Thursday, October 27, 2011

"The Badge of Honor" by Garris Elkins

We’ve all had experiences that change us forever. A life-changing experience for me was spending almost ten years behind a badge as a police officer. For the last 30 years I have worked in various ministry roles, both here and abroad, and these years have been profound, but I have never forgotten the deep impact of those early years in my 20’s when I worked as a police officer.

I remember the day I raised my hand and was sworn in to uphold the laws of the State of California and to honor the badge that would be handed to me as soon as the ceremony was over. The badge of my department had a physical weight, but it also carried a heavier weight of honor and duty.

The moment my swearing in ceremony was over my perception of the world around me changed. I was now a police officer. This shift in perception changed how I looked at a crowd of people or a man standing on a street corner or whether a person’s hands were in their pockets or out – everything changed because surviving in police work required what is called, “Situational Awareness.” I was now aware of things I had not seen before because my safety, and the safety of the community I served, depended upon my ability to see life through the lens of a protector.

It took several years after leaving law enforcement before I could sit in a restaurant with my back to the front door. Each person who entered the restaurant would be assessed to determine his or her threat level. This is the nature of survival. Survival tactics were drilled into each new police officer. If you didn’t live in this awareness, your life and the lives of those around you could be in jeopardy.

I have been asked a question many times over the years since I left police work, “Isn’t the ministry a lot different than police work – how were you able to make the transition?” My response has sometimes produced confused expressions on people’s faces when I say, “No, it hasn’t been difficult - they are a lot alike.” They are similar because of shared issues like authority, power, service, protection, etc.

Police officers are like any other group of people in many ways, but vastly different in others. Soldiers in battle have a sense of camaraderie and brotherhood that is shared with police work. When your life depends on another person to do their job, you want to make sure you honor their life by doing your job to the best of your ability. I have told people the thing I miss seeing in the church world today is that unity that was expressed when, as police officers, we faced a life and death situation. When a cop or a soldier is fired upon, all the other cops or soldiers risk their lives to save their friend who is under attack. Disunity and a lack of honor in our church ranks can force us to retreat from the very conflict God has asked us to engage.

Honor for a believer means that we choose to look past the failures and insecurities of the people in our lives and choose to look at them as God sees them. As believers we share a dual-citizenship - both here on earth and in heaven. We are living here on earth, but we are also living in Christ at the right hand of our Heavenly Father. Honor invests in words and actions that express an understanding of the heavenly citizenship people have in Christ. Honor creates a people who will fight to not let another person settle for a lesser image of themselves than the one God has.

As my years in law enforcement went on, I found myself given the assignment of an FTO (Field Training Officer). I loved this job. As an FTO, I would be given an absolutely green rookie and asked to train them to become a fully functioning police officer that other cops could depend on.

My ability to train others was many times sourced in my own failures as a young cop. With each training subject I taught, the transfer of knowledge was released through open and honest conversations about my own failings. As a young rookie cop would look to me for direction, I wanted him to know that in order for him to become the officer his department and community expected, he would need to understand a functional definition of honor. Honor must move beyond theory to become action.

I tried to instill many things into the rookies under my care. The three issues that seemed to be at the top of my training list were Covering, Communication and Conditioning.

The Honor of Covering

During my first week of my own training as a rookie cop I felt completely lost. My FTO was my lifeline to reality and survival. I wasn’t sure what to do in each and every circumstance. One night during my first week of training, as we worked the late swing shift, we pulled into a closed gas station after hours and two guys took off running from behind the building. My FTO was out of the car in a flash and I just sat there. After a couple of minutes he came back.

As my FTO approached the car I could see he was upset. He sat back down in the driver’s seat next to his completely confused rookie and began speaking in a very loud and strong voice, behind a shaking index finger pointed right in the middle of my face. “You never sit in a patrol car when your partner bails out to chase a suspect. You never leave me uncovered again like that – you got it!” I did get it and for the rest of my police career I stuck like glue to anyone I worked with and demanded the same from my trainees.

Honor covers people. One of the most striking examples of this in the Word is found in Genesis 9 when Ham went in to his father’s tent and saw Noah drunk and passed out from drinking too much and then went outside and “uncovered” his father’s condition before his brothers. The brothers, instead of walking in to look at their father’s nakedness, walked into the tent backwards and covered their father’s moment of shame.

When we cover another believer we are not called to defend their words or actions – those words and actions are to be defended by the one who spoke them. We are called to stand before broken brothers and sisters in Christ in a posture of covering honor and give them the time they need to become whole once again. This kind of honor could mean that you and I may step into harm’s way and put our reputation at risk to cover someone’s brokenness. This honor of covering each other may even shift our circles of fellowship because a false honor requires an alignment with dishonor that a person of honor cannot agree with.

Police officers have a phrase about covering each other in dangerous situations where multiple threats surround them, they say, “I have your back.” Our “back” is that place where we are the most vulnerable and defenseless. One of most powerful experiences we can have in our journey through life is to have other believers move in and cover our backside in times of personal weakness.

The Honor of Communication

Right after I was trained, I was released to be a beat cop all on my own. I loved the freedom of this new assignment. I enjoyed getting ready for duty each day and stepping into my patrol car and going on the hunt.

There is a lot of information to remember as a beat cop. You have it drilled into you to know exactly where you are at any given moment in case something takes place that requires a response to a specific location. After awhile it becomes second nature, but in the beginning you can forget some things.

One day, as a newly minted cop, early in the shift I stopped a car for a traffic violation. As was procedure, we were trained to activate our outside speaker so that our radio dispatchers could relay vital information to us during the car stop.

On this particular day I forgot to re-activate the inside speaker when I returned to my patrol car and left the outside speaker on. I went about my duties oblivious to my mistake. It must have seemed strange to members of the community to have a police car driving through their neighborhood with the outside speaker blaring. I sounded more like an ice cream truck than a police car.

After about 30 minutes, I began to realize how quiet the radio traffic had become. The stillness was nice since I was still trying to get my head around this new position as a beat cop and the quiet allowed me some time to gather my thoughts. As I drove through the city, I turned in front of a building and heard the echo of the outside speaker bounce the voice of the radio dispatcher off the wall. Then I got sick to my stomach as I looked down at my radio console and saw my mistake and realized I had broken communication.

As the radio now came back to life inside my patrol car, I heard, in horror, the dispatcher coordinating a multi-agency police search for a lost patrol officer – me. Car stops are some of the most dangerous things a cop can do. When you can’t find an officer who was just out on a car stop a worst-case scenario is imagined. I heard concerned officers letting dispatch know that they had just finished searching their assigned grid and found no officer.

After a few moments of similar radio transmissions from baffled cops, I knew I had to fess up. I picked up the radio microphone and told the dispatcher what had happened. Every other cop for miles around, inside my department and outside in the other assisting agencies, heard me acknowledge my dumb rookie mistake. One after another, I heard officers let the dispatcher know they were going back to their regular duties. I was completely humiliated, but I learned something that day and it never happened again to me. To lose communication cuts us off from those we are connected with and will cause us to also lose the benefit of their support.

Honor means that you and I best serve our own lives, and the lives of others, by remaining open to hearing the voice of God. We can never allow ourselves to be put in a place where we switch off the voice of God – we owe it to each other, in honor, to stay in communication no matter what we think God is saying. Whenever we shut ourselves off from the voice of God we end up driving around uninformed and someone will have to leave his or her normal duties to come and search for us.

The Honor of Conditioning

I used to stay in top physical condition when I worked as a street cop because if I didn’t I might not return home alive at the end of my shift. Without on-going physical conditioning two things happen to a police officer – someone else has to do your job for you and you become a liability to those around you.

Many times I would see out-of-shape cops escalate a situation to a higher level simply because they were not able physically to handle what was happening to them. Instead of being able to take care of someone with their bare hands through simple grappling techniques, they would escalate the situation to a higher level than was inappropriate for the threat. Some of the strife in the Church today is because we are out of shape spiritually and escalate minor events into major ones.

The issue of conditioning was connected to my desire to honor my fellow officers. We had a gym and weight room in our department locker room. Many of us tried to stay in shape for reasons other than the obvious health benefits. I stayed in shape to honor the wives and kids of other cops who would have to visit a hospital or attend a funeral if I allowed myself to become a weak link in the survival chain.

We owe it to others in God’s Kingdom to stay in shape spiritually. If we start eating spiritual junk food and fail to live in the daily exercise of faith, we will become a liability because we are no longer doing what we should faithfully be doing as an act of honor and love. Some of this sounds harsh, but in the real world of failing marriages and ministries, we can’t afford to let our guard down and get sloppy and try to live without immediate acts of forgiveness, repentance and humility. Otherwise people will get injured, or worse, they can die spiritually.

The Kingdom of God is not a social event – it is a tactical operation. The strategy of God is already in place. God gave us the Great Commission as His strategy for transforming the kingdoms of this world. Strategies are executed through proper tactics. Each of us needs to seek God for how He wants us to tactically implement His Kingdom strategy in our particular setting. Our contribution to this deployment is to be a reliable and functioning member of the Body of Christ walking daily behind a badge of honor.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

"The Challenge of Identity" by Garris Elkins

When I lived in Berlin, Germany an appointment was arranged for me to meet an elderly man at a café in Potsdamer Platz. Potsdamer Platz is an iconic area in the city of Berlin that was devastated during World War II and was then occupied by Communist East Germany throughout the Cold War. Today, it has been rebuilt and is one of the most urbane and architecturally beautiful areas in the world.

The man I was to meet was unique. Prior to World War II he was a child growing up in the nation of Germany before the Nazism of Hitler had fully arrived. When Hitler took power he became one of the Hitler Youth that were the paramilitary corps of young boys and girls from which Hitler would source his Nazi war machine. When the war was over this man lived behind the Berlin Wall in East Berlin where he came under the strong hand of Communist rule in the gray and drab colors of godless Communism. As we sat at our café table he was now living in a free and democratic Germany in a wall-less Berlin. He had lived within four very different identities as a German citizen.

As the two of us sat there in Potsdamer Platz we sipped our espresso and exchanged small talk. A mutual friend who was one of the correspondence secretaries for the first President Bush arranged our meeting. After about an hour of conversation this dear man made a comment I will never forget. He said, “At this age I am not sure who I am. I began my life as a German. Then I became part of the Nazi Youth Movement. Then I was forced to become a Communist and now I live in a unified and democratic Germany. Who am I?”

In the years that have transpired since that meeting in Berlin, I have come to understand this man’s confusion over his identity. The reason I understand his confusion about identity is this - not a week goes by when I don’t struggle with mine. I also see others in this same struggle.

Each of us needs to possess an identity that will move with us through all the changes we experience in this life. That identity cannot come from this world – it must come from the greater and more stable reality of eternity. The identity of a follower of Christ is not gained by an education, professional accomplishments or by doing a lot of right things. This is what Peter wrote in I Peter 2:9 when he said, “You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people.” God had to make his people into what Peter wrote about. God chose our identity for us.

When Paul wrote his letter to the church in Ephesus he said that we are seated with Christ in heaven. This is not some future position, it is current and now. It is not something we gain by our own efforts. This position, and its resulting identity, is a gift from God to us the moment we came into relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

For a believer in Christ we are new creations of God. The “new” is so radical that the new person God created in Christ has never been seen before. Our identity appeared for the first time on earth the day we said “yes” to the offer of salvation in Christ.

We have been reborn as saints, no longer “sinners saved by grace.” This new identity is in us and before us, not behind us. God had to make us saints. We couldn’t do enough right things to gain this label. It is a gift of God’s grace. We are also realistic saints who have come to understand that we can still sin. But something has profoundly changed. Our default setting is no longer set on sin, but rather, upon a new identity in Christ that is free from sin. We take captive every thought that raises itself up in an attempt to rob us of who God has declared us to be.

Our new nature is far more powerful and transforming than the old one that still lies to us and tries to motivate us through shame. Our new identity is eternally secure and not diminished by whatever we go through on this side of heaven. That knowledge gives us the peace to endure the labels placed upon us by changing culture, politics or the personal failures that cross our paths in the journey of life.

Over the years I lost contact with the old German man I met in Berlin. I am guessing he has passed away. He provided me with a real desire to know who I am independent from the capricious circumstances of this life. Once we know who we are in Christ we can endure the upheaval and change that so often visits each life. We can also endure those foolish moments where we are tempted to believe the lie that says if we can just get it all right that God will love us more.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

"The Grape Tree" by Garris Elkins

At the end of our street is where the Grape Tree grows. The Grape Tree is an old oak that has been overtaken by a grape vine that produces wonderfully sweet grapes each year.

The little town where we live is one of those historic gold-mining towns that sprang up in the 1850’s and then died as the center of commerce and transportation shifted. The death of our little town is actually what preserved it so that today thousands of tourists can visit and experience a piece of history.

The grape vine that feeds the Grape Tree is old and massive. In fact, the trunk of the grape vine is as large as some of the trees in the forest. I met the out-of-town owner of this property once and asked him about the grape vine. He said the property used to be part of the original homestead. The grape vine was planted by those first settlers in the late 1800’s.

What is amazing to realize is that each year hundreds of pounds of grapes are suspended in the branches of the Grape Tree. People driving by rarely see the grapes, but they are there year-after-year. Those who walk close to this tree do a double take because grapes aren’t supposed to grow on trees.

I think the Grape Tree is a picture of how God wants to work in our lives. Our lives, like this tree, are simply supporting structures upon which God hangs the blessing of His fruitfulness. Grape Trees are like those people who realize they are called to bear the goodness of God for those who would pass by. Those of us who walk by this kind of life receive a blessing because we get to taste the goodness of God.

This morning as I finished my daily walk, I detoured to make sure I passed by the Grape Tree. I reached up and picked a cluster of sweet grapes and used them to refresh me on the last leg of my walk home. I think if the Grape Tree had emotions, it would feel good about what was happening in its branches. There are many other oak trees in this grove, but only one bears the grapes and that makes the Grape Tree very unique.