June 20, 2015 § Leave a comment
A fellow pastor died earlier this week. The Reverend Clementa Pinckney, of the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina was slain along with eight other innocent people who gathered to pray and study the scriptures. Obviously we didn’t know one another, but in the ministry, where the Faith is mutually embraced, there is a shared bond that cannot found in denominations or nuanced theological differences – but in calling.
As someone who has led and been part of countless Wednesday evening gatherings like this, I can tell you that people are rarely more vulnerable than when they open themselves and their lives up before others and God in a small setting. So for this violence to be perpetrated in such a context is beyond the pale. There are no words. Nine people are gone.
I am thankful for my fellow pastors, black and white, who are wrestling with all they have, in networks, on social media, with one another, and within their own hearts, as they lead congregations in the reality of racism’s unquestionable presence in our country.
We stand together.
It is important that you understand that we are every bit as human as anyone else. We are moved by pain, and sometimes filled with the temptation to hate and retaliate. We are often utterly clueless as to what to do in any given situation, and every bit as limited as any other human being. And sometimes we are blinded by our own prejudices, fears and emotions. We weren’t born ministers.
We get angry too.
We want revenge too.
We want blood too.
We want justice too.
We want to understand too.
We desperately need Jesus.
And by God’s grace, we have the gospel, from which His grace flows, and love has been demonstrated for this fallen human race, namely to us, not by some hero-wannabee, but by Jesus, the pure and spotless Lamb of God, who gave Himself in sacrifice for the very sins we grieve. And we understand that everything horrible and violent and vicious that manifests itself in this broken world, has found some measure of residence within each of us.
Jesus asks that we follow Him, even when the world is bleak and hope is scarce, even when we want to lay aside our ordination vows, and act out of our own pain and heartache. In His death and resurrection He has ensured that one day the grip of injustice and the violence and bloodshed of all sin will finally and eternally be broken. Jesus has overcome the world and its curse. We were called to announce, embody and cling to this unspeakably lovely hope.
Like I said, I didn’t know Pastor Pinckney and we won’t meet until we are both at the Feast – He has already made it Home. But we share the bond of a calling that begins with giving one’s life away. In some way Pastor Pinckney sacrificed himself many years before God called him Home.
And in this is our hope. In the violence and sorrow of this sin-torn and fallen world, we have the promise that a Feast awaits those who have fled to Jesus – who Himself died and made it Home – first. For us.
Our good news…
June 6, 2015 § Leave a comment
“…there is something beautiful and concrete and well-proportioned about tending that size of a garden.” David Brooks, The Small, Happy Life
Yesterday a mural mosaic was dedicated in a barely-conspicuous outdoor neighborhood service. The mural is visible to all who walk by the New Song Academy. It was constructed by the children of the Academy, under the guidance of a group called, Art with a Heart, a group that works in the City of Baltimore and teaches vulnerable children and adults through creativity. What makes the mosaic special is that the Academy resides in Sandtown, the neighborhood that was the flashpoint for the Baltimore riots in April. I have written about it here.
In a NYT OP-ED piece, David Brooks reported surprise at how many people responded to a survey, with the desire for what he termed, ‘the small, happy life,’ as opposed to what might seem to be more ambitious pursuits.
When I was in sixth grade, our teacher, Mrs. Hill, became weary with a group of us troublemakers. We happened to live in an area that was booming in development, and so she decided to take us around the community collecting tile for the purpose of making a mosaic for our elementary school, which we did. Over a period of months we stayed after school as she brilliantly channeled our energy into creativity. Eventually the completed project was erected at Coral Reef Elementary, like the one at New Song Academy.
One day, in response to His disciples’ request to increase their faith (because they were thinking big!), Jesus replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you” (Luke 17:6). Contrary to the claims of train wreck preachers who promise the moon and deliver disappointment, Jesus was simply saying, ‘Start small, because that is where we are.’ Put another way, ‘Start where you are, and offer what you have rather than what you don’t have.’
A cursory study of history will bear this out, whether with those who harbored Jews during the Holocaust, or others who have accomplished amazing feats of bravery, rescue, influence and impact. And there is always that ‘small step’ and ‘giant leap’ for mankind. Never do you hear braggadocio. Time and again we are introduced to humble people who merely did what they could in the moment. In the moment, the small was enormous.
Way back in 1960-something I learned that a mosaic is nothing more than a well-orchestrated outlay of broken tiles. It doesn’t take much for those seemingly worthless, jagged and often-dirty shards to become something wildly beautiful – like a scene from the coral reef, or a vision of a healed city. Every piece matters, and no tile is too damaged, in the same way that one simple mosaic on one part of one wall on one building in one neighborhood in a broken community can be that tiny piece that offers hope for something lovelier.
And it is for this reason that in Jesus God became small. Because we are small. Yet because we are adored by the Father, we are not insignificant.
What good news…
May 23, 2015 § Leave a comment
Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace
It is Memorial Day weekend. As a Christ-follower it is not uncommon for me to find myself involved in a conversation over the merits and sadnesses of war. No one I know would argue that every war the US has been involved in was what the Church father Augustine would call ‘just.’ But this weekend is not about that. It is to remember that many made the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ for their country in giving their lives.
Through years and generations our Nation has found itself embroiled in warfare, whether in world wars, regional conflicts, or even a Civil War. Everyone knows the sick, heartbreaking feeling of watching flag-draped caskets unloaded from transport planes. A simple history lesson of Gettysburg is enough to elicit the deepest of emotions over lives lost. Sacrifice is nobel, but death is brutal.
But this weekend, let’s put the debate aside. Let’s thank God for those who gave ‘their last full measure of devotion.’ Let’s honor their sacrifices and long together for the day when all wars will end.
Let’s not get lost in political madness and philosophical diversions. Let’s not argue the merits of war versus pacifism. Let’s not be ‘Hawks’ or ‘Doves,’ Liberals or Conservatives. Let’s just stop and acknowledge that many have died. To their parents, their siblings and their children, loss is loss.
If you have ever visited the Viet Nam wall, then you know that one can hardly do so without discovering elderly parents or aging spouses and children – in tears – revisiting their grief and loss over the sacrifice of their loved ones.
Together let’s believe that it wasn’t political posturing, or bloodlust that drew these precious individuals, but the sincere belief that even if they died, their sacrifice would have counted for something towards a more peaceful world.
And in remembering what has been given by men and women through the years in war and conflict, here in this broken, and often war-torn world, let’s consider Jesus, who ensures that one day all wars will cease, and because in Him, our war with the Father has been settled.
In His Sacrifice…
This is our good news.
Happy Memorial Day.
May 16, 2015 § Leave a comment
C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces
As you know, we have been immersed in the aftermath of the events surrounding the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Perhaps the most challenging thing for us has been to ignore the voices from ‘outside.’ This is not offered in disrespect, but to say that whenever a crisis comes to a city, such as the one we have experienced, politicians and media outlets alike descend to make the most of it for their own purposes.
For example, there have been five murders in the same area since Freddie Gray died a few weeks ago, but no one has heard this. Why? Because it isn’t the kind of news that sells air time.
Don’t get me wrong. My intention is not to vilify or sow seeds of bitterness. It is to say that regardless of the crisis, and whether or not they are citywide or deeply individual, solutions never come from the outside. They are always far more personal, the deep ‘insider’ work of God’s Spirit.
Earlier our Staff spent the day with the Staff at the New Song church in Sandtown (the Sandtown/Winchester neighborhood was the flashpoint for much of the riots). It was one of the more delightful and hopeful meetings I have ever enjoyed, and it promises to forge a bond of deep love and friendship. The week before, a couple of us met downtown with some of the New Song Staff, along with Freddie Gray’s cousin and some locals. In each case we laid aside our assumptions and simply listened, only to find that we are all the same – people who carry their sorrows, struggles and fears, all trying to figure out life and faith in our contexts.
We also acknowledged that programs, violence and projects are not the answer, but that love and ‘kinship’ (as one young man termed it), are.
The gospel is eminently human as it is divine, each captured in the incarnation, life and rule of Jesus. Doesn’t it amaze you that God didn’t save us by some edict, but instead by sending His Son to become one of us? It does me! The last thing I want is for God to walk in on my ugly humanness, but this is exactly what He has done – and it is our only hope.
Whenever I find myself looking for a silver bullet to cure my problems, struggles and messes, it is because I want an easy way out, some symbolic ‘fix’ that only exacerbates my pain, and drives me more deeply into sin.
For the unfinished, healing and peace never come apart from face-to-face encounters with Jesus. The Father will never allow His people to approach Him religiously. It will always be in the unedited reality of our brokenness, because this is who we are.
And this is who the Father loves.
Friends, what good news…
May 2, 2015 § 1 Comment
“I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Letter From Birmingham Jail
If you live in or around Baltimore then you know firsthand how painful this past week has been. One cannot have lived here and not be affected. My heart goes out to friends near and far who are from Baltimore – their sadness is palpable.
I offer these words as a white guy who has lived in relative safety all his life, and knowing that those I have loved and known these five decades may disagree, and possibly even be angry. I also offer this knowing that I bring my own prejudices, predispositions and fears to the table.
It would be tempting to opine on the dynamics of the inner city, injustice and the future, but we who live in relative safety, are better served to keep our mouths shut and listen. We don’t have the answers. Wonks, politicians, news organizations and bloggers think they have the answers, but unless they have lived in the City, they don’t. At night we go home to our safe neighborhoods. We sleep in the assurance that when we awaken, our world will be as ordered and secure as it was when we went to bed. We aren’t there on the ground. We don’t know how good it is or how bad. We don’t know the desperation and the vicious, endless and often violent cycle of poverty, firsthand. We make assumptions and most of those assumptions are wrong.
It seems to me that answers from afar, criticism and finger pointing, are false versions of ‘care.’ They create within us the artificial self-assurance that we have connected, but that isn’t real at all. And we can postulate all we want on ‘fatherless America,’ and responsibility and the ‘American Way,’ but this helps nothing. It does exactly what those who spout these things want them to do – it keeps me away from you and ‘us’ from ‘them.’
So it is better to listen and observe. This past week some of us had the privilege of spending time with old and new friends in Sandtown. Sandtown is ‘ground zero’ for last week’s riots. You have read about this neighborhood in this blog. It is among the poorest in the country, but also one of the most beautiful. In spite of what you may assume or have read online or heard in the news, the residents of Sandtown are among the proudest of any neighborhood I have ever met. They love their community, and no amount of national sorrow can match the sadness they feel collectively when it suffers.
The picture above was taken at lunch after a morning of clean up (most had been done by the Sandtown residents when we arrived the morning after the riots). It is of two guys, one black and the other white – no distinction – work boots and jeans – people who locked arms for the sake of a healed neighborhood. ‘A cord of three strands is not quickly broken’ (Ecclesiastes 4:12).
Years ago I learned from a friend who led Miami’s rebuilding effort after Hurricane Andrew decimated it, that one can either sit around and point fingers and complain about problems and perpetrators, or they can see possibilities and the beauty of a healed City, and then work together towards that vision.
The scriptures are strewn with examples of people who lived in the hope of future joy. After all, isn’t this who we are? We are a people who live in the promise of what will one day be. And we serve a King who came and on our behalf saw that same future (Hebrews 12:1-2). He personally entered into places where weakness, oppression and sorrow prevailed, and by His care bore evidence of hope for a city of delight, and human flourishing.
Friends, beyond our advantages, fears and differences, it is not what we have, but whose we are and what will one day be ours…
This is our good news and the gospel’s sweet new song…
April 25, 2015 § 6 Comments
Last week I posted about my Armenian heritage. Though my parents were Protestants and raised us in Christ, we ate the food, gathered with other olive-skinned Armenian-Americans, played the ‘Tavlou’ (backgammon), and shared that same peculiar ‘ian’ identifying suffix to our names. As I mentioned on Facebook, you don’t even want to know the names our grandparents, aunts and uncles had!
Our grandparents were born in what they referred to as ‘the old country.’ But in their teens they were ordered to leave home by the next day, or face death. It was part of the attempt by the Ottoman Turks to extinguish every Armenian from the region. To this day politicians and Turkish officials, in spite of the overwhelming body of evidence, avoid using the term ‘genocide’ – sad.
However as an Armenian-American, I have no bitterness towards our historical oppressors from that dark epoch. We are Christ-followers, we belong to a new community, a new race, and ‘better country’ (Hebrews 11:16). We too are a forgiven people.
I do find it sad however, that our government refuses to acknowledge the genocide, when in fact nearly 1.6 Million Armenians were killed in an attempt at this human ‘cleansing.’ It isn’t that I want validation from a President (or Kim Kardashian!). My identity is found in Jesus, Lord and King of all that is. No, my sadness is that such a refusal reduces the value of human life to political advantage, rather than in the integrity of compassion for the ‘least of these,’ a foundational characteristic of true justice.
And yet, as a Christ-follower I can see that even this horrible moment in history was part of a larger narrative in which our Sovereign God loved, pursued and found my parents, and many other Armenians, through Jesus.
My grandparents on Dad’s side emigrated through Egypt, where an uncle and two aunts were born, until they arrived years later in NYC, and settled in Brooklyn where Dad and his younger sister were born. Later Dad would meet Jesus in faith at a Billy Graham crusade in Madison Square Garden in 1957.
Mom’s parents came to the US via Iran, where they were detained for a time in an Iranian refugee camp before immigrating to Atlanta, Georgia, where Mom and her siblings would be born. But it was in that camp that they met a missionary named J. Christy Wilson, a man who would later become an influential Professor at Gordon-Conwell Seminary outside of Boston (I was privileged to meet him many years later). Wilson told my grandparents about Jesus, and there, in that Iranian refugee camp they met Christ in faith.
So while this will always be a sad epoch in history, the Father knows who we are, and in the gospel everything sad will one day be eclipsed by what Jesus has accomplished for us, and in what He will one day do when He makes heaven and earth one. Because in Jesus our winding stories, with their sadnesses, tragedies, celebrations, twists, turns and unexpected diversions, are all part of God’s hand in leading us Home, to ‘a better country.’
Friends, what good news…
April 18, 2015 § 2 Comments
“…every human being has been hardwired by God to live in daily awe of him. This means the deepest, most life-shaping, practical daily motivation of every human being was designed to be the awe of God. This is the calling of every person… the only alternative is to live for yourself.”
Paul Tripp, Dangerous Calling
For someone looking from the outside-in to the Christian Faith, it could appear that God is some narcissistic deity that created a race of inferior beings in order to enjoy the pleasure of being worshiped and adored. Of course, if He is who we believe Him to be, then the last thing He would need is our worship. It is inferior and because we are a fallen race, it would never measure up to the excellency of the Almighty.
Yet the scriptures are drenched in expressions of worship, in prayer and song, in unison and responsively, both planned and extemporaneous. All David had to do was look to the sky in order to exclaim, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1).
In John’s vision of the renewed world, all creation joins in songs of adoration before the throne of God. “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Revelation 5:8b, 11).
And Paul cannot contain himself, but breaks into worship, after laying out perhaps the clearest doctrinal explanation of Redemption, before diving into some practical implications of the Faith. “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways… For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:33, 36).
By why? What is the purpose of insufficient expressions to a perfect and Almighty God who needs none of our offerings? The answer is not that God needs our worship but that we need Him! We need something greater than ourselves. A life of worship is the one expression that reminds and rehearses to our hearts that in spite of the whispers (and sometimes shouts!) of our egos to the contrary, that we are in fact very small and dependent beings. Worship informs our troubled spirits in the enormity of our problems, our struggles, our weakness and our limitations, that in God we have a Father who is not intimidated or overwhelmed by anything that threatens to swallow us whole. We are mere creatures…
but He is our Creator.
He is Greater.
He is Awesome.
He is Able.
He is God.
He is Worthy.
We will always be small, and He will always be great.
Yet amazingly, in Jesus He too became small, not to make us great, but to make us His.
What good news…
To God be the Glory!