Course Correction

November 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

FSU “So we shoot for happiness, but we’re formed by suffering…”

David Brooks

This past week Katherine and I were visited with the terrifying news of a shooting at our daughter’s college, the Florida State University (pictured). So let me begin by saying that our sweet Erin is fine. We praise God, not only for her safety, but also for the other young people who were spared.

It is both surreal and terrifying to be in the fog of waiting to hear good news, while deep down denying the idea that your child would be among the victims. Throughout the morning our family texted back and forth, only to experience relief over her wellbeing, though in muffled tones, knowing that some parent might not be celebrating, but grieving.

In retrospect I was struck by the fact that just six days before, we were intent on cheering on the University of Miami Hurricanes’ football team as they faced off with FSU, and then the subsequent and almost-mandatory belly aching, finger-pointing and excuse-making that accompanies a heartbreaking loss. Before the shooting, the most important thing was that our team beat their team (which we didn’t!). In fact it was heartwarming to read of how Florida State’s most hated rival, the University of Florida, put aside trivial rivalry with displays of intrastate support.

Suffering has a way of correcting our course, doesn’t it? It resets our priorities and quickly sheds away the unimportant. We so easily become scattered by life and love and work and schedules to the extent that focus withdraws from our daily diet.

In suffering there is clarity.

Now I know that there are some who have almost made a virtue out of suffering, almost as though it is a spiritual mountain to be scaled. But this is warped.

No, suffering is raw, and it is real, it is personal, and on any level it is horrid and hideous. It is the result of the fall, and part of the Curse. One day it will no longer be, but until then, there is nothing inherently good in suffering.

Except for one thing.

It is our common cup. In suffering, our differences fade into a shared struggle and inextricable bond with every other human in this broken world. It is our very real and flesh-and-blood protection from smug platitudes. It puts the pain and pathos of others into perspective and protects us from cold indifference. My pain, though horrible, is shared.

In a few weeks we will celebrate the birth of Christ, and at the heart of the Incarnation is a God who would meet us at the point of our greatest need and deepest sorrows, and then invite us into what the apostle Paul calls, ‘the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings’ (Philippians 3:10).

Paul’s summons is not for the sake of glorifying suffering, but to remind us that when we drink from the common cup of brokenness, the Risen Christ is at the table with us.

And this friends, is good news.

peace.

Now

November 15, 2014 § 1 Comment

Fire “‘I wish I had never been born,’ she said. ‘What are we born for?’ ‘For infinite happiness,’ said the Spirit. ‘You can step out into it at any moment…’”

C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

The other night, Katherine and I sat in our courtyard, beside a small fire, reflecting on our lives together, our family and children, our ministry and calling – you name it. There is something about a fire that seems to suspend all urgency, and draw us into such conversation. And yes, we listened to Christmas music as we did, while sipping on hot chocolate.

As we conversed, we agreed that much of what we thought to be important many years ago in our lives was not so important after all. It wasn’t so much about regret, but of perspective. The thing is that we would not trade anything for where we are now. Fortunately God’s hand has not been thwarted by our stumbles.

‘If I had to do it over again…’ can be a dangerous statement. So can, ‘What if…’ Micromanaging our pasts and obsessing over the future only steal from the present.

Unfortunately the Church hasn’t always been helpful in this area. Through the years Christians have fixated on the future to the point of madness, parsing events and people, while attempting to fit them into a sensationalized ‘end times’ blockbuster movie-type scenario. Authors have raked in millions, feeding off the fears and frenzy of ‘end times’ enthusiasts.

But the gospel teaches that what God will one day do, He is already doing – Right Now. He didn’t identify Himself to Moses with the words, ‘I was’ – It was, ‘I am,’ and you can hear this in Jesus’ prayer, ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…’

The gospel works because of this. It enables us to find fresh hope in the moment – Today. Only our regrets and fear of the future will rob us of enjoying God’s grand design for our lives in the present.

Within weeks we will read and recite the beautiful announcement, ‘Today, in the city of David, a Savior has been born…’ This is the refrain we find throughout the scriptures – it is all so present tense!

In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a single instance in Jesus’ ministry, in which He dwelled on the pasts of the people He encountered. Other than opening one woman’s eyes to His ability to see through her defenses, He never drudged up incidents and failures of the people He healed and consoled. He was all about the moment.

This was no accident.  It was His announcement that with the Father there is grace to continue on with the journey, in spite of our pasts that are speckled with failures, poor decisions and regrets, as well as with the future unknown.

Settle this in your minds and hearts, friends: Regret over the past and Anxiety over the future are not on the Father’s radar.

You are.

Right Now.

‘You can step out into it at any moment…’

That’s good news…

peace.

Grace for the Worst of Us

November 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

Message “Christianity encourages me to be faithful to the body that I am – a body that can be hurt, a body that is always living in the middle of limitations; it encourages me to accept unavoidable frustration in this material and accident-prone existence without anger.”

Rowan Williams, Where God Happens

I preached a lousy sermon last week. No, no, don’t worry, it’s okay. Seriously, please don’t write and tell me that it was great, or that God’s Spirit can use even the worst of messages (which I think we can all agree would not truly be complimentary, right?). And you don’t need to remind me that I’m merely a vessel. Oh, and by all means please don’t tell me that even Tim Keller preaches bad sermons!

Well, no wait… okay, tell me that.

Seriously, I know all this – and I’m thankful that every bit of it is true. It was just one of those messages.

Don’t let a preacher fool you into thinking that bad sermons roll off them like wet off a duck (a favorite phrase I learned in Tallahassee). We were all built with fragile egos that find residence in some part of our public expressions. It used to be that when I preached a ‘dog’ (as I like to call them), that I would be anxious for the next Sunday to arrive, with hopes that the memory of my bad offering would be lost in a better one (and don’t get me started on how I would wait from one Christmas Eve to the next after blowing it on that special night).

I can’t begin to tell you how diabolical this is!

Biblical concern? Uh… no. No, it’s Ego.

The point I am trying to make is that living in God’s grace means living with the worst and best parts of who we are, along with everything in between, while all along believing that the Father never measures our worth based on our performance. Be glad. Until we are Home we will always be unfinished, and this may be our greatest safeguard against thinking that we can make this journey apart from God’s friendship.

Besides, do we really want what we consider to be our ‘good’ points scrutinized by a holy God? Every time I reduce God’s favor to my imperfect offerings, along with Cain, I demonstrate disdain for Him as a gracious Father. It is an egocentric delusion that I’ll be fine without any help, thank you.

Read through John’s first letter. Count how many times the apostle uses the term, ‘children’ or ‘little children,’ in describing us. What does this tell you? And what would you really prefer for God to see you as? Worthy subjects or beloved children?

Friends, the Father doesn’t love us less when we fail, and He doesn’t love us more when we succeed.

He just loves us because we’re His.

Now that’ll preach.

What good news…

peace.

the Value of Unedited Lives

November 1, 2014 § 2 Comments

Road “…grace is not so poor a thing that it cannot present itself in any number of ways.” Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

Over the past several months a few of us have been studying the book of Genesis together. Within these magnificent opening pages of the unfolding story of God and His people is a narrative of events in which many decisions turned out quite differently from the presumed outcome at the time – like when Lot, rather than defer to Abraham (then Abram) opted to live in Sodom, leaving his uncle with second choice. That didn’t turn out so well for Lot.

Throughout my life I have made more decisions than I could ever have imagined possible – some good and others not-so-good (yes, horrible!). The crazy thing is that many of those bad decisions initially appeared to be the right ones, and some of the good ones began questionably.

We just don’t know, do we?

You have to love the new LeBron James video (Nike) about his decision go back to Cleveland (below).

Regret is a powerful emotion. It is also deceptive. It has a way of twisting the past into something it never was, and of shaping the present into less than it can be. At the end of the day, all of us bear the scars of our unfinished and imperfect pasts. Regret adds shame to the mix.

What is even more insidious is that it is born of the notion that we are somehow in control. I know this is true because every time regret works its way into my inner space, it comes with the diluted idea that I actually possess the power to shape my own history and write myself into a perfect story!

Can you hear how twisted this is?

Hey, this isn’t to say that our decisions don’t matter – they do. And we have every reason to learn from our past. We can’t grow at what we do, and how we relate without honest and sometimes brutal evaluation. Part of this involves the humble acceptance of owning and bearing our responsibility. But anything we do outside of the loving embrace of God will always warp itself into a cruel tyrant that owns us from within.

Here is the thing: In the gospel the storyline is never the savvy of unfinished Christ-followers. It is always the character of the Father who weaves all that we are, our bad and good decisions, our deep regrets, even the seasons we would just as soon edit out of our stories, into something far lovelier and better than we could ever have conceived on our own.

At the end of the day, regret is the enemy of grace, because it is a subtle and not-so-hidden refusal to believe that God can turn the wreckage of our pasts into something beautiful. Or that He wants to…

This may be why I love Peter the disciple. It is in hiding and shame over his deep failure and betrayal that the resurrected Jesus meets him at the height of his regret, and reaffirms to him that his life is far from over, and that he is His.

How sweet is that… such good news.

peace.

A Face in the Crowd

October 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

EAL “When people know they are deeply loved, cared for, accepted, and wanted by a community, they are transformed by the experience.”

Mark Gornik, To Live in Peace

The picture at the top of this post was a promotional piece put out some 35 years ago or so by Eastern Airlines, the largest employer in the state of Florida at the time. I remember when it came out, and how my siblings and I looked through the faces to finally find our Dad, who was standing in the crowd. Recently it reemerged on an EAL site, and once again we are pouring through it, as though for the first time, looking for our father. Our sight has changed…

Even after we find Dad, it will only be him that interests us. We have no connection with the rest of those faces in the crowd.

Last week about 300 of us, representing the classes of the 1970′s, celebrated our high school reunion. I can’t begin to express how sweet the experience was. MemorialThere were parties, photographs, a banquet, a football game, and more. On Saturday morning we gathered, fellow grads, old teachers, our former Principal, and the new Headmaster (from my graduating class), to remember those we have lost, during and since our high school years. Tears, laughter, embraces and memories flowed.

When we were in high school, with all that adolescent angst and self-esteem issues, the zits and horniness, and social awkwardness, on some level we lived inside of our own selves. Regardless of our popularity (or lack thereof), we had a school face, and hung with equally insecure teenage friends who were just as secretly attempting to fit in. We adorned ourselves with sports, clubs, gatherings and with our own circles. However on some level, each of us was a face in the crowd, because all of us went home to our lives as they were.

But those years shaped us. And somehow the experience, with all its joy and pain, the thrills, the insecurities, the competitiveness, the feelings of rejection and acceptance, even the high school social hierarchy – all of it, figured into the rest of our lives.

Now the reason I offer this is because for a few brief moments, at our reunion, all of this vanished. In other words, the reunion itself peeled away those layers of insecurity, along with the adolescent cruelties that accompany the drive for social acceptance, giving way to joyful recognition.

We were more than faces in the crowd.

And it struck me that it makes complete sense that in the gospel Reunion is the centerpiece and culmination to the Christian story. Of Jesus, John says, ...we shall see him as he is,’ meaning that isolation and anonymity will one day be engulfed by recognition and communion (1 John 3:2). We share in the promise that we will one day be reunited with Jesus and one another, and that our every insecurity and failure, our sense of not measuring up or bearing up, our sins and our shame, our fears and regrets, even our losses, will be finally and beautifully be swallowed under by the embrace of God’s gathered people.

All this to say, friend, that you are not invisible, and more than a face in the crowd.

What lovely good news…

peace.

WCS Reunion

Generous (aka the secret to finding one’s life)

October 11, 2014 § 10 Comments

Lewis & Fam “No life worth living is possible without generosity.”

Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge

A friend died this week. The truth is that I can barely write these words without weeping. It isn’t merely that a friend passed away, but someone who was so convinced that God is a generous God, that he became one of the most generous people I’ve ever known.

While alive Lewis never wanted people to know the extent of his generosity. To look at him, he would be the last person you would assume this of. His daily garb was a white or light blue guayabara, slacks and a shirt pocket full of pens, notepad and a cell phone. He evoked a semblance more like that of John Madden than some polished mogul.

Yet Lewis was a pioneer in the cruise line industry, the owner and developer of one of the most successful food service companies in the business.

Somewhere in his journey, Lewis met Jesus and through the guidance of his pastor (and my mentor), he learned that the Kingdom of God is worthy of our lives, our hearts – and our resources. So he became someone who gave generously – to the Church – to Missions organizations – to Missionaries – to Christian schools – to Community Projects – to out-of-work strangers – to struggling single-parent families – to drug rehabs – to ministers – to widows – all the while believing that he could never out give God.

All of this, Lewis did, joyfully and secretly behind the scenes. Even when he and his wife lost their college-aged son to a rare heart condition, his faith was unwavering in the midst of his unspeakable grief.

As his pastor, each year I would be the recipient of an envelope stuffed with thousands of dollars that he wanted for me to anonymously distribute to people in need – no tax write-offs – no publicity – no recognition – just gifts. I’ll never forget knocking on the door of a single mom who was barely making it, to say, ‘Merry Christmas from someone who cares, and who loves the Lord,’ and the look of joyful amazement on her face. That indeed made my Christmas very merry.

This doesn’t even scratch the surface.

That was Lewis. He didn’t do it to be noticed or even thanked. In fact this may be the first public mention of his generosity. He quietly served on boards, embraced ministries, visited widows, ate with outcasts and befriended the lonely – just as Jesus did.

And I guess what I’m getting at is this: In his liberality Lewis discovered his life. He wasn’t generous to impress or to prove anything, and he would be the first to admit to being unfinished and broken. No, Lewis gave because he was free. He truly found himself in giving himself away.

I am going to miss Lewis – our annual phone conversations and predictions about the Hurricanes’ football program, and our deep talks about life and loss and faith and heaven. Because fortunately, in the mix of ministry and life, I was blessed to discover Lewis’ greatest value to be that of friend.

And now he is home, reunited with his son, and his generous Savior, Lord and Friend, Jesus.

What good, sweet news…

peace.

Outside the Window

October 4, 2014 § 2 Comments

Window “There is nothing less attractive than stingy Christians. We serve a generous, lavish God who delights in beauty and diversity, color and aromas.” Christopher L. Heuertz & Christine D. Pohl, Friendship at the Margins

Last evening, Katherine and I, along with our daughter and son-in-law, ate at a downtown restaurant for my birthday dinner. Baltimore has a beautiful skyline. At night it is spectacular. To eat on the main drag of the Inner Harbor with lights reflecting on the water, and boats at dock, as cars pass and people walk, is such a treat.

As we enjoyed the moment and one another I noticed the energy outside the window we sat beside. It always seems as though something is going on in the city, and on this night it was particularly exciting. The Orioles had just won the second of the best-of-five series with the Detroit Tigers for the American League Eastern Division Title, leaving only one victory to take the series. City buildings were lit up in Orioles orange and the air was filled with elation.

It occurred to me that there is always another layer of activity going on concurrently with that of our own lives. I sometimes miss this, and when I do, I become stingy, and the world shrinks to my own puny concerns and insecurities. Fortunately I am married to someone who won’t let me hide in the cocoon of my hermit-like instincts.

It isn’t that the details of my life aren’t important, but when reduced to being everything, my enclosed world becomes its own toxic little universe – and we weren’t meant to live this way. In fact we are never healthier than when we look and live outside of ourselves. I know this flies against every instinct, but it is true. And it is the whole point of the Beatitudes – Those who abandon self, find themselves. It is the magnificent counter-intuitive principle of the gospel.

Just think about when you have been happiest in your life, and you will recall moments spent in the company of others, and in an awareness of the world around you.

It is likely that pain, disappointment, our awkward peculiarities, and fear are the culprits behind our reticence to engage in the world around us. Bodies heal but inner wounds don’t, and our kneejerk response will always be to flee into our own skin. We are unfinished and something deep within doesn’t want others to recognize our discrepancies – I get that.

But take it from a borderline introvert – we come alive when we escape the tyranny of self, and enjoy the world outside our windows.

And each time we take the bread and share the cup, we rehearse Jesus and His vision of a healed universe, in celebration of His willingness to abandon the security of heaven, in order to enter into the hostility of a broken world that He created to be good…

…for us.

What good news…

peace.

Trisha Mugo

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