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…
October 10, 2015 § 3 Comments
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 Boston 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.
It 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.
July 11, 2015 § 1 Comment
Eugene H. Peterson, Leap Over a Wall
Katherine and I were blown away by an unexpected gift from a college friend who sent us front row tickets to a Cirque du Soleil performance of Verekai in Baltimore this past week. The athleticism, strength, beauty and choreography were stunning. The music was mesmerizing and the set and costumes were beautiful. This particular production follows two people from birth to marriage, and ends with the wedding, replete with triumphant music, spectacular gymnastics and the falling of rose petals.
It was breathtaking.
I was reminded of Frederick Buechner’s description (in his book The Longing for Home of a visit to Sea World in Orlando, and a confluence of nature, beasts and mankind, leaving Buechner (whose birthday is today) with a glimpse of what God had always intended.
And this took me to Eugene Peterson’s description of his dad, a local butcher, whom he came to see as more than a guy who cut meat, but in this capacity, also a priest to their community.
In Christian circles we speak of ‘the priesthood of believers,’ which is another way of saying that every Christ-follower is called to be to the world and one another what Jesus has been to us, a healing presence that sacrificially loves and serves for the sake of others, out of a vision of flourishing that will one day accompany the new heavens and new earth.
John the disciple takes this further by saying that we are “a kingdom of priests to his [speaking of Jesus] God and Father…”
When you put it all together (because it is all intended to be so) we find that our vocations, along with our natural surroundings and abilities are all woven into a larger mosaic of beauty that not only displays hope before a broken world, but one that also reaches the Father who is every bit as invested (and more) as we are in the promise of new things.
Friends, as stunning as Cirque du Soleil was, this is even more so…
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…
January 31, 2015 § Leave a comment
“…I have come to believe that by and large the human family all has the same secrets, which are both very telling and very important to tell. They are telling in the sense that they tell what is perhaps the central paradox of our condition – that what we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else.”
Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets
We had a great laugh in our Ministers & Directors meeting last week, and it involved our new office phones. A few months ago we replaced our 25-year old system, and in our meeting we took time to enjoy the obligatory shared gripe session. We complained about how the speaker functions, how the buttons press down – all that minor stuff. And then one of us said, ‘You think that’s bad… I have six messages on my phone and I don’t know how to get to them!’ At that point all started laughing, because secretly we (mostly the guys, I hate to admit) all had the same problem. Of course it is almost a waste of space for me to say that this particular malady wasn’t the system’s fault!
Either way it was worth the laugh.
I am convinced that the greatest damage sin does to the human soul is found in its isolating power. Through the agency of shame, it has a way of driving us underground into secrecy for fear that exposure would further alienate us from those we know and love. We are secret carriers. Temptation finds us when we are vulnerable and alone, and then imprisons us in isolating guilt.
The Church hasn’t been too good at this whole sin and acceptance ‘thing.’ Our message is grace, but our practice often comes across as perfectionism. In spite of Paul’s assurance that our struggle with temptation is a common one (1 Corinthians 10:13), we can be terrified at the prospect of admitting our struggles. And so it is no wonder that people often feel more comfortable confessing their sins in the workplace than with fellow believers. It isn’t that there are more sinners there. It is that no one denies the struggle.
But the gospel presents a Deliverer who suffered and died in isolation, from friends, even from His Father, when He bore punishment for the very guilt that we hide in. And this means that we don’t have to hide.
Hey, until Jesus comes and renews the world, we will bear secrets. We’ll never feel perfectly safe in our fallen frames, and there is an argument to be made for oversharing, but every time we take the Bread and the Cup, together we publicly acknowledge that perfection isn’t the point, and that the Father loves us in spite of the fact that once again we didn’t make it through the week unscathed. And this simple acknowledgement draws us out of the shadows.
Friends, this is good news…
PS Enjoy the Super Bowl (and take the poll)!
December 6, 2014 § 3 Comments
N.T. Wright, For All the Saints
Yesterday Katherine and I visited with her father where he is being cared for in a Nashville medical center. We are here because I am performing a wedding ceremony for friends who live in Baltimore (and I fly back late tonight!), and it gave us an opportunity to spend some time with ‘Opa,’ as our children call him. It was a sweet time.
At some point Katherine and her Dad, both gifted with beautiful singing voices, joined together in singing ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness.’ Lovely would be an understatement.
This Christmas is a first for us. For the first time we will celebrate without either of my parents in this world. Along with Katherine’s Mom, both have died and are no longer here. From time to time sadness overtakes us.
Regardless of how old we become, we can look all the way back to childhood in remembering Christmases past.
Recently some of us recalled growing up in Miami. When I was a young boy we lived in Carol City, which is almost as far north as one can go without leaving the city. Each year the streetlights on NW 27th Avenue were decorated with those colored frilly foil candy canes and Christmas bells. We would drive past them and throughout the neighborhoods as a family, listening to Christmas music on our car AM radio, looking at the lights as we embedded ourselves into the season.
One day our children will remember after we are gone.
The memories bring a kind of muted joy. Though sometimes I am brought to the point of tears in recalling them, I wouldn’t trade them for anything.
Advent is as much about embracing sadness as it is looking to a future joy. Herod plotted Jesus’ death as Mary and Joseph celebrated His birth. This is our world – joy and sorrow always intermingled. And until Jesus comes and makes everything new it will be this way. Even in blessing Jesus at his presentation at the temple, Simeon said to his mother, ‘and a sword will pierce through your own soul also…’ (Luke 2:35).
To insulate ourselves from the world’s sorrows is to live as though Jesus is merely an ornament rather than the Deliverer that He is, and it robs us of the joy of the expectation of His coming. It is in the sadness that we find a deep longing for the sweeter day when Jesus returns.
We celebrate that He has come, and that He is coming. We limp along with our world, longing for the day when it will forever reflect His good reign.
We look to the day we will see our parents again – at the Feast. Until then, we embrace the sorrow that in Jesus, leads to unending joy. Every now and then we are given opportunities to hear the sweet song of life, and maybe even to sing along.
What good news of great joy…
grace and peace.
October 25, 2014 § Leave a comment
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. There 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…
August 16, 2014 § 38 Comments
“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.
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…
August 2, 2014 § Leave a comment
“The most vulnerable thing we could ever do, the thing that requires the most courage and faith, is the key to freedom. We bring our nothing – accepting who we are by accepting who God is, what he has done and what he promises to do.”
J.R. Briggs, Fail
It was a treat to be invited by one of our Elders to the Baltimore Ravens’ training facility in Owings Mills a few weeks ago, which is by invitation only (as opposed to the larger venue at M&T Bank Stadium). Through another friend who works with the team, we were also permitted to enter into the complex and view the team’s two Super Bowl trophies.
What a thrill to be at field level watching these athletes. They are stunningly fast and observably sleek. Their movement is precise and seemingly effortless. When they strike the blocking machines you can almost feel the force from the stands.
Following practice the team autographed footballs, jerseys, posters and hats for the children. But we adults were equally awed with the event. Having grown up a sports fan, any brush with professional athletes has always been the coolest thing. I still feel like a kid when watching them practice, even though I am twenty-five years older than the oldest player on the team!
Yet what reached me most deeply was in observing our Worship Director and his twin sons. The photo at the top of this post really says it all – a Dad and his boys. They were his joy and the stars of his photographs.
Amazingly we enjoy no less pleasure from the heavenly Father, even more.
What a sweet picture of God and His people – a Father and His children. We are unfinished, and His love for us is complete. We are weak and He is strong. We get lost and He finds us. We are immature, and He is eternally wise. We obey imperfectly and He delights over us with singing, His lens ever fixed on us because of Jesus.
I know the tyranny of unbelief, how it creeps into our hearts and thinking, wrecking joy and imposing it’s own version of a twisted righteousness that is neither righteous nor beautiful. More than anything, it obscures us from the Father – and this is sad.
However to our sometimes despairing spirits and fearful hearts the gospel freshly announces to us that we are not orphans! Nothing Jesus did – on the Cross and in His Resurrection – is wasted. In Christ, we are God’s daughters and sons (John 1:12).
What good 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…