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.

Shared Sorrow = Shared Joy

December 7, 2013 § 1 Comment

Create Wonder “The goal of human existence is that man should dwell in 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. To dwell in shalom is to enjoy living before God, to enjoy living in nature, to enjoy living one’s fellows, to enjoy life with oneself.”

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason within the Bounds of Religion

Until a fellow pastor taught me that God draws us into the shared brokenness that is our fallen world, I lived under the sad and selfish delusion that if all was right with me and mine, then that was enough. But this couldn’t be further from the teaching of the gospel and I will always be indebted to this dear friend because of his patient guidance.

Just this week Nelson Mandela died, and the free world grieves. It mourns because in his work to end Apartheid in South Africa something resonated within us. We were created to be free, and every person instinctively knows this to be true.

It is evident in the offerings of the culture (even in the DC store window pictured!). The best movies are redemptive. The sweetest writings echo compassion. The most passionate causes aim at justice. Even at Christmas I am freshly reminded of this in Stevie Wonder’s song, Someday at Christmas

Someday at Christmas we’ll see a land
With no hungry children, no empty hand
One happy morning people will share
Our world where people care

This is the cry of the prophets, perhaps no more beautifully expressed than in Isaiah:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

(Isaiah 58:6-7)

At Advent we freshly enter into the collective brokenness of our world with a longing for healing. Until Jesus makes everything new, even our joy is incomplete unless it is expressed through the embrace of a shared sorrow. After all, it was ‘the joy set before him,’ that is, it was the joy of a reconciled and redeemed new world, that sent Jesus to the Cross.

With this in mind, He captured our sorrows in His own, our sins upon Himself, and our future joy in His resolve.

What good news…

peace.

Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name

Adolphe Adam, 1847

Long, Winding… and Good

July 20, 2013 § 5 Comments

Final Row

“I read somewhere that a thing that does not exist in relation to anything else cannot itself be said to exist.” Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

The trees pictured here are from my old neighborhood, in fact the home on the left corner is the one I grew up in. Forty years ago our dad, my brothers and I, along with other dads and their teenage children planted these trees as seedlings. The work was hard and dirty – and it cost us two weekends. But it was never intended to serve us alone. It was meant for generations that will follow long past our lifetimes.

Isaac’s journey came to mind as I prepared to reenter the blogosphere after a break and some redesign. He was Abraham’s son, and at some point in his life as an adult, Isaac found himself back in the land his dad once owned – it would one day become Israel. Upon arrival his first task was to dig wells in order to establish a usable water supply (Genesis 26). As he surveyed the land, he discovered old ones his father had dug years before, some working, and others not. Rather than build all new wells, he wisely recommissioned the ones that still functioned.

Such is the story of our lives as Christ-followers. Who we are now is in some way shaped by all who have gone before us, along with our every experience, which in turn somehow shapes those who will follow – like trees that line a neighborhood.

The video below is from the Paul McCartney concert Katherine and I attended the other night in DC. For me, a former Beatles freak, it was one of those bucket-list moments – what a thrill! The Long and Winding Road paints a beautiful picture of an entire lifetime.

Listen, our past helps to shape us, but because of Jesus it doesn’t have the power to fully define us – Isaac’s story reassures us that we don’t have to fix every broken well, and we can enjoy the ones that still work!

Here is my cheap advice: Don’t think so much in terms of any one given moment in your story, or you will either drive yourself crazy with things you can’t change, or drive everyone away with foolish self-promotion. Instead, think of yourself as being on a road – a long and winding road, one that will take you where you were always intended to be. This puts everything into perspective, good and bad.

Sorrow, regrets, shame, broken dreams and sins long ago committed, even successes, all have a way of distorting how we remember our lives, and this easily leaves us feeling disconnected from something larger… something better. But worse, they rob us of the big story – the story that extends past and before us – the story of Jesus the Redeemer who entered into the pain and brokenness of the fall, and into our unfinished lives, with a resolve to heal our broken world and make everything new. It becomes a story He retells through the prism of the Cross and the triumph of the Resurrection – and every time – every time, friends – the story ends well.

What good news.

grace & peace.

Shameless for Shayne

February 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

shaynepreach This is the path Jesus has called us to. It is a path of courage and compassion, resolution and healing that goes into the dark and difficult places of the world and brings the redemptive, restorative light of Jesus Christ. Shayne Wheeler

It will be rare that you will find my blog to be a shameless plug for a book (much less for one I didn’t write!), but this one is warranted. Friend and fellow pastor, Shayne Wheeler has come out with what I consider to be an important book for believers, who desire to follow Jesus, but who find the pursuit to be a difficult, and sometimes-lonely path.

Shayne lives with his wife Carrie, and their children in Decatur, Georgia where he pastors All Souls Church, a ministry that has successfully and beautifully reached into the margins of culture without sacrificing the integrity of the gospel.

More than anything, his book, The Briarpatch Gospel: Fearlessly Following Jesus into the Thorny Places, aligns with the message of this blog. In telling his story, Shayne paints the picture of an unfinished one who is shaped by God through the influences, people and experiences that have dotted his life in his journey with Jesus.

Shayne pulls no punches – with himself or us. He confesses sin, admits weakness, owns up to failure and offers glimpses into his own stumblings, all in a successful effort to draw the focus away from himself and towards Jesus.

Dive into the book and you will wish that you had read it sooner in your journey, while at the same time wondering if you can continue reading, as the dangerous, risky and loving Jesus challenges you with every step.

I was fortunate to be given a prescreening of the book, and so before it became available I was able to already count it among my favorites. Through the years I have begun to write a few books that one day may make it to press, but if I were to take one that someone else had written for my own, this would be the book.

Get it friends, and enjoy the feast. It will be your good news…

peace.

Best Seat in the House

November 10, 2012 § 2 Comments

Last night Katherine and I saw the latest 007 movie, Skyfall. It lived up to expectations and was one of, if not the finest James Bond movie we have seen (of course I’ve seen them all). The action was over-the-top, the story was riveting and it was perfectly cast. And it didn’t end too soon, which was nice – it was longer than most – you know, one of those movies that you wish could keep going – well it did, and we were glad.

Part of what made the experience ‘work’ was that Katherine pre-purchased the tickets and I got there early enough to get us the best seats in the house. For us, the best seats are the ones in the second row of the second tier of the theater. The front tier has those seats that are right under the screen and undoubtedly are the cause of most of America’s neck problems. But in the second row of the second tier, there are rails that you can rest your legs on during the show. They are perfect – and I got them (yes, those are my shoes in the pic).

It got me to thinking, even as I sat waiting for Katherine (I won’t tell you how early I got there because it would provide evidence as to how desperately I need a life). But I got to thinking that this is who we are. We want an edge. We will come early and stand in line for the best seats in all of life. Already the ads are out, and will only intensify – Black Friday is coming and the name of the game is to get to the stores early enough to be close enough to the front of the line to get the best deals before anyone else.

This used to be our tradition. I would waken our son and daughters, and whichever of them could come out of their slumbers would stand in line with me at our Best Buy some time around 4 AM on Black Friday. A few years ago, when we visited our son and his wife in Florida for Thanksgiving, he repaid the favor and dragged me into sitting in line all night!

Here is the thing: Everything about following Jesus is the polar opposite of this – It is about taking the back seat and offering up the front of the line to someone else. It is about serving those one desires to lead and becoming great by making oneself the least.

I know it’s crazy and utterly counterintuitive, but when you think about it, there is no other way for change to occur, in marriages, in friendships, in love, in work and at play. The one who serves sets the agenda for putting the things into motion that we most desire – in life and with one another. The one who says, ‘I’m sorry, I was wrong,’ is the agent through which reconciliation breaks through where there had been cold hostility. The one that steps aside so others may shine counteracts the law of the jungle with law of love.

Yes, it is counterintuitive, but there is no other alternative, because our native instinct is to put self first. And in that scenario there is no room for anyone else.

It is also impossible, and only God can enable us to do what we so naturally resist. But I have come to realize that in every relationship, every conflict and every seeming impasse in love and friendship, there comes a moment when someone can change the physics of hostility simply by taking the path of humility rather than power.

God has to give grace for this, but He does, and He has. In Jesus we have One who demonstrated such selflessness from the time of His birth all the way to the Cross. His was a life of reserving the best seat in the house for someone other than Himself.

Friends, this is good news.

peace.

A Shadow in NOLA

May 11, 2012 § 1 Comment

Last weekend I had the privilege of speaking at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, where a dear friend pastors in New Orleans (NOLA) – his church web site is listed among the other sites on this blog. It was a beautiful experience where people and neighborhoods and a city live in constant convergence and community.

It just so happens that I was there during Jazz Fest, a nine-day citywide celebration that spans two weekends and is literally spread throughout the entire city. Let me tell you, the music is amazing. And what made the weekend all the more special is that our daughters drove over from Pensacola, Florida, where they attend college, in order to hang out with the ‘old man’ (that would be me).

Needless to say, the experience of spending time with the Redeemer church community, its pastors, taking in the music, not to mention eating the out-of-this world NOLA cuisine, and then to be with our precious daughters, all made for an unforgettable experience.

On Friday evening, as we made our way through the French Quarter in order to see a particular jazz group, we came upon the St. Louis Cathedral, the ‘oldest continuously operating cathedral’ in the US. Amazingly, the first structure on the site was built in 1718, the year New Orleans was established by the French. It is a magnificent structure on the NOLA skyline, set before the great Mississippi River and standing as a presence at the entry of the famous Quarter.

The picture before you is taken from the back of the Cathedral, a small gated courtyard and a non-descript structure on what could easily be considered a sometimes-dangerous city backstreet that connects relatively unlit alleys.

What stands out is the obvious – the statue of Jesus. But it isn’t only Jesus – It is the shadow His image casts in the face of a spotlight that is fixed on the building behind the sculpture.

It is striking to say the least, and when we first came upon it, I was struck, not only by its splendor, but also by its symbolism – because here in a city known for its beauty and culture, along with its recent history of destruction and violence, is a lovely piece of art that stands as a stark illustration of the Psalmist’s words, ‘He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty’ (Psalm 91:1).

As I’ve reflected on this image, as a Christ follower, as a husband, a dad, a friend and pastor, and certainly as one that is deeply unfinished, I was reminded that we, like historic cities, with all their beauty, pain, mess and dark places, are never alone. We live in the shadow – of Jesus.

And as we navigate the seasons of our lives –the good – the bad – joyous and the sorrowful – He is always there. Only we don’t have to travel a darkened, sometimes-dangerous and often isolated backstreet to see Him.

But He is there when we do.

And this, friends, 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!

Devouring Life (aka, Life’s a Peach)

October 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

Recently Katherine and I spent a morning picking peaches in an orchard not far from where we live. It was a new experience for me. My orientation is more along the lines of watching NFL teams pick draft choices. The idea of going out to get one’s food from somewhere other than the grocery store is novel. But there we were, and we got a bunch.

As a result, Katherine made a delicious pie with some of the bounty, and then a few weeks later I ate one of the peaches I brought to the office, for lunch (pictured above). Somehow that seemed to fit into the old hunting adage, ‘If you kill it, you eat it.’

Before the fall, and since, God’s intention is that we devour life – just take it all in, in all its intended and redeemed beauty: Marriage – Friendships – Work – Art – Music – Movies – Love – Cities – the Senses – Athleticism. You name it, the list is enormous and stretches in every direction.

Sadly, and unfortunately, in some ways the Church has often gotten this wrong, even backwards. An oft too experienced reaction has been for the Church to withdraw and insulate itself from ‘the world,’ and then further restrict Christ-followers rather than launch them into the culture as liberated beings that are called to model a redeemed world and life. It follows a formula of separating between the ‘secular’ and the ‘sacred,’ and always involves people who somehow are deemed with the ability to rise above it all and determine what we should do and not do, what is questionable and not questionable, where we should go and not go, what we should listen to and not listen to, and what movies we can see and not see. All along creating a culture of fear and joylessness.

Little is more oppressive and unchristian than people and groups that dictate out of their own fears, and who define and value people by their own insecurities.

It robs God of the joy He receives when we take in all that He has created. It deprives people of experiencing the majesty of His rule and reign in all things and over all things. In more theological terms, frankly, it just stinks!

But Jesus’ earthly ministry was demonstrative of freedom, often to the repulsion of the religious elite of His day. And the Apostle Paul affirms, “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4-5).

Let me tell you, it is risky and terrifying to be so free. Being free can lead to all kinds of unsafe things like, unbridled joy, heart-strengthening sorrow, and the kind of character-building that only comes from making mistakes and being wildly imperfect. But being so free is the best kind of dangerous, because it is what we were created for. So God says, ‘Eat!’ Take it in! Devour it all! Or, to quote the Allman Brothers, ‘Eat a Peach!’

Friends, the Gospel is delicious. What good news…

peace.

Forsaken but not Abandoned

July 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

“And the goal of a Christian life becomes not enlightenment but wholeness – an acceptance of this complicated and muddled bundle of experiences as a possible theater of God’s creative work.”

I have become attached to this quote by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in his book, The Wound of Knowledge.

Have you ever noticed that the best movies somehow tap into the deep sorrows we experience in life? And have you ever wondered why? I think the answer is that we live in the constant awareness of our fallen condition – It isn’t always sad, but it is always there. And regardless of the packaging, deep down every human knows that he or she is broken. So consequently every one of us is somehow mysteriously relieved when we feel as though someone else can relate to that – when someone, or something (like a movie) confirms that we are not alone.

The problem with the culture is that while it can identify our brokenness well, and then yearn beautifully for something redemptive (Katherine and I recently saw Win Win, starring Paul Giamatti and it is fabulous), it offers no substantial reason for hope – only longing.

In the past three weeks three friends have died – suddenly and unexpectedly. All knew Christ, and each shared the hope that there is more. Death is the ultimate and most violent reminder that the world is broken.

For some reason it struck me, weeks after Easter, that I had never considered two statements regarding Jesus’ death, as they relate to one another. One came from the Cross, when Jesus cried, ‘My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me!’ The other came at Pentecost, when Peter, in his first sermon, quoted Psalm 16:10 (“he was not abandoned to the grave”) – In other words, the Resurrection is the rest of the story – the story the culture longs for but always misses, and the one we sometimes forget – or doubt – or ignore – you insert the right words.

Sometimes all we have to hold on to is that we live in the promise of God’s new world. In a sense everything comes down to that reality, and ultimately it is enough. I know, I know, when in the midst of pain and sorrow this isn’t always easy to swallow or believe. Sometimes, on an emotional level we walk away from what we know and believe. And yet amazingly, the scriptures don’t teach that we don’t abandon God – they teach that He doesn’t abandon us. So there is even grace for those many moments when we want to chuck it all – It never did depend on us in the first place.

In the meantime we belong to a Father who delights in His children and sprinkles His lovely creative mercies upon our lives. We rebel. We forget. We wander. We struggle. Let’s face it – we are unfinished. And throughout our lives, and from time to time, we taste the bitterness of the fall – we taste in part the forsakenness that Jesus bore in fullness on the Cross. But we are never abandoned – not even to the grave.

Because we are His.

And that is sweet, good news…

peace.

The End?

May 19, 2011 § 5 Comments

This is the end
Beautiful friend
This is the end
My only friend, the end

Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end
I’ll never look into your eyes… again
(The Doors)

In case you haven’t heard, the world will end this Saturday, May 21. According to self-proclaimed prophet Harold Camping, ‘Judgment Day’ will come with worldwide earthquakes. A full-page ad appeared this week in USA TODAY warning folks of impending catastrophe. And naturally, with the announcement also came Camping’s rationale for his previous failure in predicting the end of the world.

The problem with predicting ‘The End’ is that Jesus clearly teaches that this isn’t our place – that the Father alone knows how history will end. Shortly before Jesus ascended to heaven His disciples – His closest friends – asked for some inside information on the consummation of time. Jesus responded (Acts 1:7), It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. He would proceed to inform them that His Spirit would come and lead and empower them in the mission at hand.

Christ’s admonition wasn’t derived by a devilish pleasure in holding secrets others couldn’t share in. His concern is with becoming preoccupied with ‘The End’ at the expense of the here and now – Here and now where brokenness lives, and where need is palpable to a world damaged by sin – the here and now that cries for someone to enter into sorrow, with hope and not fear.

It is worth visiting some history here. I was raised in churches that saw ‘The End’ in terms of the ‘Last Days’ – that we would one day accompany and assist Jesus in His victory over the wicked. We sang Larry Norman’s, I Wish We’d All Been Ready, and watched movies on the ‘end times,’ while convinced that every symbol in the prophecy of Daniel and book of Revelation could be identified with some event or personality or dynamic in the culture, and thus prove that those times had arrived.

But we were wrong, and our passion was misguided. Jesus didn’t redeem us to decipher the future, rather to trust Him with it while living out the gospel in the present – to collaborate in God’s mission of bringing heaven to earth: An unwarranted kindness, an unexpected act of mercy, the practice of forgiveness, taking pleasure in the lovely things of creation, the culture and arts, compassion on those otherwise ignored or scorned, participation in evangelism, planting churches, restoring communities and cities, and praying for flourishing and peace in a world torn by sin.

All these, and more, reflect the belief that what God will ultimately do, He has already inaugurated in Jesus, and that we have been invited to share in the arrival of His Kingdom – not tomorrow, and not May 21st, but Today.

Friends, this is Good News.

peace.

PS – In case you remain unconvinced and are sold that this is the end, and that you have no need to plan past Saturday, then my only question is this: Can I have your stuff?

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