When we lived in Oklahoma City, through our church, we had several opportunities to serve in a wonderful prison ministry called, at that time, “Redeeming the Family.” It has since been renamed, “The Oklahoma Messages Project.” (slide 1 image)
We went into Oklahoma prisons to work with moms and dads experiencing incarceration, helping them record messages of love for their children at home during special times like Christmas, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Valentine’s Day. (slide 2 image)
This was the first time either of us had ever set foot into a prison. It was a bit scary, but we had some prior volunteer training from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. (slide 3 image)
We helped parents select books for their children, and filmed them reading the books to their kids, along with supportive messages of love and affirmation. (slide 4 image)
These messages were recorded with digital camcorders, and put on DVDs that were mailed to each family and child to watch at home. Many of the kids receiving these video messages from their mom or dad would watch them over and over again. (slide 5 image)
When a mom or dad is missing from their family home, it is natural for children to worry. It is very important for children to know that their parent is safe and OK. It is also very important for children to hear messages of affirmation and love, when they are separated. (slide 6 image)
We both thank God for the opportunity to serve, even just a few times and in some small ways, with the Oklahoma Messages Project. We encourage you to find similar organizations and nonprofits in your community which are serving children, parents and families. (slide 7 image)
Are you in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area and interested in giving to others in our community who are in need this Thanksgiving season? Consider making a food donation to “Roof Above,” a non-profit focusing on ending homeless and serving those affected by homelessness.
Roof Above is looking for a variety of food items, details are in the attached screenshot and in this Instagram post.
“We believe that home is critical to provide safety, stability, and dignity in people’s lives. Each day, we serve 1,200 people in our community –half we serve through our homeless services, and half are formerly homeless served through our housing programs.
It’s not just about what we do but how we do it. Our approach is personal; relationships drive our services and help to heal the trauma of homelessness. We strive to honor the profound worth of each life, and for our work to reflect that belief.”
Yesterday our “Friday Morning Men’s Group” at our church met for the first time over a Zoom videoconference, which is the first time we’ve ever gathered virtually in the history of our group. Things went well overall. It was great to see and check in with everyone. We had about 30 of us in the conference I think, and everyone’s camera and microphone worked. We used a basic format, after an opening prayer we took turns sharing an update on a “silver lining” or challenge from our current time of “sheltering in place” at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. I was struck by a few things:
A number of guys are struggling with the lack of social interaction and their empty schedules.
Some men have already started taking advantage of virtual connection opportunities, reading daily from a novel to their grandchildren, for instance.
Many are finding it difficult to have their grandchildren close by, but not being able to be with them / hug them / interact with them “in person.”
Many are finding it difficult to not know how long this situation will go on, and are very eager to get back to “normal schedules.”
During the course of our videoconference and conversations, six things stood out to me as ways we can safely serve each other during COVID-19. There are clearly a LARGE number of needs we have within our group and in our larger communities. Finding tangible ways to serve and help each other during this disruptive time of crisis is important and can be a healthy addition to our schedules and lives.
1. Setup Virtual Family Dinner Connections
At least two of the guys in our group have already setup a “virtual family dinner” meeting via a Zoom videoconference. We did this with a friend and school colleague about a week ago, and it worked well. We connected to him via a Google Hangouts Meet videoconference on my iPad, and then put the iPad at our dinner table at the place where he’d sit if he was with us in person. Tomorrow for Easter Sunday, we’ve scheduled “dinner together” with my parents in Kansas and my sister and family in Missouri This reminds me of the Biblical exhortation we read in Hebrews 10:23-25:
‘Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. ‘
I want to suggest it’s also the SEASON for virtual small group meetings. We have outstanding, free tools to facilitate small group interactions and meetings at a distance. These include FREE (40 minute or less) videoconferencing with Zoom, and Facebook Groups. While Zoom specifically has drawn a lot of recent, negative media attention for conference security problems, these have been addressed swiftly. If you have access to another collaborative videoconferencing platform or are willing to pay for one, by all means go for it. But if not, Zoom is a viable and good option for small group virtual meetings.
Our adult Sunday School Class, “Curiosity and Questions: Jesus and Science,” has continued to meet the past month as we’ve started “sheltering in place” as a city and a state. We’re meeting over a videoconference at our “regular time” on Sunday mornings between our church’s virtual worship services. We’re using both a private Facebook group and Google Classroom to share resources and updates. Our church’s recent move to “Realm Software” as a church-wide information system has empowered individual teachers (like me) to directly email and contact our group members. I don’t think our church small group connections should end with Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings, however.
In addition to considering JOINING a virtual small group, I want to encourage you to consider STARTING one. Start a book club. You might do this by:
Choosing a new book you want to read, or a book you love and want to share with others.
Deciding on a weekly meeting time for your virtual book club.
Creating a free account with Zoom, and creating a repeating meeting / videoconference at your desired time.
Creating a REPEATING EVENT in your Facebook group, including the Zoom conference JOIN instructions.
Inviting your friends and acquaintances to join your small group / book study.
As we each grow more comfortable and proficient at meeting over videoconferences, the number of available small groups will grow. Your group does not have to have a large number of members to be “successful” and beneficial, to both you and other members. Small groups should be all about connecting, relationships, interacting, as well as learning.
Step out and create your own small group, for a book study or other purpose. The ideas you discuss together with your small group members and the connections you make in upcoming weeks can be IMPORTANT pieces of the wellness / self-care plan we each need to not only survive but also THRIVE in this COVID-19 pandemic season.
3. Utilize Daily Devotion and Bible Reading Apps
We all can benefit from daily “quiet time” to pray, read scripture, meditate, and seek the voice of God. I have been using the free “Pray as You Go” app and website for the last couple years, and highly recommend it. Pray As You Go is a project of the Jesuits of Britain, Each day they post a 15 to 20 minute meditation which focuses on a different Bible verse or series of verses, which are repeated twice during each devotional.
Use a Bible reading app like the YouVersion Bible, which includes a variety of Bible Study reading plans, the ability to connect to others for prayer and encouragement, and videos from amazing Christian theology and evangelist media creators like The Bible Project. The verse of the day feature, the ability to highlight and share scripture verses, and even create Bible Verse InfoPics right within the app are fantastic and powerful ways to focus our minds above “on the things of God” when so many current events “down below on earth” seem chaotic and troubling.
4. Keep a Daily Written Journal
Journaling about your life, your day, your fears, your hopes, your dreams and other aspects of your thought life can be an extremely healthy and healing activity at any season of life. Particularly as we find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic, something no one alive today has previously experienced, journaling can be a constructive and beneficial activity. When I was in college and after college graduation, I was an avid journal writer. Then sometime around 2003, I discovered blogging. “Writing in public” on a blog or via a social media platform can be beneficial in similar ways to keeping a private journal, but there are more complexities to digital, shared, interactive writing. When deciding whether or not you’ll keep a journal during COVID-19, remember the benefits of your writing times may not be limited to you. Your grandchildren and other descendants may read what you write this week! We are literally living through history, so why not document your journey in detail for your benefit and the potential future benefit of others?
Who tells your story? You are the best person to tell it, and there’s no time like the present to get started.
6. Be a Digital Witness for Jesus
As Christians, we are called to not just share the story of OUR lives, but also the story of how GOD has moved and continues to move in our lives. Check out my 2020 book, “Pocket Share Jesus: Be a Digital Witness for Christ,” for more ideas and project suggestions about how to do this. The full book is available free online. It will be available for sale on Amazon soon.
This morning our pastor, Jen Howat, preached on Acts 1:1-9. Her sermon focused on how we are called to BE the church, which means doing the work of Jesus & not necessarily gathering in church buildings. This is my sermon sketchnote and narrated sketchnote of her sermon. I integrated a couple tweets which I shared during the first part of the sermon.
This is the timely scripture Mark Veasey shared this morning as we started our Friday morning men’s group. Of course these verses make me think of Syria and Syrian refugees, and the ways people in the United States are responding to this crisis in the wake of recent terrorist attacks in France.
“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?””
I am also reminded of the 8 minute documentary “Clouds Over Sidra,” which is an immersive VR story sharing the life and perspectives of a 12 year old Syrian refugee. I shared that yesterday in an after school workshop on “Virtual Reality and Google Cardboard.” We need to find ways to promote empathy and understanding for the war/crisis in Syria and those caught in the crossfire.
The author of the book of Hebrews reminds us that we are called to show hospitality to others and serve those who are in prison. These verses challenge me to think and consider the ways I am living my life. It also reminds me of the importance of reading Scripture daily, to keep my focus on God and Jesus instead of the depressing world news of the day.
“This is the kind of fast day I’m after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts. What I’m interested in seeing you do is: sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, being available to your own families. Do this and the lights will turn on, and your lives will turn around at once. Your righteousness will pave your way. The GOD of glory will secure your passage. Then when you pray, GOD will answer. You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.'” (Isaiah 58:6-9 MSG)
These verses are on my heart as I think about the challenges schools so close to our home face, and my own prospects for teaching in the year to come.
1 “Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the descendants of Jacob their sins. 2 For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. 3 “Why have we fasted,’ they say, “and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. 4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. 5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? 6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelterâ€” when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? 8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness[a] will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. 9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, 10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. 11 The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. 12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.
Here is an audio recording of the sermon, which ran just under 20 minutes. I recorded this with iTalk Recorder on my iPhone, which displays elapsed time, so I used this to make sure I didn’t run over the suggested 15-20 minute time limit for the meditation. After transferring the file to my laptop tonight, I uploaded it to Auphonic to normalize and compress it into a 32 kbps mp3 file.
The most powerful part of the service for me was participating with our three pastors in the “imputing of ashes.” As church attendees came forward to receive communion, we first marked a cross on their forehead with ashes from a small bowl. I have been very moved as a participant in this service in past years, but it was even more moving to help lead it. Young and old, people I knew and did not know, I said “From ashes you came, and from ashes you shall return.” A sobering but important reminder of our own mortality, and our universal need for God and the saving grace of his son, Jesus Christ.
Praise to God and thanks to God for his blessings, love, and grace. Praise and thanks to God for the opportunity to be a part of our church community of faith.
A couple weeks ago we read from Romans 12:9-13, in our Friday morning men’s group:
Donâ€™t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. When Godâ€™s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality. (Romans 12:9-13 NLT)
I was thinking about the terrible killing of Chris Lane this week in Duncan, Oklahoma as I read these words. This message from God is SO contrary to how people are responding in comments to articles online about this situation.
If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:17, 18 NIV)
This weekend when I was shopping at Walmart, I had a man come up to me when I got in my car and ask for some money. This is something that is fairly common when you live in the city, instead of living in the suburbs. I have not had a tremendous amount of experience living among the poor, but I certainly got my eyes open to a lot more of this when I lived in Mexico City in 1992 to 1993.
When someone who is poor confronts you personally and asks for a handout, it challenges you at several levels. It encourages you to ask, what am I doing right now to help the poor and this person specifically? I know it is generally a bad idea to give cash to people who ask for handouts, because many of them will use the money to buy drugs, alcohol, or something else that is probably not in their best interest to consume. It can seem very harsh and callous, however, to reject every single request for help when you confront someone personally.
In the case I am describing, I went ahead and gave the man $10. He said he was homeless, and I asked him if he had been to the City Rescue Mission or any of the other shelters in town. He said he had, but said some things about how they didn’t meet his needs and he did not like them. I held his hand and said a prayer for him and over him. He told me he knows God has many names, and one of them is Jehovah. I encouraged him to seek God and call on his name. His name was Rodney, and when I prayed and I prayed for God to bless my brother Rodney.
I am not sure what I did in the situation was right, but I was inspired to pray by Paul Burns book, “Prayer Encounters,” which our spiritual parenting class will be using this fall. Paul’s basic message is, instead of telling someone we will pray for them, we should take an opportunity and pray for them right then in that moment.
There are many things I do not know, but I do know it is right and good to lift each other up in prayer. Giving Rodney $10 provided an opportunity to say a prayer together. I continue to pray that God will open up doors of love, kindness, and help for Rodney and his family.