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We began a homeless ministry in January, and we have housed from 2-10 people each night since then, using the existing facilities of 8 different churches. This IHELP model (Interfaith Homeless Emergency Lodging Program) offers our homeless guests up to 90 days in a shelter, with showers, dinners, brown-bag-lunches-to-go, and transportation to the sites. It is an incredible ministry.
It is also very challenging. And we have learned a lot about ministering to the homeless:
The first thing we learned is that we still have a whole lot to learn about the homeless and about homeless ministry. We are not experts, by any stretch of the imagination, just a group of churches with some incredible volunteers who want to help people.
We have learned that there are many homeless that we are unable to help. Our ministry is not equipped to help people with serious mental health issues, with serious addictive issues, and with serious medical issues. We cannot accept those with sex crimes in their past. And we can’t offer shelter to families with children or pets. But we can usually refer those we can’t help to someone who can.
The homeless people we have sheltered are homeless due to a variety of factors. The ones we have talked to list these reasons:
Drug (including alcohol) abuse.
Divorce or family breakups.
Medical issues. Sometimes, the medical issues led to job losses or financial strains. But in a surprising number of cases, we’ve had hospitals calling us when a patient is about to be released and has nowhere to go.
Moving without adequate resources or planning. One couple who moved across country counted on immediately (within 24 hours) finding a job, an unrealistic expectation.
Broken relationships. Many were staying with friends or family until the relationship soured.
Refreshingly, some people were honest enough to tell us that “stupidity” was the reason. They spent all their money on frivolous things and then didn’t have money for rent.
Many of the people in our homeless ministry have been helped tremendously. Our sample size is small, but we’ve already helped people get jobs, get their own apartments, get into subsidized housing, kick some bad addictions, renew family relationships, and make commitments to Christ. That’s why we do the ministry!
But there is an exasperating side to working with the homeless. We knew that this was true, but it is still frustrating: Most homeless people don’t want to go to a shelter. We’ve offered our shelter to hundreds; only dozens have accepted our offer. Some don’t want the rules and the restrictions that come with a shelter. Some want to continue their drinking, their drugs, or their panhandling. Some have had bad experiences in shelters. And some are too proud to accept help. Perhaps it is different in a harsher climate, but many people in our area choose to be homeless and are content to live on the street by handouts, panhandling, and government aid.
So I’ve had to rethink how I minister to homeless people. Here are my personal guidelines:
I routinely offer homeless people a business card with information about how to enroll in our homeless ministry. (You can get some in our church office.) And I will give them a brown bag lunch. And that’s all. If they don’t want to accept the help we have to offer, I don’t feel guilty about walking away.
I NEVER pay for a motel room. If they can’t sleep on a mat with people in a shared room, then I can’t help them.
I NEVER give cash. I am a sucker for a hard-luck story. People know that about me and even expect pastors to be that way. So I may cry with someone, but I won’t give them cash. I have decided that offering food and shelter is more than enough.
I NEVER give gift cards. At one time, I offered fast-food gift cards to homeless or hungry people. Now that I know there are businesses which will buy these cards for cash, I have decided not to give them away. I will give them a brown bag lunch. I’ve even offered to buy their lunches, but I won’t give cash or cards.
I no longer feel guilty about asking homeless people to leave our property. I’m always courteous. And I always tell them about our shelter. But I don’t want homeless people who have refused our shelter to scare away people who come to worship with us.
Loving people is a challenge. And I will always offer love. And I thank God that we now have a way to show direct and tangible love to homeless people.
Unfortunately, not everyone will receive the love we have to offer.
I am often on Facebook and Twitter, and I enjoy it. (I also try and keep up with my kids and grandkids on Instagram and Snapchat, but I don’t post much there.) I use social media for fun, to communicate to people important to me, to promote my faith, beliefs, thoughts, actions, politics, and even (occasionally) to talk about my favorite sports teams.
If you’ve followed me on social media, then you’ve seen pictures of my wife, my kids, and my grandkids. You know that I am a follower of Jesus. You know that I love my church. You know that I love Arizona and the United States of America, and that I like to take photographs of some of the beautiful places in our country. And you probably know more than you want to know about the University of Arizona Wildcats, the where-are-they-now Raiders, and the Arizona Diamondbacks.
But in recent years, I have become deeply dismayed by the online habits of many Christians who use social media in a way that pushes people away from Christ rather than draws them to Him. We rudely call out politicians and political parties rather than participate in respectful dialogue. We call people who disagree with us “idiots” (and that’s mild compared to some of the words used by believers.) We trash other religions in a way that is more likely to lead to hatred than to communicating the love of God. We ignore Biblical commands to love all people, to respect our leaders, and to do all things for the glory of God.
So I respectfully submit this code of ethics for believers to use while online:
I will abide by the same standards on social media that I use in my personal life. If I wouldn’t say it in a conversation with my wife and children and from the pulpit, I won’t say it or post it on social media.
I will not post anything that promotes profanity, racism, inaccurate news accounts, drug abuse, or hateful speech, nor will I link to a page that promotes any of these things.
I will never share or pass on material that could be spiritually harmful, emotionally disturbing, or purposely offensive to others. This includes but is not limited to things like pornography, graphic violence, or inappropriate pictures or videos.
I will not share my personal drama or personal complaints on social media. I will follow the teachings on Jesus—if I have an issue with a person, I will deal with it privately and personally.
I will not put down governmental leaders or public figures on social media. I can and will disagree with publicly taken stands and behavior, but I will do so with respect and without name-calling or ridicule. I will not knowingly misstate another’s opinion to make them look ridiculous, nor will I share any of the blatantly inaccurate or heavily-sarcastic articles, blogs, cartoons, pictures, or opinions that flood social media.
I will never knowingly embarrass or purposely offend a friend (or even an enemy) by sharing a humiliating or embarrassing photo or video. If in doubt about sharing a picture or video, I will seek permission first.
I will use social media to promote beliefs important to me, but I will not be offended when people disagree with me; I will treat their opinions with respect and ask them to do the same to me.
I will not be easily offended or overly critical of the posts of others. I am primarily concerned with policing myself—not others.
I will occasionally challenge a close friend or fellow believer if I believe that their use of social media is inappropriate, but I will do so in a private communication since I have no desire to publicly humiliate.
In short, I will use the teachings of Jesus’ Golden Rule to guide my life on social media.
Following Jesus is a full-time commitment. My speech and actions in the pulpit, in my home, among friends, when in public and when in private, and especially when I am on social media (for that is where many people outside of the faith will connect with me) must be a constant reflection of my commitments to love God, love people, and follow Jesus.
And that’s true for every believer!
I was looking for the right image, artwork, or photograph for this blog, so I googled “love” and I looked at the resulting images trying to find what I wanted. There were hearts. Flowers. Couples kissing. Children holding hands. Picnics. Puppies. Sunrises and sunsets. Diamond rings.
All of them beautiful images, to be sure.
But they don’t tell the full story of love.
Because oftentimes love hurts. Love costs. Love can bring pain. Love requires extra work and extra hours. Love leads to sacrifice.
So I looked for other images. An overworked mom trying to cook dinner and still keep her patience while a two-year-old whines in the background. A man answering a phone call in the middle-of-the-night from a drunk friend. A wife spending time with her husband in a care home even though, due to his dementia, he has forgotten who she is. An underpaid teacher maintaining a smile in the face of obstinate children and even more obstinate parents.
When I thought about love that way, I realized that I could just walk around our church campus and take pictures of our members. I could photograph the nursery worker who changes a stinky diaper with a smile on her face because she loves the baby, the parents, and her church. I could take a picture of a translator in our Mission of Mercy clinic who takes the English words of the doctor and shares them in Spanish so a patient can understand. I could take a picture of a basketball coach who spends an hour-and-a-half with his teenage basketball team (many of who think they know more than the coach) after a tension-filled day at work. I could take a picture of a man sweating in the sun after spending hours trimming trees, pulling weeds, and picking up trash because he loves his church, his fellow members, and because he wants his church to be an accurate reflection of the God He loves. I could take a picture of the man who gets up abnormally early to pray with His friends because he loves God and he loves his church. I could take a picture of the volunteer who works the midnight to 4:00 am shift in our homeless ministry. He’s bored, because everyone else is asleep, but he’s willing to be bored because He loves homeless people and he loves his church.
These may be more accurate pictures of love than hearts and flowers.
So when we say we Love God and we Love People, don’t think just of a cute picture. Think about sweat. Tears. Achy muscles. Long hours. Frustration. Hospital waiting rooms. Hours of boredom. Teenagers with attitudes.
And if you’re looking for the right image, think of nails. Thorns. Angry guards with heavy whips. Rough wood shaped into an ugly cross. Dried blood on a battered face.
That’s the best image of love the world has produced.
And though most of us won’t be called upon to die on a Cross, we will be asked to love.
And love costs.
I had an interesting interview a couple of weeks ago. A doctoral student was conducting research, wanting to find out why a few pastors are able to stay in the same church for many years. He knew I had been here at FSBCA for 17 and a half years. He started by saying that I am “way outside of the norm” when it comes to pastoral tenure. Most have a tendency to come and go after just a few years in the church, and many drop out of the ministry altogether after a few years.
He asked a simple question with several variations: “Why have you stayed this long?” and “How were you able to handle the stresses and frustrations that typically cause a pastor to look elsewhere?”
I had to think about it to honestly answer his questions.
(Of course, there’s another question that in this day-and-age of “replace leaders every few years” has to be asked. Why has the church kept me around this long? Someone else will have to answer that one.)
There are, of course, a few personal reasons why I have stayed:
I don’t like to move.
I’ve never wanted to disrupt my children’s education.
I’ve made good friends in this church.
I’m involved in the community even beyond the church. (This is now my home.)
And the church has done some things that have made it easy to stay.
The church pays me a decent salary. FSBCA isn’t a rich church, but they still manage to pay me a good salary and provide insurance and retirement.
The church has given me a generous vacation and time off policy. My annual family vacations and occasional weekends away with Dawn are great fun. They also are an incredible stress reliever that allows me to relax and recharge.
And, occasionally, the church has blessed me far beyond my expectations. They helped me pay medical expenses when my daughter was diagnosed with cancer. And then they gave my daughter a “baby grand” piano which is still her most prized possession. A few years ago, the church sent Dawn and I on an Alaskan Cruise. They have surprised me many times with their generosity!
But there is something even deeper. Even though life at FSBCA hasn’t always been easy, and we’ve had our challenges and our share of “grumpies” like all churches, the people of FSBCA have been the kind of people I like to pastor. They are real disciples of Jesus who don’t just talk about their faith, they put it into practice by supporting their church with their time, their money, and especially with their service to Jesus in reaching out to our community.
Over the years, I’ve challenged the church to do more than just teach and preach and do “typical church stuff.” I’ve wanted us to be involved in our community and share God’s love in very real and very practical ways. And the church has responded. I was reviewing 2016 recently, and I was reminded that our church was involved in many different ministries, led by real disciples of Jesus:
We take an annual mission trip to the Island of Dominica to build homes and do evangelism.
We hand out brown bag lunches to the hungry four days per week. It started as a few bags per week. We gave out over 6,000 lunches last year.
We run a basketball league that impacts the lives of about 400 people (players and spectators) every year.
We provide Christmas presents and a Christmas party to nearly 300 children every year who have a parent in jail through our Angel Tree Ministry.
Our New Life Pregnancy Center (a partnership with Arizona Baptist Children’s Services) did 56 pregnancy tests last year and provided 2,325 bundles of diapers and clothing to young moms, and had over 300 parenting class attendees last year.
We provided free medical care (nurses, doctors, and medicines), providing 2,506 patient visits in 2016, as part of a partnership with Mission of Mercy.
We provide a free annual Fall Festival that touches the lives of about 1000 people every year.
We help people with addictions and addicts in our Celebrate Recovery Meeting.
We’re working with other churches (and Lutheran Social Services) to provide food and shelter to ten adults per night.
We cooperate with a ministry called New Song Center for Grieving Children to provide grief counseling to children of those who have lost a parent. And we help 70 children twice per month.
We provide complete Thanksgiving meals to 100 families each year, in partnership with Albertsons and the City of Avondale.
Our Benevolence Fund helps people in our church family with emergency needs. In 2016, we helped with $19,000 worth of emergency aid.
My point is pretty simple. I feel like I’m leading real disciples of Jesus Christ, and that’s what I’m called to do. Our church, we often admit, is far from perfect, but we’re on the front lines of doing God’s work.
I like that.
And when a pastor likes what His church is doing, He feels good about staying.
Dear President-Elect Trump:
Congratulations on winning the presidential Election!
To be honest, I was among the many Americans who were frustrated with the choice between you and Clinton. Neither one of you gave me great hope. Nevertheless, before the election, I made some commitments to the winning candidate. I want you to know that I intend to keep them. I will talk to you (if I ever get the chance) and about you respectfully. I will pray for you. And though I had doubts about you and your qualifications, I will accept you as my president and I will hope and pray and expect the best from you. When I disagree–which is my right as a citizen–I will do so respectfully.
But since our nation right now appears to be divided and angry (and even frightened), I do have some suggestions that I believe will help move our nation toward unity. I respectfully suggest the following courses of action:
Please distance yourself, immediately and completely, from all hate groups, white-supremacy groups, and racist politicians. Because some of these groups supported you, there are questions about where you stand. Distancing yourself from these groups will make it much more likely that you will be a successful president.
Be open and honest and transparent about all of your business interests, and make it clear that you have no conflicts of interests. Release your tax returns. Put your assets into a blind trust so that we can trust that your actions as president are unrelated to your business interests.
Put together a diverse and well-qualified cabinet and group of advisors that includes many women and members of minority groups. Though it is typical to select members of your own party, there are many fine people across the aisle with talent and dedication. It would go a long way toward a spirit of unity if you would appoint a few Democrats to work on your team.
Refuse to be petty and vindictive. You have a reputation for getting even with those who offend you. I don’t personally know if this reputation is accurate, but there can be no room for revenge in a president. You will need to work well with even your enemies if you are to be successful.
Stop–immediately–the angry tweets and words that put people down. I could ignore them when you were a businessman. They disturbed me greatly when you were a candidate. They will detract tremendously from your presidency.
Show some humility and apologize to those you offended in some of your tweets and remarks. Judges? Women? News media? Mexicans? Senators? Other candidates? Muslims? Gold-Star families? Your words were at times very offensive, and an honest apology will help mend fences. Don’t explain or walk-back the statements. Just apologize. It will help.
I love the United States of America. It is my country. You are my President. I will be praying for you and for our nation.
God bless America. And may God bless you.
Pastor Jack Marslender
Dear Mr(s). President:
I write this well before the election, because I don’t want you to think that this letter is overly personal. The things that I say and the prayer that I offer applies to you whether your name is Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.
I must be honest. I have some serious doubts about your ability to handle the job. You were not at the top of my list when this process started. I have some major disagreements with many of your positions on the issues and challenges facing America. You and I look at life, faith, family, and leadership from very different perspectives.
But though we disagree in many ways, I want you to know something that is personal and important and that I hope will be very encouraging to you.
I will pray for you.
I pray that God will give you wisdom. I pray that God will help you to lead this country effectively. I pray that you will be able to deal with the many issues facing this country and the entire world. I pray for your safety and for your family and your health. I pray that I will be pleasantly surprised with your ability to lead this nation effectively and that you will be a highly successful president.
Once the election is over and you are inaugurated, I will accept you as my president. I will not call you names, nor will I lie about you or put you down in any way. When I disagree with you—and I know I will, because I have strong opinions about many things and that is my right as a citizen of this country—I will do so respectfully.
You are the President of the country that I love. I pray that you will be worthy of that position and that you will be an excellent leader.
With God’s love,
Pastor Jack Marslender
I admit it. I was getting cranky and frustrated—and maybe even a little bit angry—during this very strange presidential election. The lies, the filth, the innuendos, and the name-calling by the candidates were deeply disturbing to me. And the angry posts from believers (and friends) on Facebook were getting to me. I was ready to post a few angry responses and statements on social media of my own, against my better judgment.
Instead, I did what I challenge everyone to do when we’re growing angry and frustrated.
And as often happens after I stop-and-pray, God changed my thinking and reminded me of some very important perspectives for believers:
The political world is getting mean and ugly and downright dirty; we can’t afford to sink to that level.
Some voters are zealous evangelists for their candidate; we must be zealous for Jesus.
Some voters are discouraged and disgusted; we have hope in the gospel of Christ.
Some issues are dividing the generations; Jesus bridges the gap between young-and-old.
Some issues are dividing black-from-white; Jesus unites different colors and cultures.
Relationships and friendships are being broken; Christians can stand together even during disagreement.
Politicians and voters often hate their opponents; we must love our enemies.
Politicians are spreading lies; we must tell the truth.
Politicians live in a world of innuendos, putdowns, one-liners, and trash talk; we must be kind.
Politicians are spreading dirt and filth; we must spread love.
Politicians claim they can bring peace through strength or negotiation; we know there will never be peace until we find it in Jesus.
Politicians declare that their opponent is flawed and sinful; we agree because it’s true for all of us.
Candidates declare that they can fix what ails our country; we know we can accomplish far more on our knees than any president can from the oval office.
Politicians claim that this is the most important election in history; God choosing me (and you) is far more important.
Political parties claim disaster if their opponent wins; no matter who wins God will still be God and His work will still remain.
I will, of course, still vote. And I will still have strong opinions, most of which I will not share publicly, because I have better things to talk about. But I will refuse to be consumed by the world of politics. If anything consumes me, I want it to be my love for God, my love for all people, and my desire to follow Jesus and do His work.
It’s popular to trash talk and put down police departments and officers in America today. A few NFL players (see my previous blog) have refused to stand during the National Anthem due to perceived racism in police departments. Riots in both small and large American cities have focused their anger on the police. This growing anger has contributed to shootings of officers (in Dallas and other cities) and has put the lives of all police officers in serious risk and danger.
It is becoming popular to put down police officers.
But it’s wrong.
Let me explain by starting with a rather obvious (to me) truth. Yes, there are some racist police officers and these officers have acted immorally, in some cases illegally, and in a few cases atrociously. These officers need to be dealt with appropriately and immediately by their superior officers and by the courts.
But let me state another rather obvious (again, to me) truth: The overwhelming majority of police officers are honest, hardworking, committed, unbiased, dedicated, competent, and fair. I can’t point to specific statistics, but my personal experience tells me that 95% or more of our officers are what we used to call “the salt of the earth,” fine people who make good neighbors, good friends, good church members, and good citizens. You might disagree with my percentage, but think about it. What would you say? It is 80%? 90%? 99%?
To trash a whole class of people due to the actions of a small minority is wrong. If the judgment and anger were directed at people with a particular skin color, we would call it racism. If the judgment and anger were directed at a particular sex, we would call it discrimination. If the judgment and anger were directed at a religion or denomination, we would call it blatantly unfair.
It’s simply wrong to judge a large group of people by the actions of a few, even if the few act horribly.
There are a few ungodly teachers in America, but we accept the fact that most teachers are fine people who should be respected. There are a few dishonorable doctors and nurses out there, but we don’t judge the profession by the actions of the few. There are (I admit it) more than a few ungodly and immoral preachers out there, but we accept the fact (at least I hope you do) that most preachers are respectable.
It’s the only fair way to act.
And though I’ve used the examples of teachers and preachers and doctors, it’s really an unfair comparison. Teachers work hard and long preparing the next generation of Americans. Doctors work hard and long healing and teaching and helping their patients live healthy lives. Preachers work hard and long deal with important doctrinal, emotional, spiritual, moral, Biblical, and even eternal issues.
But preachers and teachers and doctors in America don’t generally put their lives on the line every time they go to work.
Police officers do.
I concede that there are a few officers who need reprimand, correction, and dismissal. And there are also a few who need to be arrested and tried for serious crimes. And leaders who have protected guilty officers or who have failed to act should be held accountable.
And it’s fully acceptable to be angry and demand action in those particular cases.
But let’s not judge the whole by looking at the actions of a few. It’s not right. It’s not healthy. It’s not fair. It’s not Christian.
Instead, let’s offer police officers our highest level of honor. Treat them with respect when we interact with them. Understand the stress and strain they are under when they pull over a car, intervene in a domestic assault, observe a crime, or respond to a plea for help. Recognize the overwhelming challenge they face to make life-or-death decisions in a fraction of a second. Obey them when they give us directives. Defend them when their integrity is unfairly attacked. Pray for them on a regular basis, and again when we see them on the street.
The Apostle Paul instructed the church in Rome, “Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” (Romans 13:7, NIV)
We owe our officers–because of the work they do, the risk they take, and the responsibility they shoulder–both honor and respect.
It’s the right way to live and to act.
PS. We will renew our efforts to pray for our own local police officers in the City of Avondale. Our mission team will have the badge numbers available within a few weeks so that members can adopt–and agree to pray regularly for–an officer. We do it anonymously, but we believe that God honors our prayers and our officers know we care for them and pray for them.
I respect your right to take a stand by choosing not to stand during the National Anthem. I admire the fact that you have a social conscience and the desire to speak to the issues of our day. I recognize that we still have some serious racial divides and issues in our country. I’ve read enough of your tweets to know that I don’t agree with all of your conclusions, but in America, we are allowed to speak our minds and to take appropriate actions to communicate what we believe.
I know that not everyone enjoys it, but I appreciate athletes who use their status to speak and do more than just play ball and make a dollar. There are many causes to promote, many stands to take, many evils to point out. And you had a right to make your point.
But having the right to do something doesn’t mean that it is the right thing to do. I, too, have the right to speak my mind, so I want to respectfully tell you why I disagree with your actions, and why I encourage you to stand respectfully the next time you hear the National Anthem:
Standing during the National Anthem shows respect toward those who have served our nation and for the nation itself. It doesn’t mean that you agree with everything the nation has done. I would stand and show respect at the singing of any National Anthem in any country. When in Canada, I would stand respectfully during their playing of their anthem. If in Russia, I would do the same. I expect the same courtesy from any of our own athletes and from visiting athletes. Disagreement–even strong disagreement–doesn’t have to lead to disrespect. And I think that your actions showed a great degree of disrespect for America, for those who have served America, and for all Americans.
I don’t know you personally, but it would seem to me that the United States has treated you very well. You have worked hard and are reaping the rewards of that hard work. Young black men in previous generations may not have been able to reap the rewards of that work, so we are changing. It’s slow, and it’s not across the board, but we are changing. We are far from perfect and we have many remaining issues to solve, but our nation has given you an incredible opportunity. Should you not be able to respect a nation that has given you that opportunity?
Your apparent disrespect offends the many people who would otherwise be your allies. Many good people of all skin colors who love our country despite our sins are working hard to overcome racism in our country. I happen to be a white pastor of a predominately white church. I preach strongly of the evils of racism and call our church to take a strong stand against the evils of racism. But we can accomplish more with mutual respect than we can with shows of disrespect.
And though my church is predominately white, the basketball league I administer is predominately black. I work with young black athletes on an almost daily basis. I don’t always understand them. And they don’t always understand me. But we’re working hard to love and respect each other. I expect them to stand at attention during the National Anthem. I expect them (even if they’re not believers) to take off their ball caps and bow their heads during prayer. I expect them to listen respectfully when I speak. And I do the same to them. Even when we disagree, we work on the basis of mutual respect. Your example of disrespect will just encourage disrespect on a local level.
So continue to speak what’s on your mind. Take a stand. Make a strong point. Make me think. Challenge me. Tell me where you think I’m wrong. Call out our leaders (and even pastors) when we’re wrong. And I will do the same.
But let’s do so with at least a base level of respect. Stand respectfully during the playing of the National Anthem. Set an example of a man who can state his opinions boldly and forcefully, and yet still show respect for his nation and his fellow countrymen.
I respect your desire to take a strong stand, but I believe you will accomplish much more if your strong stands are combined with respect for our nation and our people.
Pastor Jack Marslender, First Southern Baptist Church of Avondale