Thursday, August 19, 2004

Good Things Sprout from Good Soil

My family and I sat in a Pizza Hut in Sumter County, Georgia and it was dawning on us: This place was different. Throughout this rural, deep South community, blacks and whites related to one another with an ease and friendliness one seldom sees in the North.

We had decided to stop in Sumter County on our way back from Florida, where my daughter had been on a college internship. We’re nuts for presidential history. In Sumter County is the town of Plains, home of our thirty-ninth president, Jimmy Carter. We arrived in Americus, the county seat, late one afternoon and visited Plains the next day.

I was unprepared for how small Plains and Sumter County are. Or how impoverished. According to, the average household median income is $30,904, compared to $49,386 here in Clermont County, Ohio. The disparity in the median family income is even greater: $35,379 in Sumter County and $57,032 here. The numbers quantify what we saw with our own eyes.

Plains itself is neat, simple, tiny, and while not boarded-up poor, not overly prosperous either.

Outside of town is Carter’s boyhood home and farm. The house is a small structure. Sometime during his childhood, Jimmy’s father had indoor plumbing installed. The bathroom included a handmade shower: a pipe fitted with two elbows that ran up from the tub and spewed water into a bucket that hung on the pipe. Into the bottom of the bucket Earl Carter pounded a set of nail holes that created the shower as the water drained out.

I marveled that a president had come from such a place, just as I have at the birthplaces or boyhood homes of other chief executives.

But I also marveled that a man from a poor, segregated community became such a fierce advocate of human rights, winning a Nobel Peace Prize, and who as a southern governor, would boldly declare the end of segregation as a way of life.

Standing there on the Carter farm, I began to see a larger picture, though.

You see, Sumter County is also the home of Koinonia Farms, the Christian commune started in 1942 by pastor and writer Clarence Jordan as a place where blacks and whites would work and live together in peace. Jordan and the Koinonia Partners have been a beacon of reconciliation to many in the world for six decades.

Sumter County is also the home of Habitat for Humanity, the Christian movement started by Millard and Linda Fuller, that is building affordable housing for people in need around the world.

How is it possible that such good and notable things that honor God and give hope and help to millions can spring from a seemingly unpromising place?

Jesus once told a parable--a story--about a farmer indiscriminately scattering seeds around his farm. The seeds fell on all sorts of soil and most either failed to take root or quickly died. But some seeds fell on good soil and grew and thrived.

The seeds in Jesus’ story contained the good news of God’s deathless love made available to all who turn from sin and let Jesus be the Center of their lives. The good soil is anyone who lets Jesus into their lives and follows Him.

Even in its segregated past, there were people in Sumter County who were “good soil.” The seeds of God’s love and power entered their lives and like time bombs of goodness, exploded in their souls---in people like Jimmy Carter, Clarence Jordan, Millard and Linda Fuller, and those whose lives they touched. Those soul explosions in turn, helped them to positively impact Sumter County and the world beyond.

God can do wonderful things in our lives when we let Jesus be our Center, God and Boss. Ask God to help you be good soil for His plans and purposes. You don’t know what He might do through you!

Monday, August 16, 2004

The Democratic Vision in America (Or, Whatever Happened to the American Dream?)

More about the American Dream:

The commencement address delivered by Lutheran lay theologian Larry Rasmussen at the 2003 graduation ceremonies of Trinity Lutheran Seminary appears in the Summer/Fall, 2004 issue of Trinity Seminary Review. In one place, Rasmussen's comments are similar to my own about the American Dream. It comes at a place in his presentation where he talks about the increasing penchant for associating democracy in America with liberty only, particularly the liberty to make money, forgetting about other important elements of democracy. Rasmussen writes:

A close look at the notion of democracy embedded [in current American thinking] unsettling. Democracy's three classic values are liberty, equality, and community ("fraternity"). But the only talk now in our nation is about freedom as liberty and how it can be secured. We hear nothing of the other two any more---equality and community. When liberty ideologically trumps all else in a free enterprise model tied to affluence as a way of life, then even democratic government itself is basically about protecting and promoting freedom to acquire wealth and do with it as you please. The right to property and its uses is more basic than, say, government as an equalizing force ("equality") or government as the people's means to achieve the common good together ("community"). We have quietly amputated two-thirds of the democratic vision.
Good food for thought...and prayer! Rasmussen says more eloquently or ably what I have been trying to say.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made...Yeah, You!

Every now and then, I’ll meet someone who asks, “Are you the Mark Daniels who writes the column?” “Yes,” I answer.

Sometimes they tell me, “You are such a good writer.”

That always comes as a shock to me. I love to write. But I can think of only a handful of things that I’ve written in my lifetime that I like.

This self-critical attitude may incite me to pursue my personal mission, which I summarized a few years ago: “Using the communication gifts God has given to me, I prayerfully inspire and lead people to follow and live for Jesus Christ.”

But even to have written that statement was hard for me. While many people have told me over the years that I’m a gifted communicator, I find it difficult to accept.

That’s because ever since I was a little boy, I have wrestled with feelings of inferiority, of unworthiness. Back in my school days, it seemed that everybody else was either smarter than me, more athletic than me, cooler than me, or all three.

I carried these feelings into adulthood. Looking back over my first fifty years, I see how they have held me back. I see too, how they sometimes have led me to do wrong simply as a way of proving myself to the world or to myself.

In the Old Testament, a king named David spends part of a worship song, Psalm 139, asking God to show his sins to him so that he can turn from them and ask God’s forgiveness. David knew he was imperfect.

But without any arrogance, in the same psalm, David also marvels that God had created him so well. “I praise you,” he says, “for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

David wasn’t being an egomaniac when he wrote those words. He understood and acknowledged the first gift God gave to him: himself.

I need to be able to do that. Maybe you do too.

Maybe you have gifts and abilities for which you repeatedly receive compliments, but you refuse to believe in their value...or in yours. I can confidently tell you that God wants you to stop doing that!

A man named Zaccheus was so short that when Jesus came to his hometown of Jericho, he couldn’t see Jesus over the heads of the welcoming crowd. So, Zaccheus climbed a sycamore tree and got a good view. He was stunned when Jesus looked up into that tree, callled Zaccheus by name, and asked if He could come to Zaccheus’ house.

No wonder Zaccheus was stunned. He’d probably always wrestled with feelings of inferiority because of his slight stature. As a tax collector in those days, furthermore, he was an extortionist ostracized by the good religious people of town.

But Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, saw the possibilities in Zaccheus. That day, Zaccheus turned from sin and let the love and acceptance God offers through Jesus Christ begin to change his life forever. It’s likely that Zaccheus still wrestled with feelings of inferiority and temptations the rest of his life. But in Jesus, he knew that he had God’s approval and encouragement, the ability to become the best Zaccheus possible, and the second chances every one of us needs.

I’m thankful that God gives these same blessings to me. It’s still hard for me to accept compliments. But when I let God’s forgiveness and acceptance, offered through Jesus soak into my life, I can acknowledge God’s gifts to me and use them as God intended them to be used.

He can do the same for you. It begins when you turn away from sin and ask Jesus to be your God and best Friend.

Hope: The Key to Surviving and Thriving Life's Tough Times

"I am the most fortunate man that ever can't imagine how fortunate I am to have had the full and rich life...I have...You`ll never know a person who is as fortunate and has experienced as rich and full [a] life as I have."

The speaker was Senator John McCain who, as a young Naval officer, spent years in a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp and was nearly killed by the experience. In spite of that, he considers himself "fortunate." After hearing McCain say this on C-Span's
Booknotes television show, I was so stunned that I looked at my son, watching the interview with me, and exclaimed, "What a guy!"

How is it that some people go through grim experiences and are crushed, while others, like McCain, survive and eventually, thrive?

I asked myself this question again recently as I sat in a Disney World food court where my daughter worked these past eight months and conversed with one of her co-workers. I'll call him Frank. Frank asked how I'd enjoyed being a pastor for twenty years and I said that I’ve really liked it.

"I liked my old career for twenty-two years," he told me.

"What did you do?" I asked.

"I was a research engineer. But my job got sent overseas."

Frank told me that he chose to view this setback as the chance for a fresh start. "I decided that I wanted to work with the imagineers at Disney. But it's tough to get with that department off the street. Still, I know that Disney is a great company. So, we moved to Florida and I took a job here at this food court. Disney is deliberate about creating opportunities for networking and they do 85% of their hiring from within the company. So, having proved my reliability here, I'm awaiting word on getting a management position in food and beverage.

"Sometimes, it's hard for my wife. She was used to seeing me go to work in the morning in a suit and tie, briefcase in hand. Now, I wear this food services uniform, wipe tables, and stack chairs. But I believe something good is going to happen."

When psychotherapist Viktor Frankl was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, he observed his fellow prisoners, trying to understand what the survivors--like him--had in common. They believed that somewhere ahead, something good was going to happen. They had hope.

I don't know what the ultimate source of hope is for John McCain or of Frank. But I do know my source of endless hope that never gives out, a source that sustains me even in the most difficult of times. My hope comes from Jesus Christ, the God-Man Who died and rose again to give life to all who will daily turn from sin and follow Him. A risen Savior has an eternity of hope to give away.

The Bible says this about the hope---and peace---Jesus gives to us:

"Therefore, since we are justified by faith [in other words, we don't earn heaven by doing good things; it's a free gift to all who turn from sin and follow Christ], we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ...and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we alo boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit...(Romans 5:1-5)"

If you’d like a hope that never dies, I recommend Jesus Christ. He's proved hope enough for me to survive and to thrive.

[Mark Daniels is pastor of Friendship Church]