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22 Bullets Later…

Me and Daniel back in 2003

I buried Daniel last Friday… He was 19 years old. He had a kid on the way… another kid who is going to grow up without his daddy in his life.  It’s been two weeks since he was murdered and I was hoping all the emotions would have faded by now but they haven’t. I’ve cried out all my tears… My wife Kimberly has wept every day as she thinks about him; it’s still hard to believe he is gone.  He was one of the first kids I met in Newark when I moved there in 2003 to help my grandfather re-plant an inner-city church in a distressed neighborhood in Newark NJ.  He was 11 when I met him. I’ll never forget the day. This wide-eyed beautiful little Black/Puerto Rican boy with a basketball in his hands walked by me as I was sitting on the porch. I asked him if he liked basketball and he simply said: “I can beat you.” So I challenged him and made the stakes quite high. If he beat me I would give him 5 bucks, but if he lost to the white boy (me), he would have to come to church with me that Sunday.  I beat him real good… so good in fact that he started coming to the church every day and brought all his friends.  He always wanted to be around me and I loved being with him. He’s the one that inspired me to finally trade in my useless sports car for the ugly blue Ford minivan so we could pick more of his friends and go places together.   When Kimberly and I were falling in love and she started coming up to Newark to see me, we would pretty much just hang out with Daniel and “The Brick City Kids” the whole time.  After dinner time we would try to send the kids home so we could have some time together or go out on a date, and Daniel would always pout, never understanding why he couldn’t go with us… We even made a rap that Daniel and his cousin Omar did with me about community life and our need for God’s Word. He was like a son to me and I had become a father figure he longed for. Great memories… I can honestly say that Daniel was really the start of Safe Haven Urban Redemption (The non-profit organization we founded) and a big reason why God led us to Newark. His passion for life and constant laughter and joy was an inspiration for us all.

Daniel flashing his smile

One of the hardest things was watching the circumstances in Daniel’s life unfold, watching some of the choices that he made in response to his circumstances, and watching the consequences that followed. When he was 15,  Daniel ended up having to move in with his uncle in a housing project with serious gang issues. As a 13-year-old, he had believed in Jesus as his Savior and joined the church, but this move pulled him away from his community and began impacting him in a terrible way.  Slowly we watched him fall into the traps of gang life and saw the consequences. I remember visiting him in jail when he was 16 and helping him get out and into a program.  He started coming to the church again and I saw hints of the faith he had so honestly confessed… It was still there, like a struggling flower trying to stay alive in the midst of a blizzard.  I remember driving home with him from a youth retreat we went on in Virginia and hearing him talk about how Jesus was the only thing that got him through each day of his hard life.  Multiple times he confessed that he wished things could go back to the way it used to be, to the good old days when we could just hang out all the time… have fun… make raps about Jesus and play basketball. My heart broke for him then as it does now… So much pain as I reflect… I wish things could be different.

There are thousands of Daniels in our Newark community, and all around our cities, and many that have never heard or been exposed to the love of God and the peace and hope offered in the Gospel. So many are desperately trying to find their place in this world, trying to become men, trying to make sense of life.  Those are the types of kids that murdered Daniel, shot him down, as he tried to run from them, and then stood over him and unloaded 22 bullets into his body.  Preaching at his funeral last Friday was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. The emotions of sorrow, guilt, anger, and even love that this has brought out of me are still being processed.  I want to share some reflections I have had in light of this tragedy… some reflections that I hope will shed light on all our lives and challenge us, deepen us and maybe even change us. We have a lot to learn from Daniel and his story.

You see, so many of these amazing kids in Newark and others in similar situations, join gangs in their community to feel safe, to find comfort in the midst of life’s storms, to feel like they have power and control in their lives, or to feel good about themselves.  The inner-city culture has its norms like any other society – things that people do to help them deal with the hard parts of life. In fact, every type of society has its gangs and its norms.  We all jump on band wagons and follow the crowds around us toward the norms of our community.  Every gang promises certain levels of safety, comfort, control, and self-esteem.  Like gang members in the inner city community, members of any group invest their time, abilities and resources to be accepted into their particular group.  Failure to comply with a certain group’s norms usually means termination from that group.  When people join a country club, or choose to live in a gated community, become fans of certain sport teams, or even join a certain religion, there are norms that the group expects to be followed.  Your lawn has to look a certain way, or only a certain type of car is expected to be parked in your driveway, you need to put  in your time and pay your dues, you need to go to church, or pray, or give your money, and you definitely can’t wear the opposing team’s colors on game days.  If you don’t conform to the norms of your gang you are warned, ridiculed and usually terminated from membership, no longer having access to the benefits of the group.  If there is someone else in your particular gang who wields more power than you and doesn’t like you, then you might get terminated from your group for that too.  Daniel’s own gang members were the ones who decided his fate and chose to end his 19-year-old life.  They targeted him because he didn’t conform to some Crip norm or because someone with more power just wanted him out of the group.  It’s tragic and sad…

But it makes me think about the various gangs in my own life whose norms I submit myself to in order to gain comfort, safety, control or self worth. It makes me ask why I submit to these norms and why so much of my time, energy and resources go into maintaining my “membership” in such groups.  How eternal and significant are these gangs, why is my joy so affected by my status in them, why do I fear termination, are the benefits really worth it?

When Jesus Christ came into the world he began a new and eternal community with new norms that went against the norms of the gangs humans tend to join. The religious people and the political powers of the day killed Him for it. They couldn’t get Him to conform, and He was leading others away from their control and so they terminated Him from human existence. But three days later a strange thing happened… He came back to life, conquering death itself, and He started appearing in a real physical human body. His resurrection justified His claim to be King of the universe and His right and authority over heaven and earth. As a result, His followers began living by a new set of norms. They began living their lives with different priorities and started serving the poor, the orphans and the sick in their community. They began proclaiming that Jesus was Lord and that His gang was the only eternal gang worth living and dying for.  They preached that anyone could join their gang through repentance of their sin and faith in Jesus, and opened up membership to the whole world. They baptized new members as a sign that all of their failures and sins had been washed away and sealed them eternally as members of their gang regardless of their failures both past, present and future. They promised eternal life after death, and promised that a new Heaven and new Earth was on its way where there would be no more tears or death or sorrow. They promised eternal comfort that came directly from the King himself, eternal safety under His protection, eternal control under His Lordship, and an entire new self-esteem fully restored and perfected in the King’s very image.  They began spreading this new norm, a new way to be human, with new priorities rooted in the comfort, safety, control and self-worth found in Jesus. The other gangs in the world began killing them as they had their King, but their noble deaths and the deep hope they had of their resurrection ended up leading many people to leave the enslaving gangs of their particular community and join the Christians in their mission to bring the peace and hope of Jesus to the world.  History records the members of this gang singing with joy even as they were being butchered, burned, thrown to lions and beheaded. They brought with them a new norm, a norm that challenges all the norms of the various gangs we are often pressured by this world to join. The early Christians found their hope in their King and in His promises of greater benefits than any other gang could offer… Benefits they didn’t have to earn through initiation, or dues, or conformity to gang laws… Benefits that He Himself purchased for them with His life and guaranteed with His resurrection…  These Eternal promised benefits, given freely from the King they loved so much, led them to share their earthly resources with others, invest their time and energy announcing the good news, and even gave them strength to lay down their lives for their enemies. A new norm was presented to the world, a norm that usually led to rejection and ridicule from the world’s gangs and sometimes even termination.

An application to those who would dare to follow Jesus…

Psalm 34:21 says that the LORD redeems the life of His servants. We like the idea of God redeeming, but do we like the part about being His servants? To be a servant means to serve a master and do what he asks. The Lord’s servants whom he redeems implies that we serve Him and do His will.  As servants we not only love our Master who has saved us, but we serve Him and honor His authority and right to command us because He is the Lord and there is no other. We can’t say we love our master while not loving, trusting, or obeying His commands.  He has redeemed our lives not merely for our sake but for His own purposes. He loves us and redeems us that we might serve Him. He becomes our norm, our greatest joy and desire.  Jesus said in John 14:15 that if we love him, we will obey his commandments…  He actually says in Luke 6:46 “Why do you keep calling me ‘Lord, Lord!’ when you don’t do what I say?”  It’s a legitimate challenge that questions our allegiance and makes us think about who our Lord really is. Who is the one I serve? Christ gives many commands in the Gospels and through the apostles that I think can help us gauge the extent we really view Him as our King. I want to focus in on a few big ones that I believe are a huge blind spot in our culture today.

Jesus said in Matthew 25:40 “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!”  Think about it… By actively choosing to not spend time with the least of these in this world, that is, people who can’t give us anything back, people who don’t deserve our time or resources, the marginalized and lowly of the world, even our enemies, we are actively not spending time with Jesus.  We may go to our religious country club of choice, sing our religious songs to the Savior we say we love, even give our money to the new building fund, and actually not really serve the Lord since we are not doing what he says.  Our fantasy football leagues consume our time and energy while fatherless kids like Daniel in our communities just wish they had a real person who cared about their life and would spend even a few minutes throwing the football with them.

In Matthew 6:19–20, Jesus our King said: “Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal.” Our first thoughts when God blesses us with access to resources usually isn’t “How can I help bless others and meet their needs?”  Rather, we think we earned the right through our hard work to bless ourselves. We spend our resources in furthering our own comfort by buying things we want and investing in more useless treasures for ourselves that will break and have no eternal value. The norms of our particular gang or culture dictate our standard of living, and when we can’t live at that standard and have a certain level of comfort we find ourselves doubting God’s goodness and striving hard to get back to that standard. Yet our King chose to be born into this world in a barn, be part of a lower class poor family, live in the’ hood’ of Israel (Nazareth) and invest everything He had in loving and sharing with other humans.  He came not seeking any comfort in this world, relying on His Father in heaven for His needs and living a simple and sacrificial life.  We tend to invest so much time in stuff that makes us temporarily comfortable and go through great pains to get it.

I am not saying that the things God gives us to enjoy are bad or wrong. There are many good and fun things that benefit community and life together and serve God’s purposes that we are free to enjoy and should enjoy with thankfulness. The danger is when we make these good things ultimate things and serve them instead of Jesus.  A good gauge to know what good things you make ultimate things is to imagine that if those things were gone, could you could still have joy and trust in Jesus? What do our hearts really rejoice in? The gifts or the Giver?   When we rejoice and find our ultimate pleasure in the Giver of all things, we see His good gifts not as something for us to use for our own agendas and pleasure, but as tools to be used for His Kingdom and purposes.

In Matthew 28:18-19 we have recorded the last and most important thing Jesus said to his followers.  He said:  “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth.  Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations… and I am with you.” Notice that our risen Lord claimed the authority and right to command the heavens, the earth and all people – so he does. He doesn’t say to those who follow Him: “I have all authority, therefore relax, get comfortable, make sure you have plenty of money in your savings account (and your emergency fund(s)…), make sure you spend exorbitant amounts of your time on earth watching your favorite teams play with a ball, or make sure to buy as many of the cool things being invented as you can. He doesn’t say, “Make sure you feel successful and lots of people tell you that you are, or make sure you find a good church that can “meet your needs” and you feel safe in…”

No, He really never says any of that, ever… Rather He gives those who would claim Him as Lord a mission:  He says, “GO.” The Greek word used here is poreuthentes. It means “to depart, to leave, to cross boundaries.” It commands us to go into all of the world, across every boundary and share the promises of the Gospel with everyone. Sociological, racial, cultural, economic, or geographic boundaries must not and will not hinder our King’s mission. He intends to include every type of person in His Kingdom and He commands every type of person in his Kingdom to engage in His mission.  And He promises to be with us as we go. We receive the amazing joy of His presence as we join Him in His plan, what He is all about, and go where He is passionate about going. I conclude from this that if we aren’t going in the way He has commanded then we can’t expect to experience His presence. We wonder why our spiritual lives are mechanical and boring and why our prayer lives feel empty and pointless… it just might be because we aren’t going where Jesus commands and where He is. In my mind it makes sense that if I really want to experience His presence, and if He tells me to go somewhere and I will experience it, then I really should go where He has commanded and I will experience His presence. He says go into all the world and make disciples… Obedience to this is a great way to experience His presence.

But we so often forget that everything our King commands is for His glory and our greatest joy.  His commands are good and Psalm 19:7 tells us they are trustworthy and revive our souls. But we often don’t trust all His commands in His Word and we especially love to weasel out of the hard ones that demand sacrifice of things we hold dear. We relax our Lord’s commands and lean into the comforts this world offers instead of engaging in the mission and serving the King and His Kingdom by doing what He says. “Why do you call me Lord and not do what I say?”  This needs to ring in our ears, penetrate our hearts, and make us ask these questions: “Who is my Lord?”  “

Am I really serving Jesus with my time, with my talents I have been given, and with my treasures I have been blessed with?” “Who is my real master?” Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. “Do I treasure Christ?”  “Do I really take His commands of self denial and radical mission toward others seriously?”  Or, “Am I relaxing His commands and seeking to weasel out of having to live a simple and sacrificial life since I really love the comforts this world offers and want to experience them?”

I think this leaves us with two options as those who claim to follow Christ and worship Him as our Lord.  Option one: we can stop calling Him Lord, and just stop serving Him altogether.  We might as well just go full out and seek as much comfort as possible that this world has to offer rather than pretend we are serving Jesus and His mission. I mean, really, what does being fake really get us? If we are not servants of Christ then we have no place in His eternal Kingdom, so we better spend as much time and energy getting as much as we can in this temporal kingdom since this is the best it gets.

But I like option two better… Option two is why Jesus came to earth and invested his resources… That we might repent, believe the gospel and find a new treasure, a treasure that will never spoil or fade (Matthew 6:19).  Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 8:9 “You know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, so that by His poverty He could make you rich.”  You know the story right? That the God of the universe, the sovereign King who doesn’t owe us anything has chosen to stoop low and serve sinners.  He has served us and given even His life that we might have something greater to live for than the fading comforts of this world.  He Himself becomes our treasure, our purest delight, the meaning and purpose of our existence. He sends us His very own Spirit to fill us and lead us in the mission He gives us. He promises to be with us for eternity. This is the gospel. Acknowledging and repenting of our failures and believing this message is the only way we will be able to get off our “chief end” and actually begin doing something useful with our lives. It is the only way to have the heart motivation to invest our resources in our King’s purposes and not our own.  It is in fact the only way we accomplish our real chief end of serving our King, bringing Him glory, and enjoying Him (and His righteous commands) forever. Guilt or fear are useless to truly capture our hearts and bring about the genuine and radical obedience and sacrifice our Lord clearly asks of us. But the love of our King, (who loved the hell right out of us) and passion for His mission and glory; that is what can motivate us, reorient our affections, and move us into authentic obedience.

Those 22 bullets shot into the body of Daniel have made me think about my life and reflect once again on what it really means to be a servant of Jesus.  Like Daniel, we all often join the fleeting gangs of this world that promise comfort, safety, power or control, and self-esteem. Like Daniel, our faith is often like a flower in a blizzard, trying so desperately to blossom but struggling in the storms of doubt, hard circumstances, and broken relationships. Like Daniel, our only eternal hope is in Jesus, and His promises and Word getting us through this journey through the wilderness of life and into the promised Shalom of God’s Kingdom.

God’s Word and this experience call me yet again to repent for my complacency and disobedience to the real King, to believe in His indelible grace, and to step out in renewed faith by the power of His Spirit to announce and live out His norms to our broken desperate world.   I submit to you as well the Lord Jesus, the God of the universe, to be the King to whom you bow and live your life for. He is leading a war of peace on this world and recruiting members to join in His mission of global restoration. Let His power command you, let His righteousness justify you, let His love pilot you, and let His blessings flow through you to those in need. He is ever present and will not leave or forsake you… Let’s call Him Lord together, for He truly is, and let us love Him and do what He says in the power of His Spirit and for His glory.

***UPDATE***  It’s been four years since Daniel’s tragic murder, and Omar his cousin, made this video as a tribute to Daniel and to tell his story and help us process this pain we all feel… I can’t stop watching it. The actor playing Daniel actually looks like him, and everyone else in the video are our friends who we shared life with in Newark. His son has gotten so big. I can’t stop crying, especially at the scene at the end… This pain just doesn’t go away and this video stirs it all up again. It tells a powerful story and is just a real expression of what we all felt when this happened. It honestly wrestles with these hard questions and asks God why? Why did this happen? Why did a young life like Daniel’s have to be taken so soon? Why wasn’t there justice? Why did the detectives and authorities just write this off and seem to do nothing. Why didn’t I do more…? What else could I have done?

I’m thankful for this video. A lot of the footage came from in our old Church and in those projects where Daniel lived. I love the honesty and beauty of Omar’s music, and it makes me long for the day all the more when I get to see Daniel again, and full Shalom finally becomes a reality for all of God’s people… and we won’t have to weep over young lives lost to senseless murder, and can finally live in a place where the systemic affects of injustice, sin and death can’t sting us anymore… Come LORD Jesus… Come…