, the people who face daily realities that most of us would never dream of facing.

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3 thoughts on “It’s Never As Easy As It Seems

  1. I look forward to hearing and learning from you my friend. Prayers for you and the world, and Happy Birthday!

  2. You raise good questions, Travis that apply to our relationships with our refugees here at home. I worked with our local World Relief for some time and was blessed by their structure, their compassion, their vision for all God’s people. I am so sad to hear they will no longer have a Nashville office, at least not as it has been. Our experience being in relationship with lovely people from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Myrnmar…and more…taught us clearly the need for ongoing relationships in ways that would eventually allay their fear, help them assimilate into a brand new culture and build the community Christ calls us to build. Our education is as important as their’s…..knowing what it means to be a refugee, the vetting process, which is comprehensive and lengthy, knowing to qualify calls for a history of torture or persecution, etc. Those issues come with each soul that boards those planes after years of process to get here. So, we look so forward to your experiences feeding a very real way of interfacing with these communities that can answer how we deal with overwhelming darkness…..and shine the light we all know can be there. Thank you for sharing your words! We continue to pray for those you are honored to meet there and those we are honored to know here.

Facing my Fear – Spring Break Day One

My view over the Mediterranean. And the Atlantic. And much of Europe. It all pretty much looked the same.

Driving from the airport.

Day one of our trip to learn more about the Syrian refugee crisis and the work of World Relief in the region is in the books. I’ll admit, I didn’t sleep much Saturday night at home before leaving on this trip. I was feeling anxious about the trip itself, and I also don’t ever really love leaving my family at home. Not that I worry about them being without me, it’s just that it’s spring break and I hate missing time with my family. As soon as Amanda and I talked about this trip, though, she said, “You have to go on this trip. I will miss you during spring break, but you have to do this.”

I really have no idea what to expect on this trip. In a weird way, I’m hoping to have my heart broken. Not because I really want to have my heart broken, but because I’m hoping to, at least in some small way, step in to the suffering that people are experiencing here. Even if just for a moment, I hope to step in to solidarity with people who are hurting, with people who have had their hearts broken, and I hope that by doing so, my heart will also be broken for them. Often people sing and say to God, “Break my heart for what breaks yours.” That’s my prayer as I prepare to go on this trip.

They are probably mostly unfounded, but I’m recognizing that I do have some concerns for my safety on this trip. Three years ago when I traveled to Israel, there was only one time that I felt unsafe (outside of the airport in New York, but that’s another story!), and that’s when a friend and I ended up missing our cab in Jerusalem and walking a couple miles back to the hotel by ourselves at night. No incident happened then that made me feel unsafe, I think it was just the uneasiness of it all, being in a different place, not understanding the language, feeling helpless if I needed to be able to explain myself to someone.

I guess I have some similar concerns about this trip. Different place. Completely foreign to me. There are language, cultural, and religious barriers. And then if I’m perfectly honest, there’s the added complexity that I feel of being an American right now in the Middle East. It’s a complete question mark to me: What’s the attitude of people in the Arab world, the Muslim world, toward Americans right now? What’s the coverage of our politics been like here? What’s the perception the people here have of “regular” Americans? Are we seen as a threat? Are we seen as intolerant and oppressive? Are we seen as the enemy as much as many Americans see Muslims and Middle Easterners as the enemy right now? Will all of that play into our safety and how we’re treated here?

Maybe this is my first heartbreaking insight, this fear that I’m facing – I guess what I’m really asking and what I’m really fearing is “Will I be treated here the way that many Middle Easterners and Muslims are treated in our country right now?” For just a few days, I guess I’m experiencing this from the other side, what so many people face as they make the trip from here in the Middle East to there at home. I don’t know the language. I don’t know the culture. I don’t know what I don’t know. I fear the perception that other people have of me for things that are not of my own doing.

I’m facing that for less than a week this week, what’s it like to face that for the foreseeable future? What must that feel like? What does it feel like to flee from your home for fear of your safety and the lives of your children and to go to a completely new and foreign place where you have no idea how you’ll be welcomed and who will greet you when you arrive?

I am praying that my eyes and heart are opened on this trip, that I will I see and experience things on this trip and can begin to better understand how to love and serve my neighbors, both here and around the world. I know that God is working here because I believe that God is working everywhere. I will be interested to see that from a new perspective this week.

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One thought on “Facing my Fear – Spring Break Day One

  1. Travis- I am praying that this experience will open your heart in ways you cannot imagine. I am trusting you to bring back stories about what you learn and feel about being there. Thank you for being on this journey- so many of us will be touched by your experiences and the way your heart interprets them. Praying for your safety and for all those involved in your travel plans to make good decisions!

Why I’m Spending Spring Break in the Middle East

Most people this time of year think about going to the beach or the mountains or to Disney or having a nice staycation at home. Never one to do what everybody else does, next Sunday night, I am hopping on a plane and flying across the ocean so that I can spend spring break in the Middle East. Here’s why:

One of the hottest items in the news for the past several weeks has been the refugee crisis, particularly in Syria, as the government in the U.S. has been embroiled in a political and legal debate about admitting refugees into our country. I’ve never been one to believe what I hear without digging in on my own, so I’ve tried to become more aware of the facts of the situation. As I’ve done that, I’ve found a lot of information about this crisis that’s deeply troubling to me.

Since 2011, civil war in Syria has caused more than million people to flee from their homes. Around 6 million of those people have fled their homes yet stayed within the borders of Syria, and about 5 million have fled the country altogether as refugees.

Sometimes numbers don’t compute into reality in my head. So, just to try to get your head wrapped around that number, imagine for a second that every man, woman, and child, every nursing home resident, every hospitalized person, young and old and everything in between within the city limits of Denver, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Indianapolis, Detroit, Seattle, Boston, Baltimore, Oklahoma City, Portland, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Atlanta, Memphis, and Nashville suddenly had to flee their homes in the middle of the night in order to save their lives and the lives of their families. Every single person. The populations within those city limits combined would get us somewhere in the ballpark of that 11 million number.

About half of the refugees are children. About half of the children still in Syria are no longer enrolled in school, because so many of the schools aren’t safe. There have been over 4,000 attacks reported on schools in Syria. Cluster bombs, bombs filled with smaller projectiles and explosives designed to wreak havoc over wide areas as large as several football fields, have been dropped repeatedly by Syrian jets on crowded school playgrounds filled with Syrian children. As a parent, I can’t even begin to imagine those kinds of conditions, and I can’t think of anything that would stop me from doing whatever I could possibly do to keep my kids safe and to get them out of those circumstances.

About 10% of the refugees who’ve fled have sought asylum somewhere in Europe. Between October 2011 and December 2016, the U.S. has admitted just over 18,000 Syrian refugees for resettlement, which is slightly more than one tenth of one percent (roughly .16%) of the total number of displaced Syrians. Roughly 90% of the people who’ve fled their homes have remained in Syria or ended up in one of Syria’s border countries, most notably Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.

The vast majority of refugees end up in refugee camps or as urban refugees within their own country or neighboring countries. They often flee under the cover of night with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and they end up in places where they have poor shelter, limited access to water, sanitation, and food, where they’re not allowed to work in order to provide for their families, where they don’t have quality healthcare, and where they’re often despised, feared, and less than welcomed by the citizens of the countries to which they’ve fled.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says these words: “For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick, and you looked after me. I was in prison and you came to visit me…whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Refugees, people who’ve fled their homes, their countries, their livelihoods, who’ve left behind their belongings and often even their family members who were too vulnerable to make the trip, embody all the qualities of the people Jesus wanted his followers to love and serve. They are hungry. They are thirsty. They are strangers. They are naked. They are sick. They are confined to refugee camps.

This is likely the largest humanitarian crisis of our generation – there are more refugees in the world right now than at any time since the end of WWII. Sadly, we’re seeing that desperately hurting and vulnerable people, persecuted and rejected people, people who have inherent worth and dignity because they are made in the image of God every bit as much as you and I, people for whom Jesus died, are often being used as political pawns by the leaders on “both sides” of our country in this ongoing debate. It’s difficult to understand and discern fact from fear-based information in a time and a season like this, and often, I’m not sure what to do or what to say.

Here’s what I do know: the times when crisis and pain and devastation are at their worst in the world are the times when followers of Jesus have an opportunity to rise up and be at their best. That invitation, to learn how to share love and hope and grace with people who have been forcibly displaced, abused, and persecuted, is beckoning to me.

So, I am choosing to spend my spring break going to the middle east to meet and hear the stories and learn from these people who have lost everything, to try to understand what’s really happening on the ground in a way that’s unfiltered by our American political system, and ultimately to begin to discern how followers of Jesus like you and I might be able to love them and serve them in their suffering, both here at home and around the globe.

At the end of the day, the call of Jesus on his followers is to welcome the stranger, whether that stranger be next door in our neighborhood or halfway around the world. We have neighbors to love down the street and we have neighbors to love on different continents, and loving each of them well isn’t mutually exclusive. So I’m going to see if I can understand the story of those who we consider “the stranger,” while also becoming a bit of a stranger myself for a few days so that perhaps I can empathize in a new way.

I look forward to sharing what I learn and some of the stories that I hear both while I’m there as circumstances allow and when I return, as well as thinking with you about ways that we might continue to faithfully respond to events and in times like these.

If you’re the praying type, please be in prayer for the small team of people who will be making this trip, for our safety but more importantly that our eyes and hearts would be opened to the ways we can continue to love and serve our neighbors, both near and far.

***In order to prepare for my trip, I have been reading the book Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis, and I highly recommend it. It provides a balanced, faith-based approach to this crisis, and explores it from a variety of angles, sharing statistics and information about the global refugee crisis as well as the process for resettlement as a refugee in the United States. Click here to order a copy and read it along with me. I’d also encourage you to watch the documentary Salam Neighbor, filmed last year in a Syrian refugee camp to get a little more insight into what life is like for those who’ve fled their homes. Click here for more information on that film.

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4 thoughts on “Why I’m Spending Spring Break in the Middle East

  1. Thank you for doing this on behalf of so many of us.
    God bless you and all of these precious people you encounter.

What is Lent and Why Does It Matter?

(And what's that smudgy thing on your forehead today?)

If you look around today, you might see it and wonder what it is. You might be tempted to motion for people to wipe it off. You might think someone hit a bump in the car while putting on their mascara. You might wonder if someone got too close to a fireplace or a fire pit this afternoon. You might just be bold enough to whisper, “I think you have something on your face,” or to ask, “What is that thing on your forehead?”

If you see it, know that it’s not accidental. Today, Christians around the world celebrate something called “Ash Wednesday.” On Ash Wednesday, people will gather in churches all across the globe to pray, and the service will end with someone smudging ashes in the shape of a cross on the foreheads of those gathered. If that’s new to you, I’ll own it: sometimes we Christians do weird things.

However, Ash Wednesday is a really important day, a day to consider a couple of themes that are significant no matter where you fall on the continuum of faith. Today, followers of Jesus around the world pause to pray and think about these two themes:

1) Our own brokenness and sinfulness, the fact that although we often want to do what is right and be in a right relationship with God and with other people, we can’t do it on our own. We lash out. We make mistakes. We say things we wish we wouldn’t have said and do things we wish we wouldn’t have done. As much as we desire to be perfect, or at least to be really good, we simply can’t achieve it by our own effort. On a day like today, you might ask yourself, “Where am I hurtful, intentionally or unintentionally, to myself, the people around me, and to God?”

2) Our own human mortality. We’re not permanent residents on earth. One of the phrases often said on Ash Wednesday is, “From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.” We don’t have unlimited time in our lives. As morbid as it may sound, the places with the most unreached potential in the world are graveyards, filled with people who missed opportunities because they assumed they could always take advantage of them at some other time. On a day like today, you might ask yourself, “If my time on this earth is limited, where am I wasting that time? How can I better use the time I have to love and serve my neighbors? How can I better use the time I have to love and serve God?”

And so Christians across the globe will gather today to celebrate Ash Wednesday, where they will read scriptures such as Psalm 51, which is printed below, and someone will place ashes in the sign of the cross on their forehead to remind them of their brokenness and their mortality, but also of God’s victory over both of those things through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Ash Wednesday begins a season in the church called “Lent.” Lent is the 40 days leading to Easter (not counting Sundays.) The 40 days represent the 40 days that Jesus spent fasting and praying in the wilderness before he started his ministry.

Lent has the potential to be one of the most powerful times of the year if we will dig in to its meaning and purpose, but it’s sometimes a confusing season with mixed messages. People talk about giving things up, but it’s not always clear why. At the core, Lent isn’t intended to be a time of self help or kicking off a new diet or exercise plan. It’s not a time where you’re supposed to torture yourself by giving up your favorite things in life just to see if you can do it. During these 40 days, followers of Jesus focus intently on their relationship with God. Lent is a season of the year for deep contemplation and self-reflection, a time to give things up or take things up in order to grow closer to God and to other people.

Sometimes people give things up that get in the way of their relationship with God, like technology or social media, alcohol or certain foods. Sometimes they make an effort to give things up as a way to change harmful patterns of behavior like sarcasm, snarkiness, and anger. Sometimes they give up eating a meal out per week in order to give the money to people struggling with hunger. They make intentional decisions to cut things out of their lives like selfishness, fear, grudges, greed, and envy.

Sometimes, in addition to giving things up, followers of Jesus take things up, they try to form new habits or routines in order to grow in their relationship with God. They decide to spend the 40 days in the car praying instead of listening to the radio. They decide to get up early in order to develop a habit of spending time with God or to write. They decide to write 40 encouraging notes to people who need them, call 40 important people in their lives to say thank you, or do a small act of kindness every day.

Below is Psalm 51, which is a traditional Ash Wednesday reading. Take a minute to give it a read, and as you read it, ask God to show you some things you can work on during the next 40 days as you try to follow Jesus more closely. Try to think of at least one thing you’d be willing to give up, and at least one thing you’d be willing to take up during this season. Write those things down. Consider sharing your list with someone close to you and asking them to hold you accountable to give up and take up those things.

As you think and read and pray, remember this: We might be imperfect, and we might have limitations, and we might not be able to do all the things we want to do or be the people we want to be. But even in the midst of that, we have a good God. A God of mercy. A God of love. A God of grace and forgiveness. A God of second and third and seventeenth chances. A God who wants us to experience joy and fulfillment in life. What can you do over the next 40 days to connect more closely with that God?

1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge.
5 Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
6 Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
so that sinners will turn back to you.
14 Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
you who are God my Savior,
and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
15 Open my lips, Lord,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.
18 May it please you to prosper Zion,
to build up the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous,
in burnt offerings offered whole;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.

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Why I Think I’m Awesome (And You Think You’re Awesome Too)

Last weekend at The Village, we started a new series called “Rooted.” I issued a 21-day challenge for everyone in our church to begin and end every day by trying to “till the soil,” so to speak, to allow God to grow more deeply in our lives. We have a 21-day reading and prayer plan (you can subscribe and follow along here), and I’m going to be writing some unpolished thoughts from my journal here.


“Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not be faint.”

A few words stuck out at me as I read these verses this morning.

The LORD is the everlasting God. 

Everlasting. The God before me and behind me, the God with me and beside me, the God who will be always after me.

The Lord is the everlasting God. 

The LORD. Not me. Not my ideas about who God is or what God is. Not my thoughts or my plans or my causes or my ideas. Not my dreams. Not my vision. None of these are the everlasting God.

If that’s true, it means I should give my heart, my trust, my will, my love, all of me, to that God, the true God, not the God I’m making up or the God I want God to be.

The truth is, I think I’m awesome, but in this case it’s not a good thing. The truth is I’ve been arrogant to think I’ve got it all figured out or that I’m smarter than God. Sometimes, I operate in a way that says, “Thank God for me finally being here.”

I think this is one of the biggest mistakes of our generation. Take any issue, and we are really prone to say, “Thank God we’re here now, the enlightened ones who have it all figured out. Thank you God and scripture and 2,000 years of faithful men and women for your contributions, but we’ll take it from here, and we don’t really need your input any more.”

Take any issue, any controversy, any “side,” and we are tempted to dismiss any dissenting voice, anything that seems different than what we think is right or good or true. We’ve set up our own system of judgment, and our opinion is the ultimate measuring stick.

I’m not singling anybody out, I’m singling everybody out, and most of all, I’m singling myself out.

If I’m confessing the truth, I’ll say I’m arrogant and prideful to think I can outthink or out-God God. I think I’m awesome when I think I can out-God God. This is one of the great fallacies I see when I look in the mirror. I can’t out-God God. Travis is not the source of all knowledge. Travis is not the everlasting God. Our culture, as enlightened as it is, is not the everlasting God.

God, may I rely on you and trust in you today, giving you all of myself, my thoughts, my opinions, my dreams, my plans, my words, my actions, willing to admit that you are God and I don’t have to be. Conform my will to your will and not the other way around.

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When No One Will Leave You Alone

Yesterday morning at The Village, we started a new series called “Rooted.” I issued a 21-day challenge for everyone in our church to begin and end every day by trying to “till the soil,” so to speak, to allow God to grow more deeply in our lives. We have a 21-day reading and prayer plan (you can subscribe and follow along here), and I’m going to be writing some unpolished thoughts from my journal here.


Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!”
Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.

But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.


 “Everyone is looking for you!”

That’s what the disciples said to Jesus when he went off by himself to spend time praying. They didn’t see the same level of importance for it as Jesus did. For him, it was crucial. For them, it was peripheral, an extra bonus.

Taking intentional time out of our schedules to pray isn’t easy, it’s not something that people around us understand or applaud or encourage. (Even this morning, I got up early to do this before my family was awake so there wouldn’t be any distractions, and right in the middle of my journaling, as if to say, “Not so fast, sucker,” our dog started whining to go out.) The pressures on our time and the distractions in life are relentless!

It says here that even Jesus had to sneak away to lonely places early in the morning before the sun was up and anyone was awake in order to find this time, and even his disciples questioned his priorities. “Why are you off praying by yourself when everyone is looking for you?!?! How do you have time to pray when you’re supposed to be saving the world?”

The thing for Jesus, though, is that his prayer life is what fueled the rest of his ministry. Every time Jesus does something significant, there’s significant prayer that happens before it or during it. Martin Luther, the famous 16th century priest, once said something to the effect of that on his busiest days he knew that he needed to spend 3 hours praying before the day started instead of just 2 hours.

Most of us, myself very much included, feel like we’re too busy to pray. The reality, though, is that we’re probably too busy not to pray.

God, as I set aside this time to spend with you, I pray that you will remove the distractions or at least help me not to be sidetracked by them. What I want and what I need is to become more deeply rooted in you, so I’m asking you to help me loosen the soil in my life because I know that the soil shapes the roots.

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