What do You See in this Picture?

September 16, 2017 § 6 Comments

Vomit

“The gospel says that because of what Christ has done, he sees you as completely righteous. You are clothed in the righteousness of Christ…”

Raymond F. Cannata & Joshua D. Reitano, Rooted

So about three-and-a-half months ago we became first-time grandparents. Since then Max has turned us into a pitifully mushy couple that delights in dry drool, baby talk, and the smell of diapers that – how do I put this – bear inglorious evidence to the functionality of new life. We are over the moon over the guy. Oh, and by the way, he has parents too! Our daughter and son-in-law are precious in their new role.

Earlier this week I had a couple of hours with Max. Our conversation was spiritual, obviously.

A typical exchange:

Me: ‘It’s okay, Max, it’s okay.’

Max: Diminishing cries.

Me: ‘That’s a fan, Max. Do you like it?’

Max: Silence

Me: ‘That’s you in the mirror, Max!’

Max: Silence

Me: (sung) “I love you, a bushel and a peck…”

Max: Silence (with possible wincing detected)

Don’t get me wrong – there were whimpers, a few tears, smiles, and even some conversation – All in response to funny faces, peek-a-boo, chants of, ‘I’m going to get somebody,’ along with lots of ‘I love you’s’ and ‘Who’s the best boy?’ What a delight.

Max was appreciative, I could tell, because he rewarded me with what seemed like a gallon of hot puke on my shirt! Hey, what can I say? The kid trusts me. I put water on his head (baptism), and he put warm regurgitated, sour milk on my chest (the water smelled better).

Again, it’s all spiritual.

So what do you see in the picture?

Okay, so you know that he did the deed, but what you see appears to be a grown man who has just blown chow all over himself. The baby certainly isn’t indicating any guilt!

Well, there you have the gospel in a nutshell. God the Father vomited the full cup of His wrath on His own Son Jesus at the Cross, for us. We deserved it – Jesus endured it.

The apostle Paul puts it this way: “God made him [Jesus] to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God [in him]. 2 Corinthians 5:21

As Cannata and Reitano point out in their fine book on the Apostles’ Creed (Rooted), this is known as ‘the great exchange.’ Jesus took on our sin, shame and guilt, and we have been given His righteousness. It really is that simple.

This is our everyday reality, because shame and guilt feast on us like vultures on a carcass. And our natural response will always be to offer some form of our own righteousness. We are constantly tempted to fix our brokenness with broken resources, rather than to trust in Christ’s finished work on our behalf.

Here’s what I’ve discovered about shame and guilt. When they assault me, the first thing they aim for is my ego. Once that defense is broken through, I’m done. Because it isn’t humility that drives me to work out of my own flawed righteousness – it is pride. Rather than repent, and confess my inability to please God, in an arrogant denial of His love, I fight harder to force His approval.

But here is the problem, the inner condemnation doesn’t go away. My prideful resistance to admissions of weakness only weakens me, and haunts me with what I know to be true: That apart from God’s grace, I am hopelessly lost. Resisting this only cheats me out of the Father’s delight.

In the picture Max looks fine – because he is. Resting peacefully in the arms of his papa, he has no reason to believe that he should receive any condemnation, regardless of what comes out of his mouth – or goes into his diaper.

He is safe.

Friends, if you belong to Jesus, there is only one way the Father will ever see you.

Isn’t this our good news?

grace & peace.

Jesus & Irma

September 9, 2017 § 2 Comments

Irma

By the time you read this post, millions of displaced Floridians will be less than 24-hours away from Hurricane Irma’s landfall on the state. If the damage is anything close to what has been predicted, and in any proportion to the magnitude in size and strength of the storm, then it will be months, and possibly years, before the city recovers. Folks in Houston have only begun the cleanup from Hurricane Harvey’s assault on the city.

Frankly, it would be more convenient to restart this dormant blog after these cities have cleaned up and the subject matter a bit more digestible than what appears to be a senseless display of meteorological power on a helpless city. However this is the reality we live in. In a broken world, nothing is neatly packaged.

So my aim in this post is not to explain ‘why.’ In fact this will never be my aim. We are so limited by time and space, and the confines of our own finite thinking that our answers are never sufficient, and often hurtful. Our tendency is to package pain into bite-sized proportions in order to ease our own discomfort with another’s sorrow. But pain is pain and loss is loss.

Some Thoughts for Consideration:

Jesus is King and Irma is not Queen – This is in no way to minimize pain. It is to state a fact we rarely ‘feel’ in the midst of tragedy: Jesus is King. Immediately after he calmed the storm on the sea, the disciples rightly asked, “Who is this, that he commands even winds and water, and they obey him?” (Luke 8:25) Let’s face it, we are relatively small. We are minuscule compared to the Grand Canyon. We are drops in the ocean. We are dots on the map. And when life is hard, whether because of the weather or in some personal crisis, we feel unbearably small. In some way the forces of nature remind us that we are not as big or grand or in control as we sometimes tell ourselves.

The answer isn’t to assume we can somehow get bigger and rise above the storm, but to look to our big God. Because to Jesus the King Irma is minuscule and a drop in the ocean. Just as Satan was not his equal, so a hurricane, even of this magnitude, is nothing compared to the ‘ruler of the kings of the earth’ (Revelation 1:5).

God will not Shy Away from the Wreckage – Nicholas Wolterstorff, in his beautiful book, Lament for a Son, writes, “…great mystery: to redeem our brokenness and lovelessness the God who suffers with us did not strike some mighty blow of power but sent his beloved son to suffer like us, through his suffering to redeem us from suffering and evil… Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it.”

The first verse those who grew up in the Church memorized begins, “For God so loved the world, that he sent his one and only Son…” (John 3:16). The essential message of the gospel is that God did not wait for the world to clean up its act before sending Jesus. God would have it no other way. Suffering is the currency of brokenness, but it cannot determine an absent God.

God Invites our Questions – Asaph, the Psalmist, went before God and poured out his heart because he saw how the ‘wicked prospered,’ as he struggled. It made no sense to him. Attempting to make sense of our pain often leads to bad conclusions. Jesus’ disciples asked whether it was the father’s or mother’s sins that caused a young man to be born blind (John 9). Jesus graciously taught that they were looking at it all wrong, and then healed the man who glorified God.

It wasn’t until Asaph entered into “the sanctuary of God” (Psalm73:11) that he could see beyond the moment to their ‘end.’ This moved him beyond his bitterness, to conclude, “…it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.” God invites our questions because when made to him, they are expressions of faith, uncertain, short-sighted and imperfect as they are.

Our Tears are never Wasted on the Father – Solomon writes, “Sorrow is better than laughter, for by the sadness of the countenance [face], the heart is made better.” (Ecclesiastes 7:3) Those unaffected by the events others have suffered sometimes offer insensitive platitudes rather than the solace of one’s presence, but God is a Father who hears the cries of his people. He is not indifferent to our pain, nor is he uninvolved. The same Jesus who wept at the graveside of his friend Lazarus, is present in our pain and tears.

Within days Floridians, like Texans, will return to their homes. To varying degrees they will discover the fate that awaits them. Some will be devastated, and others relieved. Tears will be shed. The physics of their lives will be altered.

But other things will happen too. People will come together. Priorities will be reestablished. ‘Stuff’ will be grieved over and then let go. Survivors will embrace. Relief teams will descend. Communities will be rebuilt. Stories will be told. Lives will be changed.

And God will be glorified.

What good news.

grace & peace.

Of Advent, Christmas Trees & Rocky

December 5, 2015 § 2 Comments

Trees“The Advent tension is a way of learning again that God is God: that between even our deepest and holiest longing and the reality of God is a gap which only grace can cross; otherwise we are alone again, incommunicado, our signals and symbols bounced back to us off the glassy walls of the universe.”

Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness

The other night Katherine and I saw Creed, the latest installment of the forty-year Rocky series. Without spoiling the story, it turned out to be arguably one of the top three of the series (but it would take a huge for-Rocky-fans-only conversation to explain). As we watched, I found myself overwhelmed with emotion throughout, and it dawned on me that it was because Rocky (played by Sylvester Stallone) is getting old, and he has been part of my entire adult life. Don’t laugh. In 1976 four of us were on a double date. We ate at a local favorite called LUMS on US-1 in Miami. LUMS was where I had my first beer with high school friend, Chris, after turning 18 (I can’t speak for Chris). On this night we planned on seeing King Kong, but dinner took too long and we ended up going to an unknown film (Rocky). And thus began the shared journey with this very down-to-earth boxer – until last night.

Okay the Christmas Tree thing. Two weeks ago I posted a pic of this year’s
tree. Another lifelong friend, Cookie, posted a comment that it was the same as last year. I was puzzled until I looked, and amazingly she was right! We basically decorated the tree exactly as we had a year ago.

And then there is Advent. Advent is about arrival, and it is accompanied by waiting and longing. We celebrate that Jesus has come, while longing for Him to return. Because the world isn’t right – all one has to do is read the headlines. The world is in torment and the fall is reflected in every violent, tragic and broken expression. So while we celebrate that Jesus has inaugurated God’s Kingdom by coming and has conquered the curse of the fall with His death, resurrection and ascension, we also anticipate that one day all Creation will be healed and heaven and earth be one.

Which leads to putting the three together…

In some sense, Advent too is always the same thing. Just as with our tree, each Christmas season is adorned with the same longing and decorated with the same songs of hope. It is supposed to be this way. As our storylines unfold the big story remains the same – and we need this. I need this. I need something that I can look to and find that it has not changed or the deep, unchanging consistency of God in my life – we all do.

So back to Rocky. You have to know that in the story he is old. Some say Rockythat Stallone should get an Academy Award for his performance (I’ve been screaming this for 40 years!). In nuanced ways, Creed, though a very unique movie, is beautifully and hauntingly similar to the first Rocky movie. And I think this is why I was emotional. Rocky got old. But the story didn’t.

So in a few weeks the ornaments will come down and get packed away until next year, one day after Thanksgiving when they are unpacked and put on a fresh tree for the new season.

It will be beautiful.

All over again.

And the story we have been invited into, though accented with fresh twists and turns, will still be about Jesus, who came and who is coming.

And this is good news, friends…

peace.

PS Friends, check out the Chapelgate website for a daily Advent Blog: https://cpcadvent.wordpress.com

God the Sufferer

November 14, 2015 § Leave a comment

Suffering“God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers.  The pain and fallenness of humanity have entered into his heart. Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God…

And great mystery: to redeem our brokenness and lovelessness the God who suffers with us did not strike some mighty blow of power but sent his beloved son to suffer like us, through his suffering to redeem us from suffering and evil.

Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it.”

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son

From time to time we are reminded, in the most horrible of events, that there is no getting around the reality of evil and human suffering in a fallen world. And there are moments in time and history when it is so abscessed that all humanity is taken to a place of stunned silence.

This is one of those times.

From the moment evil entered into the garden, the world has experienced immeasurable sorrow and pain. We tend to live in our own bubbles of perceived safety and peace, but below the surface and to varying degrees, the human heart is filled with the very infection that brings such suffering.

It is all so personal, and it is never really ‘out there.’ Early this morning I read a post from a lifelong friend whose family lives in Paris, informing us that by God’s grace they are safe. We rejoice, but talk about three degrees of separation. I remember hearing story after story of connections each of us had with people who perished in the 9/11 attacks, and as with the sobering reminder this morning I marveled at how stunningly close the world really is.

Truly, ‘no man is an island, entire of himself.’

I have no answers, only Jesus.

And my only relief comes in the fact that the gospel addresses brokenness and human pain, not with trite assurances or vacuous platitudes, but with a God who, instead of marginalizing our suffering, entered into it.

Today, with broken heart I can only look to the One who has tasted the violence, rage and sadness of the fall, by entering into it.

He alone is our good news.

Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

peace.

Happy Birthday Old Cutler! (aka It’s all local)

November 7, 2015 § 3 Comments

OCPC Outside

“As the body of Christ, the church is called to live for the peace, love and joy of God’s reign.”

Mark Gornik, To Live in Peace

This weekend my home church, the Old Cutler Presbyterian Church, in Miami, Florida, celebrates her 50th birthday (they have appropriately named the weekend, ‘Jubilee’). Those of us who are familiar with this extraordinary church know that it has a rich history of blessing, growth, hardship and renewal.

Fifty years!

I would say that’s a long time, but since I’m older than 50, we’ll keep it at, ‘What an accomplishment!’ And how sweet is it that in Bill and Carol Richards, Old Cutler still has two of its Charter Members, which means that they have been there since day one.

As with the church I am privileged to pastor today (Chapelgate Presbyterian Church), through the years OCPC has groomed pastors, sent countless people to the mission field, cared for thousands, ministered to Miami during hard times, loved the marginalized and broken, and served as a cultural center to the community.

Many of us had the privilege of sitting under the ministry of a pastor named Bob Davis. During his nearly-14 years in the pulpit, the church grew and flourished into the ministry it is today. Bob wasn’t a polished preacher, but he was an amazing pastor – my role model for ministry. He instilled in us that churches are meant to be local communities where Jesus is loved, lifted up and shared. On more than one occasion he said that when the church stops proclaiming Jesus, it should be razed and turned into a cornfield (he was a big old country boy).

Whenever a church grows to the size of an Old Cutler, it is often mischaracterized by the observing world. Those who look from the outside in sometimes assume it to be a cold impersonal corporate ‘machine.’ But to those who have experienced being part of the OCPC story, it is what it always has been – a holy community where babies are baptized, vows are exchanged, graduates receive their diplomas, loved ones are buried, tragedies are shared, hearts are broken, crises are endured, all at a crossroads where love and sorrow meet, as life is lived together, because of Jesus.

I can honestly say that God used Old Cutler shape my life and faith. And I could not be more thankful that He wove me into her story, and hers into mine.

Through OCPC…

God gave my family a church home for nearly all of those 50 years – Just within our family, weddings, funerals and baptisms all occurred – truly we have been ‘cradle to the grave.’

He gave me a pastor who treated me like a son and taught me the ministry (Through my college and seminary years he wrote fatherly, pastoral letters that I cherish to this day).

He gave Katherine and me friends for a lifetime, some still there.

He demonstrated the way He circuitously unfolds our stories into His magnificent plan – At OCPC I had the joy and privilege of serving as a volunteer, a summer Intern, a Youth Pastor, and then, amazingly for a decade, as the Sr. Pastor – Wowzer! (with this I can’t help but celebrate Mike Campbell, who once served as a Member who turned Elder, and then, as I was, was ordained into the ministry there, before returning as her new Sr. Pastor – how cool is that?).

I guess the storyline here is that at the end of the day, the lovelier and more meaningful things in life and faith – are local. The very dynamic that many attempt to eradicate when they ‘globalize’ the Faith out of some spiritualized dissatisfaction with flawed local expressions, is actually what robs them of the sweet joy that only comes through the very real, ‘on the ground’ human involvement in that imperfect, messy, often inconvenient, and never-having-arrived community called the local church.

For us, however, by God’s grace and in His goodness, in OCPC we have in our experiences and hearts, a church home that will always remind us that the Father loves and uses imperfect vessels, and that through His Son, He makes what is broken and eminently flawed, ravishingly beautiful.

what good news…

Happy Birthday, Old Cutler!

Happy Birthday, Family.

peace.

(Pictured below is one of two massive stained glass windows in the Sanctuary, constructed by a 5th Grade Math Teacher & OCPC Member, who has since made it ‘Home’, Roy Aldridge)

OCPC Cross

A Place to Stand

October 17, 2015 § Leave a comment

World Relief“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” Jesus, Matthew 5:7

I recently had the privilege of visiting with the Senior Vice President of World Relief’s North American operation. World Relief is a global non-profit organization, based in Baltimore, and committed to caring for the weak and needy around the world, whether for orphans, for immigrants, for victims of natural disaster, or those lost in the horrors and brutality of human trafficking. Years ago, when our church in Miami planted a church in ‘Little Havana,’ the ‘landing place’ for many immigrants from Latin America, World Relief had an office where we started the work. That office remains today, and as you can imagine, has processed innumerable refugees through the years, offering legal advice, guidance for green cards, citizenship, etc.

At the heart of World Relief’s mission is the gospel’s call to the Church with the singular thrust that the strong have been made – by God – stewards of the weak. I am convinced that if the Church fails, all is lost. Every other system that attempts to care for the poor, the weak and the underprivileged has some underlining political agenda that eventually fails the very people they attempt to serve, and often lines the pockets and reputations of those who champion these causes.

World Relief’s Vision Statement is Stand/For The Vulnerable.

Last night Katherine and I shared a meal with a young couple that is committed to mentoring young people from Baltimore’s Inner City whose lives are racked with heartache, brokenness and poverty. They give what they can: safe harbor, school clothing and supplies – and love. They stand for the vulnerable.

This morning I ran into one of our Members (okay it was at Dunkin Donuts – what can I say?). He leads a team that regularly meets with folks at New Song Church in Sandtown, the neighborhood ravaged by fire and riots earlier this year. New Song drives the agenda, but together they are working through ideas to generate commerce in the neighborhood so that the dollar will remain there, and hopefully begin to break the pattern of violence, hopelessness and sorrow that most of us in the burbs can’t fathom possible. They stand for the vulnerable.

We have a friend in Miami who, when she and her family attended a downtown church, for years, drove an hour away from her home, to the slums of Little Haiti, to bring children to church and later that week to Youth Group. In between she and her husband kept in touch, provided for needs and loved well. They stood for the vulnerable.

‘Blessed are the Merciful,’ was Jesus version of, ‘Blessed are they who stand for the vulnerable.’ Every word, action and encounter exemplified this during His ministry, all the way to the Cross, where He died for us – the vulnerable.

Who more than Christians, know the relief of being forgiven a debt one could never repay?

We have been given much – in order to be to the world what Christ has been to us. It really is that simple. And when those we serve feel our touch, it will be as though they have encountered Jesus Himself.

What good, hopeful news…

peace.

Baby Doe has a Name

October 10, 2015 § 3 Comments

Caretakers“Some group or some person will fill the vacuum. An elite will offer us arbitrary absolutes, and who will stand in its way?”

Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live?, 1976

Last week Katherine and I were in Nashville for a pastor’s gathering. While there we visited her Dad, who lives in a long-term care facility. We also visited her Mother’s grave, which rests in a national cemetery in a lovely setting in the hills of the city.

Something happened when we went to pay our respects. The guys caring for the lawn all stopped until we were done. They stood there and watched respectfully as we remembered, wept and prayed.

This past year has been a brutal one for American society. Riots in St. Louis (Ferguson) and Baltimore, and unspeakable violence in South Carolina and last week in Oregon, have left a trail of violence, death and tears.

Just a few weeks ago, the body of a beautiful two-and-a-half year old girl, designated ‘Baby Doe,’ washed ashore in the BellaBoston area. Her body had been chopped up to fit into a garbage bag. The reason? Her mother’s boyfriend regularly beat her with his fists until one day she just died.

Political knee jerk reactions garnish coverage but don’t help because the presenting problem is never the issue. The issue is that we have become a culture that accommodates contempt for life whenever it intersects with our own comfort and convenience.

Millions of abortions every year, daily inner city bloodshed and violence, tacit support for veterans with PTSD, human trafficking, widespread drug abuse in the burbs and the exploitation of the poor and weak, along with the sins of corporate greed – all of these scream that we have become cold and indifferent, with no regard for our ‘neighbor.’

When will we wake up?

How many newborns need to be tossed into trash cans at proms?

How many elderly need to be neglected and mistreated in nursing homes?

How many babies need to be aborted and discarded, with bodies treated as commodities?

How many girls need to be sold into slavery?

How many war vets need to take their own lives?

How many people will we allow to mutilate themselves, and ease the tragedy by terming it ‘Gender Identity’?

How many massacres do we need to endure?

What will it take for it to finally sink in that we have become a society that settles for ‘arbitrary absolutes?’

Do we really believe God is fine with this?

Do we really believe that if we don’t see the baby, or name the child, or if we reduce PTSD victims to impersonal statistics, that we are any less culpable for this utter disregard for human life?

You see, I believe all these are interrelated. It isn’t many things. It is one thing. We have become so indifferent to life that we have ‘forgotten how to blush’ (Jeremiah 6:15).

And this makes me sad.

Listen, I know that the Church has largely failed. I know that politicians are self-serving. I know that extremes – to the left or right – are deadly to any semblance of a just society.

I’m not shouting. I’m weeping.

You should be too. Because at the same time we are accommodating our lifestyles and easing our consciences, we are killing ourselves and one another.

Oh, friends, I could go on and on, but I’ll close by taking you back to that cemetery in Nashville. Those workers could not have treated Katherine and me, and the memory of her Mom, with more respect and kindness – And this for someone who is no longer here! How sweet.

HenIt struck me as we drove off that if we could reject the voices (including our own) that fill ‘that vacuum’ with ‘arbitrary absolutes’ and that are intended to ease our guilt, quiet our shame and accommodate our indulgences, with uninterrupted ease, then perhaps the ‘Baby Does’ will have hope in this world.

And this is what Jesus did. He rejected the voice that offered Him rule and power, acclaim and immediate satisfaction (Matthew 4), at the expense of His own comfort – for us.

What good news…

It is never about just me.

Her name was Bella.

peace.

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