July 26, 2014 § Leave a comment
“…I would advise you against defensiveness on principle. It precludes the best eventualities along with the worst. At the most basic level, it expresses a lack of faith… And often enough, when we think we are protecting ourselves, we are struggling against our rescuer.”
Marlilynne Robinson, Gilead
There is an ice-cream shop at the beach we visit each year that smells heavenly as one walks by. It emits a delicious aroma that undoubtedly draws many in. However, this year on one occasion, I turned the corner the shop is on, only to be hit with the foulest of smells. On the ground, puddling along the building was the nasty water that obviously drains from the shop – the county fair puddle kind of smell that one can barely endure in between nausea-inducing rides.
Reflecting on that odorous moment, I am reminded that we can be like that little shop. We have a beautiful side that we want everyone to notice and embrace. But we also have another side.
Dare I say, a stinky side…
All kinds of experiences, flaws and encounters contribute, and unfortunately our tendency is to not only hide this side, but to live, act and relate as though it doesn’t even exist.
Which is ludicrous.
I have found that the relationships that we hold most dear are those in which we have entrusted some glimpse into our ugliness. In fact, the reality of our flaws and blemishes is the only point of commonality we share.
Other than Jesus.
In other words, our stinky side, and the One who has delivered us from its lasting effects, are what unite us. They are what inform our spirits that we are not alone.
That we don’t have to hide.
That we are safe.
You would think this to be a no-brainer, yet the instinct to self-defend is powerful, and every chink in my armor serve as temptations to protect, pretend and hide, when all along the gospel screams that they are God’s invitations for me to enjoy the dance of intimacy with a world that shares my brokenness.
And hiding only diminishes me.
So back to the Ocean. It is not merely the surface and horizon, but the depths, and perilous realities, the mysteries and dangers, that make it magnificent. The depths shape its lovely colors. The creatures fill it with beautiful diversity. Its mysteries draw us into the wonder of God.
It can’t be what it is, without all that it is.
And neither can we.
But the Father already knows this. And by His grace, in Jesus He has embraced that most ugly, stinky part of us, in forming us into something lovely, flaws and all, until He comes and makes everything new.
Friends, this is our good news…
July 19, 2014 § 2 Comments
“The ocean is a desert with its life underground and a perfect disguise above…”
America, A Horse with no Name
Nothing restores me like the ocean. The expanse of the waters, the sound of the waves, the warmth of the sun, the surf, the birds, the clouds, the ocean spray, the smell of the water, an occasional breach of the waters by dolphins, and just being there with Katherine – all do something good for my soul.
It is all so beautiful. You can stand in the same place every morning and get a completely different, and equally spectacular view.
But the sea is as treacherous as it is beautiful, filled with immeasurable depths, unlivable pressure levels, treacherous currents, pitch black darkness and terrifying creatures (especially sharks!). It separates people and countries, and throughout history it has swallowed ships and souls whole.
And it is in its beauty and terror that this magnificent expanse symbolizes God’s unfathomable mercy. The prophet Micah writes that God will one day ‘cast all our sins into the depths of the sea’ (Micah 7:19). He is using prophetic imagery to describe the extent to which God freely forgives.
But why the ocean? Why something so beautiful?
Why not hurl our sins into the depths of a chemical waste pit… or bury them at the bottom of a landfill? Why cast the ugliest of who we are into the loveliest of what God has created?
The answer is, because this is what God does. And this is what He has done – in Jesus.
We rebel and our sin is hideous. Yet in exchange, the Father gives us Jesus – not His creation, but His Son – the best of who He is, to take on the worst that we are.
In Jesus the Father has created for Himself a spectacular view that He delights in every day, in the way one would delight in the ocean as the sun rises and sparkles on the water, and as the gulls make their way across the canvas, and the waves gently invite us to drink in the beauty.
Don’t let the imagery be lost on you – it is far too wonderful. It isn’t that God blinds Himself of our brokenness, but that in Christ, our sin has been covered, engulfed as it were, under the deep waters of the Father’s compassion and the Son’s blood.
His Spirit testifies to ours that we are not only His children, but that we are the very thing He delights in, every day.
What good news…
July 5, 2014 § 4 Comments
It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine
Last evening Katherine and I enjoyed friends and fireworks in a Baltimore bedroom community known as Catonsville. Throughout the year this community raises money for the dual purpose of a local charity and for the sake of the Independence Day (July 4th) celebration. The production is spectacular. However due to an off-shore hurricane, a cool, windy evening made for a different kind of experience this year.
Throughout the event, the heavy cardboard casings, often still on fire, fell where we were sitting. Twice I helped extinguish small fires, and at one point a burning ember settled on our blanket!
Actually, it resulted in one of the most exciting fireworks shows we have ever been to. As we drove home, Katherine and I laughed, saying that the scene looked like one of those ‘end-of-the-world’ movies where fire rained down from the sky.
Later I thought, what if it were the end of the world?
There is a line in the movie, As Good as it Gets, where the lead character, Marvin Udall (played by Jack Nicholson) walks into the waiting room of his psychiatrist, and asks his fellow patients, “What if this is as good as it gets?”
I have found it easy to get lost in fear whenever I divide the value of my life by a short lifespan, when all along Jesus asserts that He is making everything new (Revelation 21:5), promising that this life is no less than a leg in an indescribably beautiful eternal journey.
Fear can be so dehumanizing, and our only hope for enjoying this life is to be shaped by the promise of what Jesus has secured in the resurrection and in what He is doing until He returns.
One day the world will end, (though hopefully not tonight!), but on our best day, this isn’t as good as it gets, and in God’s good world, Love always trumps fear (1 John 4:18).
So for now, we share in the very thing Jesus is doing until that day arrives.
I want what N.T. Wright says in his little book, The Lord & His Prayer</em> to be my prayer:
“Make us a community of healed healers; make us a retuned orchestra to play the Kingdom-music until the world takes up the song. Make us, in turn, Servants of the Lord, the few with the message for the many.”
What good news…
June 28, 2014 § Leave a comment
Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel
Last week Katherine and I were surprised to find a visitor on the edge of our patio – a rabbit was feasting on some weeds that grew in the mulch.
Apparently there is no strategy for preventing these unwelcome growths that find their way onto our small property – they just come. The flowers, trees and mulched areas may be impeccably cared for, but one weed, strategically sprouted, can make it all look trashy. So I’m constantly on the lookout.
But because of our new friend, we decided to give clemency to this small growth. Besides, it would provide a diversion from the flowers and plants at the front of our home. I suspect our visitor instinctively knows what I’ll do if it hurts those flowers (see below)…
Truth be told, I easily get consumed with the weeds in my own life, whether past mistakes or present struggles. That subtle but insidious perfectionism is always there, and it is a sick breeding ground for my soul.
At times the Church hasn’t helped. We have heard phrases like, ‘the overcoming life,’ and have been made to constantly feel spiritually inadequate, though the gospel teaches that it is God’s love that cannot be overcome.
In his fine book, Messy Spirituality, Mike Yaconelli writes, “…the truth is, we are a mess. None of us is who we appear to be. We all have secrets. We all have issues. We all struggle from time to time. No one is perfect. Not one…”
Interestingly, Paul taught that ingratitude was a vital component in the fall (Romans 1:21), and that for the Christ-follower, a sure cure for a self-consumed heart, is a thankful heart (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
I have to believe this to be part of the reason God allows weeds we can’t eradicate, because ultimately an obsession with perfection, when unmasked, is no less than an ungrateful rejection of one’s need for Christ’s sacrifice. The fact is that there are some weeds that need to remain. They’re ugly, and they won’t follow us into heaven. But amazingly, the flaws and struggles we carry have their own value that only God can determine.
Paul concluded that he would, “…boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
The question is this: Will we trust the Father with our own imperfect selves and stories as they play out?
If your answer is that you want to but that you can’t, then you’re starting to get it.
And this, friends, is good news…
June 21, 2014 § 1 Comment
“The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there – of course, there wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus.”
Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies
This past week we were in the vast city of Houston, in Texas. ‘Vast’ is an understatement. Houston is the fourth largest city in the US, and will likely soon be third behind New York and LA. It is huge. Taking pics of Houston from the top of our hotel reminded me that each of the thousands of lights (perhaps tens of thousands) represented people and stories. There are living spaces where individuals and families make their homes, hotels that are filled with visitors, and spaces where temptation, violence and loneliness often make hay with its victims. There are offices where money is won and lost and careers are launched and ruined, and streets on which the rich drive and the homeless wander.
Houston is also a hub for human trafficking in the US, where untold numbers of people are forced into the sex and drug trades, and cast into anonymity by the sheer power of evil. It isn’t only Houston. Our church is involved in an important ministry that fights this same horrid reality in Baltimore.
In some ways a large city is a microcosm of life. Our stories are always deeper and more layered than we show on the surface, and the ‘beautiful lights’ sometimes mask the hiding we enter into for fear of being exposed and seen at our worst. Our ‘worst’ is always there. It isn’t that the beautiful stuff sometimes replaces the ugly things. So my tendency is to hide just like the next person.
But all along, I want to be found. I want to be found because deep within I know that unless I am seen and accepted at my worst, I can’t truly be loved, and I can’t feel whole.
This is our terrifying tension. We hide, but we want to be discovered. We want to be safe, but we want safety in truth and acceptance. We want to be clean but we feel safer in our guilt. Deep down we want someone to see our brokenness and love us in spite of the wreckage.
In some way, this is why I rest in the Sovereignty of a God who actually pursues and finds us before we have any inclination to care about Him. We are far too insecure to risk exposure.
So God finds us, in the darkest places we hide, and in Jesus He assures us that with complete clarity, He sees us and loves us as we are and have been, and that he has ‘drawn us with unfailing kindness’ (Jeremiah 31:3).
Friends, this is good news…
June 14, 2014 § 2 Comments
“I think there are a lot of religious trends that would have us controlling God, telling us that if we do this and that and another, God will jump through the hoops like a monkey. But this other God, this real God, is awesome and strong, all–encompassing and passionate, and for reasons I will never understand, He wants to father us.”
Donald Miller & John MacMurray, To Own a Dragon
It is Father’s Day weekend, and both the Fatherhood of God and the fact that my Dad is gone are colliding within my heart. Dad was strong, imposing, sweet and gentle all at the same time. He loved Christ. And he loved his family. I miss him.
Dad wasn’t the most communicative of people when it came to intimate space, a typical son of poor immigrants, who poured his passion into providing for and protecting his family. But when I left home for college, and then seminary, to my surprise, he began to write – a lot. Each month I would receive long letters, written on Dad’s Eastern Airlines stationary (they even smelled like his office) in which he poured out his love for the Lord and the family in great detail. I discovered that he had a lot in him, and the letters (all of which I still possess as treasures) offered safe passage for speaking his heart.
I was blessed with a good Father. And I always wished someone like my Dad for friends who had sadder stories with their own parents. Dad made believing that there is a Father in heaven who loves me more natural than if I had to fight through harsher experiences in accepting this to be true.
And I have come to believe that my greatest struggle with God isn’t the tenets of the Christian Faith, but in freshly believing the intimate realities that accompany it.
Tomorrow I begin a summer series on The Lord’s Prayer. Right out of the gate Jesus teaches that more than a theological tenet, God is a Father, ‘Our Father…’ And further, this foreboding God of the Old Testament, all along (you can hear the passion in the covenants, promises and sacrifices), had a lot in Him… for us.
And He sent all He had, in Jesus, for the very reason my Dad wrote those precious letters.
What good, sweet news…
June 7, 2014 § Leave a comment
Rufio, ‘Lost Boy’ to Peter Pan in Hook
If you have ever simultaneously known exactly where you were, and at the same time were completely lost, then you understand how I felt the other day in downtown Baltimore. After parking, I began to walk in the direction of a hospital where one of our Members was recovering from surgery. However in spite of the fact that I was headed on the right street towards the building I knew to be two blocks away, at some point I realized that I had no idea where I was!
The buildings were so tall that I couldn’t see anything other than structures immediately in front of me, and I got disoriented. Fortunately a nurse who was obviously headed to the same hospital, pointed to the building next to us when I inquired as to its location.
Yes, it was that close.
There are correlations with the Christian journey. I can know the direction, the rules, the promises, and everything else about a given situation, but then still find myself lost, missing the point. Strangely it often seems as though it is when I’m following the rules and walking rightly (according to my standards, of course) that I am most unnerved when things don’t add up, because everything inside of me says that God owes me for my presumed goodness.
Eventually this flawed thinking prevented Moses from entering the Promised Land (don’t worry, his story ended good!). God had used him in leading His people, but rather than see his own relative weakness, Moses presumed himself to be more than he was, and in doing so, he got lost – in plain sight.
I do too.
In other words, my self-righteousness is exposed, and I am utterly (and mercifully) derailed, until freshly reminded that the rules have never been the story…
…Living in His delight is.
Ironically, it is the admission of our inability to wrap our arms around life and faith and righteousness that we become unloosened from those terrible chains of perfectionism and self-consumption, and begin to understand the gospel’s beauty – that God is a Father who desires us more than we could ever keep up.
And that is very good news, friends…