The Captive Liberator

December 22, 2012 § 2 Comments

Jonny The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound… Isaiah 61:1

I nearly subtitled this, ‘the post I hoped to offer before Christmas.’ Yesterday, a young man – a Marine – who was unjustly imprisoned since August of this year, Jonny Hammar, was released from a Mexican jail. Words fail to express the relief and joy that fills our hearts, and the hearts of many who are counted among the Hammars’ family and friends. With Jon, Olivia, Katie, and of course, Jonny, we rejoice.

As we celebrated yesterday, following an early-morning text of the good news, and since, I have been taken afresh to that stable where Jesus was born. Amazing. God was born. Divinity wrapped in humanity.

Jesus came and laid aside His divine prerogative, subjecting Himself to human limitation. Restrained in flesh. The Eternal One bound in time and space. Confined and imprisoned by geography, seconds, minutes, hours, years – a human lifespan. Omnipotence reduced to complete dependence.

Who would have thought this – that a little newborn would be mankind’s Liberator? Who could have guessed that a vulnerable and needy baby would one day ‘deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery’ (Hebrews 2:15)?

With our joy over Jonny’s release comes a continuing sorrow over those parents in Newtown, CT, whose sons and daughters will not be home for Christmas, and with others who continue to suffer the effects of violence and natural disaster. This sobering reality will never leave us, and our joy is always tempered by the harsh realities of life in a fallen world.

But with Jesus tragedy isn’t the last word. Don’t let the vulnerability of this baby be confused with timidity. That tender one is the Creator and Sustainer of all things. He came to wreck the broken order of a fallen world. Be comforted by a reality that transcends tragedy, lifespans and sorrow.

Friends, in Jesus God has come to liberate unfinished and desperately bound-up prisoners from their enslavement to sin, fear and death. His resurrection insures that even the ugliest expressions of the fall are no match for Him. And He has done this in the most personal of ways – not as a distant, indifferent deity, nor as an imposing and terrifying brute, but as a newborn who was destined to willingly shed His own blood in the violent sacrifice of His life, to bring Redemption, even for our tears.

Such good news.

Welcome home, young man.

Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

peace.

Until Emmanuel Comes…

December 14, 2012 § 1 Comment

Sorrow Oh, come, our Dayspring from on high,
And cheer us by your drawing nigh,
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel 
Shall come to you, O Israel!

This morning Katherine and I left for Pensacola, Florida to attend our daughter Emily’s college graduation, to be held tomorrow. Within hours we will be reunited with all of our children, including our daughter-in-law, and Katherine’s sister and brother-in-law, so you can imagine the joy that filled our hearts in anticipation of the weekend together when our jet took off. However by the time it touched down, 27 people, including 20 children under the age of 10, had been senselessly and violently murdered by a gunman who then took his own life, in Newtown, Connecticut.

I have no answers, only anguish and devastation. My heart is heavy. Before I am a pastor I am a husband and dad, as well as an often-confused Christ-follower. This shouldn’t happen – but in a fallen world it does, and will again. Even as I write, our dear friends in Miami await their unjustly imprisoned son’s release from a Mexican jail. And this on the heels of a mall shooting in Happy Valley, Oregon that left two victims dead and one critically wounded, along with the shooter, earlier this week.

After the initial sense of horror, we were filled with profound thankfulness for our children’s wellbeing, but also an even deeper sorrow, realizing that we will celebrate something with our daughter that these parents never will with their babies. Throughout their entire lives we have prayed for our children and their safety. We prayed when they would fall asleep in their cribs, when they began to walk and put everything in their mouths, while baby sitters were watching them, when they first learned to drive, and every time they were on the road after and since. We prayed for them when working late, walking in parking lots, in classrooms, on flights, and while in college. All along knowing that ultimately we are not in control and have absolutely no way of protecting them – that their world is just as fallen as ours – that their lives are just as fragile.

And now young dads and moms will have to identify their precious ones who will not be able to respond to their expressions of love and tenderness, nor dry their tears. Somehow these dear folks will have to figure out how to make sense out of the rest of their lives.

It is Advent. We long. We wait for violence and death and rage and illness and sadness to be gone forever, when Jesus comes to heal our damaged world and make all things new, where everything that is wrong is transformed into what it was created to be.

Our consolation is Jesus. We don’t hold on to something – we cling to someone, and only a Father, whose Son died so violently and publicly – for us – can both comprehend our deep longing, and understand our profound sadness.

And while we wait, the One who entered into our brokenness, has given us one another – to celebrate, to love, and yes, to weep, comfort and be devastated – together. He has also put us in this world, and permits and desires for us to mourn with those we don’t know – To love those we haven’t met – And embrace those we can’t touch.

So today, and every day, no answers. Tomorrow, with great joy we will celebrate our precious Emily. When she walks across the stage and receives her diploma, we will look at her in the context of what transpired today. We will weep with a deep joy for every memory and this mixed with a profound sadness for others who may never know such gladness.

Until Jesus comes, I think this is the way it is supposed to be…

Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

peace.

Santa Spotting @ Home Depot…

December 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

SantaCurrently there is a nationally televised Home Depot commercial that has caught my attention. It features people being helped, in every department – by Santa Claus, of all people! If you pay attention to the ad, you will see that at least one of the Santas is named ‘Noel.’ It is written in that black Sharpie kind of way on the apron that adorns every local Home Depot employee. (Chevrolet has a similar ad, but Santa’s nametag is ‘Nick’).

I love this TV spot, not only because of its creativity, though I am shallow enough for that to be sufficient, but also because one of the Santas is a personal friend. In fact, he is a fellow pastor and church planter in South Florida.

Steve Lantz is an amazing guy. He and Lynda, his wife of nearly two years, are expecting their first child in April. Because Lynda was the Campus Crusade for Christ Director for the West Chester University in the Greater Philadelphia area I had the privilege of meeting her soon before they married when she and Steve drove through Maryland. This past year they worshiped with us as well.

Steve has lived with the kind of longing that Advent focuses on. It is the hope of Jesus, and a vision for something that will one day be – something good – that in His coming, what has been empty will once again be to overflowing, and what has been broken will eventually be mended.

Part of how Steve raises funds is through acting. Early in his ministry he took classes in order to supplement his income while he mapped out his dream. For eight years he has served as the Chaplain for the Booker T. Washington High School Football team in Miami (and recently the State Champions), a job that pays little in spite of its own rewards. And he has worked as a short order cook in Downtown Miami.

He is driven by a vision for working among the poor and watching the gospel cause the Overtown neighborhood and community to flourish as a result of the justice, presence and power of Jesus in Miami.

I have found that it isn’t until I am willing to go ‘there,’ that is, to enter into the pain, whether in relationships, personal tragedies, or seasons of sorrow and doubt, that I really begin to connect as an agent of consolation and renewal.

There is something in all of us that is natively resistant to pain and suffering, but the gospel always draws us to enter into our world’s brokenness as Christ did in His Incarnation, so that we may be as tender with its pathos as Jesus is and has been to ours.

His willingness to do so is our Good News.

And that goes for Santa Claus too…

peace.

PS Here is a letter Steve put out last month, that describes all he is doing.

A Holy Disturbance

November 30, 2012 § 4 Comments

Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again… there is no place where we can hide from God, no place where we are safe from his power to break in two and recreate the human heart because it is just where he seems most helpless that he is most strong, and just where we least expect him that he comes most fully.

Frederick BuechnerThe Hungering Dark

Inertia is defined as ‘a tendency to do nothing, or to remain unchanged.’ In physics it is descriptive of something that exists in a perpetual vacuum of progress in spite of continual motion. But when applied to people, it can simply mean to merely exist.

This past week I was in Miami for three days. My Mom is in the hospital and on a healing path from a fall. While she was in PT, or resting, I met with old friends and drove down familiar streets, freshly reminded that nothing remains the same. If you are anything like me, in spite of the fact that I know this to be true, it is surprising each time it freshly hits home.

It occurred to me twice in Miami, the first when walking through Dadeland Mall, the highest per-capita spending mall in the country, and well-positioned in the southern ‘hemisphere’ of Miami. One evening I noticed construction of a huge new parking garage, and remembered the last time it was redesigned, and the time before that, and before that. Oh, and the time before that too. In fact, I remember the grand opening, and when the big shop to us kids was Cozzoli’s Pizza (also gone), as well as the famous dragon fountain across from Ferris Groves, the Venetian ice stand Jeff Jones, a high school classmate, and I worked at (both gone – actually Jeff and I are too).

But then, while at an intersection of US-1 I noticed a closed-down stand-alone store (pictured above). For those of us who grew up in South Florida few quick-stops were more endearing and convenient, than Farm Stores, those drive-through dairy markets with fresh bread, milk, butter, donuts and ice cream. Gone. Okay, I can understand the 7-Eleven moving across the street. But our Farm Stores? No!

Everything changes. Rowan Williams says that, we must be surprised, ambushed, and carried off by God if we are to be kept from idols. I think he is right, because until I am ambushed, my ‘idols’ tend to maintain a superficial splendor in my mind and heart.

If nothing else, the Christmas story demonstrates that Jesus breaks through the mundane. In His birth, and frankly throughout His entire ministry, once He comes, nothing remains as it was. Everything changes. In fact, it would be fair to say that no one can ever again be the same once they have had a real encounter with Jesus – for the first time, or for the one-millionth time. He constantly challenges the status quo while exposing our idolatries.

Which brings me back to Inertia.

My problems usually aren’t due to mistakes I make moving forward (which are manifold!). More often they are the result of my resistance to the chaos Jesus brings with His constant reentry into my life.

Deep down I want to be a stand-alone store that is never threatened by extinction – It must be part of living in rebellion of my unfinished nature. Even deeper, it is a refusal to acknowledge and let go of my idols. But in this resolve, subtly and unwittingly I become incrementally distanced from Jesus, and my fresh faith is transformed into spiritual inertia.

The cool thing is that He just comes. He is born. He enters. And with each fresh realization of this reality, in spite of my resistance (translation: fear) to His beautifully disturbing presence, along with a simple admission of that fear, comes the reminder that it was worth trusting Him again, for the one-millionth-plus-one time, because Jesus never comes to make my life less – but more.

And this is Good News of Great Joy…

peace.

Just Another Neighborhood

December 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

The other night, after eating at the iconic Hon Diner in Baltimore, we walked through Hampden, a small neighborhood in the northern part of the city. Each Christmas something special happens in Hampden. It is a cultural event and recently made national news (NBC). For years the neighbors on one particular block of 34th Street in this neighborhood decorate their row houses in what could only mildly be labeled as spectacular, bizarre, a bit tacky (in the most affectionate of ways), and enjoyable, all at the same time (the video offers a glimpse).

The decorations are all over the map: Trees made out of hubcaps, bicycle wheels, old Record LP’s and bent pipes. Huge inflated characters, such as from Charlie Brown’s Christmas, the Grinch and naturally, Santa Claus, welcome visitors from front lawns. Each entryway of steps is an invitation for folks to near the homes and see the intricacies of the decorations. One home doubles as an art gallery and is open for all to enter and peruse.

What really defines the block, however, is the lights. Windows are completely lighted, as are rooflines, doors, wreaths and house corners. Second stories are lighted as much as the ground floor on each home. There are big lights, tiny lights, colored lights, twinkling lights, cords of lights and icicle lights. There is a lighted crab (naturally), a lighted palm tree (we loved that!), lighted rails, lighted steps, lighted Santas, lighted Frostys, lighted Teddy Bears, lighted Angels, lighted Reindeer, and a lot of other lighted stuff!

And it would not be an overstatement to say that mobs of people come to 34th Street each Christmas. The streets, sidewalks and steps of the homes are crowded in humanity. People talk, sing, laugh, photograph and take video. It isn’t uncommon to hear someone say, ‘Would you like me to take a picture of all of you together?’

The crazy thing is that Hampden was barely known not too many years ago – it was just another neighborhood that few entered without a reason to do so. And this particular street was just a dark street at the end of the block.

In a few days we celebrate Jesus’ birth. Isaiah prophetically describes His entrance into our world as ‘light shining’ to people who ‘walk in darkness’ (Isaiah 9:6). We will quote the prophecy on Christmas Eve, along with John’s gospel. We will light candles to celebrate and signify that Jesus has come. He has come into our darkness. Our dark lives. Our dark pasts. Our dark fears. Our dark imaginations. Our dark shame. Our dark struggles. Our dark realities, at home, at work, in the classroom, within the secret confines of our thoughts, hearts and imaginations.

And while it would be natural to follow by saying that He brings light to our darkness (which He does), right now, in this post, what I am blown away by, is that He enters at all – that knowing those dark corners of my life, He would come. That He even wants to is astounding. But He does. He isn’t deterred or repulsed by my resistant heart. And He isn’t fooled by any pretense that I display. He simply enters. I am not alone in my own darkness.

If that were all that there is to the Christmas story (and by a long shot it isn’t), it would be enough – and it would be good – because there is something in every unfinished one that longs to be discovered and loved, regardless of how dark, damaged and tacky they actually are. In our thinking we tend to see ourselves as ‘just another neighborhood’ in a vast city, but Jesus’ entrance demonstrates that to the Father we are more – we are His.

Friends, this is Christmas news – This is good news.

peace.

The Lamb

December 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

One of my favorite Christmas poems was written by William Blake, a profound English poet of the 18th & 19th Centuries.

Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

Gave thee life, and bid thee feed,
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?

Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee

He is called by thy name,
For He calls Himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild;
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb,
We are called by His name.

Little Lamb, God bless thee!
Little Lamb, God bless thee!

An Advent Song

December 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

Each Advent season I try to offer some of the more beautiful poetry that has come to us through the ages. This year brings a lovely Advent song written by a friend, Greg Thompson, Sr. Pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, VA. Included are Greg’s introductory remarks…

“In case you’re not familiar, Advent is a season in which Christians remember that the world–for all of its beauty–is still dark with sorrow and that we need God to come and “be our light.” It is a beautiful season, but a mournful one too–a season of darkness. In time it gives way to Christmas, the season in which Christians celebrate that God has come and will come again–a season of light.

Forgive the theology lesson. I simply tell you this because it accounts for the song. The grief in it, and also the hope.”

Come

Kindle the flint, the tinder
Liven the hearth, the stone
Shelter the dying lantern light
Gladden the shadowed home
Into this wilderness of shadows
Come, Light Original

Answer our famine yearning
Nourish our blighted fields
Raise all our fallen storehouses
Leaven the bitter yield
Into this emptiness, this hunger
Come, Bread All Bountiful

Out of the blowing starlessness
Over the frozen sea
Into our barren midnight
Up from our fruitless trees
Oh come

Loosen the cloaks of journeymen
Mend all the broken roads
Wake us from fitful forest sleep
Lighten the lonely load
Into this pilgrimage, this journey
Come, Home Perpetual

Come Light
Come Bread
Come Home
Come

wgt.2011

The Journey of our Longing

December 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

Tomorrow our daughters leave Pensacola, Florida, where they attend college, for Baltimore, Maryland, where we live. It will be a fourteen-hour drive. They will embark in the early hours of the morning in order to travel into, and remain in the light throughout the trip. Needless to say, we can’t wait for their arrival.

They will pass through up to nine states in making their way home. As someone who loves long driving trips I am excited for them. They will experience the changes in topography that come with each new state, while enjoying conversation that rarely transpires apart from such uninterrupted portions of time together. They will feel the gradual drop in temperature as they move northeast, and maybe even encounter a few flurries here and there. They will remember this trip for the rest of their lives.

It is virtually impossible to go through a Christmas Season without seeing images of Joseph along with Mary who is perched atop a donkey as they make their way from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Traveling those many miles wasn’t as easy as loading up the SUV and driving off. And I would imagine that for a teenager, pregnant in her third trimester, riding a beast was no picnic either.

As a dad I will not be short on anxiety. Our girls will be on the road – the big road – lots of big roads – without us! I’m not so worried about them, but everyone else they will encounter (and therefore them!). That’s my job and I embrace it without apology. We will call them and pray throughout the day as they make their way home.

In thinking of their drive it occurred to me that Advent brings with its hopefulness, the daily perils of the journey. While we long for Jesus, we travel through the complexities of human brokenness, our own and the world’s. There is something to this. It isn’t so much that every aspiration comes with requisite danger, but that in longing for Jesus we understand the big picture – it is always about the destination, and while we encounter the daily perils and pitfalls of human existence, it is all framed within the larger narrative – that we are making our way Home.

Ironically, from the moment He was born, Jesus began to make His way home as well. And I am convinced that His words in John 14 (In my Father’s house…) are more than theological ruminations, but also the humble disclosures of a homesick Son. Amazingly and beautifully, the path to His destination would take Him to the Cross, and on a more personal level, our Redemption.

Our girls have a big journey ahead of them – but then they will be home.

So will we…

Such sweet, good news.

peace.

Silent Chaos

December 8, 2011 § 1 Comment

The other day, while writing in my Starbucks (yes, I have claimed it as mine and have donated all the proceeds to the mother corporation), I was reminded of how noisy it gets in that small space. The joint was packed and it was loud! But what set this clamor apart, because there is rarely a time when it isn’t cacophonous in this particular shop, is that Christmas music was playing. At some point Silent Night came on and I was struck by how the words and tune to the carol could somehow wind their way through the chaotic din of such a highly populated place and find residence in my hearing – but it did.

And it set me to thinking that there had to be parallels with the Christmas story, because the world didn’t stop when Jesus was born, in fact, quite the opposite. He quietly entered a dissonant humanity. It was a time of taxation. People traveled far distances, only to fight for places to stay in the towns they paid their taxes in. Jesus’ family was no exception, as we know.

I guess it would be easy to say that Jesus had to somehow find His way in, but I don’t see it that way. Jesus is undaunted and unhindered by the ‘noise’ of my messy life, and that is a good thing. He quietly satisfies the Father’s good plan. He doesn’t wait until I get my act together. The Prince of Peace simply dispenses what defines Him. His intentions are undisturbed by a disturbing world. His love and care are unshaken by our shaky lives. As with a newborn, he simply enters when it is time. And because of this, our longing isn’t one of uncertain hope. It is a confident longing – the kind that enables us to take heart in knowing that nothing we do can thwart Jesus’ immanent arrival. That’s what He did the first time. It is what He did when we became His. This hasn’t changed. Truly, His law is love and His gospel is peace

For this I am glad.

peace.

Why We Long…

November 30, 2011 § 2 Comments

A few weeks ago I stumbled upon the pictured sticker, on the back of a vehicle that was parked in our church lot. Because of the day and time I assume it belongs to a wife who awaits the return of her husband, a soldier, who has been deployed to Afghanistan. It is one of the sweeter bumper stickers I’ve seen (by a long shot!). And in some way it tells the story of Advent.

As Christ-followers we are a longing people. For this dear woman, regardless of how good things could ever be, when her husband returns it will only be better.

It isn’t that there aren’t sweet moments and experiences in this life. It is that whatever good this life brings in snapshots, it will one day be better, and complete, in eternity. We long for a day when good moments are no longer spoiled by reminders and remnants of the fall, when our memories are no longer peppered with sadness and regret, and where our experiences never again leave us feeling any less human than we were created to be.

The Advent season is our reminder that Jesus has come, and that He will come again.

What ‘glad tidings of good news’…

peace.

PS Throughout the month of December there are two resources you may enjoy as we journey through Advent. One is our church web site, www.chapelgate.org, where various people will offer Advent reflections, beginning on Sunday, December 1. The other is this blog. My hope is that you will take the journey and capture a renewed sense of longing, for Jesus…

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