Team Photo

September 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

“The goal of human existence is that man should dwell at peace in all his relationships: with God, with himself, with his fellows, with nature, a peace which is not merely the absence of hostility, though certainly it is that, but a peace which at its highest is enjoyment.”

Nicholas Wolterstorff, REASON [within the Bounds of Religion]

If you haven’t seen the moving video entitled, Made in New York, produced recently by Gatorade honoring Derek Jeter, the retiring New York Yankee shortstop, then sit back and enjoy – it is a worthy watch.

If anything has distinguished Jeter’s career it is that he is a team player. While he is unquestionably an exceptional athlete, it is his commitment to the wellbeing of the team that separates him and others like him.

Hey, I’m no Yankees fan! But those who play for the team – those who care primarily for people other than themselves, they are the ones that transcend the lines of demarcation that normally separate people. I think this is because they tap into what we were created to enjoy with one another, and all creation, before the fall cursed the world with isolation. They embody the selfless expression that community demands in order for it to flourish. In a year filled with painful sports scandals, both on the professional and collegiate athletic levels, it is refreshing to say farewell to a pro that ‘got it.’

This is partly why I believe the Baltimore Orioles’ season has been special (other than winning the AL East Division Title!). They have survived disappointment and injury – as a team. Last Tuesday evening in Camden Yards (picture below) was magic, because team and city converged in joy. It is always about the team, and the people/city the team plays for.

I often don’t get this. In a culture and society that is so individualized, it is easy to get lost in doing my job: preparing my sermon, writing my blog, paying my bills, fixing my house, etc, that I forget the grander, sweeter communal life of love, friendship, fellowship and faith I have been called into.

We weren’t created to live for ourselves. And we are miserable when we do. In spite of the fact that our selfish instincts often prevail against the messy, inconvenience of relationship and sacrifice and self-abandonment, it is when our darkest wishes come true, and everything is in its perfect order just as we wanted it, and we are left to ourselves, that we are at our most miserable.

So God gives us simple expressions of self-abandonment in order that we may catch fresh glimpses of Jesus, who exchanged glory for shame, and honor for love, that we may rediscover that the Father’s great delight is most beautifully enjoyed when shared together… with the team.

What good news…

peace.

Stadium

Star Spangled Stories

September 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

Lyrics “A man tells his stories so many times that he becomes the stories. They live on after him.”

Will, Big Fish

This morning Katherine and I are at the Inner Harbor in downtown Baltimore. Our goal is to make our way to Fort McHenry, where 200 years ago Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner, our National Anthem, and the city is celebrating. The Anthem was penned in 1814 during the War of 1812 in the Battle of Baltimore, a conflict that is arguably believed to have saved the Republic from Great Britain’s attempt to retake the country it had lost forty years before during the Revolutionary War.

The original manuscript will be on display. A massive presence of war ships, past and present, will be in the Harbor. The Blue Angels will fly overhead. The University of Maryland Football team will sport uniforms that bear the words of the Anthem. TerpsMcHenry3

It is part of our story.

As Christ-followers we celebrate that in Jesus we have been woven into the story God, one He has told throughout the ages, and a story whose nuanced details unfold with every crease and turn of history – our histories and all of history. It is a redemptive story, and it finds its greatest expression in Jesus, who not only entered into the narrative, but through whom our own broken and imperfect stories are retold through the prism of His death and resurrection.

In many years of ministry I’ve learned that it is overly simplistic to reduce facts and occurrences to neat packages when trying to decipher the meaning of events in people’s lives. We are unfinished, and this means that there will always be things we can’t explain or understand during our short time on the earth. In some way we are like the people of faith commemorated in Hebrews 11, who never touched foot on Canaan, the Promised Land, only to find their destination was in fact, always intended to be ‘a better country… a heavenly one… a city God had prepared for them’ (Hebrews 11:13-16).

For me, keeping this in mind is how I maintain perspective. Living in a fallen world (and within my own fallenness) has a way of making the temporary, eternal, and the eternal, imaginary. And it is easy to become a slave to the moment.

But the story we have been written into transcends time, events (good and bad), success and failure. It is not so fragile that a tragedy can make it untrue, nor is it dependent on good things for it to remain good.

It is God’s story. We don’t write it, but we share in it – and that makes it ours too.

And this, friends, is good news…

peace.

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We Need More

September 6, 2014 § 1 Comment

Religious “We’re never wholly ourselves until we’re open before God, attending to the reality of God, responding to the action of God in us, receiving the word of God for us.”

Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall

I want to be careful with this post, because the intention is not to tap into the popular cry against ‘religion.’ Through brilliant and thoughtful friends in ministry I am learning that some of the symbols of the Faith are important for the experience of deepening faith. So you’ll have to go elsewhere to learn whether or not Jesus was religious.

If we are serious about the Faith, then somewhere in our experience we will be confronted with the reality that platitudes and convenient religious categories disintegrate in the face of human suffering and pain. Sorrow, loss, tragedy and crumbling relationships all have a way of breaking down the superficial ideas we have of God and faith. The categories we often insulate ourselves in, fail when they are most needed, because they never were intended to nurture intimacy, but to avoid it, along with the vulnerabilities that accompany it. As a result they inhibit intimacy with God, and relegate one’s faith to a superficial expression.

And frankly, they break down because Jesus didn’t come to rescue us from pain and suffering in a fallen world. Regardless of what we sometimes hear in pulpits and on TV, Christianity is not an alternative to suffering. (that’s right, Victoria Osteen, you’re missing the point).

Throughout the past few weeks I have received e-mails and messages from people who have written in response to my post on Robin Williams’ death, and the follow-up post. The stories they have shared are excruciatingly painful and indescribably beautiful at the same time, because in them, their authors abandon self-protection, and in doing so they tap into the heart of the gospel which finds its richest expression precisely at intersection of death and life – in Jesus.

Everything about formulaic Christianity is aimed at self-protection. There is nothing real or beautiful in it. In our attempts to avoid pain and doubt and sorrow (or to over-emphasize them!), and all those other very real human expressions and experiences in a damaged world, we cheat ourselves of the one thing we most long for and need – Intimacy with God. Let’s be honest, it isn’t about enjoying God so much as it is about avoiding pain.

In her book, Amateur Believer, Patty Kirk recounts how the Faith she grew up with became dead in her – the promises – the prayers – the liturgies – all of it. And it wasn’t until her mother was dying, and she observed her sister as she cared for her, that it all became real. She writes, “Somehow, in the interim, God pieced that memory of my sister comforting our dying mother together with a thousand other frayed remnants of my life to make himself gradually recognizable to me again.”

Friends, it will always be at the intersection of death and life (that is, in the whole breadth of the human experience) that Jesus is most real.

And because this is where we really live, it can’t help but be good news…

peace.

Mea Culpa (aka Learning from old friends & new)

August 30, 2014 § 5 Comments

robin_williams_01 “The world is not doomed to always be as it now is.”

Robert E. Webber, the Divine Embrace

Two weeks ago I posted on Robin Williams’ death with the hope of honoring the impact he has had in the life of my family, and our world. Additionally, I relayed that he had confessed the Faith, to express that regardless of what drove Williams to suicide, it could not negate the gospel’s power if he belonged to Jesus, fully expecting that some in the believing community would take issue with this (which proved to be true). But I stand by this.

What I didn’t expect was the backlash on the more incidental statements I made on suicide (that they are selfish and cowardly). I say, ‘incidental,’ and am admonished by treating any words lightly.

So let me begin by saying that I greatly appreciate the response! What a rich and rewarding conversation.

Unfortunately, as a pastor, I have always been on the survivors’ end of things – walking beside people in the aftermath of suicide, as they process their last conversations, their last arguments, and their own feelings of guilt, anger, devastation and sorrow. From the survivors’ perspective it always looks selfish, even cowardly.

But what I have learned is that for those who suffer from depression, it all looks the opposite. To the seriously depressed it seems the only unselfish thing left to do.

Here is what a new friend sent my way:

Until recently, I have hidden my struggle with depression. I felt ashamed, weak, lazy, selfish, sinful, and stupid for something I never knew is actually a disease. The chemicals and neurotransmitters in my brain that help stabilize moods don’t work as well as they should. It isn’t that much different from someone whose pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin… The words you chose to use in your blog, cowardice and selfishness, are condemning enough to shame me and lots of others into hiding again.

A long time friend offered this:

Yes, suicide is selfish for those left behind, in that the one considering it is only concerned about relieving his own pain. I would contend, however that with such tremendous pain, he is not choosing to put himself above all others, but rather is unable to see past himself.

Last year the New York Times published an article on suicide, noting that more people die from it annually than in auto accidents. I remember a Youth Workers Convention seminar Katherine and I attended in 1984 that reminded us that every attempt is serious, and will usually be followed up with another.

So to those I was insensitive to, please accept my sincere and heartfelt apologies.

I have a lot to learn. I guess we all do.

I’ll never forget a sermon by the great theologian and pastor, Sinclair Ferguson, who said that he believed that Jesus, in experiencing every human emotion, even battled mental illness in the Garden of Gethsemane.

All this to say that regardless of what we do and don’t understand about the workings of the human condition, fortunately, until He makes everything new, in Jesus we have a Redeemer who sympathizes with and fully grasps whatever darkness we live with – even if no one else can.

And that is very good news, friends…

peace.

Postscript: In his LAWeekly blog, Henry Rollins, a former Punk Rocker out of DC, recently wrote on suicide (in response to Williams’ death), and experienced a similar backlash that I did. His articles don’t come from a Christian perspective, and the language is rough, but I appreciate what he offers.

Reflecting on Life, Ferguson & the Gospel…

August 23, 2014 § 1 Comment

AP_FERGUSON_MARCH_140814_DG_16x9_992 “Pray for me, guys. The situation in Ferguson is bringing out the worst in me, and I don’t like what I’m seeing.”

A refreshingly honest friend

So some disclosure…

I’m a white guy who grew up in Miami in a mostly white world that was shaped by white tastes, white opinions and white culture. Everyone else had to fit in, and it never occurred to me that this could be wrong.

I can’t remember ever thinking that the streets, our neighborhood or my world, were anything other than perfectly safe. And because I was safe and happy, I just assumed everyone else was.

Injustice wasn’t even on my radar, until a friend in ministry opened my eyes. I’ve been catching up ever since, and am far from an authority.

When my studies floundered, I was still believed in and considered full of potential. Contrast this to Malcolm X, a bright-eyed, super-achieving high school student, whose joy was demolished when a teacher scoffed at the notion that he, an African-American, would aspire to a future that involved being anything other than a janitor.

Earlier this week a coworker and I conversed about issues unearthed by the events in Ferguson. He’s black and I’m white. It was good – we just talked. And we agreed on the need to take the conversation to another level.

Random Thoughts I Scratched throughout the Week…

I have to think that the symbolic, anecdotal, mass-media-driven vitriol takes us nowhere good – It has to be personal, because it is.

Sin is never excusable. Period. Figure out the rest, but if you put a color to your conclusions, you’re missing the point.

There are more civilly minded and community-loving people than not (don’t think color – think people).

There are more good cops than bad ones.

There are more bad politicians than good ones (hey, this is my blog – I can say what I want, but term limits would dramatically help).

Violence is almost never the answer, and victims abound when it occurs.

Not merely with words, but in communal life, will the Church make a difference…

There is no ‘Them’

Protest ≠ Destruction

Love > Fear

Right now I don’t like my world very much.

But God created it to be good. And the gospel informs me that everything that disturbs me is less about ‘it’ and ‘them,’ and more about what is in me.

The fact is that I have no idea what went down in Ferguson. But whatever it was, the images have excavated fears, preconceived notions, and prejudices that either I didn’t know existed – or worse, that I never before wanted to admit.

And I don’t know what to do with this other than to pray… and listen.

All the while holding on to the promise that Jesus, the One who entered into the mess that is our world, and actually loved it, is making everything new, until heaven and earth are one, and the nations gather at the throne, where lions and lambs and infants and cobras dwell safely together in peace.

It is the good news that sustains…

peace.

Lamenting a Friend I Never Knew

August 16, 2014 § 38 Comments

good-morning-vietnam-robin-williams-693139754 “Robin Williams attended City Church in fall of 2006 when I was preaching through the Apostle’s Creed. He confessed the faith of the church and shuffled up for communion with everybody else needing grace. He was always kind to those around him. I know from other friends of his in the Bay Area what a generous, humble, and charitable man he was and his death saddens me greatly today. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.”

Fred Harrell, Sr. Pastor, City Church San Francisco

Robin Williams’ death has rocked me. Yes, I’m a Christ-follower and minister, and in God’s story, no one person is greater or better than the next. He was addicted to alcohol – I know this too. And I already know that suicide is not only an act of desperation, but also one of selfishness.

All this is true, and more. But for some reason, in the brilliant offerings and characters of this extraordinary comic and actor, it is as though Williams’ sorrows somehow connected with my own. Whether a magnificent iconoclastic English teacher, a distant Dad reminded of love and joy and family, a son who longed for the courage to face his own terrors – and father, or a caring Therapist, Williams drew me in like few have.

Through great writing, roles and directing – but also in his own pathos – Williams tapped into something deep within. When his heart broke over the suicide of one of his students in Dead Poets Society, it was real. When he finally refused to run from the hunter who chased him for years, in Jumanji, it was as though all of us finally grew up and stopped running. In Hook, when he told Jack, his son, that he was his ‘happy thought,’ my heart swelled for our own children.

I think it was more than acting, but a man who wanted to believe there is hope past one’s own sorrows and demons. I am sad for him and all who wrestle with the darkness of such depression that wrecks that hope.

robin_williams_01

Fortunately, as selfish, damaging or cowardly as it may be, for those who belong to Jesus, suicide holds no power over the gospel. It is a sin, but it isn’t unforgiveable, any more than my own cowardice, selfish ways and damaging actions. We believe that nothing can separate us from God’s love – not even us (Romans 8).

I am sure that when I was fresh out of seminary, and filled with self-righteous zeal, that I would have written some pietistic essay on why Williams could not have possibly entered the Kingdom, but I would have been wrong.

Instead, I am comforted by the words of his pastor, and my friend.

And though I didn’t know Robin Williams, I will miss him.

But better, and in spite of his flaws – and mine – I hope to one day see him – and you – at the Feast.

Wouldn’t that be sweet.

What good news…

peace.

What Difference does it Make?

August 9, 2014 § 1 Comment

Flowers_edit copy 3 “… ‘the problem of evil’ is not something we will ‘solve’ in the present world, and… our primary task is not so much to give answers to impossible philosophical questions as to bring signs of God’s new world to birth on the basis of Jesus’ death and in the power of his Spirit, even in the midst of ‘the present evil age.’”

N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God

What do we do with the world’s brokenness?

The manifestation of evil in the news is particularly horrific at this moment: the fighting in Gaza, the unspeakably sad slaughter in Iraq, Christians and unbelievers alike being executed for sport, with reports of crucifixions and beheadings, even of children. The spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa, injustices, whether the exploitation of the poor, the scandal of abortion, or the violence and revulsion of human trafficking and sex trade – all are appalling and disheartening. It is beyond tragic.

Yet amazingly, the gospel assures me that no effort to live out of God’s faithfulness from my little corner of the universe will ever be wasted on a world that desperately hungers for meaning and a vision of something better.

In the death and resurrection of Jesus I am assured that one day everything marred and wrecked by the fall will one day be restored to its intended beauty and loveliness.

This means that…

Indifference to the world’s suffering is not an option for those who love Christ, “who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age” Galatians 1:4). And Ignorance to the world’s brokenness is no excuse for those who live in the gaze of the Father’s daily care.

Sharing in the world’s sorrows means freshly recognizing every evil that causes it merely by looking in the mirror – only to rediscover the grace of God in our own brokenness.

Friends, what you do matters, insignificant as it may seem. Don’t let the enormity of evil and the world’s suffering dampen your hope and paralyze your intentions. Every true expression of the Faith. Each kindness. Every stranger received and enemy loved. Every sacrifice made. Every sin repented of. Every tear shed and prayer uttered – all matter, even if no one else notices, and in the belief that God has His supernatural way of multiplying our efforts, as with fish and loaves (John 6).

Hey, we can’t fix the world, but that’s no excuse for inaction, and in our simple offerings, we bear testimony to the One who can and will renew it, and our efforts signposts of God’s good world.

Even if they amount to no more than one beautiful flower in a dying bunch.

Christ has done no less.

Friends, we bear this good news…

Peace.

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