A Movement of Selfless Love

As you may have noticed, I have changed the name of my blog to: “A Movement of Selfless Love.” The reason for the change is simple. I believe a movement of selfless love is what our world needs now more than anything else.

 

We need a movement.

Not a gathering of good people;

not a philosophy class;

not a social club;

not an assembly of worshippers;

not a group of day-dreamers;

not a church of well-wishers.

We need a movement.

We need a movement of goers and doers, going and doing all that we can, when we can, where we can, with all that we have been given

working for wholeness in a world that is broken;

working for justice in systems of inequality;

working for mercy and grace in a society of bigotry;

working for peace in a culture of violence;

working for truth in a nation of politics;

working for hope in a state of despair;

working for love in a world of hate.

And the love we work for must always be selfless.

Not a love that expects anything in return;

not a love that is conditional, prejudicial, exclusive or elusive;

not a love that is self-seeking, self-regarding or even self-interested.

But a love that is always self-expending, self-giving and self-denying;

a love that is forbearing, forgiving and free;

a love that is gracious, grateful and generous;

a love that is encouraging and empathetic;

a love that never gives in, gives up or gives out;

a love that is positive and pure.

It is a love that is forward-thinking and forward-marching, going out to give hope to those the world leaves behind.

It is the love that Jesus modeled, taught and commanded.

It is the love that is God.

It is the love that can heal sick religion, restore a distorted morality and rebuild a broken world.

It tears down walls that divide and barriers that exclude.

It is the love that has the power to change the world.

 

The Miracle of Pure Positivity: Reflections from the 2019 Marine Corps Marathon

 

MCM2019 JOSH FINISH

Josh France has Angelman Syndrome. He is non-verbal. He has excessive hyper-activity and has trouble resting. He has a difficult time walking and with all motor skills. But his smile and his laughter are infectious. He is a gift of God to the world. As of Sunday, he is also a marathoner.

Josh’s journey to the 2019 Marine Corps Marathon in Washington DC began early this year with our fundraising campaign. Thanks to some amazing people with generous hearts, we were among the first Duo Teams to meet our fundraising goal to be an Ainsley’s Angels Charity Partner by raising $1,750 in just a few weeks. Having experienced the incredible joy Josh receives participating in local races, and understanding the powerful symbol of inclusion that Josh’s participation in what is called “The People’s Marathon” conveys, members of the Western Arkansas running community and members of Josh’s family did not hesitate to give generously.

Pub run

Inspired by Josh’s love for racing with Ainsley’s Angels, Josh’s father, Mike, recently became a runner himself. To prepare Josh to cover the 26.2-mile distance, Mike trained with Josh all summer by pushing him several times each week. Mike also pushed Josh in the weekly Fort Smith Pub Run and in every local race in which Ainsley’s Angels participated.

MCM 2019 GO TEAM JOSH

During last week’s Pub Run, the local running community came together again for a $5 5k to raise money to help the France’s travel expenses to Washington. The previous week, at a group run sponsored by True Grit Running Company (our local running store), runners and storeowner Melissa Vitale surprised me with a generous gift of a new Garmin running watch, a pair of Mizuno running shorts and Balega running socks. The love that Josh and I have received from Western Arkansas has been humbling and something that I will forever cherish.

One week before I planned to depart for Washington DC, as I was on one of my final training runs, I badly injured my left knee. The next day, it hurt to walk. I was unable to run one step. The day before I boarded the plane, I was still unable to run a step; however, several of my running friends assured me that they were praying for me and had faith I was going to be able to run on Sunday. I responded: “That will take a miracle! If I can run the first mile, I will be surprised.” I boarded the plane on Thursday with my running shoes packed, hoping for such a miracle.

MCM 2019 Ambassadors

Athlete Riders, Angel Runners, Guardian Angels, Caregivers and Local Ambassadors from all over the country began gathering at our host hotel in Crystal City shortly after I arrived. The place was exploding with pure positivity, as I was surrounded some of the most selfless, most giving and most dedicated people in the world. Ambassadors Michelle Smith and Bethann Wilkie, who first introduced me to Ainsley’s Angels, were there. Rob Cass, who swam across the Chesapeake Bay earlier this year, was there. Maggie Seymore, who ran from San Diego to Virginia and donated two of Arkansas’ first three chairs and helped light a fire of inclusion in Arkansas, was there. Shaun Evans, who pushed his son Shamus, who has Cerebral Palsy 3,200 miles from Seattle to New York City was there. And Ainsley’s Angels Vice President Joe Orth, who pours all he has into this event every year, and Ainsley’s Angels President and founder Kim “Rooster “Rossiter were there. And many others, too many to name. It soon became very obvious that nothing in heaven or on earth was going to be able to tell any of us, “No you can’t.” Not the forecast of torrential rain, not the warmer than average temperatures, not the increased World Series traffic, and not the bursitis that had inflamed my left knee. On Thursday night, Joe Orth asked me how I thought I was going to be able to run on Sunday. Although it hurt to pick up my left leg, I responded: “Like a gazelle!”

After picking up our race bibs on Friday, Ainsley’s Angels Ambassador Caitlin Espy from Raleigh, who is a physical therapist, massaged the ligaments around my knee. Ainsley’s Angels Vice President Chris Wood bought me a beer or three. On Saturday, Peggy Wolfe, who was Ainsley’s therapist, taped my knee up. Ambassador Kristy High and Angel Runner Sharon Wood supplied me with plenty of ibuprofen. I received texts from friends in Fort Smith telling me that I was going to be fine and assuring me they were praying for me. Josh continually blew me kisses all weekend as if to say: “Jarrett, I am going to love you no matter what.” And although the pain in my knee was so intense that it prevented me from falling asleep on Saturday night, I got up on Sunday morning at 3:30 am and laced my running shoes up to attempt to run a marathon. As I experienced pain in my knee while putting my shoes on, I thought: “If my knee hurts this bad before the marathon, I wonder what is it going to feel like afterwards, even if I only run part of it? And I wonder how am I going to sleep tonight!”

MCM 2019 josh and jarrett ready to go

There are so many miraculous images in my mind from Sunday; however, the image I know I will never forget is the parade of 100 positive souls, including caregivers, Ambassadors, Angel Runners, Guardian Angels and Athlete Riders, making the half mile journey from the Ainsley’s Angels equipment trailers to the marathon starting line. It was 6 am. We had already been up for hours. It was pouring rain. It was dark. And it was very wet. But together, we marched and rolled to the starting line with joy, excitement and confidence. No one was complaining. No one contemplated turning back, and no one even thought about sitting it out. Not one ounce of negativity anywhere. It was miraculous.

I should not have been surprised. The dedication I witnessed overcoming the chilly rain before dawn on Sunday morning in that parade of positivity was really nothing compared to the dedication that our Athlete Riders and caregivers possess to overcome greater obstacles every day of their lives. Of course no one was complaining. Of course there was no giving up or giving in. Of course no negativity was present. This was nothing. This was just a little inconvenience. This was just a little annoyance. This was just a little water, a little early.

MCM 2019 Frances

And I was only experiencing a little pain. How inconsequential is the pain in my knee compared to what caregivers like Mike and Hong France and Athlete Riders like Josh endure 24/7? Pain, by the way, that was caused by running, by doing something that Josh will never be able to do on his own.

I then thought about where we were standing. We were standing just a few feet from Arlington Cemetery, where the bodies men and women were laid to rest after sacrificing life itself, so we could be free.  A little rain; a little pain— Inconsequential.

It was not an easy race. No marathon is. But we ran every mile of it. At times, the rain was blinding. But Josh kept smiling. Josh kept laughing. Josh kept giving spectators high fives and blowing them kisses. The sun came out at mile 20 transforming the nation’s capital into an 80-degree sauna, but it didn’t phase Josh. He kept waving to the crowds that were lining the streets. So, I kept running.

MCM 2019 JOSH Capitol

I would have never finished the race without my new friend for life and Angel Runner Steve Ruggles, who helped push Josh, alternating with me after every mile. This was not only Steve’s first time pushing an Athlete Rider, this was Steve’s first marathon! He also hurt his knee during one of his final training runs, and like me, he was unsure if he could finish the race. But as we like to say: Together, we shall.” And together, we did.

This was also Josh’s first marathon, but this was certainly not his first race. During the last two years, Josh has completed over 50 races with Ainsley’s Angels. Each time a medal is placed around his neck at the finish line, he immediately takes it off and throws it to the ground. And then he laughs out loud. Every single time. It has gotten to the point where we have almost stopped putting the medal around his neck. However, when the Marine placed the beautiful Marine Corps Eagle, Globe and Anchor medal around Josh’s neck, as I was prepared to pick it up off the ground and to apologize to anyone that might get hit with it, Josh grabbed the medal, held it to his face and kissed it repeatedly. MCM photographers took several pictures that should be available soon.

MCM 2019 JOSH FINISH JARRETT

I spent Sunday night at Rooster and Lori’s house in Virginia Beach. It was good to see Lori and Cameron. I knew this was always a very emotional weekend for this special family. I had the privilege to sleep in Ainsley’s room. I closed my eyes thinking about Ainsley, how the Marine Corps Marathon was her last race. I thought about Rooster and Lori’s dedication to her, and now, to her amazing legacy. Unlike the night before, the pain in my left knee did not prevent me from falling sound asleep. As I slept, I dreamed of Josh and the other Athlete Riders I am blessed to know. I dreamed about the privilege of being pulled by them in races. I can’t recall every detail of my dreams, but I know I dreamed pure joy, goodness and positivity.

I awoke refreshed. I was a little sore, like I had run a marathon. However, my left knee felt like it had never been injured.

It was a miracle. But I am not surprised.

In a Foreign Land

church in decline

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 NRSV

I often think of Rev. David Brooks. He was the first pastor who suggested that God may be calling me to be a pastor. I had the opportunity to serve with him as the youth director of a church during the summer of 1986.

I will never forget the day that he called me into his office and shut the door behind me. I thought I was in some kind of trouble. For this was the first time I had ever served on church staff, and I wasn’t too sure I knew what I was doing.

Well, I soon found out that I was in trouble, albeit a different kind of trouble. For he asked me: “Jarrett, have you ever considered that God may be calling you to be a pastor?”

“Me a pastor? No way I will ever be a pastor!” I said.” He then went on to point out the pastoral gifts that he saw in me and to encourage me to prayerfully consider that God may be calling me to pastor a church. Out of respect for him, I told him I would.

Well, five years later, as I was getting ready to graduate from seminary to be a pastor, I was sad to hear that Rev. Brooks had passed away.

I think about him often today. For, as we are studying on Wednesday nights, the church and the culture has changed so much since that day he called me into his office, and I think of how shocked he would be if he could witness what we are experiencing today.

I must confess that I also wonder if he would still believe I possessed the necessary gifts to pastor a church. Because the truth is, although I now have over 30 years of experience serving with churches since that day I was called into his office, I still have moments, especially here in 2019, when I am not too sure I know what I am doing.

In the 1980’s, if a pastor loved the members of their church, if a pastor showed up on Sunday morning with a sermon (it didn’t have to be an awe-inspiring or even a good sermon, just a sermon that was based on scripture and had an appearance that the pastor had put a little work into it), then the church pews on Sunday morning would be full of people to hear the sermon.

Parents with young children came without hesitation, although the only children’s program consisted of a nursery and a simple Sunday School lesson. Young adults even found the music meaningful, that consisted only of a small choir, organ and piano.

Today, the only churches that seem to be full of people are expected to have elaborate children’s centers that rivals some amusement parks, a Chuck-E-Cheese or a Playland at McDonalds. The music must be on par with the music that entertains us at concerts. There’s disappointment if there is an absence of video screens, smoke machines and concert lights. The pastor needs to wow us with their charisma, and just make us feel really, really good.

He also never experienced 9-11 and the rise of religious fundamentalism that came out of it. He never witnessed the election of the first black President, and as a response, the resurgence of the religious right and the rise Christian white nationalism. He never witnessed the anti-Christ spirit that is in our nation today: the greed, the vulgarity, the selfishness, the fear of the other, and the further marginalization of those who are different.  And he never knew that many churches today would support, even seem to worship these anti-Christ sentiments.

And Rev. Brooks died before some people started walking away from the church for good. He knew that many churches in Europe were in delcine, but he never saw it here. He could not ever imagine that an entire generation of young adults would reject the church.

From the vantage point of 1986, it is like we are living in a strange, foreign land, in a completely different world. Churches that were once the insiders of society are now the outsiders. And many of us in churches like ours today are afraid, and we are not too sure if we know what we are doing.

This is exactly where the Israelites find themselves in today’s Hebrew lesson. They have just been exiled into Babylon, finding themselves in a foreign land.           .

It is into this strange and fearful reality, that the prophet Jeremiah sends a letter of hope.

Jeremiah writes that they can find their hope in the willingness and the courage to let go of their past.

Jeremiah insists that the people who have found themselves in a foreign land must surrender its old identity and accept its new situation not only to survive, but to eventually flourish.

He encourages them to begin working towards building a new way of life. They needed to accept that Babylon was where God has planted them and where God wants to work through them.

When Jeremiah says, “Pray to the Lord on their behalf,” the prophet is affirming the truth that God can be found even in this strange and foreign land. God has never left them. God is still working among them and wants to use them to make their new world a more just and peaceful place to live.

Jeremiah wants them to know God is present everywhere, even at the margins, even among the broken, the dejected, the afraid, and the subjugated, in other words, even among outsiders like them.

Jeremiah assures them that they can call on the Lord even without the temple, and the Lord will answer.

Having been conquered, humiliated and deported by military force, the exiles are embittered and vengeful. And Jeremiah writes: “Seek the welfare of the [foreign] land to which God has banished you.” In other words, “Seek the well-being of the land of your enemies. For their well-being is also you well-being. Their peace is also your peace. Pray for their land.”  This is an illustration of the social and political significance of praying for and loving one’s enemies.

Jeremiah encourages them to accept their situation in exile, but not to regard it as hopeless or unchangeable. As he mentions in a later verse, we have the promise from God: “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

I believe Jeremiah’s letter has much to say to churches in 2019 who find themselves in a foreign land.

Churches today who find themselves living in a foreign land respond respond in several unhealthy ways.

The most popular response is to just give up and walk away, to give in to defeat and scarcity, to succumb to the lie that God is no longer present, no longer working in the land, that God no longer has anything for us to do, that church today is just a waste of time.

Another popular response is to just be in denial about it all and to just ignore it. “Yes, the world may be different, but we really don’t need to do anything differently to live in this new reality. So we just need to keep doing the same things that we have always done.”

Another response is to adopt a defensive, self-protective posture. Paralyzed by fear, having no idea what to do, we retreat into our safe sanctuaries to comfort one another while loathing our enemies, for those we blame for this new reality.

Another response is to join the new culture. “People crave entertainment? We will give it to them. People want to feel good about themselves today? Let’s make that happen. The culture has embraced an “us vs. them” mentality? Our leaders resort to name-calling and bullying and work to further disenfranchise the other? To survive in this new world, we will join them and do the same thing. Everyone around us has forgotten that the greatest of God’s commandments is to love our neighbors as ourselves? Well, we’ll just forget that too. To survive in this new culture, we will simply blend in with the new culture.”

I believe Jeremiah’s prophetic words call churches today to respond in a better way.

The prophet reminds us that God is still here, and God is still working in this world. And God still wants to work through us. And God still has a lot of work for us to do!

And God is specifically pressing us to move away from the private walls of the church and into the world, into the public space, to do what we can to fulfill our calling as people of faith to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly.

And because churches that embrace love, kindness and humility now find themselves living in a world of hate, meanness and greed, because churches that embrace the inclusive, counter-cultural way of Christ, are now the outsiders, the disenfranchised, and the marginalized of society, I believe we are to especially go out and address the needs of others who have been disenfranchised and marginalized, all those who suffer from political, social and cultural insecurity and discrimination.

For one thing that our faith teaches us is that God is always most discernible and most present in the margins. Jesus called his disciples to leave their old lives, their old worlds behind, to drop their nets, to journey out to the fringes of society to experience God in new ways and in new forms.

So, what does God want us to do in this foreign land? What do we do when we are not sure what to do?

We need to first make sure that our theology is not a private theology, but that it is a very public theology. It is one that presses us to pray for the welfare, not for our church, but for our city and nation.

It pushes us to commit to work for shalom, for peace, for well-being, for healing, for wholeness, and for justice, not just for the members of our church who feel like they are now living on the margins of society, but for those who have always lived on the margins, for those who have always felt like outsiders…

…while remembering the great promise of God:  “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

Let us pray together

O God, in this strange time and place, help us to be strong and courageous as we share the good news of gospel out to the margins of society. Knowing that you are with us and with you is our hope and our future.