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This post originally appeared on the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Blog on February 12, 2015:

A few nights ago, I found myself live-tweeting a sermon. I was so moved, I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm. But there was no one around to hear if I said, “Amen.” So I took to the Internet.

The sermon I was reading was the sermon preached by the Rev. Henry Highland Garnet to the US Congress Feb. 12, 1865. He stood before them as a 50-year-old, disabled, former slave who had become known around the nation as passionate abolitionist and pastor. He preached from Matthew 23:4, where Jesus condemns the Pharisees for tying up heavy burdens on others which they themselves won’t lift. Seamlessly, Garnet drew a parallel between the Pharisees and those who maintained the institution of slavery, placing heavy burdens on the shoulders of his brothers and sisters. Garnet’s sermon before Congress was delivered after the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery) had been approved by Congress, but before it had been ratified by the states. Garnet was known as an accomplished (and controversial) orator, but his words that day were rooted in his life experience.

Born into slavery in Maryland in 1815, Garnet’s family escaped when he was nine years old and moved north to Bucks County, Pa. The family eventually settled in New York City. After two years at the African Free School, Garnet sailed as a cabin boy on ships to Cuba and served as a cook and steward on ships travelling between New York and Washington, DC. A traumatic leg injury in 1830 led him to return to school at the Noyes Academy in Canaan, N.H.

But the trauma only continued: the Noyes Academy was burned down by an angry mob who disapproved of educating African Americans. Garnet next enrolled in the Oneida Theological Institute, then a progressive Presbyterian school known to support black students, from which he graduated in 1839. The next year his leg was amputated due to complications from his earlier accident. But that didn’t slow Garnet down in any way. Over the next decades of his ministry, Garnet was an abolitionist, a pastor, an advocate of fair trade as an economic means to fight slavery, and a college president. The last role is what brought him to Pittsburgh.

Garnet arrived in Pittsburgh in 1868 as the newly appointed President of Avery College, on Pittsburgh’s North Side. Avery College had been founded by a Methodist abolitionist and served as a station on the Underground Railroad, and when Garnet arrived it served as a school for African Americans. While in Pittsburgh, Garnet was a bivocational church planter, working at Avery College while also organizing and laying the foundation for Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church (where Ron Peters, founding director of the Seminary’s Metro-Urban Institute, now serves). After leaving Pittsburgh, Garnet again served as a pastor in New York before being appointed as the United States ambassador to Liberia.

One-hundred and fifty years after Garnet spoke to Congress, his life still can speak volumes to us today. Our systems of racial injustice need to hear his prophetic condemnation. Our economy needs to hear his advocacy of fair-trade. And our churches need to follow his example of uniting biblical proclamation with prophetic action, especially as we pioneer new worshiping communities.

In the tradition of the Church, saints are honored and celebrated on the anniversary of their deaths. On Feb. 12, 1882, 17 years after his famous sermon to Congress and while serving as a diplomat in Liberia, Garnet passed away and entered the Promised Land of eternal freedom. May the Lord grant us the grace to honor Garnet’s legacy through our ministries this day.

To read Garnet’s sermons directly, see Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory ed. Philip S. Foner and Robert Brantham (Univ. of Alabama Press, 1997).

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I had a disturbing conversation last week. It was with a man who told me, rather shamelessly, that he travels to southeast Asia to visit brothels. Let that sink in. He’s an American man, a fairly typical middle-aged guy, who travels across the country to buy sex from children enslaved in brothels.  He could be someone you passed on the street today.

What sort of person would do that? More than you might think. I told this man that the girls he visited in these brothels were most likely slaves, kept there against their will.  I explained that I’ve actually visited villages in northern Thailand where these slaves come from: their families are told the children will work a good job in the city and send money home, then the children are never heard from again.  They become the forced prostitutes that this man uses. To all this news he responded with a defensive self-pity, “I’m lonely.”  What sort of person would do that? A desperately lonely person.

But that loneliness doesn’t instantly translate into the heinous acts this man was engaged in. There’s a pattern that goes on for a while before that behavior goes to such extremes. As this article by Benjamin Nolot says, “What kind of culture is producing so many men who are eager to buy women and children for sex, contributing to a $32 billion per year human trafficking industry? I believe the answer is the kind of culture that produces and perpetuates a $100 billion per year pornography industry.” According to Philip Zimbardo’s Ted Talk,  the porn industry is the fastest growing industry in America:  For every 400 movies made in Hollywood, there are 11,000 pornographic films. The more that men consume this material, the more they develop an “arousal addiction” which actually re-wires their brains.  And this has social implications: This arousal addiction actually damages the work and social skills men would otherwise be developing.

In other words, pornography use reinforces poor social skills. Loneliness begets loneliness.  Who’s consuming this material? Mostly lonely men. Who’s traveling across the globe for sex tourism? Mostly lonely men who’ve learned to feed their loneliness with the false-intimacy of explicit images.

I believe that dedication to truth is a spiritual discipline which can transform our lives. Here’s a case where it can transform the world. If men who struggle with the temptation to use porn reminded themselves of these facts, they’d find the temptation easier to resist. If all such men recognized the total falsehood of any “intimacy” they receive from either porn or prostitutes, the sex industry might just  collapse. That’s a lot to ask, but it’s not too much to pray for.

I want to tell that lonely man more of the truth about pornography and human trafficking. I want to tell him that his loneliness points to a real need for intimacy that can’t be met in any of the places he’s looked for it. I want to tell him that the real way out of his loneliness is to give up his perversions and seek real relationships. I want to tell that man he needs to repent. I was too angry to say it when the conversation took place last week, but today I would tell him that if he repents he can be forgiven for those sins. And I want to tell that lonely man that there is a community of other forgiven sinners out there who would welcome him, show him the love he truly needs, and help him free the slaves he used to abuse. Lord have mercy.

How do you learn to love and serve God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind? Not by using the conventional ways the world approaches learning.  I’m a pastor who’s been to seminary – a very good seminary for which I am grateful and which am happy to support – but I think the Church has become a bit too worldly in the way we train our leaders.  Learning to love and serve God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength is not merely an academic exercise.  It requires the use of all your heart, soul, mind and strength.  Discipleship is meant to be holistic, teaching us to love and serve God using relationships, our experience, prayer, worship, mission, service, and the intellect.

This is why I love the World Christian Discipleship Program. It’s a nine-month program designed for recent college graduates who want to learn to follow Jesus in community together.  The goal is to prepare them to live as missional Christians in any vocation.  Participants study early Church writings, create rules of life as they learn about spiritual formation, and  world mission.  During this time they’re volunteering in a local church and learning to practice living missionally in their workplaces. Participants also go on a short-term mission trip (international or domestic), giving them a cross-cultural mission experience as part of their missional and spiritual formation.  And this isn’t just for people who think they’re called to traditional ministry. It’s open to anyone. The congregation I pastor now has three people participating in it – one’s a nurse, one’s a social worker and future missionary, and one’s a seminary graduate preparing for overseas mission. And I believe that WCD will prepare each of these young women to glorify God wherever he calls them after this.

The biggest reason why I’m excited about WCD, though, is that I’ve experienced the transforming power of its components myself.  One of the books participants read is The Philokalia, a collection of monastic writings from the early Church which has completely transformed my own personal discipleship, the way I pray, the way I read scripture, and the way I approach my role as a pastor. In short, writings like this have encouraged me to pursue prayer and holiness in ways that I never before thought possible.  And with the way WCD is designed, such powerful material for spiritual formation is connected directly to mission.  Participants seek sanctification for the sake of mission in the world.  So they read Lesslie Newbigin beside St. Teresa of Avila. They learn to pray without ceasing while working part-time jobs in the neighborhoods where they live. They laugh and cry together and learn from each other what it means to be the Body of Christ.

I’ve spent three years as a church-planter doing bi-vocational ministry, learning what it means to be engaged in mission in a post-Christendom environment.  WCD offers both the training that I wish I had when preparing for ministry and the transformation I want members of the congregation I lead today to have. Anyone who wants to be truly transformed by God for the life of the world should consider applying.

Invisible Children LogoOn Sunday, September 11th, Upper Room will be hosting a team from Invisible Children, sharing their new documentary “Tony”. As the world remembers the tenth anniversary of the September 11th disasters, this documentary will show us yet another facet of terrorism. The film follows the story of Tony, one of the invisible children from Uganda, as he comes to the US to raise awareness about child soldiers, but returns home to face terrorist attacks in Kampala, Uganda. Watch the trailer to learn more.

Upper Room’s screening will be at 7:00pm on Sunday, September 11th, at 5828 Forward Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15218. Email us at church@pghupperroom.com if you have any questions.

tour_hiding_badge_btnOn Thursday, March 3, Upper Room will be partnering with Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) to host a screening of Hiding. The film will provide a glimpse into the perils oppressed North Koreans face as they escape to China in search of freedom. As LiNK says,

“While the world focuses on North Korea’s security issue, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans continue to be enslaved in prison camps today. Up to 300,000 have also escaped to China – seeking food, medicine, work, or freedom from political and religious oppression. Among the 300,000, 70 to 90 percent of North Korean women are trafficked and sold into the sex trade, and more and more refugees are fleeing to Southeast Asia to escape imprisonment upon repatriation by China. Through LiNK’s networks, these refugees can be helped and given new lives. ‘Hiding’ is a film about a group of North Korean refugees hiding in China today, and their attempt to escape.”

The screening will take place at 7pm at 5828 Forward Ave. in Squirrel Hill. For more details, check out the Facebook event page. Questions? Email chris@pghupperroom.com.

Today is Blog Action Day (see Blog Action Day), and writers all around the world are writing on the theme of clean water. I’m no expert about it, but World Vision says that at least 20 percent of the world does not have safe drinking water, and lack of access to safe water is the number one cause of preventable death. So what can we do about it?

It’s seven months away (exactly) but on May 15, 2011, several friends and I will be running in the Pittsburgh Marathon for Team World Vision to raise money for drilling clean water wells in Kenya and Ethiopia. One well costs upwards of $13,000, and we have a small team, so our goal is only a portion of that amount, but any giving will help go a long way to provide clean water for those who need it most. Again, I’m no expert, but this is something tangible we can do to transform lives. So, please support us. For more on what we’re doing with Team World Vision, go to my Team World Vision page.

I recently came across this article about human trafficking after massive disasters.  As perverse and evil as it may sound, people actually prey upon young children and vulnerable women in the days and weeks following major natural disasters.  Rather than led to shelter and provision, they are lured into domestic, agricultural, and sexual slavery.  Pray that children would be protected, law-enforcement and security personnel (to the extent that they’re present) would be vigilant, and that traffickers would not prey upon the victims of this disaster.

Human trafficking may seem undefeatable, but there is reason to have hope.  This Friday, January 29th, at 7:30pm Upper Room will be hosting a screening of the documentary At The End of Slavery.  The film, produced by IJM (where the author of the article linked-above previously worked), exposes the reality of human trafficking, but also the hope of shutting down the trafficking business.  If you’re in Pittsburgh, especially around Squirrel Hill, come join us.