The Thing About Heroes…

June 16, 2010 § 5 Comments

A hero died in Baltimore last week. His name is Allan Tibbels – He wasn’t the stereotypical hero. He didn’t land a jetliner into the Hudson River and he didn’t catch a Super Bowl game-winning pass. No, Allan was a Christ-follower who, along with his wife Susan and children, quietly moved into one of the poorest communities in the nation – Sandtown in Baltimore, Maryland.

Years ago, in Miami, I performed the wedding ceremony of a young man who grew up in Sandtown, and had left the community to play professional basketball in Europe. He was determined to never return to Sandtown, claiming that he was among few friends that had emerged from the neighborhood alive. So he moved out.

But Allan and Susan moved in.

Allan was born and grew up in Greater Baltimore. The City was in his blood. He met Jesus in Baltimore. He led youth and college ministries in Baltimore. He believed that God loved Baltimore and that He wanted Allan to love Baltimore.

Moved and shaped by the experiences and teachings of John Perkins, Founder of Voice of Calvary Ministries out of Mississippi, and his vision for Holistic Community Development, the Tibbels’ set out on a journey of healing and renewal – a lily-white couple in an almost-entirely African-American, impoverished and often overlooked and neglected community.

No one really knew. A lifelong friend, Mark Gornik, joined the Tibbels, and together they launched a revolutionary vision of seeing Sandtown be restored, not through political activism, but through the simple message of the Gospel – that God loves broken people and that He loves broken neighborhoods.

They formed the Newsong Community Church. They started the Newsong Community School. They founded the Newsong Center of Performing Arts. They opened a Newsong home for women who were transitioning out of prison. They founded and championed the Sandtown Habitat for Humanity, one of the only Habitat communities devoted solely to one neighborhood. Allan oversaw Sandtown Habitat. They brought leaders together. They empowered residents. They created and facilitated jobs.

And in a space of 25 years, a forgotten neighborhood was, and continues to be transformed. Instead of earning dollars that flow into other areas of the world, Sandtown is thriving. Nearly 300 homes have been restored, with nearly 200 more slated to be. The City of Baltimore has come to the Newsong folks to gain wisdom and guidance on repairing its own broken school system. A second Newsong church was started in Harlem, NY, along with similar accompanying organizations and activities that accommodate such renewal.

This is the short list.

Two evenings ago roughly a thousand people came to say farewell – people from the City Allan loved – people whose lives had been quietly put back together – people that once had been discarded, but who, through Newsong, had become the somebodies that God created them to be in the first place – important people that knew their reputations were puny compared to this mammoth, humble, hardly-known quadriplegic that had poured out his entire life as an offering to God on behalf of one neighborhood that God loved through him – black and white people – old and young people.

For Allan, all this was founded and grounded in a simple commitment he made over 30 years ago: “My life is yours. I want to forsake all for you. I don’t know all that this means, but I make this a sincere promise. Take all I have to offer – it is yours.” (June 22, 1978)

Here is the thing about heroes – They are as ordinary, simple, human and flawed as the next person – but they have discovered that this is exactly the kind of person God uses to do the big stuff.

Allan Tibbels – March 18, 1955 – June 3, 2010


The Sandtown Habitat Staff raise their hammers as a banner of love over Allan’s casket and family as they leave the sanctuary.

‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ – Christina Rossetti (1872)

December 13, 2009 § Leave a comment

This and other poems have always drawn me into the season. They come from the hearts of artists who have been gifted to offer fresh glances at life and faith. This one from Christina Rossetti, a 19th Century Christ-follower and writer who was born and died in the month of December. She lived a reclusive life, yet one filled with devotion to Christ as she wrote children’s and devotional books. She was an opponent of slavery, and for ten years volunteered in a home for prostitutes. This well-known poem came to mind and heart with our most recent snowfall (as viewed outside our front door). peace.

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air,
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

Advent and the Wintry Mix

December 9, 2009 § 1 Comment

Unless you’ve lived where it snows the term ‘Wintry Mix’ sounds like the fall collection for the Gap. Actually it indicates one of those cold days when the rain can’t decide if it wants to be snow, and the snow can’t decide if it wants to be rain – so both fall. For those of us unaccustomed to the ‘white stuff’ the ‘Wintry Mix’ is disappointing and a bit of a tease. I guess one could say that technically it snowed, but this frigid mixture will never allow for Frosty, angels in the snow, snowball fights, etc. And whereas, when outdoors (for instance, walking to one’s car in a parking lot) snow falls and sort of settles on your person – you know it’s there, but until you get inside it just happily remains – with the ‘Wintry Mix,’ the rain dominates the moment. It gets you the worst kind of wet. Its heavy drops of water trample the snowflakes and sink immediately through your hair to your scalp. It’s cold! And, well… it’s ugly.

It is Advent and this means that we live in anticipation of the coming of Jesus – into our lives, our struggles, our fears and our darkness. Everything Jesus did when He first came as a baby in Bethlehem, He still does. He brings Himself and is born to us anew. For all who have wandered far from ‘home,’ for those trapped in the brokenness of sin and sorrow, for all who long to be filled in their emptiness – to all who await His appearing, He comes, and He offers the cup of forgiveness, healing, mercy, peace and love.

This is what Jesus does. He comes into our mess – snow in the rain – loveliness amid the storm – love in our sorrows – strength in our weakness. And one day He will return forever, and with Him we will enjoy the new heavens and the new earth.

But until then, we unfinished ones are a ‘Wintry Mix,’ aren’t we? Until Jesus comes and ‘puts all things to rights,’ as one theologian has offered, in this broken world we live in, both internally, within us, and outside of us we will always live somewhere between an ugly downpour and a lovely snowfall – and God is good with that because one day the entire landscape will be beautiful.

So we wait. And that is good news.


PS The image on this blog was created by a Member of our church, an artist I have come to deeply appreciate and respect – Lynsey Ring Dimas

What Katherine Figured Out

October 6, 2009 § 2 Comments

Van GoghYesterday Katherine and I drove to Washington DC to enjoy the National Gallery of Art, a huge, two-complex structure that houses some of the most treasured historical collections from around the world. For over two hours we walked from room to room, discussing exhibits, sneaking sound bytes from tour guides, and critiquing paintings and sculptures of the masters. We saw Van Gogh’s famous self-portrait (pictured here), Picasso’s ‘cubism’ and Monet’s pastoral paintings, to name a few.

Unfortunately I’m one of those typical husbands that sees art as a spectacular game winning, toes-barely-in-bounds reception on the gridiron. For me it should be ‘so simple a caveman can do it.’ So if you were listening in it wouldn’t be a stretch for you to hear me ask Katherine, ‘What is that,’ or ‘This is good?’ You get the picture (though I didn’t)…

At some point I asked her how the value of each piece is determined. Is it that someone in some important artsy circle just says, ‘This is valuable!’ and then it is?

How does it work? Because for some of these folks’ works to be worth millions I would have thought that the faces could look a little less or a little more – something – I don’t know! Is it that an artist was the first to paint smiley faces on city scenes (you think I’m kidding…)? Can a can of Campbell’s Soup be that exquisite?

So, as we walked, we talked about it – about how some things had never before been done – how some artists stretched the limits, or were the first to venture into certain mediums, etc.

And then Katherine said something that immediately rang true – she said that these are not photographs that can be retouched or airbrushed – that the artists painted imperfectly and that there is something beautiful in their imperfect offerings.

Right there I knew that she got it right (either that, or she figured out how to finally shut me up). I still don’t get all of it – but I like the fact that history has attached value to the imperfect.

Because I’m imperfect as well as unfinished. And no airbrush can erase those broken and ugly blemishes that mark my life story. Only Christ can – and has. And He did it without asking or requiring me to first fix myself. All that mattered to Him was that in the Father’s eyes, and by His own intentions that I’ll never fully understand until I get ‘home,’ in His estimation I have great value (Deuteronomy 7:6“…The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.”)

What news could be better?


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